*Thank you to Kerry Hood and Jodi Picoult.*
I love to read good writers. That’s probably a defining characteristic. Any way, at about age twelve, I sat down to read Vanishing Acts ; And, after, I had to read anything Jodi Picoult wrote. I read Vanishing Acts, My Sister’s Keeper, Keeeping Faith. Any way, I was allowed to ask her a few questions, in conjunction with the new release of her new novel, Small Great Things. (SPOILER: It’s a great book!)
Growing up, did you aspire to be a writer?
One of my first memories is of getting a library card. My mom was a huge reader, and every week she’d come home with a stack of books, and all I wanted was to be like her. I started reading at age 3, and I was so excited when, for my birthday, I got a reading lamp that sat next to my bed, so that I could read before I went to sleep at night. I was a voracious reader, and I remember several children’s books that were special: “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Umbrella,” “Little Blue and Little Yellow.” As I got older, I started inhaling the All-of-a-Kind Family chapter books, and the “Little House on the Prairie” series. I remember wanting to be as kind and calm and beautiful as Mary, but realizing deep down that I was probably a lot more like Laura: headstrong, messy, and too smart for my own good. As for wanting to be a writer – yes, I think so, writing was always something I loved doing – but it probably was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, and her fantastic imagining of a different world, that made me wonder if it could do it.
You’ve also released Small Great Things, your most recent book; why did you choose the topic of racism?
I have known I wanted to tackle the race and prejudice issue for many years now, but I didn’t have the framework until a couple of years ago. I did know I wanted to write from the point of view of several characters – a Black nurse, a skinhead father and a defence lawyer, a women who, like me, and like many of my readers, was a well-intentioned white lady who would never consider herself to be a racist. First, I read many books by social justice educators, and enrolled in a social justice workshop. I listened to an Asian-American woman recount her love/hate relationship with eye liner, because of her features; I heard a Black woman say that she had to put on a mask every day just to act the way white people needed to her act. I left in tears every night as I came to see that I was not nearly as blameless as I thought I was. I then sat down with women of colour who overlooked my ignorance and graciously shared their successes, failures, hopes and fears. There was the young Black mother who recounted her panic after police shot yet another unarmed Black youth. She showed me pictures of her beautiful baby, and asked how she could possibly keep him safe forever. A poised, brilliant college graduate told me how whenever she rode the subway, she carried a Vassar water bottle, which she would prop on her knee as if it to say, “It’s safe to sit beside me.”
I also interviewed two former skinheads for hours. They explained to me what white supremacists believe, described some of the violence they had personally inflicted, and told me how the movement has changed its approach since its heyday in the 1980s. Now, skinheads let their hair grow out and dress like us — and they don’t run in violent crews in inner cities. They are connected on the internet, and spreading hate in local communities, posting flyers meant to incite fear.
Here is the grievous mistake I had made for the majority of my life: I assumed that racism is synonymous with bias. Yet you could take every white supremacist and ship him off to Mars and you’d still have racism in the world. That’s because racism is systemic and institutional…and yet it is both perpetuated and dismantled in individual acts. Of all my books, this one will stand out for me because of the sea change it inspired in the way I think about myself and how far I still have to go in terms of racial awareness.
Will there ever be a sequel?
It is not currently in the plan!
For those wishing to follow in your footsteps, do you have any advice?
If you want to write … 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 qualification 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! 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.
Small Great Things is out on 22nd November. (Click here to pre-order.) Jodi is also on a book tour: click here to see her schedule.