Thinking a Little Harder: An Interview with Jodi Picoult

Nikki Tranter

From her San Francisco hotel room, Picoult talks about Vanishing Acts, her writing life, the impact of her fan-friendly website on her work, and why it's okay not to be Dan Brown.

Even during breakfast, roughly 3000 miles away from her family in New Hampshire, Jodi Picoult sounds like the happiest woman on Earth. And why not, with a new best-seller creeping up the charts and a tour itinerary soon taking her to such exotic ports as New Zealand and South Africa. Still, she doesn't enjoy the lack of family contact while on the road. Despite the tougher moments, though, she says wouldn't for the world miss the opportunity touring allows her to meet and converse and with her ever-growing fan base.

"The fact that I'm still constantly smiling is a remarkable thing," she says, "but I love getting out on the road, meeting my fans. I love hearing them say wonderful things and I love being able to thank them in person for reading me."

Picoult is thanking readers this year for picking up Vanishing Acts, her twelfth novel. In it, search-and-rescue officer Delia Hopkins is forced to rethink her happy life when she discovers she was once kidnapped. If that's not enough, she finds out her own father, Andrew, was the perpetrator, claiming he did it for her own safety, to protect her from the wretched home kept by her alcoholic mother, his ex-wife. And while Delia understands his decision to a point, she still must confront the lifetime of lies wrought by her dad's actions and subsequent desire to keep her in the dark for so long.

As with each of Picoult's books, Vanishing Acts sets up a moral dilemma and works to explore all areas of it. Without the shock twists of My Sister's Keeper (fresh out in paperback and still charting) and The Pact, or the mystery of Plain Truth, Vanishing Acts grips readers by alternating between different characters' points of view, forcing us to draw our own conclusions. What makes a good parent? Did Delia's dad, left feeling hopeless by laws that worked against him, do the right thing? And what will rewriting her history mean for Delia? Picoult provokes readers, eliciting their own honest responses to these thorny questions.

From her San Francisco hotel room, Picoult discusses with PopMatters these ideas, as well as her writing life, the impact of her fan-friendly website on her work, and why it's okay not to be Dan Brown.

PopMatters: Do you think the instant connection the Internet allows between readers and author is important or damaging creatively?

Jodi Picoult: I think it's extremely important. I was one of the first writers I know to have a good interactive website. Mine went up in 1996 and that was still pretty early. I love my website because it's especially designed for computer idiots like myself, people who might not be savvy on the computer. So you really can see how they respond to a website that they can navigate easily -- that can they can get in touch with me, they can get in touch with each other. What I think I do that a lot of authors still do not do is allow people to write directly to me. I get about 50 fan letters a day, and I answer every single one of them myself. It takes a lot of time and sometimes it's a pain in the neck and I answer the same questions over and over. But the truth is these people come to my readings clutching these letters saying, "You wrote me back. I can't believe you wrote me back", and I think it really means a lot for them to know that the author values them just as much as they value the author. I'd write if nobody read a damn thing I wrote, but the truth is it's much more gratifying when people do.

PM: Is it dispiriting when people say they don't like a particular book?

JP: I haven't been to the message boards in so long because I've been too busy touring, but I'm told that people have been saying on the message board for Vanishing Acts that they didn't like it as much as My Sister's Keeper. But you know what? That's fine, because I've also heard from people who'd said, "I didn't think I could like anything more than My Sister's Keeper, but Vanishing Acts is my new favorite." Everyone's going to have a different favorite of my books because they are all so different, and I'm completely happy with that.

PM: Are fans different depending on the country?

JP: It's very different [around the world] than it is in America, because in America there's this tendency to write the same book over and over because that's what sells. So in a way, my success in America has come at the expense of what I do. I haven't sold out, and I haven't taken the popular road to writing a best-selling book. If anything, I've really bucked the system. So it was necessary for me not to go and find the easy fans, the ones who want something digestible and fast with a happy ending that they can read over and over again no matter how many different books it is. I had to find fans who really wanted to think. Worldwide they all have that in common.

PM: Your books always contain a lot of information about certain pertinent topics and taboos -- a child is conceived specifically to act as donor for her cancer-ridden sister in My Sister's Keeper, an Amish family find their daughter has hidden a pregnancy in Plain Truth, a woman grapples with the idea of killing as an act of love in Mercy -- is it your objective to teach as well as entertain?

JP: That's not my purpose as much as making people think a little harder. A lot of my books deal with very controversial issues that most people often don't want to talk about, issues that, in my country, are more likely to get put under the carpet than get discussed. And when you talk about moral conundrums, about shades of gray, what you're doing is asking the people who want the world to be black and white to realize instead that maybe it's all right if it isn't. I know you'll learn something picking up my books, but my goal as a writer is not to teach you but to make you ask more questions.

PM: Do you consider Vanishing Acts a book about memory, or about ideas of good and bad parenting?

JP: It's twofold. What I really wanted to question was, what it means to be a good parent. And if doing the morally right thing just might mean doing the legally wrong thing, which you see played out several times in the book. And I love that sideline of the book. Andrew's first line is, "You've already made up your mind about me," and I think that although you would like to think that he did the wrong thing, you watch him in jail and you see firsthand he needs to reassess himself in order to survive. You know that legally what he did is so wrong, yet there's a part of you that understands why he's doing it. And once you make that transition as a reader, you have to step back and say, "Well now, can I really blame him for what he did before?" It's a very interesting and slow transition to that change of thought. That's one side of the book. This other is, like you said, about memory. As a fiction writer, that's really fun to play with -- the idea that all memory is fiction, that we have queued a couple of things in the back of our minds and when we call forth those memories, we are essentially filling in the blanks. We're basically telling ourselves a story, but that story changes based on how old we are, and what mood we're in, and if we've seen photographs recently. We trust other people to tell us the story of our lives before we can remember it, and usually that's our parents and usually it works, but obviously not always. And everybody's interpretation is going to be different.

PM: Had you made up your mind about Andrew before finishing the book? Do you think he did the right thing?

JP: If I really thought my child was in some kind of physical danger like that, if there was no other recourse, then yeah, I would do it. I think that when we love someone so much like we do with our children, you really are willing to do anything for them, even if it endangers you and possibly your relationship with them. There's a line in Vanishing Acts, when Delia is explaining to Sophie that grandpa is in jail for "taking a little girl", Sophie says, "Well, didn't her mommy tell her not to talk to strangers?" Delia thinks to herself that sometimes it's not the strangers, but the ones who love us that hurt us the most. I think people do things all the time in the name of love that they shouldn't be doing -- such is the nature of us.

PM: Is Delia better off with her fantasy image of Elise?

JP: Oh, God, yeah. Honestly, that for her has got to be the hardest part of all this. You don't have the real image, so you make something up in your mind and it's virtually impossible to reconcile the two. In Delia's case the difference between the two is even more dramatic. It's like, Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all -- is it better for Delia to have only this image of a mother she never knew and be happy and comfortable in her own skin, or to learn, Guess what honey, your life wasn't as great as you thought it was? Once you start finding out the truth, it can make you very uncomfortable. That's not to say we shouldn't seek the truth, but I think we should be aware, as Delia says in the first chapter when she talks about what happens when her sniffer dog Greta finds a dead body for the first time and doesn't know how to react. Sometimes when you find something you didn't really realize you were looking for, you just don't know how to react.

PM: Where do these themes come from for you? Is it questions you face in your own life or general issues that interest you? How to you decide what to focus on first?

JP: There are certain things that I'll hear about and that I think will make a great book and I put it in a file. Sometimes it's a situation that interests me, and I don't even realize what I'm trying to say about it until I get closer to it. I can tell you that the book coming out in 2006 is finished, the book after that I've written 125 pages of, and I can tell you what the book is after that. I just sort of have a linear progression, but more than anything, the topics land in your lap. I don't feel that I go out searching for them.

PM: Do you start out with a topic or with certain character ideas?

JP: I start with a question that I don't know the answer to and I go from there. And honestly, the question can be anything from what if a child was conceived as a bone-marrow match to what if being a good parent meant doing something others would judge you for. Things like that. Sometimes it's not a what-if, but a situation. For example, in America, bullying has gotten to be rampant and we have these kids that escalate into violence. There's a tendency in America to try an immediately diffuse the situation by making sure through the media that everyone knows there's something different about these kids, there's something off about them. The truth is that most of these kids are much more well-adjusted than anyone wants to admit, because that's really scary, because then it could be your kid. So to look at that and really blow the cover off it -- what happens if it's a well-adjusted kid? Those are the kinds of things I want to look at.

PM: Is there always an answer to the question?

JP: I can get 400 pages down the road and still not know the answer. What I do know is that I have really examined every facet of the situation, and I may not have changed my opinion but I have definitely forced myself to explore why it's my opinion.

PM: Have you ever wished you'd answered a question differently?

JP: A good example of that is The Pact [in which a teenager, Chris, is accused of murdering his girlfriend, Emily, as part of an alleged botched suicide pact]. At the end of that book, Chris is acquitted, and if I were Emily's mom, I would have wanted him to go to jail. As a writer, I can tell you there is no punishment that any prison system could inflict on Chris that is going to be more damaging that what Chris is going to do to himself. As a mom, I have a different take on it. I wrote it different as a writer than I in my heart as a mother would have liked to see it come out.

PM: What's one example of a decision you've made the readers have disagreed with?

JP: People hate the ending of My Sister's Keeper, I can't even tell you how many people are viscerally in pain at the end of that book. I had a woman come up to me at a reading yesterday and she grabbed both my hands and she went [pleading], "Why? Why?" And I said, listen, I know you're upset, but honestly, it's the correct ending for that book, because it's the only one that will shake that family out of a cycle of self-destruction. When I was writing the ending, I was sobbing, I was trying to think of another ending, but you know what, it was the right one to write.

PM: Do you often have readers disagreeing with you?

JP: It happens all the time and I love it. And they should because ultimately the given opinion about an issue should not be my opinion. I don't even want to tell people what to think. I'm the least qualified person in the world for that. If I'd go around pretending to be the expert on everything, I'd become Dan Brown, and I don't understand that. We all do our research if we're good writers, and we all work hard to get it right, but that doesn't mean we're experts in the field. The best we can do is challenge people to learn the facts themselves.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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