Jodi Picoult And Daughter Samantha Van Leer Talk 'Off The Page' And Co-Writing Two Books: "Our relationship grew a lot stronger"
Most parents are thrilled when their kids decide to follow them into the family business. It's a whole different story, though, when sharing a job means literally working right alongside each other — something author Jodi Picoult discovered back in 2012, when she and her then-teenage daughter, Samantha van Leer, decided to co-write their first book, the YA novel Between the Lines.
"It was like literally having an editor sitting next to you on your shoulder going, 'Is that really the best you can do?'" Picoult recalls, laughing. "There were definitely arguments."
Thankfully, nothing that happened during the book's creation was bad enough to stop the mother-daughter duo from releasing Lines and its sequel, Off the Page, out May 19. In fact, according to the writers, the fights and frustrations actually made the process go smoother.
"I think when you have someone there to challenge you, every step of the way, you’re churning out the best product you can," says Picoult.
Adds Von Leer, "Our relationship grew a lot stronger through writing. It kind of brought us closer, finding this link between something we’re both good at."
That's not to say things got any easier over time. With Between the Lines, Picoult, the acclaimed author of 23 novels, was the writer leading the way. Van Leer, a high school student at the time, says she was "intimidated" at the start of the process by her mother's success, agreeing to all of her choices. Yet a few years and a New York Times' bestselling book later, the Vassar sophomore had gained the confidence to make her opinions known — loudly.f
"The second time around, I considered myself an author as well, not just a mentee," she says. "I definitely stood up more."
Echoes Picoult, "She fought so much harder for every word."
The effort certainly paid off. Off the Page is a sweet, witty tale of romance and fantasy, sure to please fans of Between the Lines and win over new readers to the love story of teenage Delilah and her fairy tale prince, Edgar. It's a far cry from the dark drama of Picoult's adult fiction, but the author's distinctive voice is still there — just mixed with van Leer's. The result is an original, winning combination.
"You have no idea what a gift it is to have a teenager sitting right next to you working," says Picoult. "Because I’m 48 years old, so as much as I might like to think that I’m relevant or current, my children do a really good job of reminding me on a daily basis that I am not."
While that might be an irritating aspect of parenthood for most moms, for Picoult, it couldn't have been more of a blessing, she says. "Sammy is gonna know what a teenager really would say and what they wouldn’t say.... she speaks that language on a daily basis."
"You have no idea what a gift it is to have a teenager sitting right next to you working. Because I’m 48 years old, so as much as I might like to think that I’m relevant or current, my children do a really good job of reminding me on a daily basis that I am not."
That familiarity was clearly a huge help in giving Delilah, the books' 16-year-old protagonist, a voice that sounded real and relevant, despite the unbelievable nature of her surroundings: a fairytale prince for a boyfriend, a picture book that's its own universe, and a group of friends that split their time between history class and hundred-foot castles. For Picoult fans who are drawn to the author's normal material, the fantasy nature of Lines and Page might be unnerving, but rest assured that her commitment to realism is as strong as ever.
"It’s very easy to buy into the fantasy," she says. "Who doesn’t want fantasy, right? But what happens if you get your fantasy? What if it’s not what it’s cracked up to be? What if your dream guy comes into the world and oh, right, you’re not the only girl in his world anymore?"
All those questions and more get answered in Off the Page, but, like any good novel, readers will still finish the book hungering for more. Unfortunately, both Picoult and van Leer say that a third installment is not going to happen — well, probably.
"I really think that Delilah and Oliver’s story is done," van Leer says. But, she adds, "I was wrong last time. So we'll see."
Neither author intended Between the Lines to be the start of a series, but positive feedback from fans convinced them to continue the story, despite van Leer's initial reluctance.
"It was a lot of work!" she laughs. "I think when I finished writing with my mom, I was just like 'woo! We made it to the end!' I was never planning on a sequel."
Yet with an empty summer looming and readers begging for more, Off the Page began to take shape. And while the writing process may have been a bit smoother this time around, the surreal nature of the entire situation — a bestselling author and her college-age daughter co-writing a series of hit books — never lost its effect on the authors, particularly van Leer.
"I’ve had so many privileges, having my mom be who she is," she says. "A lot of people struggle with publishing, even just getting their name heard, and I have a jump-start because of my mom, which I’m so incredibly grateful for. It’s been an absolutely amazing opportunity for me."
Still, she admits, the books' popularity is "a shock."
"The weirdest thing was to go from school, where everyone was mandated to read my essays, and all of a sudden have fans who actually read what I wrote for pleasure," she says.
For Picoult, working with van Leer has brought its own unexpected benefits.
"Sammy is the only person in my family who really knows what I do for a living, from coming up with an idea, following it through, editing it, to the book tour," she says. "All of those things are so glamorous if you don’t know what it’s really like to be a writer, but if you’re doing the work, if you’re putting the time in, then it’s pretty grueling and intense. She really gets it."
And then, of course, there was the whole "proud mom" aspect.
"I had this great double thing going on, because not only did I get a co-writer who was really talented, but I could step back, especially on tour, and just watch audiences falling in love with Sammy every night because she was so charming and engaging," says Picoult. "What mom doesn’t want to see that? It was great."
"I’ve had so many privileges, having my mom be who she is. A lot of people struggle with publishing, even just getting their name heard, and I have a jump-start because of my mom, which I’m so incredibly grateful for."
Luckily for them, the collaborations won't end upon Off the Page's release. There's the interviews, the book tour, and, most excitingly, an upcoming musical based on the series that Picoult calls "really fun." And while Delilah and Oliver's story may have come to a close, more books co-written by the duo are still definitely an option.
"I’ll write any YA book she ever wants to write together," says Picoult.
While the author isn't if she'll ever write YA books on her own, it's clear that working alongside her daughter had a major impact on her career.
"I don’t know if I would’ve gone there without her," she says. "But I can tell you that if I had, it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun."
Images: Elena Seibert/JodiPicoult.com; Random House; Getty Images