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Jodi Picoult on Writing "Small Great Things"

SmallGreatThings200Jodi Picoult's Small Great Things is about racism, choice, fear, and hope. The novel is based on the true story of a labor and delivery nurse who was prohibited from caring for a newborn because the father requested that no African-American nurses tend to his baby, but the fictional version has a very different outcome.  Picoult's narrators represent racism in a few different forms including a frighteningly self-righteous white supremacist and an unconsciously biased white liberal. The topic of race in America is difficult to talk about, but in an honest and revealing way Picoult allows readers to draw their own conclusions about how we see ourselves and others in the world. 

I read Small Great Things in one sitting on a cross-country plane ride months ago and have thought about it on and off ever since.  Below is a conversation I had with Picoult after reading the book, when I had the opportunity to ask her about the catalyst for it and how writing this book has changed her.


Seira Wilson: In the Author Notes section of Small Great Things you talk about wanting to write a book about race in America for a long time but it was the case in Flint, MI that got you moving on it.  What was it about that case that was such a catalyst for you?

Jodi Picoult:  It reminded me that I hadn't written a book I really wanted to write.  And I couldn't shake it.  I was following the case, and it was a tiny little line item in the newspaper and I kept digging up stuff on the Internet about it, to find out what was going on with it, and of course in the real-life case after this African-American woman was barred from taking care of the baby, all these black professionals in the hospital banded together and sued the hospital. Yay!  And got a huge payout, which is awesome.  But it made me wonder, that could have gone a really different way, that could have gone badly very quickly. And I began to push the envelope a little.   That was really the impetus for the book, there are obviously very strong parallels between what happened at the beginning of that case and what happens in Small Great Things.

Seira Wilson: Who is your audience for Small Great Things?

Jodi Picoult: My audience is people who look like me, who like to think that we're good people and that we aren't biased, and that we aren't racist.  But we really need to just step back and acknowledge the fact that there are advantages that we've had in life that other people do not.  That is a very big step to take, and one that most white people don't.   It's not like you're mean spirited or a bad person, you just have to start a journey.  And we're all works in progress – God knows I am, I continue to do and say the wrong thing- but I would rather try, and make a mistake, than not discuss this.  And that's where I wish other white people could go…

Seira Wilson: I really like the way you wrote the character of Eva, she's sort of unapologetic about her own upbringing and has her own perspective on how things have changed.

Jodi Picoult: What I really like about Eva is she grows up in the segregated south and she has a lot of history that we know, or have heard about, or read about in today's day and age.  She's not apologizing for that history but you can still see how it effected her as a child and how it still effects her as an adult.  One of my favorite bits in the book is when she talks about how when she saw a water fountain that said "colored" fountain, she expected rainbows.  And it was just water.  And she was expecting magic.  And it wasn't there.  And that belief that something so hurtful to people could be looked at as a child as something special and magic is a really interesting point of view.  So, I loved writing her…

Seira Wilson: You mentioned parents talking to their kids about racism - did you talk to your kids about what you were writing? 

Jodi Picoult:  I was talking more to my older son Kyle, he's a teacher in an inner-city school in Boston which is 98% Latino, and his fiance who is very much a social justice activist and is getting his PhD at Boston College. They were really the ones who made me sit and listen for the first time back when I was like, I'm not a racist, and they were like, um, you kind of are... 

This book is the most painful, uncomfortable thing I've ever written.  Because I had to very much dig down to the bottom of me and realize that I came up lacking....and now I talk about this all the time. I have to say, the most hilarious conversation I've had about racism was with my grandmother who recently passed away at 101, but here I am talking to her about racism.  And I thought, I am not going to make any difference in the world, but that's not a good reason not to say you shouldn't talk about it.  And it's that--it's being with your racist uncle at Thanksgiving and saying something instead of just letting him get away with the bad joke.

Seira Wilson: Is it difficult to share this very personal self-discovery with your readers?

Jodi Picoult: My sea change has been slow and late in coming and it's never too late and it's never too slow--you can still become a different person who really cares about this and who makes others listen and care about it.  And I guess it is very personal, but I wouldn't be asking my readers to do the same if I hadn't done it.


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