Best-Selling Author Confronts Racism in New Novel “Small Great Things”
By Paul Freeman [October 2016 Interview]
Since her first novel was unveiled in 1992, author Jodi Picoult has enjoyed one success after another. 2007’s “Nineteen Minutes,” her novel about the aftermath of a school shooting in a small town, was her first book to debut at No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list."The Storyteller,” "Between the Lines” [her first Young Adult book, co-written with her daughter Samantha van Leer], "Sing You Home," "House Rules," "Handle with Care," "Change of Heart" and "My Sister’s Keeper” are among Picoult’s other works that hit the top spot.
But when Picoult decided to tackle the topic of racism, she knew she would face criticism - first and foremost, from herself. Nevertheless, she took the leap and the result is the compelling, thought-provoking new novel “Small Great Things.”
She tried to write about racism 20 years ago. She was living in New York and had been profoundly affected by a news story about an African-American undercover officer who was shot four times in the back, on a subway, by white colleagues. He was wearing a band that identified him as a cop.
“I started to write the book… and I failed,” Picoult tells Pop Culture Classics. “I could not seem to create an authentic voice. I wound up really second-guessing myself - ‘Is this even my story to write? Do I have the right to write a story about a person of color? This isn’t me. This is never going to be me.’
“There are many great people of color writing today who don’t need my input in this field,“ Picoult says, laughing.
“But over the years, I would basically play devil’s advocate and say, ‘Well, yeah, but you write as people you’re not all the time. You write as men. You write as Holocaust survivors. You write as rape victims. You’ve never been those people either.’ So what was it that was so different? And I came to realize that the difference was race. And racism. It’s really hard to talk about it without offending someone. So, as a result, we often don’t talk about it at all.”
Fast-forward to 2012. Another news story upset Picoult. “In Flint, Michigan, an African-American nurse with 20 years of experience delivered a baby and the father of that baby called in her supervisor and said, ‘I don’t want her or anyone who looks like her touching my infant.’ And he pulled up his sleeve to reveal a swastika tattoo. And in their infinite wisdom, the hospital put a Post-it note on the baby’s file, saying, ‘No African-American personnel to touch this infant.’ This was, I repeat, in 2012. So the nurse wound up suing. She settled out of court. I hope she got a giant payout.
“But it made me think - What if she’d been the only one in the room, when something went wrong with the baby? What if she had to choose between following her supervisor’s orders or saving the baby’s life? What if, as a result, she wound up on trial with a white public defender who like me, like a lot of my friends, would never consider herself a racist? What if I can tell the story in three different voices, that of the African-American nurse, the white public defender and the skinhead dad, as they all face their beliefs about power and privilege and race?
“And suddenly I knew, okay, I can write this book now. And it was because my intent was different and my audience was different. I wasn’t writing a book to tell people of color how hard their lives are. I’m not qualified to do that. That’s not my story. But I was writing to white people. I was writing to say it’s very easy to point to the skinhead and say, ‘That’s a racist.’ It’s a little harder for us to point to ourselves and say the same thing. And yet racism isn’t just about prejudice. It’s also about power. And if you are born white in this country, you hold all the power. Period. And so even if you think you are not a racist, you are definitely complicit in the equation of racism.”
The story evolved into her latest book, “Small Great Things.” The best-selling author has penned 23 novels. She says that writing this one became a very personal journey.
“There was no way I was going to ask a reader to unpack their bias, if I hadn’t done it myself. So I started off by going to social justice workshops, which were devastating. I went in there thinking, ‘I’m a good person. I’m open-minded.’ And I left every night in tears, listening to some of the stories people of color were telling, trying to revisit my childhood and look through a different prism and see things that I had glossed over that were definitely acts that were racist. It was very eye-opening, very humbling. It did not make me feel very good about myself. I then met with a bunch of women of color who were kind enough to overlook my ignorance about their upbringings and their lives and shared their successes and their failures and their hopes and their stories and their lives with me.
Picoult recalls, “Their was a mom who came in with her newborn baby, cute little guy, and it was the morning that there was yet another shooting of an unarmed African-American man by the police. And she came in in tears and she said, ‘How do I keep my baby safe when he grows up? How do I teach him to not be black?’ Or the young woman who just graduated from college, who took her Vassar water bottle everywhere, on public transport, and faced it with the name out, so that, as white people walked by her, it was as if she was saying, ‘I’m safe. You can sit here.’
“They were also gracious enough to be my sensitivity readers, to read what I had written in Ruth’s voice [Ruth is the protagonist, the nurse, in “Small Great Things”] and make sure that it was authentic and represented what they thought a voice of color should be. Without them, there’s no way I could have or should have written this book.
“So that was huge, being able to take a good, hard look at myself, at who I used to be, at how far I had to go, and to realize that although it’s really easy for us to see what I would call ‘the headwinds’ of racism, the things that make it harder for a person of color to achieve success in our country, it’s a little more challenging to see the tailwinds of racism, the ways that white people have successes made easier for them. We like to think that’s a result of hard work or luck. And the reality is, very often it’s a direct result of the fact that we had an opportunity, because that same opportunity was not given to a person of color.
“So, for example, maybe you rent your apartment, because your landlord didn’t really want to rent to someone black. You may not even know that, but that could be why you have your apartment. Or maybe you got into a great school, because you did really well on your SATs. But your mom was at home every night to read to you, whereas a person of color’s mom was working three jobs just to make ends meet and wasn’t reading to them and they didn’t do as well on their SATs and they didn’t get into a great school.
“And if you begin unraveling all of that, all of a sudden, the American dream isn’t quite so dreamy. And it requires a huge shift of thought. And that’s what happened to me. That was what this journey became for me. I’m still learning every single day. But now that I see race so clearly, I can’t unsee it. And I’m sure that people are really sick of me talking about it,” she says, laughing, “but it’s all that I talk about.”
“Small Great Things” is certainly relevant today. But Picoult says it would have been equally relevant at any point in the past couple of centuries.
“So here’s the reality - the world has not changed in 200 years for people of color. We are seeing these things and the reason it feels more timely is not because all of a sudden things have gotten so bad. They’ve always been bad. It’s just that, with social media, with 24/7 news, the world has gotten smaller and now we’re hearing about things that we had not previously heard about. To say that this is particularly timely is a little bit of a fallacy. But certainly it’s in the news. It’s on our radar. It’s in everybody’s heads.
“I really do believe that the vast majority of Americans are not white supremacists. I think they’re mostly really goodhearted people who just do not know how to talk about racism, even if they feel bad about what’s going on. They don’t have the vocabulary. They don’t have the skills to jump into the conversation. And my message with this book is, I hope it gives you a springboard, start talking about it fictionally and then weigh into the non-fiction. I hope it gives you a vocabulary. And I really hope it makes you understand that it is better to say something and make a mistake than to say nothing at all. You will make a mistake. I’m going to make mistakes, I’m sure I will, as I continue to move forward. But I will say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m learning from that. Thank you for helping me learn.’ And I will move on. That’s way more important than not saying anything and pretending it doesn’t exist.
“If I can get people talking - and I know I have, because people who have read it already, have written me literally a month, two months after they’ve finished the book, to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to tell you what happened today. I started to do this and I realized, ‘Wait a second, this is horrible of me. I have to change my behavior.’’ They can’t unsee race either, because of this book. It’s festering now at the borders of their consciousness. And that’s got to be the highest praise that I can possibly be given.
“I hope that they are accessing the fact that they have privileges. I hope they understand that you can be a good person and still be part of the equation of racism, just because of the color of your skin. And you can’t help being born white any more than an African-American person can help being black, but you can choose to act and think and acknowledge a certain way. It’s about recognizing your privilege.
“It’s about not saying things that we think are the right things to say, like for example, ‘Oh, I’m color blind.’ How many times have you heard someone say that? And they’re not saying it to be a jerk. They’re saying that, because they really think that’s the right thing to say. In reality, when you tell a person of color, ‘Oh, I’m color blind,’ what you’re really saying is, ‘I am not acknowledging the fact that the way you and I grew up was different and that the challenges that you face are different from the ones that I face.’ So thinking twice about the words that you use and the way that you engage in this conversation, that’s something that I hope comes out of this.
“The other thing that I really hope is that you finish this book and you look at your book shelf and you ask yourself, ‘How many writers of color am I reading?’ Is it one writer of color for every white author? And if not, why not? Because one of the best ways to learn more yourself is to open yourself to voices that are different from yours. And although I can certainly write a novel that is telling you about a white awakening to his journey, it’s not up to me and it’s not right for me to tell you what it’s like to be a person of color, experiencing what it’s like to be the oppressed group. But like I said, there are so many amazing writers of color with incredible books out there that can give you a taste of that. And I hope that after you finish ‘Small Great Things,’ that’s what you do. You turn right to the voice of someone who’s lived this.”
Picoult realizes that, even after going through the long process of absorbing the subject matter, she is vulnerable to knee-jerk criticism for attempting to write, in part, from an African-American point of view.
“I know people are going to say something to me about it. And what I did was write with empathy and sensitivity. It’s really interesting. There’s been a lot in the news recently about the right to write about other. Look, the reality is, no one is going to tell an author not to write a voice different from themselves. But it is completely legitimate to tell a writer, if you choose to do that, you need to ask yourself - Why am I doing it? Am I doing it to profit off of someone else’s pain? Because that’s not yours to do. That’s not right. Or am I doing it because it’s part of something I really need to talk about, which is definitely the case here.
“There was no way for me to write a book about racism, without including the voice of Ruth. But then, having made that decision, how did I go about doing it? Did I make it all up? Because again, that’s not the right answer. It is completely legitimate to ask a writer to write with empathy, with sensitivity and with knowledge. And that means, going out, doing your homework, talking to people who have lived this experience, trying to get their feedback, getting their input, getting sensitivity readers to make sure that the voice you create authentic. For all of those reasons, I did the best job and the most responsible job that I could. And yes, I’m sure there will be people who criticize me for it, but I tried very, very hard to do the best job that I could do, being a white woman.”
Once she got underway, Picoult related to the character of Ruth. “To be honest, she’s my favorite character in the book. It’s funny, but I would say that, of all the people in the book, she’s the one that I relate most to, which is great… and is a lesson in and of itself, isn’t it? What I love about Ruth is that she has a slow simmer of awakening, too. Like many of the women of color that I spoke with, she has done everything in her life to stack the odds in the favor of her child, who she, of course, wants to have the best life possible. And, to her, that means going to school in a predominately white school, as a scholarship student, even though it required two hours of travel every day from where lived in New York. It means settling in a tiny house in a white community, so that her son, from the get-go, goes to school with kids who are white kids, but who live in the same neighborhood as he does, so that his friends’ parents can’t say, ‘Oh, well, you can’t go visit Edison, because he doesn’t live in a safe place.’ He lives in the same town. It means working in a job where she is the only nurse of color on her floor and sort of pushing that to the back of her head, because she knows she’s doing an excellent job. She’s at the top of her field. So she’s definitely living under the radar in what she sees to be the white world.
“And she has a sister who is very much, I would say, a black activist, much more tapped into the experience of most people of color. And when things start to not go well for Ruth, Adisa’s first comment to Ruth is ‘Well, I could have told you this was coming.’ And, in a way, Ruth needs to access her own history and the reality of what it is to grow up as a person of color in America. And to allow herself to feel angry - really, really angry, because what has happened to her is completely unjust. And I love that about her. I love her slow simmer. I love her intelligence. And I love her principles. For all those reasons, she’s my favorite.”
Throughout her career, Picoult, 50, has been attracted to tough subjects. And readers appreciate her courage. The author and her husband, Timothy van Leer, parents of three - Samantha, Kyle and Jake - live in New Hampshire. Picoult’s own upbringing helped shape her social conscience.
“I think I write for the same reason people read. I write about things that I don’t understand or that are upsetting me or that are keeping me up at night. And for me, writing a novel is my way of thrashing through something, trying to figure it out. And I don’t always know the answer by the end of it, but hopefully I have a much better sense of it. And I would like to believe that, for my readers, that’s the same experience that they have when they’re reading one of my books.
“My parents were definitely open-minded. But I grew up in a predominately white suburb and didn’t have any friends of color, when I was growing up, because there were no people of color, when I was growing up,” she says, laughing. “And it really wasn’t until I got to college, when I was interacting with African-Americans as students. And that was one of the things I asked myself - Why did we live there? Why didn’t my parents try to find diversity, so that I would understand the way that other people’s experiences were when they were growing up, as well?
“My parents were, again, super-liberal and very open-minded and incredibly kind and caring people, but there were things that they did or said over the years that I let roll off my back, that I never thought about, but that were quite racist, in retrospect.”
Writing can contribute to clarity. “For the most part, books that I have written have been a matter of me asking myself a question, sort of unpacking, dismantling all the Legos and putting it back together again. And it’s pretty rare that I have changed my mind about a topic. I wouldn’t say this changed my mind. It wasn’t like I was a white supremacist when I started writing this book. But I definitely didn’t see myself as a racist. And now I understand, if you are white, you are complicit in racism. Period. It’s not just about prejudice. Again, you take every white supremacist in the United States, you put them in a spaceship, you ship them off to the moon, you’re still going to have racism in this country. And that is because power is also part of that balance. And the white people are the ones that hold the power in America. So if you are born white, you do have to ask yourself questions about your role in racism and what you can do to, as an ally, to make inroads against racism.”
After so many successful novels, writing doesn’t become any easier for Picoult. “This book was so hard. Like I said, I know there will be some people who will criticize me for this. And there’s no way to write about race without knowing that you’re going to face criticism. But you if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Again, I think I’m going to get it on both sides. I think I’m going to get people saying, ‘You have no right to write any voice as an African-American woman. You should not have done that.’ And I’m also going to get people who say, ‘You’re a race traitor!’ I’m going to get it on both sides,” she says, laughing. “But I would much rather stand up and take that blow and still stay standing, than not have written this book.”
“The interesting thing is, part of being an ally is, you’re talking to the people who look like you. I’m not sitting here, trying to tell people of color anything that they couldn’t tell me. I’m trying to tell other white people what they need to see, which is the white audience, that’s who I should be speaking to. But the other thing is, that when you’re white, you always have a seat at the metaphorical table. Everyone will listen to your opinions. And that’s the really cool thing that white people can do, when it comes to anti-racism. Because we always have a voice and because people do listen to us, we can kind of tap the microphones and say, ‘Hey, hey, hey - are you listening?’ And then hand it to somebody else. And hopefully, that’s a person of color.”
Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone With The Wind” had a tremendous impact on Picoult when she was growing up.
“I had to revisit that thought, when I was writing this book. When I read it, I was 13. I was swept away by the language in it. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, she created a whole world of words. And hey, maybe I can do that.’ It was really the first time I thought maybe I could be a writer, which is why it was so important to me.
But in writing ‘Small Great Things,’ I kept coming back to the fact that I loved ‘Gone With The Wind.’ And yet, the characterizations of the slave characters are not nearly as fully realized as the white characters. And I was thinking about that. Why was that? And when was Margaret Mitchell writing and was she a product of her times? What would she say now? And it’s funny, because I’ve thought a lot about it. I do think that Margaret Mitchell was ahead of her times. When she was writing this book, she was writing Scarlett as a heroine who was doing things that women were not doing yet - being forthright, being businessmen, taking care of their own lives, ending up without a husband and saving the day.
“And I would like to believe that Margaret Mitchell, too, would have supported the civil rights movement, that she would have maybe given a second pass at those characters of color and made them much more than the caricatures that you see in the characters of Mammy and Prissy, for example.”
Picoult’s own writing is making a profound impact. She has connected with many fans who tell her about the significant difference her books have made in their lives.
“I have so many stories - emails from kids who say ‘I was suicidal, but I read ‘The Pact’ and today I’m going to tell an adult.’ That’s pretty humbling. Or the woman who was a rape victim and didn’t tell anyone about it for 20 years and then read ‘The Tenth Circle’ and basically told her husband what had happened to her. To know that you can take a piece of fiction and unlock something in a person that helps them heal or better themselves is a tremendous gift, as a novelist. And I really value every single one of those really amazing connections that my books have made for people. I love getting out on the road and hearing those stories from my fans.”
For the latest news on this author, visit www.jodipicoult.com.