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'Small Great Things' Author Jodi Picoult Talks About Inspired The Novel


Ruth Jefferson, a labor and delivery nurse at a hospital in Connecticut, says every baby is born beautiful. It's what we project on them that makes them ugly. Ruth is barred from tending to a newborn baby by the baby's parents. Ruth Jefferson is African-American. Brittany and Turk Bauer are white supremacists. But Davis, their baby, goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is on duty, briefly alone in the nursery. Should she disobey the order she's been given by the hospital or touch the baby to try to save him? And does her slight hesitation doom the newborn boy?

"Small Great Things" is the latest novel by Jodi Picoult, whose bestsellers have sold more than 14 million copies around the world. She joins us from WGBH in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

JODI PICOULT: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What made you want to tell a story like this?

PICOULT: I'd wanted to write about racism. I've wanted to do that for a very long time. Twenty years ago, I started a book after reading a news story about an African-American undercover cop who was shot four times in the back on the subway by his white colleagues. And I started that book, and I tried very hard to write it, and ultimately I failed. I just couldn't write an authentic story. And I really second-guessed myself. I thought, you know, do I even have the right to write this story? I am a white woman. I have not lived this life. This is not my story to tell.

And then in 2012, I read a news story that came out of Flint, Mich., and there was an African-American nurse there with 20 years of labor and delivery experience who helped deliver a baby. And in the aftermath, the father called her supervisor into the room and asked that she not touch the baby nor anyone who looked like her. He pulled up his sleeve to reveal a swastika tattoo. There was a Post-it note left on the baby's file that said no African-American personnel to touch this infant. And the nurse wound up suing the hospital. She settled out of court. I hope she got a very large payout.

But it became a seed for me that grew, and I began to push the envelope a little bit, wondering what would happen if that nurse had been left alone with the baby? What would happen if she had to make a decision that could result on her going to trial and being defended by a white public defender who, like me and like many people I know, would never consider herself to be a racist? And I began to think about trying to tell the story from three different points of view - the African-American nurse, the white public defender and the skinhead father - as they all confronted their beliefs about power and privilege and race.

SIMON: I made note of a - can I call it an insight? - Turk Bauer, your skinhead, has about Kennedy McQuarrie, who is Ruth's attorney. And he says, I bet she drinks pumpkin spice lattes, voted for Obama and donates after watching those commercials with sad dogs. I have to admit that made me laugh.

PICOULT: (Laughter) Well, you know, there's a good point for humor in a very heavy book. I think that in that particular case what Turk is doing is making a snap judgment about Kennedy the way he would make a snap judgment about a person of color as well. We are all subject to that. We all have implicit biases, and we can't even help to act on those. It's like it's in the air we breathe. It's - as Beverly Daniel Tatum says, it's like smog. You're constantly just taking it in without realizing what it's doing to you and how it's making you think. And, you know, I would not go to Turk for his great insights and judgments (laughter). I think he has a little learning to do before the book is up.

But yeah, he in a way is just exhibiting once again even with someone of his own race, a white woman who he would consider to be a race traitor because she is defending Ruth who is African-American, you know, he is exhibiting his prejudice. And the interesting thing is that it's very easy to look at the skinhead and understand that's a racist, but racism goes beyond that. One of the things that I really learned while writing this novel was that racism is really about power, too. It's about prejudice plus power, and when you're white in America, you hold all the advantages. You hold all the cards. And so even if you are not talking actively about racism, that doesn't mean you're not part of the problem.

SIMON: 2016 a particularly good year for this novel to come out?

PICOULT: Well (laughter), it certainly is an interesting season for it to come out in. I would argue that although every reviewer, every interview that I've done has mentioned the timeliness of this novel, I would argue that any time in the past 200 years would have been timely. It's not that racism hasn't existed in our society. I think it's that in today's day and age with the 24/7 news cycle and with the internet, we see microaggressions and acts of racism being played out in real time. And that's what makes this feel so incredibly immediate.

SIMON: Jody Picoult - her novel - "Small Great Things." Thanks so much for being with us.

PICOULT: It was my honor. Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.