As one of the best-selling authors in the world, Jodi Picoult needs no introduction. Known for her powerful, evocative fiction examining the way people deal with difficult ethical conundrums, Jodi’s most recent work, Small Great Things, is her most hard-hitting yet. While Jodi was on tour recently to promote her latest release, AWM intern TJ Wilkshire managed to steal a few moments to ask about writing, ethics, and the vagaries of best-sellerdom.
When conceptualising your projects, do you start with a big concept and place characters in that context, or do you start with characters and have the topical concept evolve from their lives? Or both/neither?
Well I start with something that’s really bugging me. Something that upsets me or I don’t understand. And it’s usually an issue. And usually if I keep thinking about it and thinking about it and it wakes me up at night, characters just pop into my head and begin to take the story away for me. So it really is a hybrid of both.
Do you think novels have changed in their structure, theme, or voice over the time you have been writing? Do you think the fashions in novels have changed? For example, the glamorous women’s fiction of the 1980’s has given way to a more self-reflective approach these days?
I don’t know that I would say that to tell you the truth. I don’t feel that I write in a genre. I don’t think I write women’s fiction. 48% of my fan mail comes from men, so that would be interesting to all of them. I think if you had to classify me, which I would really resist against, I would say I write moral and ethical fiction. And I wouldn’t say that’s changed, I’d say that’s been going on since Dickens has been doing it.
Many Australian authors are interested in breaking into the US publishing market, but have difficulty navigating the fast-paced New York publishing scene. Could you offer a little insider perspective on how publishing functions in the US? Is it really as competitive as it seems?
It’s really hard. It’s not [just] Australians. It’s actually hard for everybody. I’m the anomaly and not the rule. And even so, I had a hundred rejections from agents before I even started and I my books were not overnight successes. I did not ever have an Oprah pick, I just basically wrote books that made people talk and hand them to their friends. So sometimes, as simplistic as it sounds, the answer is ‘write good books’. Sometimes that’s what works. I would say for the Australian market, what’s really important is getting your books through an agent so they can fight for it and it is sold internationally and you’re not seen regionally rather than internationally. We have a lot of American authors who only sell in the south or in the north-east and haven’t been able to crack the whole country yet. But it is harder and harder to publish. The other thing I would say, and I don’t know if this is really applicable to here in Australia, in America there’s a big push towards self-publishing and I do not recommend that. A lot of people forget that the branch you are reaching for is not the published book but actually people reading the book. And when you self-publish you lose the publishing machine and marketing machine that a true publishing house will afford you. It’s great if you’ve published something, but not so great if no one knows it’s out there.
During your time in college, did you write a lot of short stories? Did you send them out to literary magazines in America or try to get them published while you were in college? Do you think that that opened up the door to getting your book published?
When I was in college, I was taking creative writing courses. I graduated with a degree in English and creative writing and at one point one of my short stories I had been editing it and editing it and finally one of my mentors, my professor, said ‘Send it somewhere!’ and I looked at her like she was nuts. Because I was writing for class, but I sent it to a magazine called Seventeen magazine, which is a magazine for young adults and they bought that short story as well as one right after that. So my first two short stories were actually published before I left college.
It was a good experience but I don’t know if it necessarily helped me get an agent. Like I said, I’d got a hundred rejections before I got an agent.
Does it help to have a system of writing and a support network, such as your friends and family? You previously mentioned the group of women you spoke to when writing Small Great Things.
To me they were Ruth [the protagonist of Small Great Things]. They were the only way I could write Ruth. And when I think of people like that or white supremacists [that I interviewed], they are research to me. That is different to me than a support system, and when I’m in the act of writing a book my agent and my mom read it chapter by chapter before I finish. So they’re the first people reading my book.
A longer article about Jodi’s process writing Small Great Things will appear in WQ magazine, issue 257 in 2017.
You can read more about Jodi Picoult here.
Small Great Things is on sale now.
TJ Wilkshire is a twenty-something Brisbane based artist and writer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and English Literature and is currently studying the WEP Masters at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses on birds and she hopes to one-day turn into one. Wilkshire’s poetry has been published in Peril and Uneven Floor, and won the NotJack Competition.