Bestselling author Jodi Picoult joins Joni Evans to talk about the DNA of her writing, extraordinary circumstances, why she’s not a mystery writer and her latest novel.
Editor’s Note: Jodi Picoult is the bestselling author of seventeen novels including The Pact, Vanishing Acts and My Sister’s Keeper, which was made into a movie starring Abigail Breslin and Cameron Diaz. Her newest book, House Rules, is just out from Atria. Picoult lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.
WOWOWOW: Jodi, welcome to wowOwow.com and to the wOw Book Party. We are delighted to have you. I’ve been a longtime fan of yours and I am sure our audience knows how successful and how special you are, so it’s a delight.
JODI PICOULT: Oh, thanks.
WOW: Tell me if I have this right: you’ve been writing since the late ’80s, early ’90s? And House Rules is your 17th novel?
WOW: Most of your novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and many have been No. 1 bestsellers.
JODI: Yes. Knock on wood.
WOW: My Sister’s Keeper became a New Line Cinema movie, directed by Nick Cassavetes. And there have been many other television movies. This wonderful novel, House Rules, was published just last week, March 2. I’m going to be very careful not to give the plot away.
JODI: Thank you.
WOW: What would you say are the hallmarks of a Picoult novel?
JODI: I think that they usually address a fairly controversial topic, but they don’t preach to you. They instead offer you both sides of the argument so that you as a reader can make up your mind, or ask yourself why your opinion is what it is. They usually have a family in some kind of crisis mode; ordinary people put into an extraordinary situation. Some of them have legal elements to them and maybe a twist at the end. How’s that?
WOW: That sounds right. I know that you’ve gotten brilliant quotes over the years and one of my favorites, maybe one of your favorites, is from Stephen King saying that you write with “unassuming brilliance.” I wonder if you ever worry that people think you are a woman’s mystery writer, misunderstanding what’s going on in these books. Have you been pegged that way?
JODI: I actually have. In fact, a funny thing is that House Rules – the reviews have been fantastic. But the ones that say they didn’t get it are complaining that it wasn’t enough of a mystery. The funny thing for me is that I never thought of it as a mystery. It’s interesting that they think I’m a mystery writer. When I’m in Australia, for example, I have to fight very hard not to be called a crime writer. I have no idea why they think I’m a crime writer, but they do. And it took me a few years to beat that label. I think that my books tend to cross genres. I don’t write women’s fiction, I don’t write mystery, I don’t write romances, I don’t write legal drama. But I do write a little of all of those. And so it’s very hard to peg me in one genre only. And I think you do get into trouble when you start to peg me in one genre because the book covers so many more than that. It works for me when someone who only reads mysteries says, “Oh, my gosh, you’re my favorite writer because you’re a mystery writer.” And I’ll take that if that’s what it takes to have people read my books.
WOW: Right, right.
JODI: But I actually don’t like being pegged. If I were going to say that I had a genre, I would pick moral and ethical fiction, and there just aren’t a lot of people doing that.
WOW: That makes sense. One of the funniest characterizations of your work was somebody who called it Ovarian Gothic. Have you ever seen that?
JODI: I never heard that. Yes, I like that.
WOW: But as always, as you say, you write tragedy; there’s always a murder, a missing person. And the thing that sustains these books, which you cannot put down, I think, are the characters. The characters are just so real, and the fact that you allow us into their point of view, and even make a point of changing the typeface when you’re in the person’s point of view, is really the hallmark for me.
I’ll just say this much so our readers know: House Rules is about a teenage boy suffering from autism, or Asperger’s syndrome, which gives him a very special focus. And we get to know his mother, Emma, his brother Theo, but mostly this is about Jacob himself, the 18-year-old boy. How did you decide to write this and come up with this character?
JODI: It was sort of twofold for me. The first was that I just – I’m contradicting myself – tend to write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. And maybe this is the first book where I really haven’t done that, because this is a very ordinary circumstance. At this point, with one in 100 kids being diagnosed from the autism spectrum, a lot of families are living this life. And in a way the book is a testimony to people who are struggling every day to get their kid the help they need in schools, the placement they need in schools and to make their kids’ lives better in spite of the challenges that they face. So that’s one side of it. I have a cousin with autism, and when he was little I still remember my aunt going into public places with him and pinning him down when he had a meltdown, and having the store owners call the police on her or accuse her of child abuse. These things still happen to parents nowadays. The other side of it was that I was speaking to an attorney, when we were working on a different book together, and we talked about how the legal system works very well if you communicate a certain way. But if you don’t, it just goes to hell in a handbasket really quickly. And when you think about some of the hallmark behaviors of autism, like not looking someone in the eye, or having a nervous stimulatory tic, or having a flat inappropriate affect with your voice, all of those, to a law-enforcement officer, could look an awful lot like guilt.
WOW: Right. Let me explain to our readers and listeners that in this book, this Jacob, the 18-year-old boy who is suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, is accused of a murder.
WOW: And so all these conditions that you’re talking about make him seem guilty, and he may indeed be guilty. I also wanted to say that Jacob, who steals our hearts, is tremendously wise and brilliantly aware of his condition.
JODI: Yes, as are most kids with Asperger’s.
WOW: That’s so fascinating.
JODI: There are plenty of people with Asperger’s in the world today who are living normal lives and who are married, and working and integrating into society, and being completely productive. It’s very different than being on the very low end of the autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s just think differently and manage to get by.
WOW: Jacob is always relating facts with his photographic memory, or your photographic memory I guess – he can tell you anything. I remember a part in the book where he lists the other famous people who have been posthumously diagnosed with Asperger’s, like Einstein, and Andy Warhol, and who else? It’s wonderful to sort of get the insight into this character. I notice in your Acknowledgments you thank a lot of people — you do an enormous amount of research. A whole CSI team, and a legal team. How do you do this much research, plus write the book, plus now publicize the book, every year?
JODI: I don’t know.
WOW: How can you do that?
JODI: I just stay up all … 24/7. No, I actually think it’s about time management. I started writing, as you pointed out, when I had very tiny children. My first book was published when I was 25 and I had a newborn. And I’ve pretty much written a book a year since then. And at one point I had three children under the age of four and I was still writing a book every year, and taking care of them all day. And I learned how to budget my time pretty well.
So even now when I have more time during the day to write, I use it quite wisely. I’m very bad with downtime. If I find myself alone in the house and there’s nothing else to do, instead of sitting down in a hot bath I will usually find something that I need to do, or go write another chapter, or something like that. I’m not just a Type-A, I’m a Type-A-plus.
WOW: Right you are. And what does your family think of this? How does your husband and your three kids feel about it?
JODI: I don’t think I could do what I do if they weren’t as supportive as they are. My kids at this point, they’ve gotten used to it. To them I am not a New York Times bestselling author; I’m the lady who tells them to clean up their rooms. I’m just “mom” to them, although they do all read my books now, which is a little different. And my husband, honestly, has been the greatest help to me because, although I can write a book and take care of my children, because I managed to do that on their time schedule, I can’t go away for three months of the year and publicize a book without his help. And his work has been reformatted so that he can stay home and he can watch the kids when I’m not there too. And that’s an enormous thing; to have an anchor underneath you when you’re soaring is really important.
WOW: Oh, you are blessed.
JODI: I am.
WOW: How wonderful. Well can I also, as a final thought about the book, say that – I feel this about all your books – when it’s over, it’s just really begun. You don’t stop thinking about it, and then you don’t stop thinking about the world we were just in. And particularly in House Rules, for reasons that I can’t reveal, I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
JODI: Yes. And the interesting thing about that is, again, it’s going to catch you up. If you’ve been thinking about this as a mystery, you’ll read that last page and realize, “Well, that really wasn’t what the book was about, was it?” There is a heartfelt conclusion here, and an emotional conclusion, and probably the person who learns the most in this book is Emma, who is Jacob’s mom. But ultimately this family is not going to have its life wrapped up in a neat, tidy little bow. It’s going to be dealing with these issues forever, and I think it would have been a little too simple to tie it up neatly. And I’d much, much rather leave someone thinking when they turn that last page. Anyway, I think that’s the hallmark of a great book.
WOW: Well, I agree, and now I’m stuck thinking of it forever. Well, I want to thank you. It has been so pleasant to meet you.
JODI: Oh, thank you.
WOW: And I continue, as does our entire wOw community, to wish you continued. Thank you.
JODI: Thank you so much, Joni.