New York Times best-sellers David Baldacci and Jodi Picoult have sold millions of books worldwide. On Wednesday, they came to Yale to speak alongside John Grisham at a Calhoun Master’s Tea and later at Woolsey Hall. WEEKEND caught up with them at The Study, where they spoke about how they became writers, whether their books are entertainment or literature, and how Steve Jobs has helped them sell books.
Q. When did you both first realize that writing was going to be a career and not just a hobby?
P. I was in college. I went [to Princeton] because they had a great undergraduate creative writing program. When I was a junior there I actually sold a short story to Seventeen magazine. I called my mom up and said, “Mom, I’m going to be a writer,” and she said, “That is so great … who’s going to support you?” So I did not graduate and become a writer. I actually spent two years doing a whole series of jobs. I got married, I got pregnant. But I had been writing all along and I knew I was going to be at home with a newborn (who is now a junior at Yale!). I basically said, “Well, I’m going to see if I can get an agent,” and she was the one that pitched my book which sold in three months. And at that point I said, “I’m going to continue writing because it’s easier than teaching eighth-grade English.”
B. One day my mom bought me a blank [notebook] because I would always tell these crazy stories all the time, usually to get myself out of trouble. Years later she said it was just to shut me the hell up because she was so tired of hearing all the stories. I got hooked on the idea that you could write stories with words on a page … and I started writing short stories [and scripts]. [Later,] I was practicing law, but it wasn’t like I got up in the morning and thought, “Thank you God for giving me another chance to sue and destroy people.”
Q. Do you say “Thank you God” when you get up in the morning now?
B. Every day; every day.
Q. Both of you are very prolific and successful writers, which begs the question: what’s the routine you go through every time you sit down to write?
P. For me it’s very practical. Because I wrote all of my books when my kids were very young and because I was also the primary caretaker at the time of those three children, I wrote when school was in session. So the kids would go off to school at 7:30 a.m., I would go up to my computer and sit there till 3 p.m. when I would magically turn into a mom again. And I would take my laptop with me to softball games or to play practice or to any of the places where my kids were, and I’d just work when I could.
B. I think there’s no perfect place to write. Now, some writers think, “I need to have the same desk, sunlight slanting through the window,” but the best place to write is in your head. If you’re in the groove you can write anywhere. I tend to write in big bursts; I don’t really count words. I find writers who count words don’t really like writing — they’re just doing it so they can go play golf or go eat.
Q. And how do you view your work? Are you writing entertainment, are you writing novels?
P. Let me get on my soapbox! We write commercial fiction. The distinction between literary and commercial fiction is an extremely arbitrary one, and it is a constantly shifting line. I believe Yale itself is offering a course on “Harry Potter” this year and how it ties into religious doctrine. We are what people read. We are what people like to read. That’s not to say that I don’t read literary fiction — I do! I read all kinds of fiction! I think that any kind of reading is great. But where we start to get into trouble is when you assume that all literary fiction is good writing and all commercial fiction is bad writing. There is some literary fiction that is really atrocious and some commercial fiction that is really well-written. I would also say that today’s classics were yesterday’s commercial fiction. I would like to revisit this question in a hundred years, and let’s see if Grisham is still on the shelves. I bet he will be, and I bet “Harry Potter” will be, too.
B. I think [the debate over what is literature] weakens the whole industry. We’re the only industry that has this infighting. You look at the movie industry and they promote all movies equally, and they review movies based on what they’re supposed to be. You won’t have a reviewer looking at a big blockbuster summer hit and trying to compare it using the same rigid standard used for a movie that’s worthy of an Oscar. Reviewers of books compare everything to a classic … can’t we all just get along? It makes it better for everybody. I find it astonishing that people think that a book is only good if a few people can read it.
Q. Speaking of reading, what are your favorite books?
P. The book that probably changed my life and made me want to be a writer was “Gone with the Wind.” I read it when I was 13 years old, and I used to act out scenes as both Rhett and Scarlett – which is why I didn’t have a boyfriend till I was 15! It was the first book that made me stop and think, “Oh my gosh! She made a whole world out of words.” And I thought, I want to do that, I really want to try that.
B. Growing up in the South, wanting to be a short-story writer, I at first fell in love with Flannery O’Connor and adored all her works. And also Truman Capote. When I was in high school and later in college the writer who captivated me was John Irving. All writers have to find their own voice at some point, but those were writers who also really influenced me. You fall in love with that storyteller.
Q. On that note, what’s your favorite book of your own that you’ve written?
P. My favorite is “Second Glance.” It deals with a period of history that very few people know about when America was in the business of racial hygiene before Hitler. It had some of the best research I’ve ever done — I got to spend time ghost-hunting, which was a blast. It also was a technically complex book to put together, and I felt like I succeeded.
B. For me it would be “Wish You Well.” I interviewed my own mother [for the novel]. What I found interesting about that was she was recalling events from 50 years ago in really explicit detail. I asked her, “How do you remember all this stuff?” And she said, “Well, when you grow up like that you never forget.” I thought that was very profound.
Q. So lately there’s been a huge media frenzy about the development of e-books and self-publishing. How do you feel that your industry is going to evolve in the next few years?
P. It’s going to change a lot. And it will change by the time you finish this interview. Here’s what I will tell you: the book is not dead. Reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. There will always be people who want a physical hardcover copy. I think people in America will probably be willing to pay a small premium to be able to have a multitude of formats that they can switch between. I think when publishing stops thinking about their bottom line and starts thinking about the consumer, we’re going to start to see that evolution. Of course no one ever listens to me because I’m just a writer.
B. I think what people need to understand on the consumer side is that just because you can download a book doesn’t mean that it should be free. Writers have gone through a turbulent time the last couple of years where you have lots of people reviewing not your book, but the price of the book. People have to keep in mind that the content is king, and that’s what valuable about it. I give the analogy of the movie industry. When you want to see the next blockbuster with Leonardo [DiCaprio], and the movie price is 10 bucks, offer them five. See what they say. You’re paying for Leonardo the same way you’re paying for Jodi Picoult! She shouldn’t be free.
Q. Do you foresee your popularity or sales changing because of the way the industry is changing?
P. My last book for the first time had a higher percentage of e-sales than print book sales. But the overall number of sales increased from my previous hardcover. So, no.
B. Steve Jobs has done a great service to the publishing industry. iPads make an excellent e-reader. All of a sudden you have people who have this iPad who are used to downloading music, downloading movies, and they say, “What’s this e-book thing? You can download books with this? Oh! Just click a button and I’ve got a book. So I think that helped a lot.