Bestselling author Jodi Picoult ’87 answers questions from alumni this month. Her young-adult novel Off the Page, written with her daughter, Samantha van Leer, came out in May.
Where do you find inspiration for your writing? Are any of your characters based on real people?
Submitted by Joyce Lee ’17
My inspiration comes from “What if?” questions I can’t answer. I wonder, “What would I do in that situation? What if this parameter changed?” Often I write about controversial issues because I wish I had the answers to them, and the act of writing is my way of thrashing through an issue. Often, we form our beliefs at the knees of our parents, or because of our faith — but we don’t really challenge ourselves to hear what the other side might have to say. Ultimately, the writing of a book for me is a way to ask myself why my beliefs are what they are about a given situation. I may not change my mind about an issue, but I will likely have a better sense of why I believe what I do.
Can you talk about how your Princeton thesis adviser shaped your own writing and career trajectory? I listened to an interview where you discussed the move from literary to commercial writing. Do you think your writing has changed since your undergraduate years in this regard, or did you just decide to call it “commercial” and keep the literary style?
Submitted by Carter Greenbaum ’12
I was a sophomore at Princeton who’d been studying in the creative writing program — the poetry side. I decided I wanted to try my hand at fiction, and got placed in [former Princeton professor] Mary Morris’s class. Mind you, like most kids who get into Princeton, I was used to being pretty good at things … so on the first day of workshop when Mary was discussing my short story with the class, you can imagine how shocked I was when she gave me a glue stick, scissors, and construction paper and told me to sit on the floor in the center of student chairs, and to just do whatever was suggested. Then she asked the class: “Where does Jodi’s story REALLY start?” Some poor soul suggested page three. “Yes!” Mary said, and she ripped off pages one and two and tossed them aside. For the rest of the time my story was being workshopped, I cut and pasted and seethed. I left in tears, and gathered all my courage to go to Mary’s office hours the next day. I asked, “Why did you do that?” She said, “Because you needed it … and because you can take it.” Well, I was mad. I was so mad I edited that story and edited it and edited it until Mary suggested I send it somewhere. I was shocked — I mean, I was writing this for a class — but she told me to send it to Seventeen. I did, and three months later, an editor called me. It was my first published piece.
What really amazed me about Mary was that every time she offered me a suggestion, it was brilliant and perfect for my writing style. There are not many excellent novelists who are also excellent teachers; the default is to “teach” your own style to a student. Mary somehow managed to be both a phenomenal writer AND a remarkable, gifted teacher. We are still close friends, and I am immensely grateful to her for all she taught me.
As for literary versus commercial fiction — well, you DO know that’s an arbitrary construct created by marketing departments so they’d know how to best shelve books at bookstores, right?! I was taught to write in a literary vein, like most creative writing students. I don’t write any differently now, fundamentally, than I did back then. In fact I’d argue the topics I aim for are more complex and soul-searching, which is a hallmark of literary fiction. And yet, I’m squarely regarded as a commercial fiction writer. Why? Because I was given a choice when I started publishing to be pushed toward either a commercial track or a literary one. And I decided that I’d rather be read by a wider readership, which is one definition of commercial fiction. The size of the print run wasn’t going to affect the fact that I planned to write the best book I could — and it still hasn’t affected that fact, 20 years later.
I do believe that commercial fiction authors get pigeonholed. For example, I have heard The Storyteller described as chick lit, which is hilarious to me — there’s nothing wrong at all with chick lit, but it tends to be lighthearted and comedic and there’s nothing in my novel that qualifies — it is about the Holocaust, for God’s sake, and that’s not exactly a fluffy topic. Too often, “chick lit” actually means “written by a chick;” too often a man writing a book about women and their choices in love or what it means to be a family is lauded for his empathy and credited with writing the Great American Novel, where a woman writer who tackles the same plot will be awarded a pink cover and a spot on the romance shelf. Unfortunately, the prevalent belief is that if a book is commercially successful it must be poorly written. That’s no more true than the assumption that all literary fiction is brilliantly written. Now, clearly not all commercial fiction is fabulously crafted, but a good number of writers are masters of the art, and I’ve long said that today’s classics were yesterday’s commercial successes: Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens. Does anyone REALLY think that J.K. Rowling won’t be remembered 100 years from now?
I also believe that commercial fiction has the ability to address topics that readers shy away from in non-fiction — by “hooking” a reader with plot and character, you can very subtly move them from seeing the book as an entertainment ride, and instead have them turn the last page wondering what they might do in a similar situation. If the aim of literary fiction is to explore the human condition, then frankly I think commercial fiction is able to reach the same goals, on occasion.
I have been very vocal about this, as has Jennifer Weiner ’91. However, each moment we have used our wide readership to raise awareness about gender discrimination in publishing — and about the gap between literary and commercial fiction — we are roundly accused of being women who complain too much, or who just wish we had the same accolades that literary writers do. I think Jen would agree with me when I say that we’re not complaining, and we don’t wish for what our literary brothers and sisters have. We are both very happy with the trajectory of our careers, our success, and our readership. But we also believe that if you’re lucky enough in this business to be successful, you have a responsibility to help others step into the spotlight — and part of that means being brave enough (and loud enough) to point out valid biases in literature and injustices in the business of publishing.
To this end, I’ve longed wished that the creative writing program at Princeton — which I hold in the highest esteem for all it’s given me, and for its current remarkable staff — would be the groundbreaking institution that recognizes today’s students should have a choice in writing what they feel most comfortable in writing — commercial or literary fiction — and should have a rotating fellowship for a commercial fiction prof who teaches for six months. Who wouldn’t want to study at the knee of Stephen King, for example? What if you could take a course not just in poetry … but in writing young-adult fiction, or fantasy? And why not consider the craft of creative writing in tandem with the practice of the career — why not invite in publishers, agents, editors to teach creative writing students how to navigate the narrow path between academia and creative writing, and financially successful creative writing? I’m not suggesting that a creative writing program function as a trade school — but rather that commercial writers be seen for the contributions they are able to offer students in conjunction with literary writers, and for students to feel that there is more to writing than doing it in an ivory tower.
You just published your second young-adult novel, Off The Page, co-written with your daughter, Samantha van Leer. What is it like writing with your daughter, and how does it change your writing process?
Submitted by Katharine Boyer ’16
I’d been asked to write versions of my books for younger readers who might not be emotionally ready for some of the content of my grown-up novels, and I’d always said no — I’d rather tell the story the way I need to tell it, and have the child wait till he/she is ready to read it in that form, instead of a watered-down version. But the original story, Between The Lines, was 100 percent Sammy’s idea — it felt so different, and so relatable — who hasn’t had a wicked crush on a character in a book at some point? It felt rich enough to be a chapter book, and I was excited about the prospect of working with Sammy. She has always been incredibly creative, and she is a great writer.
We wrote every line together, sitting at the computer side by side, staring at the screen, taking turns speaking the next line out loud. We wrote around Sammy’s school schedule — on weekends and summertime. I think writing with Sammy has taught me several things — first, that even if she didn’t have the same level of experience I did, her raw instincts were so strong that often when I thought she was wrong, she was right. Second, that when you have a co-writer whose talent you respect, you find yourself being pushed harder by her to produce your very best work.
Jodi, has your family settled in northern New England? I’m a Vermonter and retired educator.
Submitted by Arvin R. Anderson ’59
Yes! We live in New Hampshire, in the town where there’s a rival Ivy League college … We love it here, and consider ourselves fortunate to have a home in a place that people vacation in three-quarters of the year.
What genres have you not tackled but would like to — poetry? sci-fi?
Submitted by Stewart A. Levin ’75
I used to write poetry, and I actually think that still informs my writing — on the line level, when I am working on a metaphor, I basically feel like I’m writing a line of poetry. I have even tackled sci-fi in a Neil Gaiman anthology. I never thought I’d write young-adult fiction until my daughter presented me with a brilliant idea and we decided to write it together. So I suppose the answer is — I haven’t really found a genre yet I would shy away from!
One thing I’ve long thought about is translating my books to the stage. The YA novels I wrote with my daughter, Between the Lines and Off The Page, felt like they sang to me when they were written — and so we have begun the process of turning them into a musical, hopefully headed for Broadway. Our producer is Tony Award-winning Daryl Roth; we have a terrific composer and a brilliant lyricist and a wonderfully collaborative book writer. I COULD have tried to write the adaptation myself, but the stakes are too high for me to learn on the job, so instead Sammy and I are just lucky enough to be given a chance to develop the creative process and give input and tweak what’s been written. It’s been a wild ride — and a wonderful one!
In doing research for your latest book, Leaving Time, did you do any traveling to observe elephants in sanctuaries or in the wild? As I read the book, I felt as if I was there at the compound, looking through the fence.
Submitted by Colleen Finnegan, PAW advertising staff
I was privileged to spend time at The Elephant Sanctuary [in Tennessee] — and I really do mean that, because the whole point of the sanctuary is that their elephants are no longer on display but in a lovely retirement setting. I was touched again and again by the elephants I met. For example, Sissy is an elephant who survived the 1981 Gainesville Flood by being submerged for 24 hours with only her trunk above water. When she got to the sanctuary, she was traumatized and took to carrying around a tire, like a child’s security blanket. Eventually, she bonded with an elephant named Tina and they were fast friends. But Tina died, and when she did, Sissy stayed with her — and then remained by her grave for a few days. Finally, she placed her tire on the grave — like a wreath — and left it behind, never to return to it — almost as if she believed Tina needed the comfort more, now.
Also at the sanctuary was an elephant with a terrific story of memory: Jenny lived at the sanctuary when Shirley was brought there, and that first night, in the barn, they kept roaring and banging on the gate between them, touching through the bars. Eventually the keepers opened the gate and let them into the same stall. They immediately touched each other all over, and when Jenny lay down to sleep, Shirley stood over her like a mom would. They were inseparable for years. As it turned out, they had been at the same circus when Jenny was a calf and Shirley was 30 years old. They’d been separated for 22 years but hadn’t forgotten each other.
I also had the remarkable opportunity to work with an elephant researcher in Botswana, tracking herds in the wild, much like Alice does in the book. I learned to track elephants by footprint, to tell them apart, and to observe their behavior and mannerisms. I also gathered stories about evidence of elephant cognition and the unbreakable bond of elephant relationships. For example, the researcher I worked with found a male juvenile whose trunk was caught in a snare. He wouldn’t survive without the trunk, so a decision was made to have the Wildlife Management folks euthanize him. The researcher drove the Wildlife Management worker to the elephant in a vehicle, but the worker was inexperienced and shot the elephant in the forehead instead of behind the ear. This left the elephant in even more pain, trumpeting. At that moment, a huge matriarch charged down the hill at the vehicle. This young male had been ejected from the herd already — he was in his teens — but his mother heard his distress and came running all the same. She stood over him, like a mother stands over a small calf for protection, until he died.
Elephants are among the few species in this world (including humans) that show cross-species empathy — they will help out another animal in distress even if there is no biological advantage. Their grieving rituals are remarkable too — an elephant will have a change in behavior if it comes across the bones of another elephant — getting quiet and reverential, and the tail and ears droop. Elephants will return to the site of a herd member’s death for years afterward, to stand quietly for a while before moving on. They have been known to break into research facilities and take bones of an elephant that are being used by a researcher, and to bring them back to the site of that elephant’s death.
For all of these reasons, it’s devastating to learn how threatened elephants are in the wild today. In Africa, 38,000 elephants are killed each year by poachers. Right now, the estimate is that in 10 years there will be no more African elephants. The price of an ounce of ivory has skyrocketed from $150 to $1,300, due to demand from the Far East. And lest you think poaching doesn’t matter here in the United States, every month one to three tons of ivory is poached by members of Al-Shabab, a terrorist group in Somalia with clear links to Al Qaeda.
Recently I returned to Botswana as part of a book tour for Leaving Time, and got to go out with this same researcher. We came across a feeding herd. One female had a calf that was no more than a week old. The calf was nursing; the mother was calm. We were so close we could hear the baby slurping and see milk on his chin. The level of trust that mother elephant must have had to let us come so close was mind-boggling. It really hammered home for me — if elephants can forgive humans, in spite of all the historical evils that have been perpetrated against them in the name of poaching — don’t we owe it to them now to speak out on their behalf when they need it?