If writing fiction were an Olympic track event, Jodi Picoult would be a gold medalist. At 42, Picoult has published 16 books and has become one of the world's best-selling novelists. Often described as a writer who straddles the line between literary and commercial fiction, she is known for her artful family dramas that play on hot-button, ripped-from-the-headlines themes, such as spousal abuse and euthanasia. Her latest novel, Handle With Care, centers on the family of Willow O'Keefe, a smart, beautiful little girl with brittle bone disease. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Picoult (pronounced PEA-co) at her home in New Hampshire. (See the top 10 fiction books of 2008.)
I'm guessing that writer's block is not one of your problems.
When I started writing, I had a newborn baby and then I very quickly had his brother and sister. I didn't have time for writer's block. I wrote every few minutes that the kids were napping or at nursery school or watching Barney on television. Because of that, I learned how to really sit down quickly and focus when I needed to. I've always sort of believed that writer's block is a luxury for people who have time on their hands. If you don't, you don't get it.
Tell me about Willow, the little girl in your new novel.
Willow is a little girl who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), which is commonly known as brittle bone disease. Willow has the most severe form you can have without dying at birth. She will have hundreds to thousands of bone breaks over the course of a lifetime. She'll wind up with curvature of the spine. She'll have a compromised respiratory system because of the shape of her ribcage. She'll never be more than about three feet tall. It's a very tough physical existence. But these kids are really, really bright. They are a terrific group of kids. If you meet kids with OI, they're usually sweet and funny and so much more than the sum of their disability, which is probably, the biggest lesson that Willow can give us as a character.
Tell me about Charlotte, her mother.
Charlotte is one of these conflicted mothers who thinks she truly is trying to do the best thing she can for her child, which I think many of us do. But unfortunately she's doing it with blinders on and she's not seeing the repercussions of her actions. Charlotte loves her daughter to death but, as often as is the case in America, she is completely financially strapped by caring for a disabled child. And insurance doesn't cover it. And she winds up figuring out, with the help of an attorney, that if she sues her obstetrician for wrongful birth, she might end up with a payout that will allow her to take care of Willow for the rest of her life in comfort. The catch is that she has to stand up in court and say, "If I had known that Willow was going to have this disease, I would have terminated the pregnancy." And that's a very real part of a wrongful birth suit. No parent I interviewed for this book who had sued for wrongful birth actually ever felt that way. They love their kids to death, but they really need a way to pay for their existence and, even more importantly, to take care of their children after they themselves are gone. (See the best and worst moms of all time.)
You sound like a reporter the way you do research for these
books. What did you do for this one?
There was a great deal of legal research involved because it does center around a lawsuit, but I also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with families that have children who have OI. I would follow these kids around all day. I would go to school with them. I'd go to physical therapy with them. I remember at one home the mom said, "Will you take Matthew out of the car?" I was like, sure. I'm driving in the van with her. So I get out of the car and I go into the back seat and I just totally panicked, realizing that all I have to do is bump into this kid the wrong way and he could wind up with a break. And what if I'm the one who causes his next fracture? And of course this is something these parents feel every minute of their lives. It was a really sort of jarring moment for me. (See the top 10 non-fiction books of 2008.)
What's your writing routine? Are you a morning person?
I usually get up at about five o'clock and I do a three-mile walk with a friend of mine. We've done that for a decade now. I come back, get the kids off to school with my husband, and then I go up to my office and answer fan mail for about an hour or so online. Then I pick up whatever I've been writing the day before and read through it on the screen, editing as I go. When I get to the bottom, I just start writing again. I do that until about 3:30 or so when the kids come home and I magically turn into a mom again.
Your husband is a stay at home dad, isn't he?
Yes. He also runs an antique business.
How does that work out?
It's great because we can both plan our time around our kids and what they're doing. If I need him to be home, for example, because I'm going on a book tour on Tuesday for a full month, I know he can be here to take the kids wherever they need to go and he can work out of the house if he needs to.
Do you enjoy the official parts of being an author? Going out
and meeting people?
I actually do like it. I think I'm at the point where I probably don't have to tour. My books, I imagine, would sell okay even if I weren't out there hawking them. But on the other hand, that's the part that you don't get from a list of sales figures on a page. When you go on tour, you get to meet the people who are actually reading your books. You get to hear their stories about how [your] books affected them, and I just love that. That's the piece of the equation that's usually missing if you don't go out on tour.
Did you always know that you were going to be a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer. I didn't know I'd actually be a successful writer. Yes, I would have written even if nobody ever read anything. It's just far more gratifying when people do.
You got married early, at 23. You have three children. How
in the world did you balance that with your work?
I don't know. I look back on that and think, wow. I think I picked the right guy. That's the best way to put it. The big surprise isn't that I manage to write and have kids; the big surprise is that I stayed married in the middle of all that. I used to literally throw the kids at my husband when he got home after a full day of work, and then he would watch them all night while I wrote. A lot of people don't have that luxury. But again, if you really, really want to do it, if you really, really want to write, you will. Even now the kids still come first. I have managed to fly almost 24 hours straight in order to be home for a school play. I geared my entire book tour this year around an acappella concert. And you manage to do what you have to do in order to still be a good mom and be a good writer.