Abortion; organ donation; suicide—these are not topics with which many writers are able to sell over 14 million books. Jodi Picoult, however, with her outspoken perspective and brilliant style, has done just that, deftly exploring deep moral issues in an emotional and intelligent manner. At one point the biggest-selling female author in Britain, she has written over 20 books and is one of the world’s most successful novelists, a testament to her sheer ability given the issues within which she situates her books: Small Great Things, her latest novel, is set in a chaos of race relations, hospital protocols and justice that surely few other mainstream writers would dare touch. With Picoult currently on one of her typically demanding book tours –now in Australia, before visiting Scotland and St Andrews on 26 November—The Saint’s Poppy Russell and Sam Huckstep talked with her in the aftermath of the US election about writing, politics, and her advice to young writers.
You’ve written about numerous very deep, troubling issues. How do you manage to write in a way that is true about such topics?
The issues I choose are issues that I care deeply about. Often they come from whatever point I am at in life – my earlier books had childhood at their heart and came from me asking myself the ‘what if?’ question because my children were young. When they were teenagers, I had a different set of questions and worries – and now I am addressing different things again. As for being true to a subject – if you care enough, and research enough, you become immersed, and from there it is just getting it onto the page in a suitable story frame. I have interviewed some amazing people for my books – and I hope I am true to each of them in converting those conversations to the page.
Writing about such enormous, morally contentious topics, you must often feel an urge to be didactic. Do you ever think you have an obligation, writing on morality for very large audiences, to try to change the world in that way through your writing- or do you try to resist this?
First of all, I would never try to instruct any of my readers! I value them too highly to assume they would take well to me being that heavy handed. I do, however, offer different sides to each story and point of view. People often pick up a book with their own pre-conceived ideas of the issue at the heart of it, and by the end they have changed their minds six times. Hopefully, they will never think I am leading them by the nose, and hopefully they will never really know which side I am on! But I do want to make them think, and recognise that there are other points of view out there.
Is there anything that you know you wouldn’t, or couldn’t, write about- and why, if there is?
No. After writing Small Great Things, which is probably the most contentious book I could have written, I can’t imagine anything harder.
Your career has been one of huge success. What do you seek as you continue to write – and what is success to you, both within and without writing?
I seek clarity for issues I don’t understand… and success is being able to get people to open their minds.
Are there any writers by whom you feel your work has been particularly shaped? If you had the choice, which writer would you most want to sit down with and exchange notes?
Margaret Mitchell – whose Gone With the Wind was the first book that made me realise you could build another world through words; Dickens, of course, was the first writer of note to cover topics of social justice. And Hemingway — because he says so much with so few words.
Your latest novel, Great Small Things, is about racism, and about the racism inherent in culture and in white people who would consider themselves to be tolerant, democratic people. Do you think that the Brexit vote, and Trump’s presidential candidacy, demonstrates these fears? How can we combat racism if it hasn’t been acknowledged or understood by those imposing it?
This is a huge question, and drives straight to the heart of Small Great Things. God knows that racism is one of the most pressing issues in my country today, and it’s weighed on me for a long time. I’d wanted to write about race and racism for 20 years but couldn’t seem to find a way to do it. After all, who am I – as a white woman who’s had plenty of privilege – to tell someone of colour what her life is like? I didn’t know why I was able to channel the voice of a school shooter, a boy with autism, a rape victim, etc. but I couldn’t feel comfortable writing from the perspective of a person of colour. Racism is different. It’s fraught, and hard to discuss, and we tend to be afraid of offending people by saying the wrong thing – and so often white people don’t talk about it AT ALL. Then I came across a news story about a black nurse who’d help deliver a baby, only to have the father call her supervisor in and request that she not touch his infant – and neither should anyone else who looked like her. He revealed to the supervisor a swastika tattoo – he was a Skinhead. The hospital put a note in the baby’s file, and in real life the African American personnel sued the hospital for discrimination and won.
But I wondered… what if? What if that nurse had been alone with that baby and something went wrong? What if she wound up on trial and defended by a white public defender who, like many of my friends, would never consider herself a racist? What if their interaction led them both to realise that what they’d been taught about race and racism might not be what actually is true? Suddenly I knew why I would be able to finish this book – I was addressing the wrong audience. I didn’t need to communicate what it’s like to be black in America to people who are black. I needed to communicate to other white people like myself that even though they might not think of themselves as racist, racism is not just about prejudice – it’s about power – and that if you are born with light skin in America, you hold all the power. Small Great Things is a means of making white people realise that in addition to the headwinds of racism faced by people of colour, there are tailwinds of racism that benefit white people. It’s very hard to admit that our success is not a result of hard work or luck but also quite possibly the fact that we had opportunities a person of colour did NOT.
Now, onto politics: it is very clear that Trump’s candidacy was founded on a divisiveness and on the normalisation of hate speech and scapegoating. Since his election (which is a horrible step backward in my opinion) we have seen a rise in hate crimes against gays, people of colour, women, Muslim-Americans, Latinos – even at the elementary school level. Even worse, Trump is not disavowing this behaviour by his supporters, and is instead filling a cabinet in government with people who are avowed white supremacists and white nationalists. Although I am not an expert on Brexit, it seems to me to be founded in xenophobia, and again, exclusion. And I do know that statistically the UK has seen an uptick in hate crimes against immigrants and those who are minorities since the vote. Clearly, both countries right now are not doing a very good job of spreading acceptance rather than divisiveness.
Theoretically politicians represent the rest of us, right? So if enough of the grassroots movement can be made to understand the racism and xenophobia at the heart of the politics, then that same electoral body can choose better representation to reflect their beliefs.
We know from your Princeton address that you personally found initial failure at creative writing a huge incentive to work harder. What would you say to students feeling overwhelmed by work, or disheartened by their tutor’s advice?
If you want to write, then you have to learn to take criticism. You can edit, and criticise your own writing, but learning to take it from other people is a whole different ball game! To be honest, if you can’t take criticism, you shouldn’t be a writer — because in this field you hear a lot more no’s than yes’s. You have to believe in yourself, first and foremost. Because if you don’t, who will ever believe in you?
What lessons would you have most benefited from when you were at university, or what advice would you like to give to those who are students now?
Do what you love. The money will follow.
Jodi Picoult will be speaking at Topping & Co. at 2:00 pm on Saturday 26 November.