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Authors Jodi Picoult and daughter on LI

Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha Van Leer

Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha Van Leer will sign and discuss their new teen book "Betwwen the Lines'" (Atria Books) Credit: Adam Bouska

Samantha Van Leer was daydreaming in her eighth-grade French class when she concocted a story line she thought would make a great young adult book.

What if the characters in a fairy tale had lives that went on when the book was closed? What if the prince longed to get into the real world? And what if a 15-year-old high school girl reading the book fell in love with him and decided to help him?

Van Leer phoned her mom -- who happens to be Jodi Picoult, bestselling author of 19 novels that have sold millions of copies combined. "She surprised me by saying: 'That's great. Let's write it together,'" Samantha Van Leer says.

Newsday talked to Picoult, 46, and Van Leer, now a 16-year-old high school senior, as they launched a book tour for "Between the Lines" in California this week. They will be on Long Island -- where Picoult grew up -- on Sunday.

Jodi, why were you convinced this idea could work?

Picoult: "I thought it was brilliant. Who hasn't had a crush on a fictional character? I can pinpoint mine to Mr. Darcy from 'Pride and Prejudice.' Any teenager who has ever fought over being Team Edward or Team Jacob knows what that's like. I think it's a pretty universal dream for anyone who's a big reader that we might fall a little bit in love with the characters in the book and wish they might come to life. So when Sammy told me her idea I thought, 'This is really smart, and this could really go somewhere.' I thought it would be a blast to work with her on it."

How did you two approach the writing?

Van Leer: "After freshman year [in high school], that summer vacation, we actually sat down and wrote the book in my mom's office. We sat side-by-side and typed for about five hours a day. We tried to get a certain amount of pages done each day. Then sophomore summer we edited the book together."

Did you fight at all? You know how mothers and their teenage daughters can disagree.

Van Leer: "We did argue. I argued that I thought Prince Oliver should have blond hair instead of black hair. That was just the way I pictured him. My mom won that one. We also fought over the fairy tale in the book. I wanted it to be very Grimm-brothers-like, much darker. She wanted it to be more funny and sweet. I think we sort of compromised, but it was more toward my end in that it was a bit of a darker fairy tale. With more fear and more conflict, it makes the stakes for happily ever after that much greater."

Picoult: "There were times when I wanted to kill her, and I'm sure there were times she wanted to kill me. But for the most part we got along really well as writers. We had a really fun time doing it. It was very collaborative, much more than I thought it would be. I think I started off thinking, 'Well, I'll be the mentor, and I'm going to be guiding her.' But it became very quickly evident to me that I was giving her an equal partnership in the creation and writing of the story and that some of her instincts were spot on and better than mine. I really thought the fairy tale section should be very tongue in cheek, almost campy like 'Shrek.' She said, 'No, they've got to be dark and gothic and dangerous.' And she was right."

Samantha, what did you learn about writing a book?

Van Leer: "I learned a whole new respect for my mom's job. I didn't realize how hard she worked. Every day she'd just go up to her office and come down at the end of it. I never realized how much time it takes to write a book."

Did it change your mother-daughter relationship?

Picoult: "I think it actually made it stronger. She really wound up having much more respect for what I do. To go up to a room and then nine months later there's this book done, nobody really understands the process. But she really was privy to the pain, the energy, the intensity and the emotions that go into writing daily in a way that no one else in my family ever has been. So I think she saw a different side of me by writing with me, and I really saw a different side of her. This experience made me treat her much more as an intellectual equal."

Did Sammy get paid for her work?

Picoult: "It's all in one account, we split it down the middle. It's in a bank account, and one day it will all go to her. We haven't talked to her about what the advance was. She knows it's out there. I don't want that to be the motivation behind this."

What advice do you both have for other parent-child teams who want to try a book?

Van Leer: "You need to set a time schedule. I was really lucky to have my mom there saying, 'We're going to get this much done today.' Being a kid you get distracted really easily. You want to go outside, and you want to go hang out with your friends. My biggest distraction was that it was my summer vacation. Sitting in an office for a bunch of hours, it was kind of hard to stay focused."

Picoult: "Be patient. Because there are going to be times when you turn around and find your daughter wearing a feather boa and sunglasses and a Dr. Seuss hat she found in your office. They're still kids. The good part is that they can bring a voice and a freshness to the writing that perhaps you don't have as an adult, and you should celebrate that."

Jodi, how was writing a YA [young adult] novel different from writing your adult books?

Picoult: "It wasn't all that different. When I write my adult books, I very often have a young adult character who's a narrator. And there has to be an authenticity to that voice. What made it easier was having a real, live teenager sitting next to me who could speak all of [main character] Delilah's lines. What makes the book very sweet to me is a lot of themes that you find in young adult literature . . . falling in love with someone who is out of your league. Everyone's had that experience. And feeling as a teenager like you're stuck in a world that doesn't get you, that you don't belong in, that's another very universal experience that I've written about in my adult novels as well. So I have to say there was a lot of transference for me.

"The thing that made it different were the moments of humor. I love the character Socks. I think he's hilarious. To have this mighty steed who is worried that his butt might look big in a saddle, I think that's really funny. I don't usually get the chance to be funny in a lot of my adult fiction because I write a lot of very heavy emotional content."

Samantha, you like to play softball, dance and write poetry. What are your other hobbies?

Van Leer: "I act in my mom's play each year. My mom writes a play every year to raise money for kids in Zimbabwe, help send them to school. We perform it at my town's middle school, in the theater. This year we're performing in a much bigger theater."

Jodi, do your sons want to write books with you now?

Picoult: "My middle son Jake [18] has co-written these plays that Sammy was telling you about for several years now. We perform these original musicals to raise money for charity. He's had the experience of writing something with me but in a much, much more concentrated version. It was not at all as rigorous, as time consuming or as labor intensive as what Sammy and I did. She earned every minute of praise that I hope she gets on this tour. She was working really, really hard.

"My older son [Kyle, 20] is reminding me on a daily basis that he is the one who does not have a book with me. He is a rising senior at Yale. Jake is a rising sophomore at Yale."

I'm seeing a pattern here. Is Samantha hoping to head to Yale?

Picoult: "I think Sammy would rather kill herself than go to Yale. I think she's seen too much of it because her brothers are there. That was one of the hardest things about this whole book tour, is that we couldn't use this summer to go visit colleges. We packed in a lot of college visits during February and April break. I think she's starting to make a list of what she likes."

Samantha, you dedicated the book to Ema, saying she "will always be the hero in my story." Who is Ema?

Van Leer: "Ema is my great-grandma, my mom's grandma. She has that nickname because when I was little I couldn't pronounce her name. She's still alive. She's about to turn 99. She lives in Floral Park. She is the most amazing person I've ever known. She's really big in volunteering, and that's a very big part of my life, too. She taught me the joy of helping others. She did a lot of volunteering at hospitals up until two years ago. She was volunteering in the cancer center of the [North Shore University] hospital, almost like a candy striper. She volunteered at family court as well, and the National Council of Jewish Women. I really love her. I think she deserves this book."

You named the prince character after one of your three dogs, Oliver. Why?

Van Leer: "That was a fun thing for us. I love my dog so much. If you can't find me in the house, I'm lying out with the dog somewhere. Oliver is an English Springer spaniel."

Samantha, are you enjoying being on a book tour?

Van Leer: "It's really cool. This is my first day on the book tour, so I haven't had to do a reading yet. Right now I'm just lying by the pool, so it's not so bad."

Do you think that the book might end up on some school summer reading lists?

Van Leer: "I hope so. I think it's a really fun book . . . I think middle-schoolers will really like it. It's like 350 pages, but it's kind of a fast-paced book. I think it would be good summer reading."

You want to study early childhood development and psychology in college. Do you think writing your college essay will be easier or harder than writing a book?

Van Leer: "I think it will be better because I'm only allowed a certain amount of words. It can't be that long."

Will there be a sequel to "Between the Lines"?

Van Leer: "My mom and I have played around with the idea of a sequel to the book. But first I just have to get through college."

What about a movie?

Picoult: "We do have interest from Hollywood. Keep your fingers crossed. We don't have anything set in stone yet. I'm pretty sure that if we got Josh Hutcherson to play Oliver, Sammy would be thrilled for the rest of her life."

 


WHAT Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer do a reading and signing of their new book, "Between the Lines," ($19.99)

WHEN | WHERE 2 p.m. Sunday (doors open at 1 p.m.) at the Friedberg Jewish Community Center, 15 Neil Ct., Oceanside

INFO $3 charitable donation; books to be signed must be purchased at Barnes & Noble, 91 Old Country Rd., Carle Place, or at event (if you want another signed, you can bring one book from home if you purchase one copy of "Between the Lines" at the store or event); 516-741-9850; bn.com.

 


How a parent and child can write a book

 

Writing a fiction book as a parent-child team can be fun, whether or not you end up published, says Emily Bestler, editor in chief of Emily Bestler Books, publisher of "Between the Lines." But, of course, seeing your names on the binding is the ultimate goal. "It's actually very doable," Bestler says. Here is her advice:

* Write the book first; it should be finished before you solicit an agent. "No agent wants to hear, 'Hi, we want to write a good book, sign us up.' "

* Make sure your child is motivated, and the writing is pleasurable, not punishing.

"It's hard work to write a book."

* Don't send a manuscript to a book publisher unsolicited.

"They don't really get read or considered properly." Get an agent to pitch it for you.

* Find agents in a book called "The Literary Marketplace." "That lists every agent in the United States and what kind of books they like to represent." It explains whether the agent wants a query letter or a letter and several chapters.

* Be persistent. "So much about getting published is not giving up." The first six agents might reject you. Go to the bookstore and look at books that are similar to yours, and read the acknowledgments. The author will likely thank the agent, and you can target that one.

* Consider the self-publishing option. "It's an excellent route these days. It's really quite simple." Bestler suggests companies such as Lulu or Amazon or iUniverse. Agents are constantly trolling those waters, looking to pick up self-published books that are doing well. "With the pull and clout of an organization behind you, it's easier to get distributed. They have a marketing budget that's not coming out of your bank account."

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