I’m really not a book reviewer. I’ve never pursued reviewing, probably because I’m not comfortable being critical with another author’s work. I’ve only ever been asked to do one review, once—by Ron Charles of the Washington Post. I have no idea why he asked me. He stated as his reason remembering my novel Electric God, which he reviewed kindly when he was with the Christian Science Monitor. (He armed me with that wonderful retort for Simon & Schuster’s positioning disaster: “The book jacket says this is a modern retelling of the Book of Job, but I hardly think that’s a selling point.” It was enough to help me leverage that ridiculous and untrue log line off the paperback edition.) I’m getting off track. The book he asked me to review was Jackie’s wonderful CAGE OF STARS.
Jackie, at the risk of seeming like this is about me, which is not what I’m going for, I’m going to tell a couple more brief stories from my own career and ask you to match them with your own. There’s a level at which being a successful author is not what people think it is (well…it is…but then there’s that other level at which it isn’t) and that’s what I’m hoping to portray.
[At this point in the interview, Jackie interjects with: “That is fine. I wish you would tell more!” But she may be the only one who feels that way.]
Me: We each had a springboard, a moment when our careers launched into the proverbial (but probably not very literal) stratosphere. Yours I’m interpreting as the day THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN was chosen as Oprah’s very first book club pick. Mine was the week Warner Brothers and Simon & Schuster picked up Pay It Forward for film and print almost simultaneously. I was housesitting at the time with a tiny Pomeranian who had housebreaking issues and chronic diarrhea. I’d have a conference call with Michael Korda and Chuck Adams of S&S, then clean the rug, put the dog under my arm (carefully) and take her outside for a butt bath with the hose. What was very real in your life during that heady time?
Jackie: I wasn’t even sure why I’d written a novel. I’d written a memoir about infertility when I was in my mid-twenties that sold briskly among people with the same surname as mine. Then, my husband died young of colon cancer. I suppose that I wrote the book, which was based on a real-life case of kidnapping that was very famous, and had happened when I was just out of college, to prove to myself that there would be a second act in my life. The agent who represented that first book was a great friend, and I got a two-book contract (This was in 1996, remember, and money was funny.) THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN was already a bestseller, although only at the tail end of the list. I knew it was a good book, and I had no idea it would end up selling millions and millions of copies in, now, what, thirty languages? I only knew that it had rescued us. My husband left behind no life insurance. So I worked around the clock, and this took a toll on my boys and me that nothing material could ever replace. I wrote magazine journalism and worked three-quarters time at the University of Wisconsin, as a speechwriter for Donna Shalala, who would later be part of Bill Clinton’s administration. My agent called me one morning and told me that she and her husband (the great theatrical agent Sam Cohn) had been up all night negotiating the rights for the book to be made into a feature film – between Ron Howard and Michelle Pfeiffer. It was Michelle Pfeiffer who “won.” (She was superb in the film, by the way.) Other writers despaired when their books were optioned for film. I never understood this; it’s only a cultural way for books to become more widely read. Since I had no one to tell at 7 a.m., I ran into the living room, where my children were watching Ren and Stimpy. I literally jumped up and down and said, “My book is going to be made into a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer!”
My middle son, Dan, then seven, said, “Mom, you’re standing in front of the TV.”
Me: Yup. That’s the kind of thing I had in mind, all right.
My next book was Electric God, which Simon & Schuster tried to pitch to a Christian audience. The combination of the title and the “Book of Job” log line got it shelved in religious fiction, where it withered and died. It took me years to resurrect (sorry, no pun intended) my career. Did your books stay strong after THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN? Or did you have to paddle to stay afloat? And was there a disconnect between the public perception of your career and the reality of it?
Jackie: It is true that, as a writer, you can garner a great deal of acclaim for a disproportionately small amount of money, relatively at least. I was very much in the public eyes, a young, plucky widow … you know. But we’re not talking Audrey Niffenegger here with a five-million-dollar one-book deal. I don’t mean to say that it wasn’t a great deal of money for me! I come from a blue-collar background and was the first person in my entire family, on either side, to graduate high school.
People did think that I was Ivana Trump because I’d met Oprah Winfrey.
I took my children on a trip to Italy, and people assumed I bought a villa there! To celebrate, I allowed each of my boys to buy a toy that cost one hundred dollars.
My youngest (then youngest) son, Martin, bought a Power Wheels jeep. He had never had a toy so deluxe and he was so neurotic about it he washed it every day and probably rode on it three times. You see how it was for us then.
Even as recently as last year, when I applied to graduate schools to get my MFA, because I hope to teach at the college level, directors asked why I needed a scholarship. One, a very erudite and connected guy at a top-ten MFA program, asked, “Don’t you get all kinds of money from royalties and future contracts?” And while four of my other books have been on the New York Times bestseller list, none of them ever again spent months at number one and sold so much. For example, THE MOST WANTED, my second novel, probably sold something near 200,000 copies. Today, when a smash hit hardcover book sells about 40,000 copies, that would be … well, a smash hit. Relative to THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN, it was a disappointment in terms of sales, although it received good critical notices. Until two years ago, I never had to paddle to stay afloat. But then, as you know, Catherine, I sank like the Andrea Doria.
More about that later.
Me: When I wrote my review of CAGE OF STARS, my thoughts were overall very positive. But I did have one takeaway. I got a lovely note from you, thanking me for the review. Frankly, I assumed you thanked most or all reviewers, and that you liked the review because it had lots of good pull quotes. Later, when I began to correspond with you, you told me the whole review had helped you, even the one critical note. I think this shows a lot of depth in an author. Please tell my readers more of your thoughts on reviews, so they can see what an awesome person you are.
Jackie: I love that you think I’m an awesome person. Please send my 16-year-old daughter a button that says this.
However, I’ve only written to two reviewers in my time writing novels. Certainly, part of the reason was that I was honored, as you know, as I am a fan, who had read PAY IT FORWARD but not seen the film. [Me: I had not known that.]
You said something so affecting in that review that it changed my writing forever. You said that it was a constant of fiction that no novel should require a prologue. I loved the prologue of CAGE OF STARS and had fought for it. You were, however, correct. It did not belong there. It marred what otherwise remains my best book.
As a writer, in agony, I learn more from the things that people criticize about my stories than the praise. Unless the criticism are just plain dumb: one reviewer said that, in a novel, I’d made the error of describing eating food as a metaphor for sex, and I thought, gee, that’s one heck of an insight! Had he ever read the Bible, and the Song of Solomon? Without eating as a metaphor for sex, all of Ernest Hemingway’s novels would be pamphlets! If it’s a dumb criticism, I just cry and then laugh and carry a grudge.
If the reviewer is dead on, I take that comment to heart. The other reviewer to whom I wrote had said that my characters sounded too much alike, because they came from the same neighborhood in Chicago. So I worked at incorporating verbal cues that were specific to each character.
And after I read your review for CAGE OF STARS, I never again wrote a prologue.
Me: Oddly, I did do a prologue in Pay It Forward. And actually didn’t mean that (comment in my review) to be an absolute. But I, too, have not done one since.
I have a business card of yours. It’s quite lovely, with a full color picture that seems to be the same one I see on the home page of jackiemitchard.com. You’re sitting on a deck, looking off into the night, with a little white dog by your side. This is a very pet-oriented blog. Will you tell us about him or her, how wonderful he or she is, and how helpful it’s been to you to have that love and companionship? If the little white dog has moved on, as, alas, they all do eventually, will you please answer the same question, but in the past tense?
Jackie: That was taken on my deck, at my old house. We call it my WUTHERING HEIGHTS picture, because the November wind was WUTHERING in Wisconsin, and I was freezing! My little dog, Hobbes, was probably about five then. This picture was taken about five years ago.
The last few years have been very hard for me in a number of ways: I was in a bad accident with all kinds of painful sequels, and we had a financial tragedy, losing that very house, which I loved so very much and was so privileged to own.
In fact, I can get weird about that house. You know, I had a farm in Africa …
Nothing was harder in those two years, however, than the fact that my husband, over my objections, gave away our big dog, a Saint Bernard puppy. Just a month later, Hobbes was killed in an accident while I wasn’t there. My family was in Massachusetts, where I now live, and I was somewhere else. He was struck by a car in front of the house we owned there. Being used to that big farm, he didn’t have car sense.
When I learned of the news, and had to make the choice to have Hobbes die because the operation to fix his shattered leg was too costly and would not really have given him back the rugged good health he had for ten years, I literally keened. I haven’t cried harder over anything since my dearest friend in Wisconsin, also during this time, got a rare form of strep and went into an irreversible coma.
One of our kids called losing Hobbes an “out of body” experience. And then, I saw Hobbes everywhere, for months, for a year after his death. I never thought of myself as an “animal person.” I always teased friends for carrying pictures of their dogs or cats, and I still think cats don’t have expressions on their faces – or at least I can’t see them!
But Hobbes, as I tell the kids, was my person. He was my great friend, the only individual in my life who never disappointed me by making it clear that I had disappointed him.
A year later, a reader offered me a purebred poodle pup, a brown miniature poodle. I really do love Dante, but I’m afraid I worry too much about him.
For me, that picture represents a time when things were as close to just terrific as they would ever be again, so it’s simultaneously very lovely and very sad.
Me: You have many children. (A fact of which you were certainly aware) Many, many children. Will you tell us more about the adopting of many children, how you met them, what they bring to your life?
Jackie: Well, the first thing is that I didn’t adopt all of them, although I don’t say which and who, because of the deeply distasteful question, which ones are YOURS? Catherine, reporters have actually asked me that, in front of the kids. And then they correct themselves and say, “You know what I mean. Which ones are biological?”
And I do get testy and say, “Clearly, Mia is made from Legos.”
Most people who have these very large families (and I have nine children, that I know of) have their “own” children and then adopt children after that time, when they are in their forties. My children are all mixed up, in many ways, ethnically, those who were adopted and those who were not, emotionally (kidding, but kidding on the square).
I never intended to have so many children. I adopted my daughter Francie as a single mom, after I was widowed, because I never intended to marry again (men were not lining up to marry a forty-year-old woman with three sons under twelve). That was my last child.
Then, I did marry again, a younger man who’d never been married or had children.
We had Mia, and then Will and Atticus. All of these children were accidental, even the two daughters we adopted from Ethiopia just over two years ago. How can you adopt a child accidentally?
I saw my older daughter Merit’s face in a photo sent to me by the author Joyce Maynard (author of TO DIE FOR and LABOR DAY) who was adopting two little girls from Ethiopia. When Joyce, and my great friend, Melissa Fay Greene (THERE IS NO ME WITHOUT YOU, PRAYING FOR SHEETROCK) who adopted three children from Ethiopia, told me what these kids faced, I was awakened to a torment I couldn’t shake.
Joyce subsequently realized that she couldn’t really parent two little girls from a different culture as a single woman in her 50s.
But we went ahead, although we lost all of our money in an investment theft just before the adoption was finalized. In that sense, having so many children was a mistake. I suppose you should plan for the eventuality that you might not be able to economically take care of them all. However, you can’t plan for a cluster of catastrophes you couldn’t imagine, and, in the end, Merit and Marta’s lives in Ethiopia, as children orphaned by AIDS, would have been unspeakable. They would not have been long lives. We should not have gone ahead.
If we had stopped out, though, what would that have meant in terms of our promises? My children are my resume as a human being.
Being attentive to the needs of so many people is difficult. At times I have failed to an abysmal degree. Being away from them to work, now that we live in a very small house and six are still at home, is very hard on them, and on me. I try to think of it as you would think of it if you were a soldier.
If you consider it, what it will say on my stone is not AUTHOR. It is BELOVED MOTHER.
Or at least, it will say MOTHER.
Me: I’ll bet money it will also say BELOVED.
You have an enormous number of books. I’ve spoken of THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN and CAGE OF STARS already. You also have a new one which I enjoyed a lot, SECOND NATURE. And then, well…I guess only about 15 or so others. It gets impossible to focus on all of them in one interview. Instead, would you tell us more about a couple of books you want to highlight?
Jackie: YOU have an enormous number of published books, ma'am.
It’s wacky to think I’ve written all those books, what...23 books? In sixteen years since I started?
I’m having kind of a great time right now, writing the second of a two-part series of what are called Mature Young Adult books, very gruesome mysteries, which means they are intended for people over the age of fifteen, through, I guess, high school, who haven’t stopped reading.
I love the novel you mentioned that was published in September, SECOND NATURE, despite its being pretty controversial in a number of ways, about a woman who has a face transplant after being mutilated in a fire that is portrayed very like a fire that took place where I grew up, on the west side of Chicago, at a school called Our Lady of Angels. I was too little to really remember that fire, but there was no one on the west side, no one anywhere in that city, who was not somehow touched by that fire – and I mean no one.
What I’m most excited about is the adult novel I’ve just begun, called MERCY, which is about a disabled Chicago police officer who rescues a child from the Christmas Eve tsunami in Brisbane, and learns that the child is … well, he’s something. He can heal people emotionally and make them see their commonalties. Think about what would happen to a child if he genuinely could do that. A friend of mine who is former CIA says that every bad guy on earth would have very good reasons to want that child to disappear. What if the kid had that effect on the bad guys, too?
Me: The Cappadora family has appeared in three of your books. Tell us why. Do your characters come to you and insist they have more to say, more story to tell? Or do you do this more cerebrally, because you feel your readers want to see them again?
Jackie: It’s this way. I don’t think of characters as real, although I know that some readers were tickled to see the grown-up Vincent Cappadora return, to see what became of him. I don’t wonder what happened to them, exactly, after a story is written.
It’s more about place, my place, as it is realized in fiction.
You leave a place and a way of being behind and it becomes a durable part of you. I loved my home in Wisconsin. But I didn’t like the weather or especially the bugs. I’m kind of funny in the head about mosquitoes. But now, I imagine I will be rhapsodic about rural Wisconsin, as I am about the west side of Chicago, where I haven’t lived, for very long at least, since I left for college at sixteen. That’s forty years ago.
The Cappadoras were built on mainframes that are my … well, my people – my family, my relatives, my boyfriends, the Irish and Italian kids I went to school with. They are my context. I know about them and when I write about them, I know more about me. They weren’t main characters in SECOND NATURE. But there had to be a photographer in SECOND NATURE, so … why not Beth Cappadora?
I don’t envision feeling this way about mosquitoes.
Me: THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN was adapted into a major motion picture. Some time during the making of the PIF movie, I found an article on my fax machine, with a sidebar quote from you. It said, “Where I come from, you can either take the money or you can moan about the process, but not both.” I found your words incredibly helpful during my adaptation process, and I want to thank you for them. And, not to put you on the spot, but I wonder what other gems of wisdom are hiding in your head. Maybe for newer authors?
Jackie: No matter what your press releases say, have zero level expectations and everything that happens will be fun.
Go straight to your next project or you will have a nutty thinking either you are the reincarnated Pharaoh if big things happen, or that you should go to truck-driving school if big things don’t happen.
Read constantly. I have been stunned by what I have learned since I’ve been a graduate student.
Try not to take yourself seriously. I didn’t make this up, but angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. When you take yourself seriously, it shows and it’s not appealing.
Don’t disdain what people call “social media.” It sells books. Like it or not, people, even serious readers, like to know the people whose stories they read. Most things that seem onerous at first, like working out, turn out to have huge benefits.
Me: Please write your own question, and answer it.
Jackie: Jackie, you’ve made millions of dollars, then you lost it all, in what was dubbed a “Ponzi” scheme. What’s it like to get food stamps?
The first thing is, it wasn’t a Ponzi scheme. That seems to imply that my husband and I have a double-digit IQ between us.
In 2007, my husband chose to invest with a fellow who seemed like a reputable investment banker in Minneapolis. There were people this guy did tell that they would make 20% returns in a 2% world, but he told my husband we might lose less than others would. Things were falling apart everyplace. And no one who wasn’t intimately involved with the Fed had ever heard of Bernie Madoff. I would have thought that “Ponzi” was a kind of pasta sauce.
We should have put our money in a sock. But that was not what we’d been told to do, early in the 2000’s. People said, buy metals. People said, invest in currency. I should have bought Italian shoes for you and everyone else I met on the street.
Now, this story makes people feel angry, rather than feeling sympathy. They say, well I’m a working person, and I’ll never have the problem of losing a great deal of money. Without being defensive, so am I. I’ve worked hard every day since I was fifteen. I worked hard, and I had a few pieces of good luck, and I made some money.
In 2009, we got a phone call on an early autumn night, and everything was gone. Because the fellow was no longer a licensed investor, we cannot recover anything through federal protection tax laws: this is like being mugged by someone who doesn’t have a mugger’s license.
So, in midlife (midlife, only if I live to 110), I am starting over from less than zero, in a climate in which publishing is in an odd and free-falling place.
However, as for the food stamps, I’m actually glad I had that experience, although I thought being widowed and a single mom had indemnified me from feeling that kind of fear twice in a lifetime.
The welfare place was directly below the window of the building where I had worked as a twenty-one-year-old newspaper reporter. Friends of mine still worked there. I stood in the line outside, holding the hand of my son, who was then five. It was cold, and everyone else was smoking cigarettes, and I thought, this is a place people come to, who have made a lifework of bad choices.
Immediately, that thought was such a witness to me.
I was ashamed, and that shame rose up and galvanized me: I was just like every one of those other people.
We don’t start out dreaming of needing to stand in a line to get help feeding our families. Intellectually, I used to feel outraged when people would talk about “welfare queens,” women who had babies just to stay home and collect money. That was such a small percentage of people who needed help, ever. It was a cynical way to talk about government programs that waste money, as if children of people who are lazy or foolish also are undeserving. Most people who need help tried very hard not to need help.
Everyone in that line had dreamed of being a basketball player, or singing on ‘American Idol,’ or building a house with fancy bathrooms and walk-in closets, riding in a rodeo, travelling to see the pyramids.
There is no one who dreams of growing up afraid to be unable to give her kids the food they need to grow.
No matter what else happens to me, I will be able to put out my hand and touch that moment. It will always be one of the most instructive incidents of my life, and, strikingly, I’ve learned just how very many other “professional” people have shared that moment, or some iteration of it, in these times when the wind is very cold indeed.
Yeah. That should qaulify as honest and in-depth. Thank you, Jackie, more than I can say. Because not everybody is willing to dig so deep for an interview.
Next Friday I have an interview coming up with Brian Farrey, debut author of an amazing LGBT YA novel, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU. Hope you'll check it out.