Interview with Jodi Picoult
As an award-winning writer Jodi Picoult uses her literary X-ray vision to peer inside homes, family ties, relationships and dark secrets of the heart. Her characters seem unnervingly familiar, her revelations are often disturbing, but the most powerful sense a reader gets while consuming one of her novels is one of being taken into confidence, of being told the sometimes awful sometimes beautiful truth. Her 14th book, “19 Minutes,” is due out this month and is sure to cause a stir. Picoult is getting used to it. Her last book, “The 10th Circle,” opened adult eyes to the new world of hyper-casual sex among teens and her 1998 novel, “The Pact,” struck raw nerves with its topical theme of teen violence, a subject revisited in “19 Minutes.”
As if one career and one super power wasn’t enough, Picoult is busy penning the current series of DC’s Wonder Woman comics, appearing on stands this month. She has lived in Hanover for 10 years where she maintains a sense of domestic decorum between book tours and news flaps, like the one generated recently when her new book was pulled from the required reading list at Hanover High, due to the similarity of its locale, where a school shooting takes place, to the Hanover school campus. When we reached her by phone, she had just finished repairing a teddy bear that had been attacked by the family dog.
So these are exciting times for you, a new book, a new controversy and now a whole new set of fans.
It’s kind of cool because my Wonder Woman issues are going to hit while I’m on tour.
Why in the world are you writing a comic book? You have so much to do.
DC Comics came to me, after “The 10th Circle” was published and they saw the graphic novel in it and they were intrigued. The editor said we would really like you to write some issues of “Wonder Woman” for us. My first instinct was, “Are you kidding? I don’t have time to write Wonder Woman.” Then my kids said, “Are you kidding? You have to write Wonder Woman. It’s so cool mom.”
It was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities. Who doesn’t want to BE Wonder Woman In a way, the whole juggling of family and real job and sideline jobs and all of that is exactly what Wonder Woman is all about.
What a cool thing to be able to say, ”My mom writes Wonder Woman.” And there’s a part of you that always wants to look cool to your kids.
Is writing a comic book harder than you thought?
It is. When I wrote the graphic novel for “The 10th Circle” I was at the mercy of nobody but me. I could do whatever I wanted. I was creating the character, creating the plotline. Wonder Woman comes with a lot of baggage, a lot of history. And the added constraint of knowing that someone is writing issues before me and someone will be writing them after me so there’s continuity and the need to figure story into a very small spot.
You take research for your novels very seriously. How do you research Wonder Woman?
You read every issue of Wonder Woman since the 1940s when she was out fighting the Nazis.
And there are diehard Wonder Woman fans who have written to say, I’m here if you need me. Any continuity checks I need I can run through my editor.
You not only have to read up on Wonder Woman, you have to read up on her villains and the Justice League, because she is part of that. Your due diligence becomes the entire history of Wonder Woman.
You write a lot about what people see as social decline among the young. Aren’t comic books the original demise of Western Civilization via our children?
That’s so true. I’ve been talking about this in regards to my new book as well. At different points in our history there’s always been some scapegoat. Something people can point to and say this is what’s ruining youth today. Comic books were the first one, then we moved onto the music of Elvis Presley moving his hips, then the lyrics of music and parental advisories, then we hit videogames. There’s always something. It’s my opinion that none of that is ruining youth today and youth today are not ruined. But youth today may not truly be what we would like to believe they are.
Well, between the success of super hero-inspired movies and the rise of the graphic novel, comic books seem to have triumphed.
In all the years I’ve been alive, graphic novels are the only genre I can remember the NY Times book review adding a review section for. That’s amazing. Once you get the NY Times stamp of approval, you’re pretty well set.
People of older generation assume that the comic book is the Wham! Slap! Pow! of the original Batman and Robin series. They don’t know how far they have come and what they have evolved into. Characters are not black and white but have so many shades of gray. They have a lot of political and social satire in comic books that you can’t get away with in other media. That’s what makes this industry resonant, vibrant and a survivor.
What don’t people know about Wonder Woman that you hope to reveal to them?
She’s more like you than you think. Most of the heroes that you see in comics are people who have these alter egos as superheroes. The only person who is actually extraterrestrial and slumming as a human is Superman — and Wonder Woman. They really are larger than life. More powerful, quicker. How do you relate to someone who is always going to be different from you? Wonder Woman has never had a lot of connection with the humans she loves so much. To me, that’s a great starting point. What if you spend your whole life taking care of humans but you know you’re never really going to be one of the group. That’s gotta create some kind of doubts in your mind. And what if you are the strongest woman on the earth but there are some parts of yourself you wonder about. There are still issues and fears that you have — emotional ones that have nothing to do with your physical power. Making her more like us. Not fallible physically, but questioning mentally, was something I really wanted to do.
I think the other thing they will be surprised to find is that Wonder Woman is really very funny. She has a great sense of humor in the comic because I never get top be funny in my books. I’ve really enjoyed playing up aspects of her that I think have been underplayed.
Any other female super heroes you have admired?
My all time favorite comic book is the Uncanny X-Men from the 80s and I always liked Jean Gray. People always ask you what super power would you want to have and that’s what I’d want. I’d want to be able to change people’s minds, one at a time. Which in a way is not that different from being a novelist. I find her a very fascinating character .She becomes the Dark Phoenix and has so many different incarnations. That’s a theme I deal with in my novels. Are we really the person we are at any given moment or are we the cumulative sum of all the different sorts of people we have been over the course of a lifetime. Because people constantly reinvent themselves, and no one has reinvented themselves more than poor Wonder Woman who has gone from being an Amazon princess to being on a book tour to running a flower shop.
It’s about the masks you wear. Are you the person behind the mask or the person who appears when you have the mask on.
I’m coming into the writing of Wonder Woman after the murder of Maxwell Lord. Which I found a very interesting psychological piece which was in the [writer Greg] Rucka run. Basically she winds up committing murder in front of this broadcast to humanity. She’s doing it because it’s the only way to save Superman. But it sure doesn’t make her look good. That’s a pretty heavy piece of baggage to carry around.
Comics have influenced movies and movies have influenced novel writing. Since you are such a multi-media artist, I wonder if you think in visuals when writing.
The panel thing has been difficult for me. I think in scenes. It would probably be easier for me to write a Wonder Woman movie than a Wonder Woman comic book. But when I write I see it very visually and I try to write down the movie in my head. Making it seem visual hasn’t been hard, but you have to think of where to stop your panel and hold your dialog and pick up again in the next panel — even what angle you’ll be seeing your next scene from. It’s more a directorial sense than a writer sense. That’ something I’ve really had to try to figure out.
How are you working with your artist?
I actually have two artists The first is a really great guy named Drew Johnson. He has drawn Wonder Woman in the past. The second is Terry Dodson who is doing the Alan Heinberg run right now. They are both very famous artists with a lot of familiarity to Wonder Woman.
Drew has a terrific sense of humor. It’s a total boys club. I imagine that if I worked at DC comics I’d never have to fight to get into the ladies room. I don’t think they have one. Comic books in general is a men’s club. When I found out I was only the second woman who has ever written Wonder Woman in what 50-something years, it seems a little extraordinary to me.
Are you hiding any Easter Eggs in the script, personal touches?
I’m writing everyone I know into this. It’s the little things. My husband’s is on a name plate on a desk, two guards have my son’s names. Agent Kyle and Agent Jake, something like that.
You’ve done cameos in the movies of your books. Are you writing yourself in?
I haven’t asked. It seems presumptuous. But I have to imagine that when Drew draws Wonder Woman, he thinks only of me.
What do you think about the current acceptance of comic books?
There’s still a generation that has such an incorrect belief of what comic books are today, but that generation needs to be taught by the younger generation.
You know, it’s very hard to say who Wonder Woman’s fans are. Is she supposed to be read by teenage girls or by preteen boys because she’s always fighting crime in a bustier that she’s always spilling out of. Are the issues she addresses important to either one of them? She’s a great character, but her books haven’t really looked at who’s reading her and what do they care about.
How did you get into comics? Did you have an older brother?
I had a younger brother. I lived in NY, Long Island, we used to go out on Sunday mornings, my dad and I, we’d go pick up a copy of the Times and he’d let me get a Charms lollipop and a comic book. Now I have a 13-year-old son who is my personal encyclopedia and when I got this job I sat down with him and said, just teach me everything that you know.
Not to get you in trouble with you bosses on Wonder Woman, but were you a DC person or a Marvel person?
I was a total Marvel person. In fact a lot of the Marvel people now work at DC. DC is traditionally the more square-edged, corporate entity. Marvel is edgier. It gets away with more. Their characters are more driven by emotion and flaws and DC is driven by heroism. My comic book, while growing up, was the [Chris] Claremont version of the Uncanny X-Men. There’s rivalry between the two publishers, no question, but I’d like to think, just like in the book business, they are happy if anyone is reading comic books, because it’s all good.
It seems like you are always doing something interesting. I know you co-wrote a play called Bosom Buddies that featured actual breast cancer survivors. What else have you been doing?
I was recently asked to become a guest columnist for “Writer’s Digest.” Again, something I looked at and said, “Oh please.” But my publisher said I should give it a try and I wound up doing a six-month stint there. It was really great. I’ve been in this business now for 15 years and I still remember what it was like to dream about being published. It’s nice to be able to share your experience with people who you know are looking for it. It was a rewarding experience.
And you’ve been working with local kids, I hear.
In addition to the occasional embroidering of a teddy bear’s nose the other thing I’ve been doing for the past three years here in Hanover is I’ve written an original play performed by middle school and high school kids. It’s a group called the Trouble Hall Troupe. A friend of mine directs it. We do them in November and all the proceeds go to raise money for a charity. Last year we raised $3000 for the Zienzele Foundation which support HIV and AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe. It’s run by a woman in Norwich, Vermont and has absolutely no overhead, It was nice for the kids to feel like they were really helping other kids. We had this great moment when she had taken questions from our kids to Africa and she brought the answers back. It was like an Academy Awards ceremony, it was so exciting. Last year we were fortunate to work with a woman named Ellen Wilbur who is a music teacher at the Indian River School in Enfield. She wrote 15 original songs and they were fabulous. She’s doing it all over again for this one. We are just thrilled.
So I may not be able to whip out my golden lasso every now and then, but as a mom it’s important to be able to show your kids that the small changes you make in the world can make a big difference. This is one way I can use something I’m good at to be able to help them do that and have fun in the process.
Ever been asked to pose for a publicity shot in vinyl boots and a tiara?
That would be my dream. I keep waiting for someone to ask.