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By Lucy Madeleine Watson
Best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult recently returned to the UK for the first time in two years, promoting her latest novel, Small Great Things.
“I’ve written books for twenty-five years,” the author began. “This was the hardest book I’ve ever had to write.”
This week, Stockport Grammar School welcomed Picoult as part of her book tour, on the same day that Small Great Things was released in the UK. The hash-tag for the event was #readwithoutprejudice and she asked us to bear this in mind before reading us an excerpt.
“All you need to know is that this is Ruth,” she said. “An African-American nurse with twenty years experience on a labour and delivery ward.”
Small Great Things is described as Picoult’s most important novel and tackles issues of supremacy, prejudice and race in a modern day setting. It tells the story of Ruth Jefferson, who experiences racial prejudice from white, supremacist parents, demanding that she doesn’t handle their newborn baby.
“I don’t want her, or anybody who looks like her, to touch my baby,” said Picoult, reading as Turk Bauer, a central character of Small Great Things and a white, supremacist father.
The inspiration for her latest novel came from a news story that Picoult read in 2012. Tonya Battle, an African-American labour and delivery nurse, sued a Michigan hospital on discrimination grounds, after a newborn’s father, bearing a Swastika tattoo on his arm, suggested that nobody of colour should handle his baby.
Picoult explained the moral dilemma that interested her: “What if that nurse had been the only person in the room with that baby when something went wrong? And she had to choose between saving a baby’s life or following her supervisor’s orders. What if, as a result of that, she wound up on trial?”
Known for exploring several viewpoints in her books, Picoult said, “What if I could tell the story from three different points of view? The white public defender, the African-American nurse and the white, supremacist father, as they all began to unravel their beliefs about power, privilege and race.”
Expanding on this further, Picoult suggested that she had started to write a book on racism twenty-five years ago. However, as a Caucasian-American, she felt she couldn’t do it justice: “I’m a white woman. I grew up privileged. Did I even have the right to write this story? What on earth was I going to tell people of colour about their lives?”
Picoult decided the project couldn’t be successful until she’d defined her audience. “I was writing to people who look like me. People who can very easily point to a white supremacist and say, ‘That’s a racist’, but have a much harder time pointing to themselves and saying the same thing.”
As the evening progressed, it became clear that there were more important issues that she wanted to address: “Racism is different. It’s really hard to talk about without offending people. As a result, very often, we don’t talk about it at all.
“I learned that just because you don’t talk about racism, doesn’t mean that you aren’t part of the problem. We’ve been told the wrong definition of racism. It’s not just prejudice. It is power plus prejudice.”
Since starting the project, Picoult has received backlash from white supremacists, who resort to writing hate mail and “horrible, disgusting things” on Twitter. She has vowed it will not bring her down: “I’m not particularly worried about it. I’ve been engaging with censorship people on social media sites and when they say something, I immediately screenshot it, I immediately report it.”
Known for addressing sensitive issues in her books, Picoult has twenty-three best-selling novels behind her, including My Sister’s Keeper (2004), The Storyteller (2013) and Leaving Time (2014), and has topped the New York Times best-seller list with her last eight books.
To date, four of her novels have been televised and one, adapted for the big-screen. My Sister’s Keeper, starring Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary, Shrek) and Abigail Breslin (Zombieland, Scream Queens), was released in 2009 and was met with mixed reviews.
When asked of her involvement with the film adaption, Picoult explained, “I had a horrible experience with My Sister’s Keeper because I was so blatantly lied to by the director. When I found out that he had changed the ending after telling me he wasn’t going to, I went to the head of New Line Cinema and said, ‘You’re going to lose money on this film.’ And they did.”
Throughout the evening, Picoult touched upon the effects of teen bullying, why she doesn’t want her books to be isolated to a single genre and hinted that there may be another film adaption in the works. Though the evening had a tone of gravity, she told with warmth and positivity how, little by little, we can start to make a change.