Bestselling authors John Grisham, David Baldacci and Jodi Picoult shared insights into writing, publishing and how other authors, particularly Mark Twain, have influenced their careers in an entertaining event at Yale University last night to benefit the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford.
The humor-filled "Mark My Words" panel was moderated by Malaak Compton-Rock, founder of the Angel Rock Project, author of "If It Takes a Village, Build One," and wife of comedian Chris Rock at a sold-out Woolsey Hall. Among them, the featured authors have more than 400 million copies of their books in print. Baldacci’s tales of Washington intrigue and corruption, John Grisham’s blockbuster legal thrillers, and Jodi Picoult’s moving tales of the extremes of human emotion consistently top the best sellers lists. They shared their insights in responses to specific questions posed by Compton-Rock. Some are summarized here:
What is it you like about Mark Twain and which of his works do you enjoy?
Picoult: He wrote social commentary with commercial appeal. She tries to make readers think about important issues while reading a good story. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Also, his later writing about social issues and religion.
Grisham: He was fearless, angry and funny. Tom Sawyer -- a book which almost "ruined" his life after he established a Tom Sawyer Club in his Mississippi childhood and got in trouble for imitating Tom's behavior. The police suggested the disband...
Baldacci: He knew how to tell a yarn. Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, his travel books. He likes Twain's later writings. "He got better as he got older."
What's the biggest misconception people have about Mark Twain?
Baldacci: That Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were the only things he wrote. He wasn't just a humorist, he was a satirist whose work is still funny today.
Grisham: That he was telling the truth when writing non-fiction. He cited a n extremely humorous account of Twain's time with the Confederate army which was hilarious, but hardly recognizable to those who had served with him.
Are libraries important to you?
Picoult: One of her first jobs was as a library page. She began reading at age 3 and couldn't wait to get her own library card.
Grisham: Kidded that he is opposed to libraries because they take away from book sales. Said that when his family moved, they would seek out a Baptist church and how many books the local library allowed you to check out.
Baldacci: His librarian scared him as a kid, but eventually, she allowed him to take out more than the maximum number of books allowed out at one time. The books he read from the library opened a whole new world for him.
What was getting that first book published like?
Picoult: wrote her first novel as her thesis at Princeton. Some 100 agents rejected it. Finally, an unknown agent took on her second novel. She worked in a number of different jobs, then finally continued with writing because "it was much easier than teaching 8th grade English."
Grisham: As a lawyer, where he kidded that he wrote fiction every day in his legal briefs, he had seen something in the court room that inspired a story idea. He began writing early in the morning and around his job, family obligations and duties as a state legislator. He was compelled to tell the story, which we know as "A Time to Kill." The first publisher printed 5,000 copies and Grisham bought 1,000 of them which he sold out of the back of his car. The habit of writing every day stuck and his next book, "The Firm," was the one that launched his career.
Baldacci: Also a lawyer, he started selling short stories to magazines in high school and also write some screenplays. He came up with the idea of a novel about a US President with a mistress and a cover up which became "Absolute Power." At the time, people told him they thought the plot was far-fetched. Later, they accused him of capitalizing on a real-life national scandal.
What is the process that happens when you're writing a book?
Picoult: Begins with a question that she can't answer that haunts her in her sleep. Characters pop up "like little mushrooms" and take the story away. She gets a lot of thoughts while driving, so writes notes on her hands and arms. She wrote on her children's hands too... She needs to figure out the plot twist so she can leave a trail for the reader. Then she does a "boat load" of research that lets her do lots of exciting and crazy things. Then it's like the scene from the movie "The wizard of Oz" where a whole bunch of things are flying around in the wind. The book touches down when she hears the first line.
Grisham: He follows headlines and trials and gets an idea. He tries to figure out what lends itself to the best story, then outlines. He figures out the final scene, then knows where he is going. He writes for three or four hours, (5-10 pages) then takes a break. He posts his deadline on the wall in front of him. His latest story, The Litigators," releases Tuesday.
What's your craziest fan story?
Grisham: 99 percent of fans are great, but there always are a few who make you nervous, like the woman who wanted him to sign a book for her dead friend. At another book signing, a woman asked him to sign her breast and he felt he couldn't refuse when it was presented. Her boyfriend showed up later, unzipped his pants and said, "If you're in such an autographing mood, why don't you autograph this?"
Baldacci: Enjoying lunch with his wife, he noticed a woman staring at him from across the restaurant. She finally came over and asked if he was who she thought he was. When he said yes, she yelled across the restaurant to her husband, "I was right. It is John Grisham!" Baldacci said his wife was so amused she "somehow blew iced tea out of her nose."
When did you know you had made it?
Grisham: Said the authors are "famous in a country where very few people read," so it's still easy to go out in public without being recognized. He felt he'd made it the first time he made the NY Times Bestsellers List.
Picoult: When a reviewer called her the "female John Grisham."
Baldacci: When he offered to sign books in a store. The clerk allowed him to after checking his ID against the book jacket.
What about Ebooks Self Publishing and the future of Publishing?
Baldacci: It's not important how people read, just that they do. Publishing is a content-driven business. At the end of the day, people want stories. Only the delivery system will change. Traditional publishing as a business is safer than self publishing (where people have reported being ripped off) and is a way to surround yourself with professionals.
What other authors do you enjoy?
Picoult: Margaret Mitchell ("Gone with the Wind). "She created a world of words and I wanted to do that." Also Alice Hoffman.
Grisham: reads dead people -- Dickens, Twain, Hemingway. Also John le Carré.
Baldacci: John Irving