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I used to be much more impressive, since I wrote the majority of my books while I was raising my three kids. When they were growing up, my kids knew that they came first with me - which meant I would schedule tours, when possible, around school plays and softball games and ballroom competitions. It also meant that I was continually interrupted. After I wrote about eight books my husband became a stay-at-home dad. He carpooled, drove to and from school, attended skating practice, etc. so that I could go on tour for months at a time without batting an eye; or work through school pickup at 2:45 PM without breaking stride; or hie off on a research expedition without thinking twice. My husband’s choice to stay home was an amazing gift to me - a freedom and ability to write whenever I liked. But for many years, I had to squeeze in my work around child care schedules, and that made me develop a very firm discipline. I write quickly, but I also do not believe in writer’s block, because once I didn’t have the luxury of believing it. When you only have twenty minutes, you write - whether it’s garbage, or it’s good… you just DO it, and you fix it later.
I don’t work on weekends, usually (although I have been known to sneak up to an office when I’m in the middle of a chapter - I hate leaving my characters hanging!) But other than that, I’m a workaholic. I will start a new book the day after finishing a previous one. What you need to remember, however, is that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than writing. My kids know that I need it like some people need medication - as a preventative, because when I don’t write for a few days, I get predictably cranky. They’ve become used to sharing me with people who don’t really exist, but who are incredibly real to ME while I’m telling their stories.
Let me put it this way - I think I do, and I’m usually wrong. When I start a book, I juggle a what-if question in my head, and push it and push it until I feel like I have a good story. I figure out what I need to know and do my research, via the Internet or email or in some cases getting down and dirty (more on this later). I start to write when I come up with an excellent first line. And then I keep going, chapter by chapter, exactly in the order in which you’re reading it. Often, about 2/3 of the way through, the characters will take over and move the book in a different direction. I can fight them, but usually when I do that the book isn’t as good as it could be. It sounds crazy, but the book really starts writing itself after a while. I often feel like I’m just transcribing a film that’s being spooled in my head, and I have nothing to do with creating it. Certain scenes surprise me even after I have written them - I just stare at the computer screen, wondering how that happened. For example, the scene in The Pact where Melanie nearly runs Chris down with her car. Or in Keeping Faith, when Millie Epstein resuscitates. Or in Salem Falls, that last scene (don’t you dare peek ahead). When I was writing Plain Truth, I called my mom up one day. “You’re not going to believe what’s happening to Ellie!” I told her. I think she said I was scaring her and hung up. I know it seems a little unnerving, but I love the moments when my characters get up and walk off on their own two feet. In Sing You Home, one of the main characters did something VERY stupid that going to hurt him in the long run, although I kept telling him not to! And in Lone Wolf, I didn’t realize that Edward was gay until I saw a woman hitting on him in line at the cafeteria and he wasn’t interested in the least.
Yes. Even before I wrote a single word.
In more than a decade, every time I’ve been asked this, I always have said, “Oh, that’s like asking me to pick which kid I love the most!” or in other words, something I wasn’t ever going to do. But right now, I do have a personal favorite - Second Glance. I think it’s the most complex book I’ve written to date, and I am incredibly proud of the characters in there…some of whom I’ve never seen in fiction ever before. Plus, it addresses themes and concepts that are rarely discussed in fiction. There’s a real tendency when you write to think that Shakespeare did it all, and that we just recycle it…so when you feel like you’ve broken new ground as a writer, it’s a big deal. For all those reasons, I think Second Glance is my biggest accomplishment to date.
Nine months. Stop laughing. I don't know why it takes me the same amount of time to deliver either a book or a baby, but there you have it. Sometimes the amount of research vs. rough-drafting varies, but it generally takes three-quarters of a year for my head to gel ideas into a cohesive story. Often, I work on more than one book at once. I may be touring for Perfect Match, for example, while editing Second Glance, and writing a new book. It's like windows on a computer - several are open at once. It also means I'm usually about three books ahead of myself; I am currently writing SMALL GREAT THINGS, the book that will be published next.
My mom and my agent. I take their comments and incorporate them into the next draft… and do a hefty edit. And another… and another…
Usually, a what-if question: what if a boy left standing after a botched suicide pact was accused of murder? What if a little girl developed an imaginary friend who turned out to be God? What if an attorney didn't think that the legal system was quite good enough for her own child? I start by mulling a question and before I know it, a whole drama is unfolding in my head. Often, an idea sticks before I know what I'm going to do with it. For Mercy, I researched Scottish clans without having a clue why this was going to be important to the book. It was only after I learned about them that I realized I was writing a novel about the loyalty we bear to people we love. Sometimes ideas change in the middle. The Pact was not a page-turner when I conceived it. I was going to write a character driven book about the female survivor of a suicide pact, and I went to the local police chief to do some preliminary research. “Huh,” he said, “it’s the girl who survives? Because if it was the boy, who was physically larger, he’d automatically be suspected of murder until cleared by the evidence.” Well, I nearly fell out of my seat. “Really?” I asked, and the character of Chris began to take shape. Sometimes I write books because other people make the suggestion: Plain Truth came about when my mother said I ought to explore the reclusive Amish. "If anyone can learn about them,” she said, “it’s you.” And sometimes, ideas grow out of the ones I’m researching. That happened with My Sister's Keeper - information I learned while researching Second Glance so fascinating to me that I stuck it into its own file and turned it into a story all its own.
Meticulously. I hate catching authors in inaccuracies when I’m a reader, so I’m a stickler when I’m writing. At this point, I have several folks on call for me during a book - a few lawyers, a couple of psychiatrists, some doctors, a pathologist, a DNA scientist, a handful of detectives. When I start researching, I read everything I can about a topic. Then I meet with an “expert”. Some things are harder to find out about than others - getting the head of launch operations at NASA to fit me into his schedule, for example; or making a series of connections that landed me in the home of an Amish farmer for a week. These are some of the things I’ve done in the name of research: Watched Sly Stallone on a movie set (for Picture Perfect); observed cardiac surgery (Harvesting the Heart); gone to jail for the day (The Pact); milked cows on an Amish dairy farm (Plain Truth); learned Wiccan love spells and DNA testing procedures (Salem Falls); explored bone marrow transplants (Perfect Match); gone ghost hunting (Second Glance). For Vanishing Acts, I spent time in a hardcore Arizona jail, and met with both detention officers and inmates (learning, among other things, how to make my own zip gun and the recipe for crystal meth); and went to the Hopi reservation to attend their private katsina dances. For The Tenth Circle, I trekked to the Alaskan tundra to visit a remote Eskimo village and to follow a dogsled race on a snowmobile – in January, when it was -38 degrees Fahrenheit. For Lone Wolf, I spent time with a man who lived in the wild with a wolf pack for a year – and got to meet some other wolves he has in captivity. For The Storyteller, I spoke with the real-life head of the department of justice division that tracks down Nazi war criminals. For Leaving Time, I spent time in Botswana with elephant researchers, at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, and with Chip Coffey – a wonderful psychic!
Amazingly, through the Internet. After posting a query on a Lancaster County message board, I got a response from a lovely Mennonite woman, with whom I struck up a research relationship. After many email queries, she suggested I come visit the area and volunteered to find me some Amish friends to stay with. I was there for a week, milking at 4:30 AM and participating in the morning Bible study, as well as helping out with the cooking of meals. I quickly learned that the Amish aren't the one-dimensional characters they're made out to be - like us, there are good people and bad people, tolerant people and intolerant people, lenient people and more exacting people. Just because we grow up taught to live our lives differently doesn't necessarily mean our way is better.
Yup. I’ve been to Death Row in Arizona, twice now. It’s a very strange place – in all the years I’ve been doing research, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a cloud of secrecy like the one I found there. I was literally on a plane when my visit was being nearly cancelled – I had to arrive at the facility and talk my way into it, because they decided if I was a writer, I must be “media”. I was able to charm the authorities into giving me a tour of their death row – which is more serene than you’d think, because the inmates are locked into their individual cells 23 hours a day. Then I begged to be taken to the execution chamber – the Death House, as it used to be called in Arizona. It was while I was examining their gas chamber (Arizona uses both gas and lethal injection) that the warden approached me to ask me again who I was, and why I was writing a book about this. She definitely had her guard up – and wasn’t budging an inch. We started talking about the last execution in Arizona; and at some point she mentioned she was a practicing Catholic. “If you’re Catholic,” I said, “do you think the death penalty is a good thing?” She stared at me for a long moment, and then said, “I used to.” From that moment on, the wall between us came down, and she was willing to tell me everything I wanted and needed to know – including scenes you’ll see in this book in 2008, a backstage look at how an execution happens. The most jarring moments in my research trip? Speaking to a condemned man – who was convicted of murdering someone by shooting battery acid into his veins – yet who also called me Ma’am and cried when he started to talk about his late grandfather. And talking to the warden in the death house, when I was having trouble juggling notebooks and papers, and leaned against the closest surface to take notes more easily…only to realize I was sprawled across the lethal injection gurney. The counterpart of the research I’ve done on death row involves holing up in my office wading through the gospels for research…not just the ones that made it into the Bible, but the ones that didn’t, like the Gospel of Thomas – a gospel found in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Like the other 51 texts found at Nag Hammadi, they contain a lot of sayings you can find in the Bible…and a lot you won’t. These are referred to as the Gnostic gospels – part and parcel of a religious movement that was denounced as heresy by Orthodox Christianity in the middle of the second century. Gnosis means knowledge in Greek – and the basis for their beliefs is that if you want to know God, you have to know yourself. Or in other words, there’s a little bit of divinity in all of us, coded and hidden…and it’s up to each of us to figure out how to get it out. The Gnostics felt that religion was something that by definition had to be personal – and that if you simply believed what others told you to believe or said the right words during a church service or just got baptized, it wasn’t enough to reach spiritual fulfillment. Above all else, the Gnostics said, ask questions. Don’t believe everything you’re told; don’t assume that just because someone says “This is the way it should be done” that he or she is right. There are a lot of good reasons – political and religious – why Orthodox Christianity rejected the Gnostic movement…but something else was lost along with those gospels – the belief that people might reach spiritual enlightenment in a variety in ways, rather than one “right” way. “If you bring forth what is within you,” Jesus says, in the Gospel of Thomas, “what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Sounds like a riddle, right? But it’s actually pretty simple: The potential to free yourself – or ruin yourself – is entirely up to you. Which gets pretty interesting when you’re talking about a condemned man who happens to think that donating his heart to the sister of his victim is the way to save himself.
That’s my friend Ellen Wilber. She and I wrote the songs (she composes the music, I wrote the lyrics.) She’s a bluegrass and jazz musician, a long-time music teacher, and one of my best buddies. Together we’ve also written original musicals for teens to perform – including TWO that WERE recently published and ARE available for licensing, Over The Moon & “Love At First Bite”.
Download / listen here: Sing You Home soundtrack
I really thought I was pretty brilliant, creating a character like Luke Warren, who studies wolves by living with them. Then I found out a real guy was actually DOING that. At that point, it became my mission to meet him. Thankfully Shaun Ellis was more than happy to meet me, to introduce me to the multitude of captive packs he now works with in Devon, England, and to share his expertise. Everything Luke says - and everything I learned - comes directly from Shaun's life, and a good number of Luke's tight scrapes are borrowed from Shaun's actual experiences in the Rockies living with a wild pack. The ones that really stay with me are the time he went hunting with the pack in winter, and the alpha directed the wolves to suck on icicles. He had thought maybe the other wolves were becoming dehydrated sitting in the snow waiting to make the kill…but it didn't seem right to him. Then he realized that the alpha had planned for wind direction so that the prey couldn't smell them lying in wait; that the alpha had set up the ambush perfectly, but that due to the cold weather, the prey would be able to see the breath of the wolves in the hollow where they were hiding. By getting the pack to suck on the icicles like lollipops, she prevented that. The second story Shaun told me that affected me deeply was a time that his wolf brother suddenly went ballistic, snapping at him and backing him into a hollowed out tree. Shaun was terrified and sure the wolf was going to kill him, although up till this point the wolf had been very accepting of his presence - and that he had assured his own death by forgetting he was still with wild animals. After about three hours of snapping and snarling, the wolf suddenly went placid again and let Shaun out from the tree. That was when Shaun noticed the scat and the claw marks of a grizzly. The wolf hadn't been trying to kill him -- it had been saving his life. When I went to Devon, Shaun had just had surgery and couldn't enter the pens because the wolves would have ripped off his bandage and licked the wound clean -- so instead, I had to meet his wolves with a fence between us. Unlike normal visitors, though, I was brought through the first fence (there are two) and got close enough for the wolves to get used to my scent and to rub up against my hands. They can sense your heart rate going up and a tester wolf will turn around and nip through a fence, so you still have to be pretty careful and calm! I also got to feed the wolves by lobbing rabbits to them; and yes, Shaun taught me how to howl. It was pretty remarkable to learn the song - and it really IS that, a song. I played the alpha, my son was the beta, and my publicist the numbers wolf. We each had a particular "part" in the harmony, and when we all began to howl our individual parts together, all of a sudden a plaintive howl rose from the six individual packs a short distance away -- each of them giving their location in response to the one we had offered them. It felt like we were having a conversation.
THE STORYTELLER book actually began with another book – Simon Wiesenthal’s THE SUNFLOWER. In it, Mr. Wiesenthal recounts a moment when, as a concentration camp prisoner, he was brought to the bedside of a dying Nazi, who wanted to confess to and be forgiven by a Jew. The moral conundrum in which Wiesenthal found himself has been the starting point for many philosophical and moral analyses about the dynamics between victims of genocide and the perpetrators…and it got me thinking about what would happen if the same request was made, decades later, to a Jewish prisoner’s granddaughter.
Naturally, this research was among some of the most emotionally grueling I’ve ever done. I met with several Holocaust survivors, who told me their stories. Some of those details went into the fictional history of my character, Minka. It was humbling and horrifying to realize that the stories they recounted were non-fiction. Some of the moments these brave men and women told me will stay with me forever: such as Bernie, who pried a mezuzah from his door frame as the Nazis dragged him from his home, and held it curled in his fist throughout the entire war – so that it took two years to straighten his fingers after liberation. Or how his mother promised him that he would not be shot in the head, only the chest – can you imagine making that promise to your child?! Or Gerda – who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and who survived a 350 mile march in January 1945 – because, she told me, her father had told her to wear her ski boots when she was taken from home. Or Mania, whose mastery of the German language saved her life multiple times during the war, when she was picked to work in office jobs instead of in hard labor; and who told me of Herr Baker, her German boss at one factory, who called the young Jewish women who were assigned to him Meine Kinder (my children) and who saved his workers from being selected by the Nazis during a concentration camp roundup. At Bergen Belsen, she slept in a barrack with 900 people and contracted typhoid – and would have died, if the British had not come then to liberate them.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing the director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy in the Human Rights & Special Prosecutions section of the Department of Justice – a real-life Nazi hunter. Lest you wonder why this topic is still important, even after nearly 70 years – I will leave you with a story he told me. Years ago, after extensive work, his department finally was ready to question an 85 year old man who had been a Nazi guard and who was now living in Ohio. He refused to come in for questioning, so law enforcement professionals surrounded his house. He came outside with a gun. As the police lifted their own weapons he said, “Why you shoot at me? I not Jew.” Seventy years may have passed, but prejudice is alive and well.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a letter from a fan asking me whether I would ever consider creating a sanitized, simplified version of My Sister’s Keeper or The Pact or Nineteen Minutes for young adults. Each time I wrote back, saying that I wouldn’t. I have always written adult fiction and I’ve always been delighted that so many young adults have found their way to my stories when they are emotionally ready to do so. After all, I used to joke, after you’ve read all the Harry Potter books, what’s next!? I have also gotten letters from parents asking me how old their child should be before reading one of my stories. The answer is: it differs for every kid. Some are more ready for the very intense content of my books, some parents prefer that their child not be exposed to swearing or to sex scenes or to violence. Any kid who isn’t ready for my novels will, eventually, grow up and can tackle them then. The whole YA label, in my opinion, is a shifting one. Many YA novels these days are hungrily read by adults (The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, The Twilight series) and many adult novels are enjoyed by adolescents.
So why did I set out to write a YA novel – one that is considerably lighter than the subject matter I usually cover? In part, because my daughter Sammy conceived the idea and suggested we write it together. But also because I’d like to give young readers who aren’t ready for my “heavier” novels a chance to still enjoy my fiction. To me, Between the Lines is a great fit for preteens and younger teens who may not be quite ready to tackle moral and ethical dilemmas in fiction. There are characters their own age, feeling feelings they have probably felt. As in my other novels, the teens in the book seem very real – they talk and act like adolescents (I know this, because I had a bonafide one co-writing with me!) So maybe the twelve year old who reads Between the Lines and loves it will want, next year, to pick up a copy of My Sister’s Keeper…and continue walking on that bridge to adult fiction.
But the other reason I wanted to dip my toe into YA waters is because I know what it’s like, as a mom, to share an author you love with a child. Alice Hoffman, who is my all time favorite writer, could rewrite the phone book and I would buy it. In triplicate. I have loved her novels for years, but when Sammy was twelve or thirteen and itching for more substantial books, I didn’t feel like she could hunker down with one of Alice’s adult novels yet, without feeling overwhelmed or missing half the story. Luckily for me, Alice had written multiple YA novels. The first one Sammy read was Aquamarine – and she adored it. She read Green Angel next. And then, one day, she pulled The Probable Future off my bookshelf. Now Alice has another fan for life.
I hope that moms who have read me forever will share Between the Lines with their daughters. And that you have as much fun reading it as Sammy and I had writing it.
Sammy and I wanted to know, too…which is why we wrote the sequel this summer. We may be biased, but we think it’s even better than the first. We hope to see it published next spring!
Ten years ago, Alice Metcalf was a researcher studying the reaction of elephants to grief – they are one of the few animals species that recognize and mourn for their dead, as humans do. Along with her husband, Thomas, she ran an elephant sanctuary – until one tragic night, an animal caretaker died in an accident and Alice disappeared, leaving behind only one witness: her three year old daughter, Jenna. Now, ten years later, Jenna is determined to find her mother – whom she believes would never leave her behind willingly. With the help of a publicly disgraced psychic, Jenna uncovers new information – and manages to convince the former detective in charge to reopen the case. This is a book about the lengths we go to for those who have left us behind; about the staying power of love; and about how three broken souls might have just the right pieces to mend each other. I won’t tell you much more, but I guarantee that when you finish, the first thing you’re going to want to do is reread the book.
Elephants actually experience grief. They’ve been known to break into research facilities and steal bones that scientists are working with, and bring them back to the site of the elephant’s death. For years after the passing of that elephant, the herd will return to the spot of its death to pay homage for a while – just hanging around there and getting quiet and somber and reflective before moving on. Also, what they say about elephants never forgetting – it’s true. They have relationships that last a lifetime. At The Elephant Sanctuary in TN, an elephant named Jenny was living peacefully when a new elephant, Shirley, arrived. When Shirley came into the barn that night, in the stall beside Jenny’s, Jenny began to pound at the bars between them, trying to get to Shirley. The caregivers eventually opened the gate between them and immediately Shirley and Jenny began to move in tandem – staying inseparable. When Jenny lay down to sleep, Shirley would straddle her, like a mother elephant would a calf. It turned out that when Jenny was a calf and Shirley was 30, they had both been at the same circus for a brief while. They had been separated for 22 years, but recognized each other.
SMALL GREAT THINGS is going to be about race in America, in the present day. It is a book that has pushed me the furthest into confronting my own unseen prejudices and privileges as a white woman in America. Too often, and too recently, we have seen acts of violence taking place that have a root of racism at their core…yet racism is never mentioned in the courtroom proceedings following. Think about the George Zimmerman trial, for example. Most people referred to it as the Trayvon Martin trial – yet Trayvon Martin was the deceased victim, and was not on trial – and racism was never mentioned as a motive for that shooting, although there was plenty of talk in the media about the terror factor of a dark-skinned boy in a hoodie. Why is race something both prosecutors and defense attorneys shy away from discussing in court? Why is a place like Ferguson, Missouri such a powderkeg, waiting for the right spark to ignite? Why would many whites tell you that racism isn’t as bad as it used to be…but people of color say differently? And in terms of publishing – why are books about modern day racism written usually by authors of color, while white writers choose the safer route of addressing racism from a historical perspective? The answer is because racism is the one conversation this country doesn’t want to have. It’s too scary, it’s hard, and we fear saying the wrong thing even if we are well-intentioned. Which is exactly why I think we need to start talking. I hope my book prompts that.
While my kids were in middle and high school, I spent my “down time” running a teen theater group. Every year my son Jake van Leer and I would write an original play, and my friend Ellen Wilber and I would write original music for it. We performed with a cast of forty and all proceeds went to charity. Two of these plays, Over The Moon and “Love At First Bite” are published and are available for licensing at www.playscripts.com. So if you are a teen who likes acting and singing, or a drama teacher or director looking for a fun, funny musical instead of the same old repertoire, check it out!
Proud. I am in excellent company. Judy Blume, Harper Lee, Alice Walker, JD Salinger, Stephenie Meyer, JK Rowling, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison – and dozens of other wonderful writers have had their books challenged by schools. I believe in the freedom to read anything and everything. I also think, sadly, that some parents who oppose high schools teaching a book like MSK believe that their children have never seen a swear word in print, or watched a movie with a violence or sex scene – or in other words, they are sorely out of touch with their own kids. If you read one of my books and all you can see is the foul language used by a character who’s a delinquent or a sex scene (which is in the book because it’s important to the story, i.e. date rape) then you are grossly missing the point. Why not instead read the book along with your child, and use it as a springboard for discussion about some of these tough or sensitive subjects?
Let’s start with The Pact. Given that a book is NEVER a movie, I thought that Lifetime, and director Peter Werner, did a wonderful job. They targeted the movie to Lifetime’s audience, which is why it was about the women and not the two teens; and they treated teen suicide with great care and honesty and openness. They also went out of their way as a network to raise awareness of teen depression by using the movie, and that’s an incredibly proactive thing to do. Now - that said - I also believe that forty different movies could have been made from that single book! This was just one of the options. Plain Truth fared a little better for die-hard fans of the novel, because it followed the book much more closely than The Pact. It was the highest rated Lifetime movie of 2004, so apparently a lot of other people enjoyed it too. Plus, it was great fun for my family to have a cameo as an Amish family. I really enjoyed the adaptation of The Tenth Circle – the acting was top notch and the director, Peter Markle, was intent on making sure that when you watch it, you are left with the same feeling you have when you read the book – and ultimately, it works beautifully as a cautionary tale about teen sexuality. Likewise I think Salem Falls was a good portrayal of the book…but unfortunately, the Lifetime network didn’t do a lot to promote it, so its viewership wasn’t what I’d hoped for!
I don’t know – are you a producer? :) Of all my books that’s the one that I think would be the best big screen movie – and that would most deeply impact teen culture in a positive way. But so far, the studios that have looked at it are too scared to show a school shooting on screen – although psychiatrists have shown that rather than inspire copycat violence, that sort of story might actually create discussion about bullying, and ultimately reduce it.
I sure hope so!
Some are available on iTunes.
I didn’t. It’s hard for people to believe, but when Hollywood adapts a movie to the screen, the author is pretty much at the bottom of the totem pole. You sell the rights and it’s like giving a baby up for adoption – you aren’t allowed to call daily and ask what she’s been fed for breakfast. Of course, you hope that the family you’re trusting with your baby is a good one, and that she’ll turn out well in the long run…but there are no guarantees. There was a lot of wonderful stuff in the movie version – most notably the performances, which I really enjoyed and by which I was really moved. There were some scenes added that weren’t in the book which I loved (the beach scene, for example). But the ending IS different. Although the director had indicated that he was going to keep my ending, in the end he did not hold true to his word. And if you think YOU were disappointed, well, you can imagine how I felt. However, the movie was a success for me, because it drove hundreds of thousands of new readers to my book – which hit the bestseller list again. Should you watch the movie? Sure! It’s still sad and sweet and beautifully acted. But that’s the beauty of a novel-to-film adaptation: if the screen version isn’t what you remember, you can always go back and reread it!
Alice Hoffman, Jo-Ann Mapson, Alice Hoffman, Anita Shreve, Ann Hood, Amy Tan, Diana Gabaldon, Alice Hoffman, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Emma Donoghue, Alice Hoffman, Jennifer Weiner, Susan Isaacs, Dan Chaon, Aimee Bender, Elinor Lipman, Chris Bohjalian, Ann Tyler, and Jane Hamilton. Oh, and did I mention Alice Hoffman?
CLOSE YOUR EYES, HOLD HANDS by Chris Bohjalian is absolutely beautiful. THE INVENTION OF WINGS, by Sue Monk Kidd, had pitch-perfect narratives. And I was gutted by the honesty in Rainbow Rowell’s YA novel, ELEANOR & PARK.
Hang on while I get on my soapbox. I hate being pigeonholed. I have always been called a women’s author, but 49% of my fan mail comes from male fans, and I think you can legitimately label my novels as legal thrillers, mysteries, romances, or plain old fiction. I think you can consider my books literary, because they make you think, or commercial, because they are a compelling read. Marketing departments like to label authors with just one tag, so that they know how to promote a book, but I think the best books straddle genres and attract a variety of readers. I’d like to think this is one reason my books appeal to people - because I give them something different every time.
It wasn’t a feud. I’ve never even spoken to Jonathan Franzen – who is a really talented guy. After he received two book reviews in one week from the NYT, I tweeted a fact, that the NYT tends to review male authors two days a week (Sunday and weekday) — twice as often as it typically reviews female authors. This is suspicious since the majority of book buyers are women. Did I mention this is a FACT? The media, however, misquoted this, creating stories that I hated Jonathan Franzen, that I was jealous, that he’d kicked my dog…you get the point. Jennifer Weiner, a wonderful, outspoken author, immediately came to my defense. It didn’t stop the media from deciding we were BOTH snarky and selfish and wanted better reviews. In reality, both Jen and I GET great reviews. And we both go out of our way to promote unknown writers– blurbing their books, blogging and tweeting about them. Furthermore, Mr. Franzen actually agreed with us, stating that women writers do not get the same sort of coverage that men do. The moral of this story? Don’t believe everything you read in the paper. Sometimes a mountain is made out of a molehill by the media because they’ve got nothing else to write about.
I’ve won many, actually – from the Margaret Alexander Edwards award for young adult literature to Cosmo magazine’s Fun Fearless Fiction award – but chances are I’m not ever going to be holding a Pulitzer. For reasons I don’t really understand in this country, literary fiction is considered intelligent, and commercial fiction is considered successful, and rarely the twain shall meet. I believe that there is some really bad literary fiction out there, and some really brilliant commercial fiction, and that these are pretty arbitrary lines that have been drawn by the panelists who judge the National Book Awards, for example. Of course, I’d be thrilled if I was proven wrong!!
Let's just say I am the world's worst friend. Tell me something and it's likely to end up in a character's mouth. A disagreement I had with my husband became a pivotal scene in The Pact. For Perfect Match, I'd go to breakfast in the morning, take notes on what my kids said, and then go upstairs and transform their voices into the character of Nathaniel. I usually draw a plot out of thin air, but pepper the book with real-life conversations I have had in different contexts. My friends tell me that it's really strange to be reading one of my books and to find one's life sprawled across the page…
Spoiler alert – don’t read this answer if you haven’t read the book!!!
Spoiler alert – don’t read this answer if you haven’t read the book!!!
Spoiler alert – don’t read this answer if you haven’t read the book!!!
Spoiler alert – don’t read this answer if you haven’t read the book!!!
Spoiler alert – don’t read this answer if you haven’t read the book!!!
Spoiler alert – don’t read this answer if you haven’t read the book!!!
Spoiler alert – don’t read this answer if you haven’t read the book!!!
Spoiler alert – don’t read this answerif you haven’t read the book!!!
I worship at the altar of Shonda Rhimes: Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal are two of my favorites, and I can’t wait for the new show starring Viola Davis, who is such a damn good actress. I love Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project. Orphan Black – Tatiana Maslany deserves an Emmy. I watch the Bachelor/Bachelorette because it is like watching a train wreck – you just can’t turn away. I’m a big Game of Thrones fan, and recently I have become obsessed with the adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series. Well, okay, I’ve become obsessed with Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie. All I want in life is to be an extra on the set there.
There's no "Author Café" where we all meet on Wednesday nights. In fact, Janet Evanovich used to live in my hometown but I only met her once (although we did share a cleaning lady several years ago!) I am fortunate to count some terrific authors among my friends, but they are people that I've met through various speaking engagements or chance meetings. For the most part, however, writing is a very solitary process. There are several writers I’d love to meet – Stephen King, for one, because he’s been so gracious and said such lovely things about me, and frankly I’m still stunned he knows we live on the same planet; Anita Shreve, because I can’t believe we somehow haven’t met yet. Last year at the National Book Festival, I got to meet Judy Blume, which had me all a-flutter – she thanked ME for writing the kind of books that get banned (she’s a big advocate for free speech in literature); and John Irving (need I say more?) and John Grisham – who had the most heart-melting accent and who shook my hand and said, “Your books are all over my house.” Really, I could have died happy at that moment. Sometimes I write emails to authors whose books I’ve loved. Recently, Aimee Bender wrote me the loveliest comment about Second Glance, which she’d enjoyed. Whenever I get that sort of response from a writer I admire, I feel like I’m walking on air!
Oh, you'd know it. Real writers can't sleep because there are stories batting around inside their heads. Real writers create characters they weep over, because they are so real. Real writers can't NOT write. I think you can make a person a better writer technically by having him/her attend workshops and creative writing programs… but I think that at the basal level, writers are born, not made.
DO IT. Many people have a novel inside them, but most don't bother to get it out. Writing is grunt work - you need to have self-motivation, perseverance, and faith… talent is the smallest part of it (one need only read some of the titles on the NYT Bestseller list to see that… :) If you don't believe in yourself, and you don't have the fortitude to make that dream happen, why should the hotshots in the publishing world take a chance on you? I don't believe that you need an MFA to be a writer, but I do think you need to take some good workshops. These are often offered through writer's groups or community colleges. You need to learn to write on demand, and to get critiqued without flinching. When someone can rip your work to shreds without it feeling as though your arm has been hacked off, you're ready to send your novel off to an agent. There's no magic way to get one of those - it took me longer to find my wonderful agent than it did to get published! I suggest the Literary Marketplace, or another library reference material. Keep sending out your work and don't get discouraged when it comes back from an agent - just send it out to a different one. Attend signings/lectures by authors, and in your free time, read read read. All of this will make you a better writer. And – here’s a critical part – when you finally start to write something, do not let yourself stop…even when you are convinced it’s the worst garbage ever. This is the biggest caveat for beginning writers. Instead, force yourself to finish what you began, and THEN go back and edit it. If you keep scrapping your beginnings, however, you’ll never know if you can reach an end.
I’m not a fan, yet. What a brick-and-mortar publisher brings you is the marketing and connections to bring attention to your book – not to mention placement in stores for foot traffic. What good does it do you to upload your book to Kindle, for example, if no one ever knows it’s there? There is also still a stigma, I think, for those who go the e-pub route – it’s seen as “giving up” instead of sticking it out through the rejections that most beginning writers get. Plus, think about the great success stories of e-publishing. Amanda Hocking and E. L. James had plenty of success with their e-books and plenty of people knew they existed. But they all chose to also sign a traditional publishing contract. If e-publishing was the bomb, wouldn’t they have just stuck with that? Now, there are times when self-publishing or publishing on demand makes sense. Say you have a great story and you want it on paper and you want your closest friends and family to read it. Definitely self publish, and print the number of copies you want. But if you’re in this for the long haul and you want to be a writer, I recommend the old fashioned route: get an agent, and go from there.
No. There is a trend in publishing now where editors are literally trolling for successful ebooks they can then sign as traditional authors with hard copies. So get out there and canvass to sell your book. Go to libraries and meet with book clubs. Get word of mouth going. Tell your local bookstore you’ll give a free talk. Go to literary festivals. Make your book the buzz of the town, so that someone in publishing takes note.
I get asked to write someone’s life story about ten times a week – but I’ve never said yes. First, I have plenty of my own stories to write first! But second and more importantly – if I wrote the story, it would become MINE, not YOURS. I’d make changes, and alter characters – and it wouldn’t be what you’re looking for. For that reason I always encourage people to write their own stories. Even if you think you’re not a writer, you might find it therapeutic to get it all out of paper. THEN you can decide whether or not you want to publish it – or find a ghost writer to help you polish it. In the case of a life story, it’s usually the act of getting it onto paper that’s most important – and because of that, you should be the one to do it!
Yes! I love getting fan mail. Often, as a writer, you never know what your readers think of a book… you get critical reviews and sales figures, but none of that is the same as knowing you've made a person stay up all night reading, or helped them have a good cry, or really touched their life. The best part of this web site is the accessibility fans have to me via email. Please email me and tell me what you thought of the book you read! The letters come right to me, and I always answer.
Yup…I don’t have an assistant. It’s me!
I wish I could…but I can't honor every request, and it's not fair to pick some instead of others. I used to compromise with phone chats, but then a magazine mentioned that and I had to quit, after scheduling fifty in one weekend. However, if your book club discusses one of my books and has any lingering questions, you can email me (see above) and I will do my best to answer them. And I LOVE meeting entire book groups at my signings - if you schedule a field trip to one of my events, you can ask me all your questions in person there!
I do, but unfortunately, I have to charge a pretty hefty amount for my time. (I get about 35 requests per week to do that sort of thing, and if I said yes to everyone, I’d never have the chance to write another book, much less see my kids…) I also book about a year in advance. You can contact Arlynn Greenbaum if you want to know more about fees/availability.
Book donations can be requested by contacting Susan Corcoran, at Simon and Schuster. Donations are at the discretion of the publisher.
I'm always happy to sign books for fans. Send your book, along with a self-addressed-stamped envelope and return postage, to Jodi Picoult, PO Box 508, Etna, NH 03750. Make sure you include a note stating how you'd like the book made out (i.e. To Susie, To Aunt Fran, Merry Christmas Darling…) International readers: you have to send AMERICAN currency that’s enough to cover the cost of shipping back the book – ask your postal office how much that will be, and make sure you specify whether you want it to come back via air, sea, land, snail. DO NOT SEND INTERNATIONAL MAIL VOUCHERS!!! (If you want a signed photo, send a pre-stamped self addressed 10x13 envelope to me, along with a note requesting the photo and how you’d like it signed.)
I was born in NY, in suburbia on Long Island. The houses all looked the same and were called the Storybook development. Self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps? I went to public school and had some great English teachers who encouraged me to write – and to apply to Princeton University, which had one of the best undergraduate creative writing programs in the US. I got accepted and worked there with Mary Morris, primarily (an amazing writer!). I truly believe if not for Mary, I wouldn’t be a writer today.
A writer. For real. It was my dream, but I never imagined it would happen. At first I didn’t care if anyone ever read myt stuff; I just wanted to see it in print. But even when I was thirty and published I dreamed of writing books that sold well enough to actually contribute to my family income (which took much longer than you’d imagine!)
That what matters the most for your future is finding a career that will help you support your family. I know now that you should follow what you love. The money somehow will come, if you have that passion for your work.
GONE WITH THE WIND, because when I read it at age 12 I thought that maybe I could do the same, and create a whole world out of words; THE GREAT GATSBY, because it was my first experience with an unreliable narrator and since then I’ve loved playing with the dichotomy between what the reader knows and what the narrator knows; THE SUN ALSO RISES, because of Hemingway’s parity of language and the way he constantly reminds us there are some topics and emotions that cannot be explained in mere words.
Because this story demanded it. I write original musicals, too, which are performed by a teen theater group to raise money for charity, but they are usually of a very different mood/tone. The nice thing about a novel is that it allows you to raise a topic many people don’t want to explore (really, do you want to pick up a nonfiction book about end-of-life care??) However, by living vicariously through the experiences of the characters, the reader can find him/herself learning something personally relevant.
Edward Warren, 23, has been living in Thailand for five years, a prodigal son who left his family after an irreparable fight with his father, Luke. But he gets a frantic phone call: His dad lies comatose in a NH hospital, gravely injured in the same accident that has also injured his younger sister Cara. Cara, 17, still holds a grudge against her brother, since his departure led to her parents’ divorce. In the aftermath, she’s lived with her father – an animal conservationist who became famous after living with a wild wolf pack in the Canadian wild. It is impossible for her to reconcile the still, broken man in the hospital bed with her vibrant, dynamic father. With Luke’s chances for recovery dwindling, Cara wants to wait for a miracle. But Edward wants to terminate life support and donate his father’s organs. Is he motivated by altruism, or revenge? And to what lengths will his sister go to stop him from making an irrevocable decision? LONE WOLF looks at the intersection between medical science and moral choices. If we can keep people who have no hope for recovery alive artificially, should they also be allowed to die artificially? Does the potential to save someone else’s life with a donated organ balance the act of hastening another’s death? And finally, when a father’s life hangs in the balance, which sibling should get to decide his fate?
I don’t always expect them to change their minds about a controversial issue, but I hope they’ve listened to the other side’s point of view, and asked themselves why they believe what they do.
Alice Hoffman, because she makes writing about love look so incredibly easy. And Yann Martel, because I wish I’d written the Life of Pi.
I’ve been so lucky in my career that I have achieved many of my personal goals for my writing. I would love to have a movie adapted WELL from one of my books (notice I don’t count My Sister’s Keeper as evidence of that). I’d like to be interviewed on a morning wakeup TV show in America (they don’t think fiction writers have anything to say.) And I’d like to see more women reviewed in general by literary outlets like the New York Times and National Public Radio – there is a gender disparity in my country.
Write, every day. Even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Don’t answer the phone, don’t talk to your mother, etc. Take a workshop writing course, so you learn to give and get criticism and be your own best editor. And when you reach the point where you think your story is truly the worst piece of garbage created and want to throw it out…don’t. What you’re REALLY afraid of is finishing and finding out you’re not as good as you assumed you are. Instead, you should finish that story and edit it until it is flawless, and something you’re satisfied with. Otherwise, you’ll never believe you can actually finish any piece of fiction. And read. A ton. It will inspire you to be just as clever, prolific, and eye-opening as the authors you admire.
I used to move my books to more prominent places in the bookstore – like on top of James Patterson’s piles – when I was first starting out. Better yet, I trained all my relatives to do the same.
Find Hugh Jackman and convince him that he cannot live without me in his life?
Cheesy, I know, but I can’t NOT write. When I stop writing for a while it feels like a monkey on my back. The ideas just swim around my head, making me all cloudy and very crabby. I have to get this stuff out of me, or else it’s a very uncomfortable feeling. I think for me writing is a way to find answers to huge questions that I find myself mulling over as a mom, a wife, a woman.
I haven’t really had an embarrassing writing moments, but I do have an embarrassing writer moment. I was at a spa, in a sauna, when a woman came in with one of my books and asked me if I was Jodi Picoult, and if I’d sign it. Needless to say, I did not have a pen on me. Good rule of thumb: If your favorite author is naked…wait till she’s clothed before you ask for her autograph!
Driving. I zone out and find myself organizing my plot or sometimes coming up with turns of phrase I want to remember. So I write them on my arm as I drive, because I lose pieces of paper, but I don’t lose my arm. I used to write on my kids’ arms too, sometimes, but they’re too old now and won’t let me!
Where the Wild Things Are.
Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country
Most of my own, while I’m writing them.
The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks.
Anything by Alice Hoffman
In no particular order: The Great Gatsby, for its unreliable narrator; The Sun Also Rises, because unrequited love is the greatest story of all; Turtle Moon, because it was my first Alice Hoffman book; To Kill a Mockingbird, because it has the best heroine, and a healthy dose of controversy; and The Paper Bag Princess – a wonderful little picture book I used to read my daughter, about a princess whose kingdom is burned by a dragon, who also carries off her fiancé, Prince Ronald. The princess conquers the dragon while wearing a paper bag – with her wits, instead of strength –and rescues Ronald. When she finds him he says disdainfully that she doesn’t look much like a princess, in her paper bag. She replies that he looks like a prince, but he’s a bum – and she leaves on her own, happily ever after.
The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks.
Gone with the Wind. I memorized huge passages when I was twelve and pretended to be both Rhett and Scarlett (hence I had no boyfriend till I was 15…) I loved that Margaret Mitchell had created a world out of words, and I wanted to do the same thing.
My office, which is home – in the attic.
TOTALLY word processor – I type faster than I write.
Scout, from To Kill A Mockingbird.
Shakespeare. He told all the stories, the rest of us just recycle them.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.
Uxorious: excessively fond of one’s wife
Before I was a writer, I worked on Wall Street, writing bond offering circulars for Standard and Poor & Moody’s. I also worked at a two person ad agency; and as a textbook editor. I taught creative writing in a private school and 8th grade English in a public school. Of the jobs I WISH I had tried: forensic detective (they do what I do, create a story out of details, but theirs are real) and pastry chef – if I made you my French Apple Almond tart, you might think it’s just as good as one of my books!
A poem in my grandparents’ community newspaper in Bayside, NY when I was seven.
When I'm with my kids and husband.
My work ethic, and the fact that I've gotten to where I am without making enemies along the way.
I wish my voice was good enough to take my singing out of the car and into public realm, but let's just say that it's probably better for ALL of us that I'm a writer.
Alice Hoffman, Anne Tyler, Sue Miller, Chris Bohjalian, Jacquelyn Mitchard
A tie: Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises, because unrequited love is the saddest story there is. And Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With the Wind - because she is tough as nails and thinks she knows everything, but still has an Achilles heel (her heart) that makes her realize she doesn't know anything important at all.
A person who cannot stop asking, "What if?"
That people expect me to be some kind of celebrity when they meet me. I get tons of letters asking my "staff" to forward emails to me -- well, I have looked all over my house and can't seem to find this staff...! Maybe it's because I'm a mom equally as much as I'm a writer, but I'm probably a lot more ordinary than most people think. Also, that the more successful you are, the most you have to realize it's a double-edged sword. You want to ride the wave of success while it's here...but that means time away from home, from my kids.
Patience. I could have written a quick genre novel, or tailored my books to be more like the bestsellers that were out there...but instead I chose to write the books I wanted to write, and let readers accrue by telling their friends what they were missing. You don't have to compromise what's important to you, in order to succeed.
After college, instead of going to work right away, I would have traveled around the world. (After, apparently, winning the lottery to finance that...)
"My bad." It's a slacker phrase, that just rubs me the wrong way. And "God Bless the United States of America." Why just us? Why not the whole world?
My husband. The movie "Dumb and Dumber." And Bill Bryson's books.
There's a coin I wear around my neck. My husband got it for me -- it's from Greece, circa 500 BC. On one side is Athena, to represent wisdom, and on the other, Pegasus, to represent creativity. I never take it off.
Only if you're doing it not to assuage your own conscience, but the other person's. (Like, for example, when your child is scared to go to nursery school the first day, and you tell him you know he's going to have a great time, when in fact you're just as scared about him fitting in as HE is...you get my drift...)
My three children. My life has been changed completely by each and every one of them, for the better.
Gosh, I hope not. I still sleep with teddy bears, and on my fortieth birthday, I wore a plastic tiara the whole day.
Free time? What's that? Seriously, though...I spend a lot of time driving my kids from one place to another ; I write a children's play annually that is performed by middle school kids (my own and their friends); I kayak; I bake; I read.
My mother, who told me I COULD be a writer, and Mary Morris, my mentor teacher from Princeton, who taught me HOW to be a writer.
A really bad roast beef sandwich! We were en route to pick my middle child up at a sleep away hockey camp!
To change the world, one mind at a time.
books that make you think hard about questions that don't have easy answers.
Where the Wild Things Are.
chocolate is to food: or in other words, something to be savored.
there's music playing in the background.
tall and skinny.
Gone with the Wind.
The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards
The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks.
am a mom.
I write the last line of a book.
I'm stuck in an airport.
Scout, from To Kill A Mockingbird
My son Jake, who has had eleven surgeries.
Travel -- I don't mind paying for a trip that I know will last a lifetime in memory for my family.
The coin I wear around my neck. It's from my husband, and it's Greek, from 500 B.C. Athena is on one side, for wisdom; Pegasus is on the other, for creativity.
Take the severance package (when the stock market crashed in 1987, and I left the Wall Street firm where I'd been employed.)
Oprah, Johnny Depp, and Emeril (if he cooks).
My children, my puppy, and my laptop…with whatever book I was currently writing on it.