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Fairytale start for Picoult and child
7:00am Saturday 18th August 2012 in NewsXtra
Best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult and her teenage daughter Samantha Van Leer talk about their first book collaboration, Between The Lines, a fairytale with a difference. Mother and daughter reflect on the ups and downs of working together and Van Leer reveals what it's like to grow up with a famous mum.
By Hannah Stephenson
Tackling difficult issues like sexual abuse, assisted suicide, school shootings and organ donation, Jodi Picoult's stories don't often end with a 'happily ever after'.
So, in writing a fairytale for young adults with her 16-year-old daughter, Samantha Van Leer, has Britain's biggest-selling female adult fiction author gone soft?
Apparently not. This is not your run-of-the-mill story, as it involves a fairytale prince called Oliver trying to escape the pages of a book and making contact with Delilah, a 15-year-old loner who is shunned by most of her classmates and has become obsessed with the book in which the prince appears.
It's a far cry from the young adult fiction world of vampires and werewolves which has taken off in recent years thanks to the Twilight series. But Jodi and Sammy are aiming for a slightly younger target audience, from age eight upwards.
Jodi credits her daughter with the idea, although Jodi's name is in bigger print on the front cover. And Sammy is aware that some might accuse her of nepotism.
"I know that her name has definitely helped me in this," she admits. "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."
Indeed, 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 the collaboration resulted in two years of weekends, school holidays and evenings spent side by side at Jodi's computer, crafting the story.
"We took turns typing and literally spoke every sentence out loud," Jodi recalls. "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."
But they didn't have many creative differences while they worked on the novel together.
"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's job wasn't made any easier considering she was writing another book at the same time - 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 that and Between The Lines was like whiplash."
Writing together has brought the pair closer and has given Sammy a greater understanding of what her mother does for a living.
"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 reflects.
Jodi, 46, a jovial mother-of-three from New Hampshire, goes into a different, darker world from her happily-married, affluent 'schoolmom' life when she writes her adult novels. Her office overlooks Moose Mountain at the large colonial-style family home, set in 11 acres.
Sammy recalls the hours her mother would spend up in that office when she was younger, but she didn't begrudge the time she spent working.
"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."
She was, however, aware that her mother was famous. "It was a little bit weird when we'd be on a family vacation and someone would come up and ask to take a picture. But to me she's just a normal mum that cooks dinner and tells me to clean my room."
Jodi, who won the Richard & Judy Best Book award in 2005 for her novel My Sister's Keeper, had a blissfully normal childhood herself. She was born on Long Island, New York. Her mother was a nursery school teacher while 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.
She married her college sweetheart, Tim Van Leer, an antiques dealer, and gave up work to look after their three children when they were small, but when her husband came home she'd hand them over to him and escape to write.
She received hundreds of rejections, finally finding an agent, but her books were a slow burn, receiving attention by word of mouth rather than advertising. It wasn't until her fifth or sixth book that she became noticed in America and it was with My Sister's Keeper that she found fame in Britain.
So could this be the start of an illustrious writing career for Sammy?
"I heard my mum say earlier that the next thing I'm going to write will be my college application," she laughs. "But we have talked about a sequel to this."
Sammy will be the last of the children to leave home for college, 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 sort of 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."
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 by Jodi Picoult & Samantha Van Leer is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £12.99. Available now