The National Writers Series’ dynamic lineup this weekend features three of the most powerful female voices on the current literary scene, each of whom are using their platform to engage readers with some of the most thought-provoking material of today. Jodi Picoult will be rounding out this year’s hard-hitting all-star cast on October 23 at the City Opera House in Traverse City when she discusses race in America in her new book, “Small Great Things.”
By: Neal Rubin @nealrubin_dn
Published October 19, 2016
Jodi Picoult has written about a Nazi prison guard and a Columbine-style killer and a mom who pushes her daughter’s drunken ex-boyfriend off a bridge, and made readers care about all of them.
No problem there. But race?
Race is tricky.
Important, certainly. Even vital. But until “Small Great Things,” which took root in Flint and which Picoult will discuss on stage Sunday in Traverse City, race had been beyond even her deep and lyrical grasp.
“I tried to write about racism 25 years ago,” says Picoult, 50. “I failed.”
As she often does, she took her idea then from an actual event — the shooting of a black undercover cop on a subway by white officers. “I couldn’t create an authentic story or voice,” she says.
But since then, she has become the Jodi Picoult, author of 23 novels. The bestseller jury is still out on “Small Great Things,” which launched only last Tuesday, but her previous eight debuted at No. 1. Surely now she feels comfortable and qualified?
“I truly questioned whether I had the right,” she says, to tackle the topic and speak with the pain and outrage of her central character, a labor and delivery nurse named Ruth Jefferson.
She has spoken for any number of men, for Holocaust survivors and for a lesbian would-be mother, “and I am none of those things, either,” she acknowledges. “But race is difficult and racism is difficult.”
Therefore, “we often don’t speak about it.” And therefore, began a review in the Washington Post, “’Small Great Things’ is the most important novel Jodi Picoult has ever written.”
It’s not all caviar
Picoult, who lives in New Hampshire, is speaking about the difficult thing to speak about from the parking lot of a McDonald’s in North Carolina.
She’s a few days into her book tour, and she has already lost track of what city she’s in. Ah, the glamourous life of an author: “Nothing but caviar and Egg McMuffins.”
She has been part of the National Writers Series in Traverse City once before, in March 2012, so she at least knows where she will be Sunday evening — at the historic City Opera House, before a sellout crowd of nearly 700.
There is always a moderator at a series event — in this case, me — but mostly, it’s a writer connecting personally with people who so appreciate the craft that they spent $25 or $35 to hear more about it.
Even by that standard, “She has a very close relationship with her readers,” says Anne Stanton, executive director of the series.
Picoult says the bond provides more validation than her sales figures, and like her prose, it’s easy to believe.
“If you have a suicidal teenager who tells you he’s going to tell an adult,” she says, you have succeeded. “Or if you have someone who says she hid a date rape for decades but she’s going to tell her husband tonight.”
Or if half a dozen black nurses in a matter of days come to readings and say, “This kind of thing has happened to me …”
Caught in the middle
What happened in Flint in 2012 was that two white supremacists had a baby, and the father, flashing a swastika tattoo, insisted that no African Americans were to care for his child.
Three black nurses subsequently sued Hurley Medical Center for discrimination, and when Picoult read of the settlement, she had her portal into a book about race.
Directed not to touch the newborn son of Turk and Brittany Bauer, nurse Jefferson finds herself the only staffer in reach when the baby goes into cardiac distress. Torn between her orders and her training, she winds up charged in his death and defended by a white lawyer who would have insisted she had no issues with race until she realizes everyone does.
Working from multiple perspectives — nurse, parents, lawyer — “what Jodi did is put humanity into the discussion,” Stanton says.
Picoult says simply that “I write the book that I need to write.”
Sometimes, that just turns out to be a good story.
Sometimes, it’s a book that needs to be read.