I t's a busy life for bestselling author Jodi Picoult. Over in the UK this week to talk about her new book Lone Wolf, Jodi still found time to try on a ball gown for her teenage daughter Sammy who will be joining her on another trip to the UK this summer to promote their young adult book Between the Lines. I caught up with her - post shopping trip - to discuss where she gets her ideas from, how she got kicked off the film set of My Sister's Keeper … oh and wolves.
Your books deal with complex ethical and moral dilemmas. What led you to write along these lines, given that the first book you wrote [Songs of the Humpback Whale] was not quite as heavy?
I think I just gravitated towards that as the type of stuff I wanted to write about. When I think about my first book, I think of it as a story about a mother and a daughter. My second book was really about a marriage and from there, the thing about the marriage that twisted it was post-partem depression and that was really the first time an issue sort of entered in and hit my characters smack on. I liked it – so I think that's why I kept gravitating towards them.
I tend to write about the things that keep me up at night, things I worry about. I think the reason that they feel timely is because everyone else is worrying about the same things.
"I tend to write about the things that keep me up at night, things I worry about."
Where did the idea to include wolves in your new book Lone Wolf come from?
I started with the life support issue and the right to die and one morning I woke up thinking about wolves, not really knowing why, and did a little research on the internet. I found out that the wolf is really all about his family. That's what a pack is and they make decisions for the greater good of the group, not just the individual. When I began to think about that, I realised that was the perfect metaphor for the story I was trying to describe, where two siblings are fighting over the healthcare decisions of their father. So I thought, let's make Luke [the father] a wolf researcher, let's make him someone who studies wolves in a really unique way by actually living with a pack. And then of course I learned that there was actually someone who did that for real so I went out and met him and did a lot of research with him.
So you knew nothing about wolves before writing this book?
Nothing. You know, there are some people who are just really into wolves but I've never been that person.
"If you have a female author who writes about family, relationships, one's place in the world in modern society, it's called chick-lit. If you have a man who does it, it wins a prize."
What are your thoughts on the term chick-lit and do you think you fall under that genre?
No. I definitely don't, seeing as 48% of my fan mail comes from men. In fact, out of all my fan mail this morning, every single letter was from a man. I know men are reading my books so it's hard for me to say I write chick-lit. I think chick-lit is a fascecious genre. My real question isn't about genre titles and whether you should call something chick-lit but why we feel the need to label fiction, either written by women or written for women. If you have a female author who writes about family, relationships, one's place in the world in modern society, it's called chick-lit. If you have a man who does it, it wins a prize. That's a big problem.
There's an organisation called VIDA which has actually crunched the statistics about how many more men are reviewed for their books than women. Although women tend to buy more books, there are still more male reviewers than female reviewers. The dichotomy is ridiculous.
"I had over 100 rejections from agents before one woman said 'I think I can represent you, I've never represented anyone before in my life but I think I can do this' and I said OK."
Who is your favourite author? And what books do you like to read in general?
My all-time favourite writer is Alice Hoffman, I just love her. She makes writing look really easy and it's never easy! I just read fiction, I read all kinds of fiction – sometimes literary, sometimes commercial, sometimes a beach read, sometimes high-brow. I hardly ever read non-fiction unless I'm reading for research.
You obviously love writing books with ethical and moral issues, but have you ever considered writing something more light-hearted?
Well, funny you should say that because this July in the UK my first young adult novel will be published, which was co-written with my daughter Sammy - the one for whom I was trying on ball gowns [laughs]! It was her idea. When she was fourteen and I was on a book tour, she called me up and said I think I have a great idea for a book and I said 'Alright, let's hear it'.
She said: 'What if every time you closed a book, the characters inside it got to live inside that book but as people who were completely different from their characters, like actors getting off a stage. Every time that book was open again, they had to snap back into Act One, Scene One and do it all over again. And what if there was a prince in a fairytale but he really wanted to get out of the fairytale, he just didn't know how to get anyone seeing him as anything other than a prince. And what if there was a fifteen year old girl who was a reader obsessed with this fairytale because the prince was really cute and one day realised that he actually was speaking to her and he wanted out of the book.'
It's the perfect story for anyone who’s ever had a literary crush really and I just thought it sounded like a really sweet book and she asked if we could write it together and I said 'Well yeah but we have to write it together'. It's very sweet, it's very funny, there is no topical issue in it [laughs]! It's just a great love story about two young people who feel like they don't really fit into their world.
What was your journey into publishing like? Did you go through a lot of rejections?
Yes! I had over 100 rejections from agents before one woman said 'I think I can represent you, I've never represented anyone before in my life but I think I can do this' and I said OK. She's still my agent today. She sold my first book in about three months.
What is your average writing day like? Do you have a structure?
I do. If it's a writing day and not a research day or a tour day, I get up at about five in the morning, I go for a three mile walk with a friend of mine, come back home, take a shower, get up to my office at 7:30am after my daughter leaves for school and then I write until about 3:30pm and come back downstairs when she gets home. It's very much based on school hours.
Are your characters ever based on real people?
Never! The characters arrive in my head and they're speaking and they've already got lives and flaws and strengths so to base a character on someone I know would be weird because I feel like they already come to me with a personality.
My Sister's Keeper – arguably your most popular book to date – was adapted into a film a few years ago. But the dramatic ending change in the film version angered many fans. How was that whole experience for you as the author and do you think authors should have involvement in adaptations?
Authors have no involvement in adaptations. Hollywood thinks we are the least important piece of the puzzle and by and large authors have zero control over a film. You give a baby up for adoption, you hope it goes to a good family and sometimes you're disappointed which is surely what happened to me with My Sister's Keeper.
In my case, the director knew that I thought it was very important that the ending stay the same and when he met with me, he read the book and said 'You're right, that's the only ending for the story. I'm not going to change it. If it does change, I'm going to tell you why and tell you myself.'
I then spent a year working with him, creating a script that was very close to the book and then one day a fan who worked at the casting agency contacted me to ask if I knew they had changed the ending. I called Nick, the director, at his house and he wouldn't talk to me and I flew to the set and he kicked me off the set and I went to the head of New Line Cinema and I said 'You're going to lose money on this film' and he said 'We know what we're doing'. And sure enough they lost a lot of money on the film.
I hope this hasn't put you off allowing any other adaptations in the future.
No, in fact Ellen Degeneres has the movie rights to Sing you Home and she's got a director attached, a star attached and a terrific producing team and they are going out now to produce it and starting to get interest for it which is wonderful.
What's next after this summer's book tour with your daughter?
In 2013 I'm going to publish The Storyteller which really is about good and evil and Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
To find out where Jodi Picoult will be speaking on her UK tour check out her website.