Q&A With Jacquelyn Mitchard

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Q&A With Jacquelyn Mitchard

 My latest Q&A is with New York Times Bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard. Some of Jacquelyn’s work is Deep End of the Ocean, A Theory of Relativity, Second Nature: A Love Story, & Two If By Sea: A Novel.  Her recent novel The Good Son is available to buy. Jacquelyn is also a journalist and has taught in the MFA in Creative Writing programs at several colleges. Jacquelyn’s work has been featured in Newsweek, Ms., Reader’s Digest, Harper’s, Good Housekeeping, Hallmark, Real Simple and many other publications. 

Q: Would you tell the readers of the blog and I about your recent novel The Good Son?

A: It’s a story about two mothers, neighbors and friends: The son of one of them was convicted of killing the daughter of the other. The two young people had been in love since seventh grade. As the son finishes his term for manslaughter, Thea, the main character, must help her son try to start his life over again in a world that doesn’t want him, and part of this process is admitting she doesn’t really know what happened on the night of Belinda’s death. As she discovers what really did happen, amidst a nationwide campaign against dating violence started by the other parent, she is shocked by the discrepancies and sets out to find the truth, whatever hurt it may bring to her. 

Q: Your first novel, Deep End of the Ocean, was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book club. How did that feel knowing Oprah selected your novel and read it for her book club? 

A: It was simply great, nothing at all negative about the process, just a great deal of fun, surprise and validation. It almost did not happen. When Oprah Winfrey left her first voice message on my little answering machine (“This is Oprah Winfrey and I have loved ‘The Deep End of the Ocean’ more than I have loved any other book I’ve read in the past ten years ..”) I just erased it because I thought it was one of my girlfriends horsing around with me. I did that the second time as well. The third time, the young journalism intern from the university who was working for me said, “Hey, Jack, I think that really is Oprah Winfrey because listen to how mad she is!” And she was. She was saying, “This is Oprah Winfrey and I don’t even know if you live here but if you do, could you at least do me the courtesy of returning my phone call?” She didn’t have a book club planned but one of her producers suggested that and it was an immediate hit. By the night the first book was announced, there were 4,000 holds on it at the New York Public Library alone. Really, that event gave me the privilege of telling stories for a living, at least for part of my living. It was just enormous fun.

Q: How do you juggle being an author with teaching and raising a family?

A: I have always had the energy of ten people, and, though I’m afraid that it’s making me buggy after all these years, I’ve always had a zeal to do and try many things, as well as pass along some of the knowledge I’ve gleaned about writing and the best possible practices in writing. I’m also a freelance editor helping other writers shape their narratives into books that will get published and reach out to many readers. Most of my children are grown up now, but I still have two in high school and two in college. Fortunately, they have been good people – which really comes down to luck more than anything else it seems – and so while taking care of so many people has its challenges, overall, I’ve had more fun than distress and worry.

Q: When did you realize that writing was what you wanted to do with your life? 

A: Not really until my first book was completed. I didn’t always plan to be a writer. I only took a single creative writing course in college (although it was quite an epic course with perhaps the best writing instructor ever born, Mark Costello) and I worked as a newspaper reporter. The great novelist Jane Hamilton encouraged me to try writing a novel right after the early death of my first husband, when I was just mired in despair and confusion. I used to fax pages to her and ask, is this like creative writing? And she would write back, yes, keep going. I never imagined that my first novel would end up in 34 languages with 3 million copies in print. But it was a signal to me that this was something I could do that would make a difference. Now, not everything thinks that it’s a particularly good difference. There are many critics of my writing and when I get a negative review, it really stings. But you just go on tucking in and trying again.

 Q: Is it fair to say that the characters and places in your novels are taken from real life places and people? I love it when authors can create fictional worlds by using real people and places. 

A: Yes absolutely; they are all based on people I know … or people I am! Some say that when you write a story, you are the director and the playwright and you play every one of the characters. I believe there is truth in this. Every one of those characters in my stories comes from a part of me, or perhaps I could not get deep down into their individual psyches quite so effectively. I will say this, though. Even though I’m careful to put a disclaimer in every book, saying clearly that this is fiction and that the people, places and events in it are all imaginary, that what’s presented here is a Chicago of the imagination, not the real city, I’ve gotten in trouble with readers. Someone will write to me and say, There was never a Mister Chicken on that corner! It was always a bowling alley! Fortunately, most people thing that I get the bigger things right.

Q: What is your advice to anyone on writing great fiction? 

 A: Two things: Make sure that the story is worthy of your time, that it has sufficient chops and import to devote your hard work and hours to realizing and secondly, pay attention to the details. There are no really absolutely new stories in the world: They are all about love lost and found, people lost and found, about conflict, pity, fear, honor, debt. It’s the extraordinary personal insights that the writer brings to familiar plots that makes them new.

Q: I know Hollywood made a movie based on your first novel Deep End of the Ocean starring Michelle Pfieffer. Does Hollywood have any interest or rights to the rest of your work? Hollywood is overdue in the creativity department. 

A: There is one other thing in development, a middle grade series of books about twin sisters who are clairvoyant, one able to see into the future, one the past, called ‘The Midnight Twins.” I’d love to see it go forward. Some of my friends, like the wonderful Jean Kwok (‘Mambo in Chinatown’) has four books in active production … that would be so thrilling!

 Q: If you’re writing a new novel now, can you reveal any details? 

 A: I’m just putting the finishing touches on a novel that will be out in October called ‘A Very Inconvenient Scandal,’ It starts when a young woman comes home to Cape Cod, eager to confide that she is having a baby and about to be married, only to learn that her 60-year-old widowed father is marrying her 27-year-old best friend, who’s also pregnant … but that’s just the first 30 pages. The mayhem and secrets tumble out from there!

Q: What advice do you give to new authors on how to deal with online trolls, negative reviews and family and friends who may not be supportive of their writing goals? 

A: There is only so much you can do about other people’s bad energy … the first one is probably the best. My friend Whitney used to tell me, what they say has ever so much more to do with them than with you. It’s difficult to remember that but it’s utterly true. No one with a satisfying interior life would find enjoyment in unprovoked unkindness: I have seen these repeatedly with all the jibes and criticism directed at Prince Harry and Megan Markle. I mean, who cares? Who really cares about how two young people lives their lives, despite their mistakes, if they really are doing no harm? It’s as though people sometimes take others’ actions personally, and, often, there are hidden personal reasons for this – like a book that was never completed. The thing is, if you’re being criticized, you’ve done something worthy of being talked about, and, unless you’ve told a lie or done something else in the nature of harm, that’s a good thing