the novelist talks politics, sexism and writing
Popular novelist Jodi Picoult is an author who likes to get to grips with issues that affect our lives. In My Sister’s Keeper she dealt with a teenager with leukaemia, in Perfect Match, it was child sexual abuse, and in The Storyteller two of the characters were a Holocaust survivor and a former Nazi SS guard.
In fact, when a reviewer described The Storyteller as chick lit, Jodi replied: “I actually break up laughing. Because that is the worst, most depressing chick lit ever.”
“I write women’s fiction,” she told British newspaper The Telegraph. “And women’s fiction doesn’t mean that’s your audience. Unfortunately, it means you have lady parts.”
On the phone from her four hectares of woodland near Hanover, New Hampshire, 50-year-old Jodi is spending a few minutes ostensibly talking to me about her new book, Small Great Things. But instead we spend most of the interview discussing Donald Trump, gun control, sexism in publishing and racism. “We just do not have enough time to properly
discuss Trump,” she says. “Seriously, I may end up living in New Zealand!”
Jodi is a big supporter of gun control and says it is very frightening living in the United States at the moment. “To be totally honest, it is not Trump himself, because he is an individual. There are individual, misguided, uneducated people who blurt out things they shouldn’t, you run into people like that every single day. What terrifies me is that his candidacy has pulled out of the woodwork people who live in this country on a foundation of hate and blame, and there are many of them and they are not easily dismissed.”
Jodi’s new book, Small Great Things, focuses on racism. It follows an African-American nurse who is asked to be removed from caring for the sick child of white supremacists. The nurse then has to make a choice between saving the child and disobeying the parents’ objection to a black woman tending their child.
“This was a book I felt a great need to write on a personal level, to identify what racism is like in my country,” she says. “It’s not just prejudice but a combination of prejudice and power.”
She says there are tail winds of racism which allow certain groups to achieve privileges that we are not aware of.
“So, for me, writing this book was very soul-searching and it required me to re-evaluate myself and my relation to race, which is something I never really challenged myself to do.”
She now believes that even if you are not a minority in the US, you are a part of the problem, and says white people need to “step back and take a very hard look at themselves and understand that the privilege they were given because they were born white means they should ask, ‘What can we do to make changes systematically and institutionally to make the world more equitable?”
Jodi says it takes her two years to write each book – she has so far written 23 novels and sold 14 million copies worldwide.
She values her rural home where she and her husband Tim van Leer have donkeys, geese and chickens. “The more beautiful it is, the harder it is for me to get anything done,” says Jodi. “I’m really lucky to live in a place where people come to visit all the time, I love that. And in summer and fall it is stunning.”
Tim and Jodi have three children – Sammy, Kyle and Jake – who have all grown up and left home. Daughter Sammy has co-written two young adult books with her mother.
“We’re emptynesters,” Jodi says, “but I’m lucky I married a guy who is fantastic, and I am just as in love with him now, if not more than I was 26 years ago. Spending time with him is a delight and I still don’t get enough of it.”
Tim works maintaining properties and does a lot of volunteer work, including being on the board of the local homeless shelter.
“We’re lucky that we have jobs we can play around with so we can go away and visit the kids or have a holiday, which is nice.”
And with every new book, Jodi sets off for a worldwide two-month tour to promote it. She’s about to leave for another tour on October 8 and will not get home until December 6.
“It’s very challenging to juggle writing and promoting, and I do love meeting my readers, but people just don’t realise how hard that is. Germany called a week ago and said, ‘Can you just come to us between the UK and Australia tour?’ and I had to say, ‘When? In what three-hour time span can I fit you in?’”
The day before we spoke on the phone Jodi was welcomed onto the advisory board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, which is a research-driven organisation that aims to increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing. She is clearly delighted.
“This is the nicest cherry on the top of a lovely sundae because it’s something I talk about a lot,” she enthuses. “I’ve been very vocal about gender discrimination in publishing and about how opportunities for female writers are less than those for male writers.”
She says the good thing about VIDA is that they deal with statistics and crunch the numbers to prove that review outlets such as the New York Times Book Review use more male reviewers than female and review fewer books written by women than by male authors.
“Last year they introduced statistics around women of colour, and I can’t even talk about that without feeling sick to my stomach, because the opportunities for women of colour as writers are so marginal they are really non-existent, which is an embarrassment. But with VIDA we can start to hold people accountable.
Jodi is about to start on her next book and that morning had taken a walk with her daughter Sammy to discuss it. “I have two ideas, so we walked a couple of miles and talked about which one I should do.”
Will she ever run out of ideas?
“Not likely,” she says. “I have two filing cabinets full of clippings and notes which fascinate me. I don’t write for my readers, I write for myself. I like to ask myself questions like, ‘What if this happened?’ and the act of struggling to find an answer is, for me, the act of writing the book. There has to be a personal investment in it. If I churned out what I think people would like, it would be a lot more fake than the books
I felt a great need to identify what racism is like in my country.”
Jodi Picoult Jodi Picoult doesn’t shy away from confronting issues – in fact, they inspire her writing. The best-selling author talks to Wendyl Nissen about her latest book and how she writes to find answers to her own questions.
Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult, Allen & Unwin, is out on October 1.