Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer – ‘We argued at great length’

While I wait for Jodi and Sammy to finish signing, I decide to find out from Tim van Leer – husband and father – how well they really got on when writing together. According to the information in the book they both thoroughly enjoyed it, but you can’t help but feel suspicious. Tim admitted that they fought occasionally, but the most telling thing for him was Sammy’s reaction to what being an author is really like. ‘You mean you actually do this all the time, for a living??’

It must have been good for Jodi Picoult to finally be appreciated for what she does all day, away from the family, up in the office.

As the last fan wanders out of WHS, Jodi stands up to air her behind. It’s sweaty sitting on plastic chairs, and she’s wearing a lovely, but short, white dress, so it’s easy to understand her urge to stand for a while. Jodi looks around and then asks publicity lady Kerry ‘what did you do with my husband?’

Kerry ‘I don’t know.’

I suggest he got bored by the signing, and Jodi says ‘I’m sure it was boring to him.’

Samantha van Leer

Sammy ‘The thing is he wanders off and then we never find him.’

Jodi ‘He also has a cell phone he never answers.’

BW ‘Sounds like a typical husband.’ We laugh, and I sit down next to the two ladies. ‘My legs are tired. You might be sticking to your chair, but I’ve been standing for an hour.’

Sammy ‘How many people came? It felt big. ‘

Jodi ‘I don’t know, I didn’t count.’

BW ‘Yes, it was hard to count with the queue winding all round the shop.’

Sammy ‘You can’t see what’s coming. Hey, look who’s come back!’ Tim van Leer has been found again.

Jodi ‘Hi, what were you shopping for?’

Before they put their pens away, I get my books out for them to sign.

Sammy ‘What is this thing?’

Jodi ‘It’s the British proof.’

BW ‘Which I loved until I saw the colour pictures in that one.’ I point to the hardback.

Jodi ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ She strokes it.

BW ‘Yeah, it’s fantastic. Sammy, did you ever doubt that you could write a book?’

Sammy ‘Uhm, well my grammar isn’t so great,’ she laughs apologetically.

BW ‘I wouldn’t worry about that.’

Sammy ‘But the imagination part. I’ve always had a pretty big imagination, so planning out the entire world within a book, I knew that I could probably do that.’

BW ‘And you Jodi seemed to be fairly sure that she could do it?’

Jodi ‘Since she was tiny, she was writing long long long short stories…’

BW ‘Yes.’

Jodi ‘When she was seven years old, and it was not just diarrhoea of the mouth either,’ we laugh, ‘but things with character and conflict that were actually really interesting.’

Jodi Picoult

BW ‘Sammy, do you think that your Mum’s job helped you feel that writing was OK? Because of what you’d seen her do.’

Sammy ‘Uhm, well, I always saw the glamourous side of being an author. The fans. I saw the finished book, but I never knew what it was actually like, because she’d go up in her office and come down like eight hours later.’

BW ‘And suddenly there was a book.’

Sammy ‘ Now I realise how hard her job is.’

Jodi ‘Not to mention, landing at a bookstore and having to climb up an escape ladder at the back of the loading dock which is really glamourous and interesting.’ She laughs.

BW ‘Sounds good…’

‘It is,’ she says drily, ‘I do this all the time. What people don’t know about.’

BW ‘Was it difficult to not be a mother while writing?’

Jodi ‘I really expected to do that. I thought that I would be very much a mentor in this context, and that I would always have my say. We argued at great length over bits of the story. Some arguments I won, but some of the really big ones, like things that had to do with the creation and the overall development of the story, were things that she advocated very strongly for. Like the way the fairytale was written in an almost dark, creepy Brothers Grimm way. I really thought it should be lighthearted and Shrek-like, and she said “no, no, no, it’s got to be much darker” and I let her explain to me why.

She basically said that if the characters go through all the trauma then the happy ending is much happier. And I said “OK, well that was a good explanation, but I’m still gonna fix it when we’re done.” And we wrote the whole thing and I thought “she’s dead on, she’s right,” and we had a lot of moments like that when I realised that I was treating her much more like an equal when it came to writing, than I had anticipated. That said, I could still go downstairs and say “Sammy, clean your room. It’s a pig sty.” But up in the office we were much more equal.’

BW ‘Yes. What about the author mother in the book? I feel a little unhappy about her.’

Jodi ‘At the end?’

BW ‘Yeah.’

Jodi ‘Well, who said that that’s the end?’

Bw ‘OK, right…’ She laughs delightedly over my reaction. ‘So you are continuing, are you?’

Jodi ‘Yeah, I think there’s a lot in here that’s left open. My adult readers go “oh my god, the kid’s gone!” and all the kids say “this is awesome, it’s a great adventure.”’

BW ‘It’s a generation thing.’

SMALLISH SPOILER AHEAD!

Jodi ‘And you know, I don’t think it is permanent, at least not forever. Oliver’s conversation with him before they make their changes, “If I can see you, you can probably see me, and you know, one day I might want out.” That becomes a whole different situation, so don’t feel bad.’

Samantha van Leer and Jodi Picoult

BW ‘Sammy, would you want to become a full time author?’

Sammy ‘Well, I love to write. I write a lot of poetry, so I know I’ll always be writing. But I’m really interested in early childhood development and psychology, so that’s what I’m probably going to study at college. We were talking about a sequel to this book, so it would be fun to write that.’

BW ‘So you haven’t started yet?’

Jodi ‘No, because she has a really important job first.’

BW ‘Exams?’

Sammy ‘No, college application essays…’

BW ‘Oh, that’s hard work.’

Sammy ‘I’ve got one done.’

BW ‘Wonderful! Jodi, how could you actually fit in writing another book, while writing your own as well?’

Jodi ‘It was actually really difficult. We did it during summer break, and that’s usually my slow time, but even so. This book was very different thematically from what I usually work on and it was hard to shift between the two. It required a whole mind re-set every time I approached each of those books, because they were so incredibly different.’

BW ‘So Sammy, you’re thinking of writing together again, but might you do something on your own?’

Sammy ‘Maybe one day.’

BW ‘Not yet.’

Sammy ‘Not yet, I just have so much of the world to see,’ she laughs. ‘Maybe when I’m settled down, and everything.’ She giggles at the thought.

BW ‘I believe you used to read books by Liz Kessler?’

Jodi ‘You did, they were mermaids tales, weren’t they?’

Sammy ‘Yeah. They used to be soo, oh my god! I loved those books!’

BW ‘We saw Liz last week when she was here for the book festival, and she remembered meeting you, Jodi.’

Jodi ‘Yeah!’

Sammy ‘Thank you, my favourite books! I read them all…’

Samantha van Leer

BW ‘There’s a new one soon, but you have probably grown out of them now. Sammy, do your friends feel jealous about you doing this writing?’

Sammy ‘No, I have a great group of friends. We’ve been best friends since pre-school, and they are all very, very supportive. They’ve read the book, they didn’t tell me they hated it, they all said they loved it, and they are just so great! They told me to take lots of pictures [on the book tour], especially in Australia. And they want to see me holding a koala.’

We laugh. Jodi directs a pair of latecomers towards the books on the shop’s display.

BW ‘Any thoughts of spending all that money?’

Jodi ‘I’ve opened an account for her (they are speaking at the same time, so I can barely hear Sammy). Everything was split down the middle, and she has actually no idea how much. I didn’t want it to be her motivation.’

BW ‘I agree.’

Sammy ‘I’ll probably just leave it, for when I really need it. When I have a family of my own.’

They sign a few more books for the last fans.

BW ‘Jodi, do you think it would have been possible for someone as young as Sammy to get anywhere without your help?’

Jodi ‘Sure. Look at Christopher Paolini.’

BW ‘True.’

Jodi ‘You know, it happens. Definitely, Sammy had a leg-up in that she didn’t have to go out and find an agent. The other thing that Sammy had, to get the idea from here (she points at her head), and that’s actually hard for a lot of adults too, so that’s where she had a leg-up.

And was it an advantage for her to be able to use my agent? You bet. Is it an advantage to have my name on the book? Yeah, but I actually think that this story which really was completely conceived by her would have found a home. It would have taken longer. The thing is, a lot of kids will grow up before that happens, and a lot of kids will get distracted.’

BW ‘Yes.’

Jodi ‘I do think it would have been eventually published.’

Jodi Picoult

BW ‘I agree, I think it’s a wonderful book. And I believe that’s about my ten minutes over.’

Jodi ‘You got it! Excellent.’

BW ‘It’s been good to speak to you.’

Jodi ‘Good to see you, Ann.’

BW ‘I felt it’s such a special thing. A first book like this is never going to happen again.’

Jodi ‘I know. I actually had a blast writing it. It’s going to be hard to go back to doing it all by myself, being lonely on the road, and all that…’

We talk about children leaving home, and how that will feel, when they are all gone. Sammy has two older brothers, ‘she’s our baby, so after her we can only adopt a dog.’

We almost stray onto the subject of co-writing books with a dog, but decide to leave it.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

2 responses to “Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer – ‘We argued at great length’

  1. Pingback: Samantha van Leer and Jodi Picoult spill the beans | Bookwitch

  2. Great interview. I love the photos!!! :)

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