Jodi Picoult wants new book to be a "springboard" for race conversation

In 24 years, author Jodi Picoult has written 26 novels – the last eight of which all debuted at number one on the New York Times Best Sellers list. 

Picoult has tackled difficult topics, including cancer, sexual abuse and the Holocaust. But even this bestselling author had trouble writing about one thing. After several attempts, Picoult has finally overcome the barrier of writing about race with her newest novel, “Small Great Things” – one she said was the hardest she’s ever written.

“Because race is hard to talk about. It’s really hard to talk about without offending someone, and so as a result, we often choose not to talk about it at all,” Picoult told “CBS This Morning” Tuesday.  

Picoult said the story of race was “not my story to tell in many ways” because she could not write from an “authentic point,” being a white woman of privilege. But she came across a news story about a discrimination lawsuit out of Michigan, which became the inspiration behind her book.

The case involved an African-American nurse with 20 years of experience on a labor and delivery ward. After helping deliver a baby, the newborn’s father called in the nurse’s supervisor to say, “I don’t want her or anyone who looks like her to touch my kid,” before revealing a swastika tattoo on his arm.  The hospital then noted on the baby’s file that “no African-American personnel to touch this infant.”

The nurse sued and got a payout, but Picoult found herself asking several questions.

“What if I could take that and turn it into a novel? What if that nurse was alone with the child when something went wrong? If as a result of that, she wound up on trial with a white public defender who, like me, like many of my friends, would never say I’m a racist? And what if I could tell the story in alternating points of views that every narrator had to examine their beliefs about power and privilege and race?” Picoult said.

With those questions in mind, Picoult sat down with women of color for over 100 hours of conversations, as well as two former skinheads who explained to her why they got into and out of “a life of hate.”

“If they can change, doesn’t it stand to reason that ordinary people can, too?” Picoult said.  

The book’s title is a reminder that the individual actions of people count. The title comes from a quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”

“Although racism is big and messy and systematic and institutional, it is both perpetuated and dismantled in individual acts. And I felt that really spoke to the message of the book and the knowledge that happens in the novel as these two women – the public defender and the nurse – begin to build a relationship,” Picoult explained. 

With heightened racial tensions in the country, Picoult said she hopes her book would “provide a vocabulary that is a springboard” to talk about racism.

“We will make mistakes. It’s better to make mistakes, learn a bit, then move forward,” Picoult said, “than to not talk about it... and to understand that we all have it.”