This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
Every month, we give you the opportunity to interview a favourite author in our newsletter by asking for your questions via Twitter. January saw you quiz bestselling author Jodi Picoult. This month, Jodi become the first writer to top the official UK Top 50 in 2014, with her 21st novel, The Storyteller, a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. Over to you guys!
Getting the research done to a degree that I am happy to start writing. 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 got a 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 The Storyteller, I spoke with the real-life head of the department of justice division that tracks down Nazi war criminals. For my upcoming novel, Leaving Time, I spent time in Botswana with elephant researchers, at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, and with Chip Coffey – a wonderful psychic!
Where do you find inspiration for your books?
Usually, they start with a what-if question. I start by mulling over 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 Perfect Match – information I learned while researching Salem Falls was so fascinating to me that I stuck it into its own file and turned it into a story all its own.
Well, pretty excited of course. BUT an author sells the rights to the studio 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. But I vehemently opposed the ending in the film, and am still disappointed that the director chose to change the ending in the book for the film version.
How do you keep the momentum going to finish your books? You are prolific, but what keeps you writing?
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.
Leaving Time is my next novel, and it’s coming next fall. Ten years ago, Alice Metcalf was a researcher studying the reaction of elephants to grief – they are one of the few animal 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. This book also has a terrific twist I cannot wait for you to see! But you’ll have to wait until November …
Do you still have moments where you sit at your desk staring out the window smiling at the wonderful life you have, doing what you love, or has the novelty worn off?
I’m too darned busy to do any staring out of the window! Anyone with a husband, children, assorted animals will tell you that – not to mention a busy touring schedule. And there are a million things to do extra to the one thing that is done. So no time for contemplation. The times that I do smile, however, are when I am with my family, THEN I realise just how lucky I am.
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.
Actually, I 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.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
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 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 Writers and Artists Yearbook, 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.
Thanks to Jodi for a fab interview. Next month you’ll be quizzing bestselling author Sophie Kinsella. Join us on Twitter and keep an eye out for our next open Twitterview call.