Mothers Who Write: Jodi Picoult

by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.

Photo of Jodi Picoult
Author Jodi Picoult
"My jaw drops. I realize that lately I've been so busy flying by the seat of my pants and protecting Faith, I haven't had time to wonder whether I'm doing it right. This man, this horrible man who's barreled-uninvited-into our life, this man who does not know me from Eve, has imagined me as the person I've always wanted to be -- a fiercely loyal lioness, a natural mother."
--From Keeping Faith by Jodi Picoult

Thirty-eight year old New Hampshire resident Jodi Picoult is the mother of children who are still relatively young: two sons who are seven and nine, and one daughter who is age five. A graduate of Princeton University with a degree in English and Creative Writing, Picoult also completed a Master's in Education degree from Harvard.

After college, Jodi had jobs on Wall Street, in the field of textbook publishing, and at an advertising agency. Once she completed her graduate degree, she taught creative writing in high school. Her last stint was as an eighth grade English teacher, during which time she became pregnant with her first child and her first book. She used the year after that to finish Songs of the Humpback Whale (Faber & Faber, 1992).

She is the author of seven other novels: Harvesting the Heart, (Viking, 1993), Picture Perfect, (G.P.Putnam, 1995), Mercy, (G.P.Putnam, 1996) (named one of the top seven novels of 1996 by Glamour magazine, The Pact, (William Morrow, 1998), Keeping Faith, (William Morrow, 1999), Plain Truth, (Pocket Books, 1999), and Salem Falls, (Pocket Books, 2001).

In addition to her novels, Picoult writes regularly for Family Fun magazine, which is owned by the Disney Corporation and features articles about activities to do with your kids. She also dabbles in screenplays, and was co-author of the movie script for her novel The Pact. Last year she co-authored another screenplay which is currently on the market. She says writing scripts is a pleasant change because it is less solitary than writing a novel.

The Women's Review of Books says about Jodi Picoult, "Picoult has the true storyteller's ability to evoke a world on the page and pull the reader into it." The New York Times Book Review comments about Harvesting the Heart, "Jodi Picoult explores the fragile ground of ambivalent motherhood in her lush second novel. This story belongs to...the lucky reader." Kirkus Reviews calls The Pact " affecting story of obsession, loss, and some of the more wrenching varieties of guilt. A moving story, mingling elements of mystery with sensitive exploration of a tragic subject." Library Journal says of Picture Perfect, "Picoult writes with an all-knowing and piercing eye. Hers is an important book from a talented writer we hope to hear from again and again." Publishers Weekly says about Mercy, "Picoult pays loving attention to her central characters, fashioning a sensitive exploration of the balance of love." And USA Today noted that Keeping Faith, "Makes you wonder about God. And that is a rare moment, indeed, in modern fiction."

What inspired you to write?

Cover of Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult
The novel Gone with the Wind. I couldn't put it down! It's the first book I remember reading that made me realize words can create another world, and that fiction has a power to take us away. From that point on, I wanted to write, but didn't think I could make a living of it. Still, for me, writing is a matter of sanity. Even if no one ever read anything I wrote, I would still write.

It was much harder to stay inspired to get an agent. I ended up getting my agent the old fashioned way: I started out with a big agency and asked who was accepting agents, then sent out my thesis from Princeton. I would call and keep calling even after I got rejected, asking: "If it isn't right for you, who is it right for?" I got tons of rejections, but persevered; still, it took three years to get my agent, who turned out to be someone just starting out, too. We've been together for ten years now, and she is like a good friend. I also have a film agent.

It's a very hard business to break into, but selling fiction is like selling a house -- you just need one person to love it. If it takes you 3-5 years to get published, you're still ahead of the game.

How old were your children when you started to write?

There's never been a time when I've stopped writing. When I finish one book, I start a new one the next day. There's nothing I love doing more. When I'm writing one book, I have another in mind, in fact I could tell you what the next three books will be about. I was pregnant with the oldest when I wrote my first novel; he was born right before Song from the Humpback Whale was published. My second book is about balancing motherhood and work.

From a practical standpoint, how has being a mother affected your writing?

Cover of Keeping Faith by Jodi Picoult
Initially, my sleep suffered the most. I would be with kids all day long and would write until ten or eleven at night. I learned how to write quickly and efficiently, and have never had writers block. Anyone who has ever been pressed to write knows you don't have the luxury of wandering around waiting for your muse. Some days, I write pure dreck, but I can always edit that the next day. I just plough through and then go back and edit.

As soon as my kids were in school, I had daytime hours to write even though I was interrupted, taking one or the other to and from school at different times. I was writing plots on laundry tickets!

This year my husband decided to stay home and spend time with kids. He's in charge -- I went on a five week book tour and didn't leave a single note. I'm now much more relaxed, and can devote myself fully to the kids when I'm not writing.

Does it make your children uncomfortable to have a mother who is a writer?

They aren't old enough yet to feel uncomfortable. They are proud to have a book dedicated to them. What is really neat about them is they believe anything is possible. They see a mom with a wacky career that few people have and it makes them believe you can do anything you want. My middle child wrote a book when he was five and it was hilarious. Every now and then I take things from my middle child, or give my characters something my children said.

But I've never created a character who is someone I know. I take pieces of a character that come from people I know, and then characters become fully formed personalities of their own. It's almost harder to make characters just like people you really know.

Has there ever been something from your child's life you wanted to write about but didn't for privacy reasons?

Cover of Salem Falls by Jodi Picoult
I don't think there's been anything like that. When they were little I wrote children's books about them, which I would never publish. When I write about my children's lives, it's the emotions I express. Usually the fiction is really awful events that never happen to them.

There is a scene from Keeping Faith where the daughter is in the hospital, almost dying, and the mom says: "Take me." I have watched my son go through multiple surgeries, and have thought "Take me, instead." No matter what the situation, a mother knows what it's like to give up something for her kid.

Next year's book is about a mother who does all the right things for all the wrong reasons. Even though most of us haven't been in the situations my characters have, I often write about things we can recognize as possible.

I do a tremendous amount of research, and the book writes itself as I'm doing that. Right now I'm doing a ghost story and as I was doing the research for it, I uncovered a huge event, a eugenics project where they were sterilizing Indians and poor people from Vermont and hiding it. The book has ended up being about the past coming back to haunt you.

How did your own mother influence you as a writer -- if at all?

My mom kept my head on straight and encouraged my creativity. She is my benchmark reader. When I was a kid, in fifth grade I got put in a particular class where I had to write about what I did on my summer vacation. I wound up writing from the point of a piano being practiced on, and got an "F" because it was creative writing. My mother had my class changed because she recognized my creativity.

In college, I had my first story published in Seventeen and they wanted to pay me. I called my mom, and said: "Mom, I'm going to be a writer!" and she said: "Great, who's going to support you?" Writing is a career that many dream about but few get to actually do.

Any other thoughts on how being a mother has influenced you as a writer?

Motherhood makes you hyper-aware of relationships between people. Some of the biggest things I write about are what people do to each other in the name of love, and there's nothing like the mother-child relationship to put a spotlight on that. We wear blinders as moms, sort of unconditional love but with expectations. It's very hard to realize our children might not feel about us the way we think they should, or that children may not turn out the way you would like. That relationship lets you practice what you're writing about constantly.

I can't imagine not being a mother. If I wasn't a mother, I would still be writing about it from a single relationship. Most of my stories in college were about teenagers and boyfriends.

What are you working on now?

"In college, I had my first story published in Seventeen and they wanted to pay me. I called my mom, and said: "Mom, I'm going to be a writer!" and she said: "Great, who's going to support you?" Writing is a career that many dream about but few get to actually do."
An untitled ghost story. My next book, Perfect Match, is due out next April.

What are your writing habits?

Every morning, I get up at 5:30 AM and go walking with three girlfriends. It's the only time I can exercise, but really, I do it more to catch up on gossip. By 7:00 AM I'm back home, helping my kids get off to school. This year, for the first time, they are all in the same school.

I have about three hours to work in the morning until the kindergarten bus shows up. Then I juggle the kids' activities with my husband. If I don't get a chance to work in the afternoon, I'll write after the kids go to bed. This schedule gets completely changed when I'm on tour, online with a book group, or doing library appearances...or answering publicity questionnaires...

Photo of Jodi Picoult
I write five days a week, most weeks. While I'm not in a writing group, I do have several readers who give me feedback on my work.

Do you have any advice for other mothers/writers?

Stop talking.
Do it.
Have a thick skin.
Don't give up on yourself.

**Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., is a mother, wife, writer, and Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn State University in Hershey, PA. Her book, Surviving Ophelia, will be published in Fall 2001 by Perseus Publishing.

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