Williamstown >> New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult wants you to be uncomfortable when reading her newest novel, "Small Great Things" — especially if you're white.
"The book is not an easy read," she said during a phone interview from her New Hampshire home. "As a white person, we are used to feeling comfortable. Your voice is always heard, when it's not, we start to feel uncomfortable and that's OK. Comfort is not an inalienable right."
The book — Picoult's 24th novel, set to hit stores on Oct. 11 — tackles the complex, yet timely themes of prejudice, race and injustice in this country. Picoult, who will debut her book at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown during a discussion and book signing on Saturday, Oct. 8, is no stranger to difficult subjects. Her work ranges from high-school shootings and assisted dying, to childhood leukemia in her best-known work, "My Sister's Keeper."
In "Small Great Things," Picoult tells the difficult story of Ruth, an African American labor and delivery nurse working in Connecticut with more than 20 years of experience, who is taken off the services of a newborn patient because the parents are white supremacists and don't want her touching their son. The hospital complies with the request. The next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?
The consequences of her actions, or inactions, are told through three narratives, all distinct voices with differing points of view trying to navigate prejudice and power. There's Ruth's voice, a woman who has worked her entire life to be what others want her to be; Turk, the skinhead father of the newborn who deals with love, grief and hatred so dark no reader wants to recognize themselves in him; and Kennedy, Ruth's lawyer, a white woman who, like most Americans, would never consider herself a racist, but finds herself questioning everything she's ever thought about prejudice.
It's a topic, Picoult said, she's been wanting to tackle for 20 years. At the time, she was living in New York City and remembers reading a story about a black undercover cop being shot by fellow officers, even though he was wearing undercover identification that officers are trained to recognize. She tried, she said, but failed.
"I couldn't seem to create an authentic voice," she said. "I thought about it over the years. I asked myself was it because I don't have a right to write it? But I've written from the point of view of men before, of a school shooter, what's different about this one? What's different is racism is difficult and hard to talk about, so we tend not to talk about it at all."
But a recent news article about a similar situation to Ruth's made Picoult really think: What would happen if something happened to that baby?
Picoult's work is prolific — she manages to write a book a year, while never cheating by skipping out on research. She dives into every topic she's ever written about fully and this book was no exception. She spent time researching hospital policies, labor and delivery lingo and even sat down with two former skinheads.
"That was terrifying," she said of the experience. "They were former skinheads, but both are now unbelievably inspiring men. They lived a lifetime of hate, but they changed their lives and think dramatically different."
From the men — one now gives speeches with one of his former victims of a hate crime to teach people about prejudice in America — Picoult learned of a dark, real world in the underbelly of American culture that still exists today. Some of the details made their way into Turk's story: huge, secret festivals celebrating Hitler's birthday, where children are given weapons to hit pinatas made to look like people of color hanging from a noose. They told her how today, white supremacists don't run around in public as KKK members, but rather work in small cells, using the Internet to spread their message of hate.
"It was scary as hell," she said. "You can't identify a skinhead today, they're just living among us. It was eye opening."
More importantly, to Picoult, she also spent a lot of time with women of color in social justice workshops, where an Asian American woman talked about how much she hated eye makeup and how her struggle with self image became internally devastating. An African American woman talked about how hard it is to get up every morning and put on a mask to present herself to the world the way white people wanted her to act and behave.
"I left the first workshop in tears," said Picoult. "It's all the tiny, little things that I chalked up to being normal and took for granted in my childhood — they were racist things, beliefs I grew up with and never questioned. Ignorance is a big privilege."
To make sure Ruth's voice was authentic, Picoult ran those chapters past a group of women of color who, she said, were kind enough to tell their stories, lend their experiences openly and point Picoult in the right direction.
"Their voices really became Ruth's voice," she said.
She's described the writing process for this novel as a "beast" on more than one occasion. She went into this process thinking "I'm not a racist," she said, but came out with a different viewpoint.
"I'm not writing this book for people of color to tell them how hard their lives are," she said. "I have never lived the lives they lived and there are plenty of excellent writers of color who do that already. It's my job to tell other people like me, white people, what is going on and how they played a role. That's more challenging, to point at yourself and say 'I'm a racist, too.'"
It's an interesting and difficult discussion, and one that will take place across the country in stops on Picoult's book tour. On Saturday, Oct. 8, at The Clark, fans will have a chance to hear Picoult discuss the book at 1 or 4 p.m.
The Clark, according to Vicki Saltzman, director of communications at the museum, is a natural, interesting spot for Picoult fans to gather.
"We like to think of the Clark as a convener's common area," she said, pointing out that many people come to the museum to do more than just look at art. "We're delighted to have her here and give our audience something interesting and different. We think it's going to be a great day."
Picoult knows the book and its topic — which she points out, has been relevant for the past 200 years, "it feels so immediate suddenly because of the onslaught of social media" — is going to spur some uncomfortable discussions and there will be some backlash. But, she said, she's ready for it.
"It's really hard to find the words to talk about racism, but this book can be an entry point for discussion," she said. "I might screw up, I might not, but it's better than not saying anything at all. I want this book to get people to talk about race even though it's scary and uncomfortable, talk about it even when there isn't anyone of color around. Second, after you put my book down, I want readers to go find a book by an author of color who will authentically and realistically tell the story as a person of color. It may be a voice not on your bookshelf, but the more voices you read not like your own, the more you'll learn."
If you go ...
What: Jodi Picoult debuts 'Small Great Things' with talks, book signing and reception
When: Author talks 1 and 4 p.m.; Book signing 2 p.m.; Cocktail reception 5 p.m., all on Saturday, Oct. 8
Where: The Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown
Cost: Tickets are $60 ($40 for members) and includes museum admission, one signed copy of "Small Great Things," entrance into one of the talks and to the reception, and a Random House gift bag.
Reservations: Seating is limited and reservations are required. Visit http://bit.ly/jodiclark.
*As of press time, tickets were available, but extremely limited.
The book: "Small Great Things" will be available for purchase on Oct. 11.