Sunday, 1 December 2013

I hate leaving my characters hanging!

Agnes A. Rose - the author of the Polish blog In the Land of Reading & History talks to one of the most famous American writers - Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is one of the most famous writers in the world. She was born in New York, in suburbia on Long Island. The houses all looked the same and were called the Storybook development. She went to public school and had some great English teachers who encouraged her to write – and to apply to Princeton University, which had one of the best undergraduate creative writing programs in the US. She got accepted and worked there with Mary Morris, primarily. She truly believes if not for Mary, she would not be a writer today.

Agnes A. Rose: At the beginning I would like to ask you what you wanted to become when you were a child or a teenage girl?

Jodi Picoult: A writer. For real. It was my dream, but I never imagined it would happen. At first I didn’t care if anyone ever read my stuff; I just wanted to see it in print. But even when I was thirty and published I dreamed of writing books that sold well enough to actually contribute to my family income which took much longer than you’d imagine!

Agnes A. Rose: What is your writing plan? Do you write every day? Or maybe you prefer working a few days a week?

Jodi Picoult: I don’t work on weekends, usually (although I have been known to sneak up to an office when I’m in the middle of a chapter – I hate leaving my characters hanging!) But other than that, I’m a workaholic. I will start a new book the day after finishing a previous one. What you need to remember, however, is that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than writing. My kids know that I need it like some people need medication – as a preventative, because when I don’t write for a few days, I get predictably cranky. They’ve become used to sharing me with people who don’t really exist, but who are incredibly real to me while I’m telling their stories.

Agnes A. Rose: Some of the authors very often know the last scene of their books. While writing do you always know in what way your book will finish?

Jodi Picoult: Let me put it this way – I think I do, and I’m usually wrong. When I start a book, I juggle a what-if question in my head, and push it and push it until I feel like I have a good story. I figure out what I need to know and do my research, via the Internet or email or in some cases getting down and dirty. I start to write when I come up with an excellent first line. And then I keep going, chapter by chapter, exactly in the order in which you’re reading it. Often, about two-thirds of the way through, the characters will take over and move the book in a different direction. I can fight them, but usually when I do that the book isn’t as good as it could be. It sounds crazy, but the book really starts writing itself after a while. I often feel like I’m just transcribing a film that’s being spooled in my head, and I have nothing to do with creating it. Certain scenes surprise me even after I have written them – I just stare at the computer screen, wondering how that happened. For example, the scene in “The Pact” where Melanie nearly runs Chris down with her car. Or in “Keeping Faith”, when Millie Epstein resuscitates. Or in “Salem Falls”, that last scene. When I was writing “Plain Truth”, I called my mom up one day. “You’re not going to believe what’s happening to Ellie!” I told her. I think she said I was scaring her and hung up. I know it seems a little unnerving, but I love the moments when my characters get up and walk off on their own two feet. In my 2011 book, “Sing You Home”, one of the main characters did something very stupid that’s going to hurt him in the long run, although I keep telling him not to!

Agnes A. Rose: I’m sure that each of your novels is very special to you. But I wonder if you have your favorite one?

Jodi Picoult: In more than a decade, every time I’ve been asked this, I always have said, “Oh, that’s like asking me to pick which kid I love the most!” or in other words, something I wasn’t ever going to do. But right now, I do have a personal favorite – “Second Glance”. I think it’s the most complex book I’ve written to date, and I am incredibly proud of the characters in there. Some of whom I’ve never seen in fiction ever before. Plus, it addresses themes and concepts that are rarely discussed in fiction. There’s a real tendency when you write to think that Shakespeare did it all, and that we just recycle it, so when you feel like you’ve broken new ground as a writer, it’s a big deal. For all those reasons, I think “Second Glance” is my biggest accomplishment to date.

Agnes A. Rose: In your books you describe very serious and controversial problems. Where do you draw ideas for writing them?

Jodi Picoult: Usually, a what-if question: what if a boy left standing after a botched suicide pact was accused of murder? What if a little girl developed an imaginary friend who turned out to be God? What if an attorney didn't think that the legal system was quite good enough for her own child? I start by mulling a question and before I know it, a whole drama is unfolding in my head. Often, an idea sticks before I know what I'm going to do with it. For “Mercy”, I researched Scottish clans without having a clue why this was going to be important to the book. It was only after I learned about them that I realized I was writing a novel about the loyalty we bear to people we love. Sometimes ideas change in the middle. “The Pact” was not a page-turner when I conceived it. I was going to write a character driven book about the female survivor of a suicide pact, and I went to the local police chief to do some preliminary research. “Huh,” he said, “it’s the girl who survives? Because if it was the boy, who was physically larger, he’d automatically be suspected of murder until cleared by the evidence.” Well, I nearly fell out of my seat. “Really?” I asked, and the character of Chris began to take shape. Sometimes I write books because other people make the suggestion: “Plain Truth” came about when my mother said I ought to explore the reclusive Amish. "If anyone can learn about them,” she said, “it’s you.” And sometimes, ideas grow out of the ones I’m researching. That happened with “My Sister's Keeper” – information I learned while researching “Second Glance” so fascinating to me that I stuck it into its own file and turned it into a story all its own.

Agnes A. Rose: You also wrote the book about the Holocaust which is entitled “The Storyteller”. What made you decide to create such a story?

Jodi Picoult: This book actually began with another book – Simon Wiesenthal’s “The Sunflower”. In it, Mr. Wiesenthal recounts a moment when, as a concentration camp prisoner, he was brought to the bedside of a dying Nazi, who wanted to confess to and be forgiven by a Jew. The moral conundrum in which Wiesenthal found himself has been the starting point for many philosophical and moral analyses about the dynamics between victims of genocide and the perpetrators…and it got me thinking about what would happen if the same request was made, decades later, to a Jewish prisoner’s granddaughter.

Agnes A. Rose: What about researching?

Jodi Picoult: This research was among some of the most emotionally grueling I’ve ever done. I met with several Holocaust survivors, who told me their stories. Some of those details went into the fictional history of my character, Minka. It was humbling and horrifying to realize that the stories they recounted were non-fiction. Some of the moments these brave men and women told me will stay with me forever: such as Bernie, who pried a mezuzah from his door frame as the Nazis dragged him from his home, and held it curled in his fist throughout the entire war – so that it took two years to straighten his fingers after liberation. Or how his mother promised him that he would not be shot in the head, only the chest – can you imagine making that promise to your child?! Or Gerda – who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and who survived a 350 mile march in January 1945 – because, she told me, her father had told her to wear her ski boots when she was taken from home. Or Mania, whose mastery of the German language saved her life multiple times during the war, when she was picked to work in office jobs instead of in hard labor; and who told me of Herr Baker, her German boss at one factory, who called the young Jewish women who were assigned to him Meine Kinder (my children) and who saved his workers from being selected by the Nazis during a concentration camp roundup. At Bergen Belsen, she slept in a barrack with 900 people and contracted typhoid – and would have died, if the British had not come then to liberate them.

Agnes A. Rose: Among your novels in Poland very popular is the book you wrote with your daughter, Samantha. Could you tell me something more about this novel? Why did you decide to create it with your daughter?

Jodi Picoult: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a letter from a fan asking me whether I would ever consider creating a sanitized, simplified version of “My Sister’s Keeper” or “The Pact” or “Nineteen Minutes” for young adults. Each time I wrote back, saying that I wouldn’t. I have always written adult fiction and I’ve always been delighted that so many young adults have found their way to my stories when they are emotionally ready to do so. After all, I used to joke, after you’ve read all the Harry Potter books, what’s next!? I have also gotten letters from parents asking me how old their child should be before reading one of my stories. The answer is: it differs for every kid. Some are more ready for the very intense content of my books, some parents prefer that their child not be exposed to swearing or to sex scenes or to violence. Any kid who isn’t ready for my novels will, eventually, grow up and can tackle them then. The whole YA label, in my opinion, is a shifting one. Many YA novels these days are hungrily read by adults (“The Hunger Games”, “Harry Potter”, “The Twilight” series) and many adult novels are enjoyed by adolescents.

So why did I set out to write a YA novel – one that is considerably lighter than the subject matter I usually cover? In part, because my daughter Sammy conceived the idea and suggested we write it together. But also because I’d like to give young readers who aren’t ready for my “heavier” novels a chance to still enjoy my fiction. To me, “Between the Lines” is a great fit for preteens and younger teens who may not be quite ready to tackle moral and ethical dilemmas in fiction. There are characters their own age, feeling feelings they have probably felt. As in my other novels, the teens in the book seem very real – they talk and act like adolescents. So maybe the twelve year old who reads “Between the Lines” and loves it will want, next year, to pick up a copy of “My Sister’s Keeper”…and continue walking on that bridge to adult fiction.

But the other reason I wanted to dip my toe into YA waters is because I know what it’s like, as a mom, to share an author you love with a child. Alice Hoffman, who is my all time favorite writer, could rewrite the phone book and I would buy it. In triplicate. I have loved her novels for years, but when Sammy was twelve or thirteen and itching for more substantial books, I didn’t feel like she could hunker down with one of Alice’s adult novels yet, without feeling overwhelmed or missing half the story. Luckily for me, Alice had written multiple YA novels. The first one Sammy read was “Aquamarine” – and she adored it. She read “Green Angel” next. And then, one day, she pulled “The Probable Future” off my bookshelf. Now Alice has another fan for life.

I hope that moms who have read me forever will share “Between the Lines” with their daughters. And that you have as much fun reading it as Sammy and I had writing it.

Agnes A. Rose: What should someone who dreams about writing do? Could you give any advice?

Jodi Picoult: Do it. Many people have a novel inside them, but most don't bother to get it out. Writing is grunt work - you need to have self-motivation, perseverance, and faith… talent is the smallest part of it. If you don't believe in yourself, and you don't have the fortitude to make that dream happen, why should the hotshots in the publishing world take a chance on you? I don't believe that you need an MFA to be a writer, but I do think you need to take some good workshops. These are often offered through writer's groups or community colleges. You need to learn to write on demand, and to get critiqued without flinching. When someone can rip your work to shreds without it feeling as though your arm has been hacked off, you're ready to send your novel off to an agent. There's no magic way to get one of those - it took me longer to find my wonderful agent than it did to get published! Keep sending out your work and don't get discouraged when it comes back from an agent - just send it out to a different one. Attend signings/lectures by authors, and in your free time, read, read, read. All of this will make you a better writer. And – here’s a critical part – when you finally start to write something, do not let yourself stop…even when you are convinced it’s the worst garbage ever. This is the biggest caveat for beginning writers. Instead, force yourself to finish what you began, and then go back and edit it. If you keep scrapping your beginnings, however, you’ll never know if you can reach an end.

Agnes A. Rose: Would you like to change anything in your life? If yes, what would it be?

Jodi Picoult: After college, instead of going to work right away, I would have traveled around the world.

Agnes A. Rose: Could you tell me anything about your nearest plans? Are you working on your new novel or anything else?

Jodi Picoult: I am working on the 2015 book, doing research. It is about race relations in the US. The 2014 book, “Leaving Home”, is already in production. 

Agnes A. Rose: Finally, is there anything you would like to tell your Polish fans of your work?

Jodi Picoult:  I hear from my Polish fans all the time and I am so grateful to them for choosing my books to read, out of all the thousands of novels that are published!

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much for this interview. On behalf of myself and all the other Polish readers of your work, I wish you further success and many more great books in the future. 

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

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