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October 14, 2016

Big Ideas Night at Random House with SMALL GREAT THINGS


Following the wild success of their Open House program, Random House has expanded their event list to include Big Ideas Night: evenings dedicated to a single book that asks readers to consider big, important themes, motifs and questions. This month, bestselling author Jodi Picoult discussed her latest book, SMALL GREAT THINGS, which shines a light on racial tensions, justice, and the gray area between our morals and our actions. Given the timely subject of her book, Jodi seemed like a natural choice, and her fans couldn't have been happier to meet up at Random House's beautiful NYC office to enjoy wine, hors d'ouvres and time to speak with the author.

The day coincided with the publication date for SMALL GREAT THINGS --- though many of the audience members already had received an advance copy of the book at the recent Open House, which included a book club discussion of the novel. Jodi arrived looking beautiful in a black and pink dress, and took the stage to great applause. Joining her was John Searles, Editor-at-Large of Cosmopolitan magazine, who is an author himself.

To start, John asked Jodi about her inspiration for SMALL GREAT THINGS. Jodi explained that it has always been her goal to write about the things that keep her up at night. Twenty-five years ago, Jodi was living in New York City and read a story about an African American undercover policeman who was shot and killed by his white colleagues. Although Jodi literally lost sleep over the event, she knew that she was not yet ready professionally to discuss it. She also knew that, as a white woman, it was not her story to tell. Every time she tried, her words were inauthentic and stilted --- not to mention lacking the true pain and anguish of a person who has experienced racism. Vowing not to make a horrible mistake, Jodi put her idea on the backburner for several years.

In 2012, Jodi read a story of an African American nurse who helped deliver the baby of a white supremacist family and was promptly banned from aiding the family any further. Although the case settled out of court, it struck a chord with her, and she began steps to write this book. This time, however, she was much more educated on the topic and ready not to tell people of color how hard it is to live in a racially insensitive world, but rather to speak to privileged white Americans about the ways in which they act towards people of color.

John asked Jodi to expand upon her research process, which was not only long but extremely emotionally draining. Jodi attended a racial justice workshop that she claims left her in tears every night as she realized all the ways that her privileges had allowed her to become who she is while holding back others. She explained that learning about the opportunities she has had simply because of her skin color was jarring and eye-opening.

Jodi then embarked upon over 100 hours of interviews with women of color who were "generous with [her] ignorance." Not only did they vet the voice of Ruth, Jodi's African American character, they shared their own stories as well --- many of which left Picoult startled and afraid.

Of course, Ruth is not the only interesting character in SMALL GREAT THINGS, as Jodi also writes from the perspective of a white supremacist --- an act that she says forced her to shower immediately after writing, as she felt so disgusting. Although Jodi did not speak to any active supremacists, she was lucky enough to find two reformed skinheads who explained how they became wrapped up in a racial feud and the steps it took to bring them back to reality.

One of my favorite things about Big Ideas Night is the audience: I've always found the attendees to be smart, inquisitive people who ask amazing questions. Many of the audience members asked Jodi how they could begin conversations about race with their children, families and friends. Jodi's response was to use the characters as a vehicle, and examine how and why they act the way they do. From there, she explained, it is important to look at yourself and begin asking questions about race.

Jodi ended on the poignant note that while readers discussing race for the first time will probably make mistakes, it is far more important to learn from them than to avoid race altogether, especially today.  For readers interested in learning more, her site has discussion guides and additional information.