A family affair

Novelist Jodi Picoult has written a book with her daughter. Hannah Stephenson reports

JODI Picoult’s stories of sexual abuse, assisted suicide, school shootings and organ donation don’t often end happily. But now, Picoult, with her 16-year-old daughter, Samantha Van Leer, has co-written a fairytale for young adults. Has Britain’s biggest-selling female-adult-fiction author gone soft?

Between The Lines involves a prince, Oliver, trying to escape the pages of the book in which he ‘lives’ to make contact with Delilah, a 15-year-old loner. She is shunned by her classmates and obsessed with Oliver’s book.

The target audience is age eight upwards. Jodi credits her daughter with the idea. Sammy is aware she might be accused of nepotism. “I know that her name has definitely helped me in this,” she says. “She has definitely given me a leg-up in the process. She already had an agent, so we didn’t need to find me one. But I know that we wrote this book together, so I’m not worried.”

Sammy thought of the idea when she was daydreaming in a French class three years ago. She phoned her mum, who was on a book tour in Los Angeles, and they collaborated for two years of weekends, holidays and evenings at Jodi’s computer.

“We took turns typing and literally spoke every sentence out loud,” Jodi says. “I learned that if you think it’s hard to get your daughter to clean her room, it’s even harder to get her to stay focused on finishing a chapter when it’s nice outside.”

They didn’t have many creative differences. “We argued, politely, about the simple stuff, like whether Oliver should have black hair or blond hair — and I won that argument,” says Jodi. “Sammy wanted the fairytale sections to be dark and creepy and gothic, but I wanted them to be light-hearted and sort of Shrek-like. She said ‘absolutely not’.

“I thought, ‘I’ll let her write it that way, then I’ll fix it’, but she was right and we did it her way.”

Jodi was also writing another book — on the Holocaust. “It was a real challenge, because the adult book I was writing at the same time was very dark and depressing, so to have to shift between them was like whiplash.”

Writing together has given Sammy an understanding of her mother’s work. “I always watched her just go up into her office and, eight hours later, come back down. I never really knew what she was doing. And, after living through it, I know just how hard she works,” Sammy says.

Jodi, 46, a jovial mother-of-three from New Hampshire, goes into a darker world from her happily-married, affluent life when she writes. Her office overlooks Moose Mountain, at the large colonial-style family home on 11 acres.

Sammy recalls when she was younger and the hours her mother spent in that office. “I let her do her thing. I just never really knew quite what she did. I guess I always saw the glamorous side of her life. On her book tours, all I saw were her fans and the big events and the dinners. I never saw how much she was working, all the plane rides.”

Jodi, who won the Richard & Judy best book award in 2005, for her novel My Sister’s Keeper, had a normal childhood. She was born on Long Island, New York. Her mother was a nursery school teacher, her father worked on Wall Street. After studying English and creative writing at Princeton University, she had a succession of jobs — in finance, editing textbooks, teaching and writing advertising copy — while writing in her spare time.

Jodi married her college sweetheart, Tim Van Leer, an antiques dealer, and gave up work to look after their three children. When her husband came home, he would mind the children and Jodi would write.

She received hundreds of rejections, before finding an agent. Her books were a slow-burn, by word-of-mouth rather than advertising. It wasn’t until her fifth book that she was noticed in America; My Sister’s Keeper made her famous in Britain.

Sammy will be the last of the children to leave home, but Jodi says she’s not worried about empty-nest syndrome. “I don’t worry about it as much as my husband does. I like to think there’s an opportunity there to spend a lot of time travelling and for him to come on tour with me, which he hasn’t been able to do, because he’s been with the kids. I think it’s going to be a new adventure. Plus, we’ll stalk her at college.”

The writing career may have just started for Sammy, but she cannot, even in her wildest fairytale dreams, see her books gaining the success that JK Rowling has enjoyed with Harry Potter.

“I don’t know how JK Rowling did it, because she made so many complicated twists and turns and rules and spells. I don’t know how she kept it all in her head,” Sammy says.

While Jodi may not have too many happy endings in her adult novels, she and her daughter agree that the moral to Between The Lines is that everyone deserves a happy ending.

For the Picoult family, that shouldn’t be a problem.

* Between The Lines is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £12.99. Available now


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