How International Best-Selling Author Jodi Picoult Writes One Book A Year
A Literary Feature

South Africa By: Anne Louise Taylor on 31 January 2011
Category: Books > Features
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American commercial writer Jodi Picoult launched her new book, House Rules, at the Cape Town Book Fair last year. Thoroughly entertaining and captivating, Jodi knows how to wow her audience. South African authors could learn a thing or two from her unashamed self-confident style that ultimately results in people queuing to buy her books.

Jodi Picoult talks to Samantha Page at the 2010 Cape Town Book FairPossibly because Jodi has been labelled as a commercial writer I had never thought of reading one of her novels - until I met her at the fair. Her bold and vibrant personality dominated the arena and served to draw crowds in. At one point she even brought the fair to a complete standstill when she howled like a wolf into her microphone. She also somehow managed to coerce her teenage son, Jake, into joining her in the act of wolf howling (although he did feel the need to declare to the audience that he is not insane before coming to his mother's assistance). Jodi arranged for Shaun Ellis, who has lived with wild wolf packs, to teach them how to howl and communicate with other wolves when undertaking research for the "wolf" book, which is to be published in 2012. The mother and son howled loudly in perfect unison, hitting the alpha- and beta-note frequencies just as an actual wolf pack would. The sound they made was so eerily real that if you closed your eyes it would have been impossible to tell that Jodi had not brought the wolves along as part of a publicity stunt. However Jodi does not need publicity stunts to grab attention. A successful author, with 17 published novels, Jodi has a huge fan base, including the world-renowned author Stephen King who said she "writes with unassuming brilliance".

The host of the Cape Town Book Fair discussion, Samantha Page, the editor of the South African edition of O magazine, asked Jodi whether she considers herself to be far too successful to be taken seriously. "What I think surprises people," said Jodi, "[is that] I always say that the only reason why I publish a book a year is that it feels comfortable. But I think if at any moment I was about to publish a book and said 'it's just not ready you're all going to have to wait', well, you're all going to have to wait. I'm not going to force out a book there just to get one out a year. I would much rather the book be in the right shape before it goes. So, I'm actually very careful about that." Jodi commented that it is not having a book published every year that keeps her from being taken seriously, but rather being labelled as a commercial-fiction writer - instead of a literary-fiction writer - which she added is a very arbitrary distinction and one she feels is created for marketing purposes. "There are people who write about the same things I do, the same kind of family-driven stuff I would, but issue themselves as literary authors, which basically means in America that you don't get any marketing money to promote your book [...]." She said that she would much rather reach more people by making sure that her books were promoted. "And hey, if it happens to be a well written book, so be it," she said.

However, being labelled a commercial-fiction writer, especially in her league, is not so much of a disadvantage. Jodi is one of the few authors in America to get the full marketing treatment from her book publishers, including large print runs, eye-catching book covers, special in-store displays of her books, arranged interviews and book signings, and other promotional campaigns. The downside of being categorised as a commercial-fiction writer, Jodi pointed out, "is that you wind up sharing your genre with people who write [...] werewolf novels and maybe things you would never think of writing, which is fine. There is room to read everything in the world and I only wish there was time to read everything in the world. I only get the cake." A commercial literary heavyweight who is recognised by name, she can be promoted purely on personality but that is not to say that her books lack substance - the public wants to read them and she has many fans who eagerly await her next book.

Jodi's publishers must love her - she knows how to interact with her audience and successfully promote her work. She is aware that readers love to know more about her and how she went about writing her books, including the topics she chooses to write about, to her daily writing routines, and the interesting experiences she underwent while conducting research for her novels. Jodi does not hold back on any of these literary delights. In just under an hour, she managed to give a fairly detailed insight into what goes into producing, on average, one book every year.

She must have been the envy of every author sitting in the audience when she said that she does not choose topics for her books, but that topics come to her. Sometimes she thinks about her next topic late at night just before she falls asleep; other times it is a news report that causes her to run from the kitchen to listen to the end of the recording. "It's something I don't understand usually, and I want to understand it, so the act of writing a book for me, I think, is similar to the act of reading it for someone else, in that you are weighing all the different sides, all the different issues, and then you try to figure out what you already know," she explained.

Jodi also said she knows her characters well, which enables her to switch between them. "The voices are very clear in my head. I always joke around and say that being a writer is a little like being schizophrenic because we hear voices but we get paid to do it". Jodi's books, which usually deal with ethical issues, are frequently told from a variety of characters' viewpoints. Jodi apparently uses this technique to show different sides of a situation and expose the grey areas in which there is no clear morally correct answer. Jodi said that what helps her is that when she writes multiple narratives for a particular novel she writes in exactly the order you read it, and not the different characters' narratives separately. "I always think of it as though you are stepping into a stream and the stream is the narrative. But, you're putting on a different pair of Wellington boots before you step into the stream and sometimes those boots may be tighter, sometimes they're comfortable, sometimes they're warm, sometimes they're cold, so you sort of have to adjust the outer fit, but the stream is the narrative and it continually flows. You just step in and grab it, but you're wearing a different pair of shoes at the time, that's sort of what it's like, it's filtering but with a different filter."

She has written about many controversial topics ranging from rape to incest and teenage suicide. Nothing has been off limits so far. "I feel the more controversial it is the more I have to write about it because if people naturally get uncomfortable or shy away from it, it'll probably be a really good thing to start talking about," she said. Her next book, Sing You Home, which will be available this year, is about gay rights, gay marriage, and gay adoption, which she added is not a constitutional right in America and an important topic to start discussing. She said, "Of all of my books, it's already got a lot of people saying, 'How can she be writing about this? I don't know if I can read this book,' and I think that's great."

Sing You HomeSing You Home is about a woman named Zoe Baxter who has been trying to get pregnant for 10 years. After undergoing fertility treatment to have a baby and experiencing a series of miscarriages, she finally falls pregnant and her dream of being a mother is about to come true. At seven months pregnant she unfortunately loses the baby and her marriage to Max falls apart. Max seeks solace in the bottle and becomes an alcoholic. He gets in deeper with his brother who belongs to a fundamentalist right-wing Christian church. Meanwhile, Zoe throws herself headlong into her career as a songwriter and music therapist. When Vanessa, a guidance counsellor, asks her to work with a suicidal teenager, they become friends. Zoe realises she wants something more than just friendship with Vanessa. For the first time in her life, she realises that she is falling in love with a woman. They cross the border into another American state where they can get married legally. Once they are married, they want to start a family. While Zoe has fertility problems, Vanessa does not. Zoe remembers that she and Max have three frozen embryos left at the fertility clinic and requests permission from Max to use them. However, Max is now a newly born Christian who has vowed to fight homosexuality, which he believes is threatening traditional family values. He tells Zoe outright that the only way she will get hold of the embryos and raise his child in a same-sex marriage is over his dead body. With the focus on a lesbian couple fighting for the right to start a family in a conservative environment, Jodi pointed out to the book-fair audience that her intention is to contrast religious rights against homosexual rights in America.

Sing You Home will be released along with a CD of songs, which readers are supposed to imagine was written by Zoe. Each track is the name of a chapter in the book and each song addresses what it is that Zoe is struggling with in that chapter. The singer is jazz musician and music teacher Ellen Wilber who Jodi claimed has a better voice than hers. "You know that wolf call? Trust me, that's what you would get from me," Jodi teased. Jodi said that the CD will not be included because Zoe is a music therapist but because Jodi wanted to make the experience a much more personal one. Jodi felt that it was important for her readers to really hear Zoe sing her heart out. She wanted to give readers who don't necessarily have gay friends a chance to hear their voice and realise that they want the same things as heterosexual people. Jodi said, "I really defy readers who get to know Zoe to be able to say at the end of the book that this woman doesn't deserve to be in love because she has a same-sex relationship and not a heterosexual one."

Jodi claimed that she is really grateful that her publisher does not try to influence her. "There are very few authors in this business who can pitch a great new idea to a publisher and not hear 'yeah, yeah, that's great but can you write about four women in a hot tub who find out they're dating the same guy [...].' No one has ever said that to me." She added that when she walked into the New York offices of her publishers Simon & Schuster and said "I'm writing about gay rights and half the country is going to hate it. And oh, you have to include a CD of original music," the publishers did not bat an eyelid but thought it was a fantastic idea. Jodi made a valid point that many other publishers would not have been so accommodating and that she is in a very fortunate situation that her publishers as well as her worldwide publishers are excited about including the CD with each hardcover book. "That is really a gift that not many Americans have," she said.

Jodi is an author who truly loves to do her own research. She shared an interesting part of her research with the book-fair audience, which was undertaken for her book Second Glance. She knew in advance that this novel would have to include a ghost story. She said, "I almost made that up and if you're going to make anything up, you might as well make up the ghost part, right?" she said, adding that she later realised that she physically had to attempt to find a ghost, otherwise every reader in the country claiming to have seen a ghost would contact her to say that she got it completely wrong. She contacted the closest paranormal society to where she lived, the Atlantic Paranormal Society, and within hours she was sent an email inviting her to go ghost hunting in Rhode Island.

Jodi asked the members of the Atlantic Paranormal Society why some people become ghosts, while others do not. The ghost hunters replied that when people die they have to stand in a line to get on a bus but some of them get off the bus to go the bathroom and unfortunately miss the bus and thus become ghosts. She told her story in such a serious tone that no one laughed at first - but it was a joke. Ghosts, Jodi said, are really people who haven't finished something off or are simply working on a revenge scheme. "So, it is these sorts of things that hold you back and make you get off your bus," she said. Having provided this context, the ghost hunters took Jodi on an excursion to an abandoned New England mental institution that closed down during the 1970s because people were dying while in care. The institution had been boarded up and the electricity cut. The ghost hunters no doubt chose this venue as it would be a likely source of paranormal activity but Jodi said she went in with a skeptical mind. The ghost hunters took photographs, which revealed great balls of light on film, and informed Jodi that they were energy-changing forms (ghost hunters believe that ghosts affect digital film because of their magnetic energy or heat). Jodi said she was not convinced. Then they walked across a field where one of the buildings had burned to the ground with the patients inside it. It was a cold January evening, so cold that her breath was visible before her. Suddenly, she felt something touch her at the back of her neck. A digital photograph later revealed an unexplained white mist behind her.

In case this was not enough to convince her, the ghost hunters took Jodi to a family home in Massachusetts reported to be haunted. The parents wanted the ghost hunters to confirm that they had an uninvited guest, namely a ghost, living among them. They had heard strange bumps and thumps coming from the small attic situated on the third floor. The ghost hunters set up a video camera in the attic in the attempt to capture paranormal activity on film. Jodi, who was given the only key, left the attic last and padlocked the door. She checked on the two children, one who was 22 months old and the other who was six months old, and saw that they were sound asleep. She observed that there was nothing on the bedroom floors. Meanwhile, the couple downstairs described the experience of coming home to find every faucet in the house running and the contents of the cereal boxes lying on the kitchen floor. They also claimed that they had heard calliope music at 2am and upon investigating would find a child's piano playing without batteries on the stairs of the attic. They also said that rooms would suddenly drop in temperature for no logical reason. Jodi went back upstairs to check on the children. In the first child's bedroom, she found six pennies that had not been there before which were lining the carpet on the edge of the crib. She noted they were dated between 1968 and 1972. She picked them up and put them in her pocket and went to the next child's bedroom where she found another six pennies dated between the same years. She finally returned to the attic where she unlocked the padlock and switched on the lights to find another 27 pennies beneath the video camera, also dated between 1968 and 1972. She said that even though her husband teases her she knows that something happened there that she cannot explain. Historical research later revealed that two people died in the house between the two dates found on the pennies, leading Jodi to describe her personal experience as being "pretty cool".

Most people would be envious of the fun adventures Jodi's research takes her on. Jodi's research leads her in many different directions before she finds a resolution for a novel. For example, the research she undertook for her novel Tenth Circle took her to the Alaskan bush in the middle of winter where temperatures are -40 degrees Celsius. "No one goes to Alaska in winter, and not just to Anchorage but to Eskimo villages," she laughed recalling her experience. She had to get on a cargo plane from Anchorage and go to Bethel with the help of sled dogs. She then headed to a Yup'ik Alaska Native village, north of Bethel, called Akiask, on the back of a snowmobile, which is the only way to get there in January when the river is frozen. "What I won't do for my art, right?" Jodi joked. On her adventure she met an Alaska Native in the village named Moses Owen. He invited her into his small home (not an igloo, despite common belief) where she wound up eating dry salmon turkey sandwiches and beaver ball (which are literally small rolled balls consisting of beaver meat). Her host answered many of her questions about what it was like to grow up in an Alaska Native village, which helped Jodi to write her novel.

House RulesJodi said that while her research does not make her an expert, it definitely makes for interesting conversation at any cocktail party. A hot topic in the US is whether or not to send one's children for vaccinations, which is believed by some parents to be a trigger that causes autism, even though 95% of American children sail through their vaccinations without any problem occurring. Jodi deals with this controversial topic in her courtroom drama House Rules in which Jacob Hunt, a teenage boy who has Asperger's syndrome, is accused of murder. Asperger's syndrome is an autism-spectrum disorder that is characterised by problems with communication and social interaction. It was important for Jodi that Jacob suffered from Asperger's syndrome, the high end of the autism spectrum, so that he could address the speaker directly.

In undertaking research for the novel, Jodi interviewed 50 parents of children with Aspergers's syndrome. She found that they were split down the middle: half of them believed that there was no link between vaccinations and autism and the other half believed that there was a link. Some of these parents showed Jodi videos of their toddlers who were completely interactive and engaged with the world, and a second video taken only a few days later when their toddlers were completely unresponsive and absorbed; in other words, exhibiting what is autistic behaviour. The only difference during this period was that the parents had vaccinated their children.

From observing autistic children, Jodi learnt how they function and talk. Children with Asperger's syndrome can focus intensively on any one topic and, according to Jodi, have the "ability to talk for 40 years about any subject that interests them". One autistic girl who she interviewed related everything in her life to episodes of the Disney programme The Suite Life Of Zack And Cody. Essentially, she was mirroring human behaviour and learning her social cues from television. In Jacob's case, his special focus is forensic analysis. Because of his interest, he often shows up at crime scenes. When Jacob's tutor is found dead the police suspect him. Behaviours of Asperger's syndrome, such as not having the ability to look someone in the eye or communicate clearly, convinces the police of Jacob's guilt and he finds himself accused of murder. This brings an ethical dimension to House Rules and that is essentially how the law deals with people who are unable to defend themselves.

In terms of producing her books, Jodi describes the process as "generally one done, one being printed, and one on the way." There is also often an older book being published in a different country. Some of her books have been turned into films such as My Sister's Keeper. This novel is about a girl named Anna who is conceived as a perfect bone marrow match for her sister Kate who suffers from leukaemia. Anna undergoes so many surgeries that she might as well be sick. My Sister's Keeper explores the ethics of a parent doing whatever it takes to save a child's life, even if it means infringing on the rights of another child. Those who have read My Sister's Keeper (and I have not yet read it), will know that the film's ending is different from the movie. When Jodi asked the book fair audience who had read the book whether they preferred the book or film, the answer was overwhelmingly in favour of her book.

Jodi explained why the ending was different: "When you sell the rights to a film, you have no control anymore. It's like giving a baby up for adoption and you're just not allowed to call the producer. You just have to hope for the best, and sometimes unfortunately your baby winds up as a whole new adoption." Regrettably Jodi had the "whole new adoption" experience. She sold her book to a production company that she felt understood the ending of her book was the message of the story, so much so that they had interviewed her. According to Jodi, the director, Nick Cassavetes, told her flat out that her ending was the only ending for this film, and had even said that if there was any reason for changing the ending he would personally tell her himself. Jodi obliged by helping Nick for the next year and even told him he could call her at any hour of the night. Then one day she received an email from a fan who worked at a casting agency and had just read the film script and saw that the ending was completely different.

Jodi said she immediately phoned Nick to ask him what happened but he hung up. She then went down to the film set in an effort to find out what was going on but was thrown off the set. She said, "To this day I have no idea why he changed it and he did not explain it to me, but I do know that when your target demographics for a film are the millions around the globe that have read and loved the book it is a very stupid thing to mess with something that works, and as a result the film was not nearly as successful as they had planned it to be, so it's his own fault. It wouldn't stop me optioning my books for film, but I can bet you with all my heart that Nick Cassavetes will never direct another one of my books."

So, as successful as Jodi is, she gets thrown off film sets and she also does not believe she is in line to win any literary prizes soon. She said, "Unfortunately in America the prize committee, as [it stands], will not share a book [award] in commercial fiction because [it is seen as 'lesser than'], and I would actually argue that although there are many commercial-fiction writers who are actually 'literary tasked', for a lack of a better word, there are a lot of commercial-fiction writers who are consistently trudging out a very good book and who are pushing the envelope of fiction, which I think is incredibly impressive and which I think is much more of a gift to literary novels than commercial novels anyway." She said there is a prejudice against writers in her category but that, if forced to, it was something she could live with. Perhaps a little literary rival jealously was revealed at the book fair when Jodi announced, "The truth is that Toni Morrison will continue to win all the awards and that's the way it's going to be."

Jodi Picoult talks to Samantha Page at the 2010 Cape Town Book FairAuthors at book fairs, at least at the Cape Town Book Fair, should prepare themselves for three questions that the audience - or the host - always ask. The first is whether authors base their books on their personal lives. Jodi reeled in horror, "If I wrote about my own personal experiences, would I not have the most worse [sic] life possible?" She added that her life is as diametrically opposed to her characters as possible and that she is fortunate to have a healthy, happy family and an amazing husband. She said that her family has not had to experience any of the dramas she has written about in her novels. When she does write about a topic, such as teenage suicide, she gets a little superstitious and said she thinks, "'Oh, if I write about teen suicide, great, it won't happen to us. I won't have to worry about that' [...]. Of course, it doesn't work out that way." However, she still doubts that any of the dramas that her characters have undergone will happen in her family. The reason her characters got into their situations, she pointed out, is due to a lack of communication in their families, which is not the case in her family. "These books are a place I can go because I don't have [these personal problems] in my real life and I think if I did I don't think I could write about them because I think it would be too close to home for me," she said.

So, Jodi does not solve problems in her personal life through her novels, but would she trade places with any of her characters? She was quite emphatic: "I can't imagine wanting to trade places with any of them because really, frankly, most of them have a pretty miserable existence for about 400 pages," she said. However, she did let slip that she would not mind running away with her character Patrick DuCharme from her novel Nineteen Minutes because he is really good looking. The only problem is that she last left him with a girlfriend so she would have to break them up (but that should not be too difficult an obstacle should she write a sequel).

The second most popular question that Cape Town Book Fair audiences love to ask is what the writer's daily schedule is like, perhaps to mimic the author's writing schedule in order also to produce a bestseller. In a nutshell, Jodi's year is divided into a monthly and daily schedule. She said she tends to write during autumn or winter and do her research and editing in spring or summer. She also attends book launches in spring, including those in Germany and Australia, which can mess up her schedule a bit. She likes to take a three-mile walk with her friends at 5.30am every day and then take her kids to school. A persistent and hard worker, she schedules 7.30am to sit down at her desk and answer fan mail, which she said she does with no assistance as she feels it is important to say thank you to the people who have read her books. She then pulls out the chapter she is currently working on and has usually finished wading through it by 8.15am. She sits at her desk and keeps writing the chapter. "It's that simple," she said, "until the kids come home and magically I turn into mom."

Jodi is extremely forthcoming with advice to aspiring writers. The question 'how did you go about writing a book?' is definitely the most popular question asked at the Cape Town Book Fair. No author escapes this one. Jodi said, "I always say writer's block is for people who have time. If you don't have time, you don't have writer's block because you sit your butt in the chair and you write." She should know - during the time she had three kids under the age of four she was still producing a book a year using 10-minute snatches. Now she has a lot more time - eight hours per day - to work on her novels while her children are at school. She considers the extended chunk of time a huge blessing but even as a working mom time management is of the essence. "When you don't have time, you write anything, and you can't always edit a bad page. You just can't edit a blank page," she said. Jodi said the worst advice that she has ever received is the adage 'write what you know'. Her advice is to "write what you want to learn", which is exactly what she has done in writing her novels.

Jodi Picoult signs autographs at the 2010 Cape Town Book Fair
Once the book has been written, authors in the US are required to promote themselves through a literary agent. This is not an easy process - Jodi received over a hundred rejections from literary agents before she found one who had never represented anyone before but sent a note telling Jodi that she thought she could represent her (20 years down the line, she is still Jodi's agent). Jodi advised that in terms of first-time authors getting their books accepted "there's no cutting corners. Pitch it to someone else and hope for the best. While you are doing that, write the second one because maybe it will be the more successful one and sell if the first one doesn't."

Jodi also pointed out that a lot of people forget all about the final, but most important and interesting, component of the process - the contract. She also mentioned that once contracts have been signed, publishers tend to ignore first-time authors and do not often promote them so no one knows their book is around. Jodi's advice to authors trying to break into the market is to be their own best salesperson. She suggested that they contact libraries, bookstores, and book clubs, and offer to read their book or be willing to talk about it at these forums. She said, "If you can get a grassroots effort started about the book, then your publisher takes notice and spends more money promoting it. Spread the word about your book." It makes you think that this is exactly what she did and why she has become so successful. She believed in herself and took the responsibility upon herself to market her own books, which is something that many South African authors do not even think of doing.

Whether you like Jodi's novels or not, she is a thoroughly good entertainer and worth listening to if you ever have the opportunity. She is passionate about what she does from the initial research she undertakes for her novels to the accomplishment of pulling off a complicated novelistic structure. What probably helps Jodi in her writing is that she reads other authors' work. "My husband always says that if I read as much fiction as non fiction I would be the smartest person ever. However, fiction is for work and non fiction is for play," she said. Jodi has a favourite author, Alice Hoffman (Jodi could not resist boasting that she acquired Alice's phone number after a period of her own fan stalking) but, as for other readers, Jodi self-confidently declared, "I always say you are allowed to have your own favourites, as long as I wrote it."

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