What a way to start spring break! Jodi Picoult came to Kansas City for an autograph signing sponsored by Rainy Day Books (and today was indeed a rainy day). My daughter and I purchased tickets to this event weeks ago and my husband drove us to the plaza for this special occasion.
As we entered the auditorium we were told to stand in line for our personalized autograph of her newest book, House Rules. This seemed somewhat out of the ordinary, as most other events I have attended the author reads a passage from the book, answers audience questions, and then autographs the books. They had to do things a bit differently today as Jodi was on a three-city tour in a single day: morning in Minneapolis – afternoon in Kansas City – evening in San Diego. Since she had a tight schedule in order to catch her plane, they began autograph signing early.
Before Jodi began reading passages of the book, she explained that her interest in writing this story about Asperger’s Syndrome stemmed from the fact that 1 out of 100 children in the US are diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum (page 43). She herself has a cousin who is a low-functioning autistic and lives in a group home. She remembers stories of her aunt having to literally sit on top of him during some of his episodes to calm him down. Since he is now six feet tall and over two hundred pounds, his mother can no longer be his primary care provider. He is now living in a group home, where occasionally his episodes involve putting his fist through a wall or a plate glass window. Sometimes the police need to be called. The problem, as she explains, is that our justice system works fine for those who perform within the confines of “normal” – but any behavior outside the box and it all “goes to hell in a hand basket.”
She went on to say that communication methods (or lack thereof) of a person with autism – not making eye contact, speaking in a flat voice, not understanding traditional social cues – are all signs that the police interpret as ‘guilt’ As with many of her book inspirations, Jodi began to think “What If….” What if a child with Asperger’s syndrome was perhaps in the wrong place at the wrong time and because the communication skills indicate guilt, the police believe he is a prime suspect. As she later said in the question and answer period, when she sees our legal system being ridiculous, she feels the need to report that to the populace.
Jodi read several pages of the first part of the book. The first chapter is written from the mother’s Point of View. Emma gives us a brief look at what it is like to live with a high-functioning autistic. She relays a poignant scene of being in the grocery store and her son having a total meltdown because the “sample lady” was not at her normal post on this particular Saturday afternoon. As Jodi was reading from her book, I noticed a lady in front of me wipe several tears from her eyes. This situation is obviously not that uncommon for those who are familiar with this disorder.
The next chapter Jodi read was from Jacob’s Point of View – the boy who has lived with Asperger’s his entire life. Jacob gives us an inside view of what it is like to be different from the norm, know you are different from the norm, but also know that there is nothing you can do to become more accepted. One of Jacob’s interests is crime scene investigations and he has memorized all 114 episodes of CrimeBusters, although that does not prevent him from watching the show each and every day at 4:30PM on the USA Network (page 20). This special interest is what prompted Emma to give Jacob a police scanner radio, which he listens to on a regular basis and occasionally even ventures to the crime scene. This is how the conflict begins: Jacob hears a report for a “10-100” – a dead body – and curiosity gets the better of him. He sneaks out of the house and rides his bike to the state highway where a dead man has indeed been found half naked lying in the snow.
The final chapter she read to us was from the police captain’s Point of View. Rich and his fellow officers are trying to decide if this dead body is a suicide, homicide, and/or a victim of sexual assault. You can imagine his surprise when Jacob appears out of the shadows and informs him that none of those assumptions are correct; the man died of hypothermia as seen on episode 26 of the second season of CrimeBusters (page 34).
During the question and answer phase of the presentation, someone asked Jodi what it is like to write from multiple points of view. Jodi said that while at times it is difficult (writing in the style of completely different voices), she actually hears her characters before she begins to develop them. Hearing these voices in her head allows her to write from multiple viewpoints in a credible manner. She said that this style of writing has made her a “successful schizophrenic.”
Several in the audience were teachers and having already read the book, they were astounded at her ability to create Jacob in a way that rings true with their encounters with Asperger students. Prompted by that comment, Jodi then explained the research she did for this project. At first she visited a special school in Pittsburgh where she had the opportunity to interview six students and their families. This allowed her to get face-to-face with the students and really understand what it was like to try to communicate with them – and see them try to communicate with her. After obtaining this research, she went home and developed an in-depth questionnaire which she distributed to 35 students and their families through an Autism foundation in New England. This yielded hundreds of pages of research. Through these 35 contacts, she met one particular student, Jessica, who became an integral part of the book project. Oftentimes Jodi would send a scene to Jessica to ask if it rang true and Jessica would provide critical constructive feedback. Jessica, who is now a freshman at UMASS in Amherst, MA, was a beta reader for the finished manuscript and once she gave her seal of approval, Jodi was 100% convinced that she had adequately captured the voice of Jacob.
At one point during the question and answer phase, someone asked Jodi about movie rights. OH boy, did she have an opinion on this topic. She asked the audience how many saw My Sister’s Keeper (to which many raised their hands) and then she asked the audience how many were angry at the ending (to which Jodi raised her own hand). Jodi compared an author giving movie right consent to that of a woman giving up a child for adoption. There are some adoptions that take place and the child grows up in a nurturing family and becomes a fine upstanding citizen; and there are other adoptions where the child is raised by crack whores. Ouch! I did read the book and loved it; but I must admit that I am now glad that I did not see the movie.
Somehow this topic segued into Jodi’s writing process. Jodi shared that it takes her approximately nine months to write a book – literally, it is like giving birth to a child. She spends several weeks conducting research, and she is usually editing one book while writing the first draft of a new one. She spends approximately three months out of the year promoting her books.
Someone asked Jodi which one of her books did she consider a favorite. Her answer: Second Glance (I have not yet read this – but I obviously need to do so). Someone then asked Jodi what authors she enjoys reading, to which she answered Alice Hoffman, “I would read her grocery list”, Chris Bohjalian, and Anne Tyler (ok – more books to add to my TBR pile). Someone else asked her what advice she would give to aspiring writers, to which she answered WRITE….if only for 20 minutes a day, just write. She also said that anyone serious in writing should attend at least one writer’s workshop. To be successful does not require a MFA degree, but it does require a thick skin and the ability to accept criticism.
She writes about issues that keep her awake at night. She figures if it is an issue that has her worried, it must be a worthy topic for a book. As mentioned before, she likes to ask the question, “What If….” Her newest book, Sing You Home deals with the issues of embryo donation and gay rights. The protagonist of the book is Zoe, a music therapist who uses music to help heal patients and victims. The unique quality of this newest release (spring of 2011) is that it will also include a music CD in which Jodi wrote the song lyrics and her good friend wrote the music. Not only will the reader be able to read the words, but also hear the sounds of a highly emotional story. To continue this theme, the book is not divided into chapters but rather tracks.
The two hour event was over before we knew it (I could stay and listen to her answer questions all afternoon), and both my daughter and I had such an enjoyable afternoon.
In fact….I was so thrilled to be a part of this event that I decided to have Jodi autograph a copy of her book for one of you!
All you have to do to be entered to win is to leave your name, valid email address, and tell me which Jodi Picoult book is your favorite (if you are unfamiliar with her books, then tell me which one you are most interested in reading). Followers of this blog will receive a double entry (please indicate your “follower” status in the comment section). I will use Random.org to select a winner on Thursday, April 1 (won’t this make a great April Fool’s surprise for some lucky reader!)