Thursday, September 23, 2021

Life & Style

An Interview with Jodi Picoult: Author and Daughter to Visit Madison May 19

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Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer.

Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer. (Photo by Elena Siebert)

What do you do when you have 23 novels under your belt, including 10 number-one New York Times bestsellers? If you’re Jodi Picoult, you keep going, of course—and you make it a family affair.

The beloved, prolific author and New Hampshire resident recently released her second young-adult novel, co-written with her daughter Samantha van Leer. Off the Page is the companion to Picoult and van Leer’s Between the Lines (2013). In advance of the duo’s May 19 appearance in Madison, Living spoke to Picoult last week about how she approaches co-writing and a young-adult audience, how she handles her success, and what she has in store for the future.

This is the second book you’ve co-written with your daughter. How does the collaborative process work? Do you sit down together to brainstorm and write, or do you each write your own pieces of the story?

“We literally wrote side by side—every word. We’d sit in my office, taking turns typing. I might give one sentence, and then Sammy would jump in with another, and back and forth we went. There were some pretty incredible moments, where it felt like we were dreaming the same dream and both falling all over each other to describe it…and it turned out we were describing the same thought.”

How does writing for young adults compare to writing for adults? Are there certain themes or subject areas that are off limits? Does your language or writing style change?

“It wasn’t that different to write, really. The characters still have to ring true—even if one of them is a fairytale prince. Plus, the themes in Off The Page—like to whom does a story really belong, and what are the consequences of getting a happily-ever-after ending—are very adult concepts. Add to this the general unease Delilah and Oliver feel about not fitting into their worlds, and frankly, it’s very similar to the things I address in my adult books. The difference was the humor. Although I write humor into my grownup novels, it isn’t as broad as some of the jokes I get to tell in these books.”

What do you enjoy most about meeting with your readers? What do you hope they get out of reading your books?

“I really feel like readers are the other half of the equation—you write a book, but it comes to life when they read it. Sammy has said that anyone can be a writer—but to be an author, you must have readers. That’s so true. I love hearing stories from my fans about how my books affect them, and how they got hooked. What I hope they take away is something that happens after the book is finished—I want them to be thinking hard about the issues raised in the book, and maybe asking what they’d do in the same situation.”

You hold a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Does this impact how you write? Is pedagogy an important part of your books—do you want your readers to learn something from reading them?

“I like to say I am still a teacher. I just have a really, really big classroom.”

Your books reflect a depth of research into the particular communities or issues you write about. I’m sure it can be easy to get lost in the research. How do you know when it’s time to stop researching and start writing?

“There are lots of times I want to keep researching because I’m having so much fun. But there’s an equally insistent itch to get down to writing, to meet my characters, and to see them evolve. So I always seem to be able to hunker down when necessary. I know the moment is right when I have the first line crystallized in my head. It feels like a tornado touching down.”

Do you ever or have you ever had an idea for a story that seemed too outlandish to publish? If so, what happens when this occurs?

“Nope. I can’t think of any topic from which I’ve shied away. In fact, if it feels daunting, that’s even more reason to write it.”

Your books have been so successful. Do you ever feel daunted by that? Get writer’s block?

“I don’t believe in writer’s block. When my kids were little and I didn’t have a lot of time to write, I just sat down and wrote. Most of writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. (Don’t believe me? Think about how you might have had writer’s block in school...Didn’t it miraculously always clear the night before the paper was due?) My mantra is that you can always edit a bad page; you can’t edit a blank page.”

What are you working on now?

“I’m writing a book about racism in the U.S. But Sammy and I are also intimately involved in the process of turning Between the Lines and Off the Page into a musical, hopefully Broadway-bound. It’s been a really fun, exciting, collaborative process and we can’t wait for you all to hear the results!”

R.J. Julia Booksellers hosts an event with Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer, authors of Off the Page, on Tuesday, May 19 at 6 p.m. at the First Congregational Church, 26 Meetinghouse Lane, Madison. Tickets, $19.99, include one copy of Off the Page and admission for up to four family members. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.rjjulia.com.


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