“Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Test yourself,” urged Colson Whitehead, the National Book Award winner for 2016’s masterly novel The Underground Railroad (an LJ Top Ten Best Book). Addressing a large audience of mostly students from New York University’s School of Professional Studies (NYUSPS) Center for Publishing program, the author’s advice might have been a challenge to the world at large, suggesting that deepened knowledge and increased self-awareness are what we all need to stay sane in such unsettling and unpredictable times.
The February 15 panel, discussion “Challenging Topics, Challenging Times: Four Best-Selling Authors Reflect upon Culture, Creativity, and Changing the Conversation,” was held at the school’s Kimmel Center for University Life in lower Manhattan as part of the NYU “Media Talk” series. Joining Whitehead was nonfiction author/TV journalist Jeffrey Toobin (American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst; a 2016 LJ Top Ten Best Book) and novelists Lauren Oliver (Replica; Before I Fall) and Jodi Picoult (Small Great Things; The Storyteller).
Moderator Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of multiple titles, including Parenting, Inc., opened the conversation by asking each panelist to recall a host of “firsts.” First jobs (Toobin babysat, Whitehead scooped ice cream); first story (at age five, Picoult wrote “The Lobster That Was Misunderstood”; a nine-year-old Oliver penned her first novel about frontiersmen; Whitehead dreamed of writing a black version of Stephen King’s The Shining); and the moment they first realized they wanted to become a writer. “I always wrote,” said Oliver, a statement that had everyone on the panel nodding in agreement.
Topics then veered into creating literature in today’s political climate, who has the right to tell whose story, factual accuracy, and the role of reading in our lives. Discussing her latest novel, Small Great Things, about racism in America told mainly from the viewpoint of a black labor and delivery nurse who loses her job when she disobeys orders not to touch the baby of white supremacists, Picoult, who is white, says she was determined to convey an authentic voice. She had the story heavily vetted by people who lived the experiences she was writing about. “I was writing [this story] to white people and felt qualified to write to this audience,” said the author. Based on real-life events, the novel will soon be made into a movie starring Julia Roberts and Viola Davis.
On the heels of Picoult’s reflections, Whitehead commented that “you can write across gender and race if you write with intelligence and empathy. If you get it wrong, try again.” Crafting The Underground Railroad, which takes readers on a soul-wrenching and revelatory journey of a young slave’s quest for freedom in the antebellum South, required the author to study rigorously the history of slavery. “Getting it right,” he said, was very important and meant pretty much “rebooting every chapter.” Toobin, whose American Heiress recounts the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst yet involved no collaboration with Hearst herself, felt “no moral quandary” about re-creating Hearst’s story, minus a few facts. Both Picoult and Toobin include complete “Author Notes” in their works that describe their research process and intention.
Not surprisingly, author ideas for new projects have shifted dramatically since the November presidential election. Toobin, who is a legal analyst for CNN and was reporting to the newsroom following the panel, isn’t keen on writing a book anytime soon. “I can’t even think of what’s going to be news in the next two weeks. It’s going to take a while to understand larger themes,” he said. According to Oliver, who writes a whopping 1,500 words per day and often works on several books simultaneously, “Now is a time to be excited about reading—fiction gives us a place to crawl into.” Whitehead, who prior to the election was excited about that crime novel he’s always wanted to write, now plans to turn to a project on institutional racism. Picoult, who was on tour with Small Great Things in Sydney, Australia, during the election, revealed that she quickly “became the spokesperson for America,” telling everyone she could find, “this is the book America needs to read now.”
One idea solidified by this fascinating conversation is that all Americans need to keep reading.