On a steamy Friday night in Brisbane I was privileged to head along to City Hall and see one of my favourite authors, Jodi Picoult, in conversation with Brisbane’s own Frances Whiting. Jodi has been touring the country talking about her latest book, ‘Small Great Things’. This bestselling author of over twenty novels is never afraid to tackle the tough topics: suicide, organ donors, aspergers, nazism and eugenics have been previous themes.
Yet with ‘Small Great Things’ she may have tackled the toughest topic of all- racism. Jodi is scarily articulate and did not shy away from talking about controversial topics. She addressed Lionel Shriver’s speech in Brisbane recently, Donald Trump’s election and the incidence of racism in America. She told the audience that she’d tried twenty-five years ago to write about the topic of racism but didn’t feel ready.
About Small Great Things
Jodi’s books always ask the ‘What if?’ questions and then explore the viewpoints of her differing characters. In ‘Small Great Things’ a white supremacist Father called Turk has left instructions that a nurse, Ruth (who is a woman of colour) cannot touch his baby. So what if the baby goes into cardiac arrest? What is Ruth to do? Ruth sees no option but to assist. The baby dies and Ruth is charged with negligent homicide. The story follows the lives of Ruth, Turk and Kennedy McQuarrie (the lawyer who defends Ruth) as the trial progresses.
Jodi’s Research for the Book
This all takes meticulous research. To prepare herself for writing this book Jodi spoke at length to a group of African American women. The quote that resonated most with me was when an African American woman asked Jodi how often she spoke about racism with her children, “Whenever the topic comes up, when things happen that need to be talked about,” said Jodi. The woman replied, “I speak to my sons about racism every day just to keep them safe . It’s a matter of life and death.”
I still have tears in my eyes as I write this, as a mother and a mother of sons. Jodi told the story of a young woman who had gone to Vassar (a prestigious college in New York) , “Long after finishing college she would still carry the Vassar water bottle everywhere with her to let the white people know they were safe around her.”
During her writing of the novel Jodi would run chapters past these women to ensure her main character Ruth’s voice and actions were authentic. She spoke to former white supremacists to find the voice of Turk. They told her that these groups target high schools and indoctrinate the most vulnerable into their white supremacist ideology.
Jodi researched the law to write about the white middle class lawyer- Kennedy McQuarrie. Picoult said, “In American courtrooms race is never brought up. It’s the one thing you should never talk about. “The main character Ruth must convince her lawyer that race needs to be included in her case. She even shouted out to her legion of fans in the Twitterverse when she needed to know what it was like working in McDonalds.
Jodi comes from New Hampshire and is first and foremost the proud mother of three children. Her face lights up when she speaks about them. Frances noticed that although the novel’s themes seem heavy, one of the ultimate themes is love. Jodi agreed and said that she often went back to the memories of her own children when writing scenes. ‘ I would hang out with my kids even if they weren’t mine. They are just great individuals.”
Jodi is a disciplined writer who runs or walks with friends early in the morning, then writes from 7:30 am until four in the afternoon when she turns into a mother and wife again.
Her favourite of her own novels has always been ‘Second Glance’ until now, “I just can’t let this one go. It’s still swirling around in my head. I’ve usually started my next book by now. I know what it’s going to be about (and I’m not telling you what that is!) but I’m just not ready to let this one go yet.”
I’m a fan of all Jodi’s books but to date my favourite’s are ‘House Rules’ ‘Lone Wolf’ and ‘Leaving Time’. Looking at the huge line up of fans waiting eagerly to get their books signed I know I’m not alone. Jodi Picoult’s latest novel ‘Small, Great Things’ may just be her most significant work to date. The title was inspired by a quote from Martin Luther King Jr who said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” A timely reminder for all of us in these uncertain days. What small things can you do today?