What a thrill it was to interview one of my favorite novelists, #1 New York Times bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard, about her new novel, The Good Son.

Jackie shared a behind the scenes look at her process to write a novel, the inspiration behind The Good Son, her greatest influences and so much more. You may be surprised at the name of her fiction writing mentor—and what he taught her about writing great fiction.

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the number one New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels for adults and teenagers and the recipient of Great Britain’s Talkabout Prize, the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson awards. And she was named to the short list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Her first book, The Deep End of the Ocean, was the inaugural selection for Oprah’s Book Club. It has sold more than 3 million copies and is in print in 34 languages. It was later adapted into a major film and now Jackie has a wonderful novel out–my favorite of all her novels.

Jackie’s latest novel is The Good Son, and you have got to read it. I’m thrilled to be here with Jackie today for two reasons. One is, she is one of my favorite authors, and the other is that I love fiction. Because I’m a book coach for nonfiction, my fun time is often spent reading novels. One day I am going to write a novel and Jackie will be my mentor and editor, if she’ll have me.

Is fiction easier to write than nonfiction?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Yes, absolutely. That’s a guarantee for you. I was just going to say that I’ll be there for you because every new fiction writer, no matter how wonderful and experienced that person is, needs a coach and needs a mentor. Because for some reason, the muscles that we put into things for other people don’t necessarily translate into the muscles that we use for ourselves.

The Good Son book cover by bestselling author Jaquelyn MitchardLisa Tener: I think that’s very true. And fiction is different from nonfiction. I see it as more challenging.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Wow, wow, wow. See, to me having to follow the rules and actually stick to what happened in true life is much more challenging because I think of fiction as a way to correct life.

Lisa Tener: Well, I can see that. I think especially with memoir writing, you can’t change what happened, and so it’s trickier. “Gee, this part’s not as interesting, but it might be hard to find a way to make it interesting. Do I even keep it in the book?” Whereas with fiction, you can always up the ante with everything, right?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Indeed. The Good Son is based on something that really happened, not to me, but to someone who told me about it. My empathy for her and my wish that I could change what happened to her was so great that for years I carried this inspiration around in my head until I finally convinced my agent to let me write this novel. He was about 79.5% against my doing it because he said these characters could never be sympathetic.

How invested do you get in your characters?

Lisa Tener: These characters are extremely sympathetic. I wondered about that too. Emotionally, how invested do you get in your characters? Are you feeling their pain all the time while you’re writing? How does that work?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: I don’t think of them as real. All my friends do. All of my fiction writing friends talk to their characters, their characters talk to each other and their characters tell them what they want to do. I think that if I had that going on, I might want some medicine.

Lisa Tener: Because you go so deep?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Well, true. And also, I am the boss of them. I made them up. And if I left them to their own devices and they talked to each other, I think they would say to each other, “Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll just open up a bag of Doritos and sit on the couch.” And they wouldn’t do anything.

There would be no introspection. There would be no action. They would just be sitting there. So I have to kick them and get them into motion. And sometimes I get in trouble because I put them in a little too much motion and I have to draw back on that.

The writing process from the start

Lisa Tener: You really masterfully put them into motion. I can’t put your books down. I stay up way too late until I finish them. But I’d love to hear some more about that process and especially early on. So you had some of this book going on in your head for years, and you were thinking about this story. What was that like? How much of the book did you work on in your head before you started writing?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Before I ever write a single sentence, I know in a general way what the book will comprise. Edgar Doctorow famously said that when you’re writing a novel, it’s like driving cross-country in a fog. All you need to see is what’s directly in front of the car, but that’s enough to keep you from crashing and to get you all the way across the country.

I don’t really believe that he did that. Because you couldn’t write a novel like Ragtime by just being able to see what was in front of the car and intertwining real characters and real events with fictional events and all that sort of thing. You couldn’t do that.

But I need to be able to see all the way to California when I start up from Boston, just as I would not go to the airport and say, “Okay, I’ll just get a ticket, and wherever I turn up, that’s fine.” I need to know exactly where I’m going and in a general way how I’m going to get there. However, that does change.

It changes as the characters are put into action—interacting with each other—and the events are overtaking them or blocking their progress. But I think that I know the end of every story before I start it. In a sense, the writing of the book is the progress toward that end.

Jackie’s uncommon process for developing characters

Lisa Tener: How about the backstory of the characters? Do you think a lot about their backstory? Do you write a backstory?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: I don’t literally write it down. I have done that in my life. It got in the way in the sense that I would write things down in my moleskine notebooks and then lose the notebooks and spend hours rampaging through the house, looking for that particular note.

But in a general way, I believe that I know them. And just as someone said—I can’t remember who, but it was recent—that if you write a film, every character in that film is you, but you’re also the director and the storyteller. Therefore, each of them comprises some aspect of my human character, for good or ill.

So I’m invested in making that understood part of me a part of their lives. But I also like to have fun with my past and fun with the things that I know. For example, Thea, the main character in this story, is Greek-American.

I grew up with a family across the street from my grandparents who were Greek-American. I was able, by writing about Thea and her sisters and the foods that they ate and the things they did, to reunite with that family.

Inspiration for a novel

Lisa Tener: That’s beautiful. So let’s really dig into The Good Son. It begins with a mother and she’s about to pick up her son from prison. He’s getting out of prison for the murder of the love of his life, his high school sweetheart, a crime that he doesn’t remember.

We witness how the community responds to the son’s return and to his parents, the mother and father. And we see the mom especially struggling to come to terms with her fierce love of her son and this heinous crime and all the fallout. So can you share that actual moment in the coffee house that first inspired this novel?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Well, I was at a hotel coffee shop, waiting for my coffee. I was going to speak at this big writers conference. As  I was waiting in line the woman in front of me dropped her book and I picked it up to hand it back to her. Having the personality, at least in public, of a golden retriever, I said, “Oh, are you here for the conference?” And she said, “No, I’m not. I’m here to visit my son. I come every weekend. He’s in prison and he’ll be in prison for a long time.”

I thought, “Oh, why did I ask? Don’t tell me what he’s in prison for.” But she did. And I could not turn away from her. I was in one sense fascinated by her because—this is in the nature of confession—I thought I wouldn’t understand what a woman who had a son in prison for murder would look like. And she looked just like me.

So there was an enormous outrush of empathy from me to her. Then she told me about an incident in which she had gone to the grave of the girl that her son killed. He had no memory of the crime because he was so messed up on methamphetamine. When the mother of the girl showed up at the cemetery at the same time, she was terrified.

The mother of the boy was terrified. But the two women who had been friends in the past ended up crying in each other’s arms. And the mother of the girl who died, who was killed, said, “You are luckier because at least you can still touch him.” And that scene, very much changed, is a scene in The Good Son.

It explodes into a different kind of drama, but it’s in there because you think of death as the end. But it’s really the beginning of your life without your child or without your spouse. It is both the end and the beginning of a future that you could have never imagined.

Threading themes

Lisa Tener: It’s such a profound journey, this book. I wonder, too, certainly it seems like some of the themes that you want us to think about as readers are redemption and the personal aspects of this story, as well as the community aspects of it. Because it really is about personal and family and then community as well.

There’s also the theme about prisons and how inhumane they are. Did you have a goal in mind like, “I want readers to be thinking about this,” or, “I want to raise awareness?”

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Not in those words, but my goal with every book is to make you laugh. I want to make you cry. I want to make you think. And I don’t want you to hate yourself in the morning for this.

Second Nature book coverSo those are my goals going into every story. And certainly I needed to talk to people who had experienced having a child who was incarcerated and I needed to talk to them about that experience. I mean, I had been in prisons as a reporter when I was much younger. Visiting a prison, even a minimum security prison, is a harrowing experience.

When that door shuts behind you, you think, “I didn’t do anything wrong and I’m still here.” It’s a terrible and harrowing experience. So I wanted to convey that. And Stefan, the good son, his experience in prison is not even a patch on some experiences that other people have.

Though I will say that there is a tradition in prison populations that the people who get the worst treatment are the ones who hurt a woman or a child. So that was operational there. He had to arm himself with the skills that he could give to people such as teaching them to read and helping them get their GEDs—things like that—so that he could mitigate some of those feelings, the sort of honor among miscreants or honor among thieves that his fellow prisoners had toward him.

Finding subjects to interview

Lisa Tener: And how many people did you interview or how’d you find them?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: There was a woman who said she had a friend. And Lisa, I don’t know whether this woman was lying or whether she lived on Mars. The covenant was that I could not use her real name. You can tell when people are telling the truth. If you live long enough in the world and if you have a child, you can tell when people are on the level and when they aren’t. I can tell that her experience was genuine and that it was difficult for her to talk to me about it.

I only interviewed two people, but I interviewed them at length and their experiences were remarkably similar. One of the women, the mother, came from a background in which, really, it was only a matter of time before her son did something wrong. Going to prison in her community, especially when she was younger, was a sort of status symbol. Doing a bit in prison was a status symbol.

The other woman I interviewed was much more like Thea, in which this just completely seemed to come from no place. And the parents tormented themselves, not only with the absence of their child, but also with, “What did we do wrong? What did we do wrong? We only thought that we were raising him to be like us, as all parents do,” with a reasonable expectation of some kind of health and happiness.

And I don’t know which is worse, frankly. (If you think about it, tell me what you think.) I don’t know which person it’s harder for, the one who expects it to happen or the one who never expects it to happen. I don’t know. I think it must be the same.

Research for the characters

Lisa Tener: Yeah. I think that the pain is so extreme and this struggle is so extreme that you can’t prepare yourself for it. But along the lines of research, Stefan becomes a landscaper. I just wondered, are you a gardener? Is that where you drew upon that experience for Stefan’s career that he finds for himself? Or did you have to do research for that too?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: I did. I had to do research. I hate the good earth. I write about the ocean all the time, but I’m afraid of it. I would never plant anything if it was up to me. And so I try to recruit my children and other people to plant things for me with different degrees of success. Our vegetable garden usually produces one eggplant and that’s it for the whole year.

I like the idea. It’s like so many other things. I like the idea of myself at the ocean with the wind in my hair, walking on the sand, but I hate the sand. I hate the ocean, even though I live on Cape Cod. I also can’t stand gardening, though I want the vegetables.

Actually, a woman I know, a great friend, who also is a novelist, was dating an absolutely horrible fellow who had an absolutely wonderful company. He did landscaping with plants in a really ornamental way that was very fetching. He did it for corporations, as Stefan does. And he did it for individuals elaborately and seasonally. So I drew all the inspiration from that because I was just fascinated by the idea of that kind of company.

Creating characters who live your life

 Jacquelyn Mitchard imageLisa Tener: Jackie, I think you could have a new self-help movement on how to experience anything that you’ve sort of wanted to, but it’s way too tough and you really don’t want to do the details ,so just become a fiction writer. You could just imagine it and never have to actually do it. Make it so much more fun and easy by just doing it in a novel.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: It’s like buying hand weights. You buy them, you put them in your bedroom, and that’s what you do. You’re a virtual weightlifter then.

Lisa Tener: Yes. Except you get to actually experience the thrill of it by writing it, which is such a fascinating thing. I love it.

What you can learn about yourself as you write your novel

Lisa Tener: Does each book teach you something different? And if so, what did The Good Son teach you?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: The most important thing that it taught me is: I tried to place myself emotionally in Thea’s position. I have five sons and I tried to think of one of my best beloved having done the worst possible thing. Could I go on loving him? Once I was at a writer’s residence in Chicago, and another time when I was planning at the beginning of this book.

There was an assembled group of mothers and fathers and some single women, and I asked the group at large, “Do you think you could go on loving your child knowing what your child had done and accept the truth of it?” To a person, they said, “Yes.” I was stunned by that. But then I also watched a Ted Talk by Sue Klebold, who is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters.

I could tell that people in the audience were blown back by her frank confession that of course she still loved her son. She loved the child that had been caged inside, the heartless killer, the child who she raised. She loved that child still and she wished she was with him. She wished he was with her.

And I understood that completely. Because sometimes human nature contravenes good sense, and love certainly does. That is the thing that I took away from The Good Son, because in every aspect of each of these characters, the incredible tenacity of love is astounding.

Lessons learned while reading a novel

Lisa Tener: I think one of the things you do so well in many of your novels is to teach us that there’s a degree of empathy we have for people we might not have thought we’d have empathy for. We learn something about ourselves, I think, as human beings, and what we’re capable of. But also we learn about other people when we read good fiction.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: We absolutely do. I think of my first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, in which people just absolutely hated Beth Cappadora, who had, because of her tragedy and losing her child who was kidnapped, become distant and withdrawn and hard bitten as depressed people do sometimes. She did not become noble because of tragedy and she did not become more of a light in other people’s lives.

And while some people said they didn’t like her, many people said they couldn’t help but love her because she was living the nightmare and doing her best to stay alive and that was all that she could do. Of course, we don’t write about how it was to have a great vacation in a novel. Okay? We write about people pushed to their absolute extremes and then try to explain their behavior.

Oprah’s Book Club Inaugural Pick!

Lisa Tener: So let’s talk a little about The Deep End of the Ocean, your first book. It was the inaugural pick for Oprah’s Book Club, which must have been extraordinary. I wondered, did she read the book and say, “Oh, now I have to have a book club?”

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Yes. She loves books. She always has loved books. And she sort of thinks of authors as the way other people think of rock stars. She had tried in many different ways to feature fiction on her show, but it was voyaged to the bottom of the ratings.

Until the book club movement, if you will, started at the end of the nineties and she thought, clever creature that she is, “I’m going to have the largest book club in the world, and I’m going to start it with this novel,” which her boyfriend, Stedman, had brought home to her from the corner store in Indiana and said, “Here, why don’t you read this?” So she did.

She said that the authenticity of the grief was what drew her to that story—how harrowing it was and how she kept on reading even though she wanted to throw the book across the room because it was so painful to read.

What my publisher said, and this is important, when I said, “Oh, Oprah Winfrey’s going to start this book club and start it with The Deep End of theJacquelyn Mitchard and Oprah Winfrey Ocean.” They said, “Oh, well, that’s all well and fine, but these are antithetical media. And people who read books don’t watch daytime TV. So it’s not going to have a big effect on the book.” Okay. “Well,” I still said, “It’ll be great.” I went to Chicago and we had a dinner party and ate baby carrots and stuff like that.

By the next day, after that broadcast, there were 4,000 holds on the book at the New York Public Library alone. So really, it was like Bruno Mars said, “What’s up, Oprah?” She knew something that nobody else knew, which was that people had a hunger and thirst. The book club experience really is a gossip experience. It’s gossiping about books, and that’s what stories are for.

The journey to writing a bestselling novel

Lisa Tener: I love that. So what was your preparation for this book? You were a journalist, and had you always wanted to write a novel? Had you been working on some novels on and off? What was the journey before writing The Deep End of the Ocean ?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Well, what I wanted to do was prove to myself and my children—at that time, I had four young children, and I was a new widow—that there was life after death. I wanted to try something that I knew would be impossible for me. I had never written any fiction since my freshman one semester elective at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

While I never imagined myself writing fiction, I knew about grief and I wondered what would be the worst thing that could happen to a person. And it would be that you were bereft of the person you loved most, of your best beloved, and never knew why, never knew the reason for it.

I was also inspired by a real life story that happened, I think, when I was in high school. A kid called Jacob Wetterling, was kidnapped and held for years by a pedophile who treated him both as a sexual object and as a son, if you will, a child of his.

And then he returned to his family after 13 years and his life was unimaginable, even though the family’s dream had come true. As St. Theresa said, “There are more tears shed from answered prayers than unanswered prayers.” His life was harrowing and it was short. He was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was only 24 and they lost him all over again. But I thought about that story. I thought: what if the beginning of the story was the end of most people’s stories?

Writing as a healing process

Lisa Tener: Wow. So it sounds like there was a real healing instinct to write that book, that it really came from your own healing process.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: It did. I really wanted to do something that would prove to me that—I was 38 or so—the back 40 would have something to hold for me. I never expected the success of that book. I knew it was good. I did know it was good, but I didn’t expect it would be this huge bestseller and all this kind of thing.

While I knew that it was good enough to get published and that was really all I knew at that point. And then when it succeeded so well, I had the privilege of telling those imaginary stories for a living, sort of, or as part of my living. On and off through the years, it’s either part of it or all of it. And every single one of them, every single novel, was based on real life, on something that happened in real life. You can’t really make anything up.

Mentoring by Ray Bradbury

Still Summer book coverLisa Tener: Well, it seems to me you do have this uncanny ability to see extraordinary stories and what’s around you.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: My mentor was a science fiction writer, a great science fiction writer. And I don’t even read science fiction. He was my friend for 30 years after I wrote him a fan girl letter when I was in my twenties. His name is Ray Bradbury.

So the Martian Chronicles, for example, was much less about Mars than it was about human emotions. Everything was about human emotions at the end of the day. That was advice I carried forward into my own life. It matters what happens in this story, but even if you’re writing a breakneck action, thriller, spy story, or something like that, the effect on people of those choices is what really matters, is what really counts.

Support during the process

Lisa Tener: That makes so much sense. So speaking about mentors, when you got this idea for The Deep End of the Ocean did you enroll in a class? Did you read about writing fiction? Did you just map it out and then write it? And then what was the role of any editors or Ray Bradbury or anybody else to support you in this process? How did that work?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: This is 25 years ago almost. And there weren’t a proliferation of classes in how to write. As for a book coach, that would’ve been entirely unknown. That was invented in the last 10 or so years when people, far too many people I might add, believe that they should write a book.

But I had gone to the University of Reading Everything.

Lisa Tener: Well, that’s a great university.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: I based my story on the stories that I had read. I based the way to tell this story on the ways that people, my betters, had told. As a matter of fact, my sons were little then. They were nine, six and three when I started. And when they got older, I would read to them at night.

But because I was bored by most of what was offered for them to read, I would read to them from books that I liked. And one of my favorite books is National Velvet. It’s about a girl and a horse, and it’s a million years old. It took place in England in the ’30s. And my son, Dan, who is a truth speaker, said to me one time, “You know, this writer really copied you a lot, mom.”

Lisa Tener: What a great line.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: He recognized how much of the way that she told the story I had internalized into my own molecules. But I think of that homage, that we’re drawn to the authors that we’re drawn to, because the way that they do things, the stories they tell and the way that they tell them speaks to something in our own condition.

So there’s a reason that I tell my MFA students, don’t literally copy their sentences, but copy the way that they do things. I mean, that’s what Picasso did. That’s what Matisse did. They copied the old masters and the way that they did things until that became part of their own voices, their own art.

Teaching writing to MFA students

The Breakdown Lane cover imageLisa Tener: So what are some of the things you teach your MFA students? I mean, I know you take a whole semester to teach a class, but just a few tidbits.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: If I had a t-shirt for them, it would say, something like what Salieri said to Mozart, except it wouldn’t say notes. It would say words. “There are too many damn words in this, you have to take some of them out.” And it would just say, “Be simple. Look at the writers that you admire and how simply they tell a story.”

They find exactly the right words instead of using 52 of them. And so I guess that I would say, “This is not the kitchen sink. This may be the only book you ever write, or it may not be the only book you ever write, but there’s still no reason to tell everything you know.”

You don’t have to tell everything that you know, just some of it, just what really goes into the story. I don’t think there’s any better advice for any writer, not just a beginning writer, but any writer, than to pare back your writing to its absolute essence. Wouldn’t you agree with that?

Lisa Tener: I would. One of my teachers at MIT was Frank Conroy. It was the year that he was director of the National Endowment for the Arts, in Literature, and the year before he went to become the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He talked about a professor of his who used to just tear off the first two or three pages of your writing and throw them in the garbage without reading them. And then he’d read your paper.

So that’s an extreme form of it, but that image really got to me to be prepared to just get rid of the beginnings of things. Not always, but often you’re just leading up… you’re just finding your way into it sometimes.

Why editors hate prologues

Jacquelyn Mitchard: That’s exactly right. For example, a prologue to a book. The reason that editors hate prologues is that what the prologue is really saying to the reader, okay, is, “This isn’t what happens. This is what you should think about what happens before I tell you what happens.”

And so there is often a good reason to discard your initial beginning, or discard everything that you think the reader should know, and tell the reader what the reader wants to know—which is what’s going on in the kitchen. What are people saying to each other? Why are they angry with each other? You don’t have to tell them why that matters. That will become self-evident.

Finding an editor or mentor

Lisa Tener: So with The Deep End of the Ocean, did you just start on your own, write the book, and then find an editor or mentor, or how did that work?

Two if by Sea book coverJacquelyn Mitchard: I wrote the book on my own. I had written a very forgettable nonfiction book in my twenties. It sold briskly among people with the same last name as my own, which was almost no one in the world. And my agent kept saying to me, “You should write a novel. You should write a novel.” How do I do that? I was a newspaper reporter. I had no idea how to write a novel.

But inspired by this story of the boy who had returned home to his family after being captive for 9 or 10 years, I decided to try. So I wrote the first hundred pages. Okay, at this time, there were not computer files. So my agent said to me, “Here, take this back, double space the first hundred pages so it looks like there’s more of it.”

I said, “Okay.” And I did. And she sold it right away in part because of, again, the shock and grief in the story and the belief that that was authentic. But I just wrote it. I had no mentor until much later and I had no instruction. I was just following—standing on the shoulders of people who did it better than I did.

My favorite book then is the same as my favorite book now, which is called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. To me, if I could write a novel that had as much to do with life and art and just simply growing up in the world through difficulties, that would be my goal. So I followed the beautiful, natural way that she told that story to the degree that I could.

Lisa Tener: When I read a novel, I become so immersed in it I’m not really aware of what the author’s doing or doing well. It’s just like there I am in the story, reading. And I think maybe I’ve been a little too lazy to go back and figure out, how did this author do it? Is that something you’d advise, like go back and try to figure out how they did it? Or is your sense that, look, if you just read a ton, you’ll absorb that somehow.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: It depends on if you want to be a writer or not. If you’re reading in part for enjoyment and love of story, but also because you would like to do that yourself, it’s probably useful to think about the ways that people chose to do things and whether they work out or not. Some ways are just cheesy.

Like in a thriller sometimes, at the end of every chapter, the writer will say, “And then she realized that she still didn’t know why he was lying,” or something like that. And of course, as a reader, you have to go on and find out why no one knew whether the person was lying or not. But the idea is to do it to seed all of the things that the reader needs to know into the first chapter.

So that at the end of the book, if you notice, and I won’t say why, because it’s interesting, I hope, The Good Son begins and ends at a prison. It comes entirely around full circle to the place where it began, but for wildly different reasons. You’re making a promise to the reader in those first pages, there’s a reason why I started this here. And it isn’t just because it’s the homecoming of this boy.

There’s a reason I started where I did. And if you stick with me, I’m going to tell you what that reason is, and you’re going to learn it organically through the progress that the story makes. There’s a reason for each of these choices, because every sentence, paragraph, plot twist in a story is a choice that has to be earned and it has to do weightlifting, like those barbells in my room that are just sitting there.

No Time to Wave Goodbye book coverIt has to be able to bear weight. So many times, what some of the things my MFA students say to me is, “Well, I base this on the story of my grandparents moving to the United States from Germany. And this is the way it really happened.” No. The way it really happened is the worst possible reason to do something in fiction. There has to be another reason for a plot, an eventual effect reason that you’re holding in your mind as you plot this book, including anything.

Lisa Tener: That makes so much sense. And I feel like, Jackie, I have learned so much in this time we just spent together about writing and writing fiction. I’m so very grateful. I feel like I’ve been sitting at the feet of the master and soaking it up. Is there anything else you want to share with my readers, some of them are writing fiction, many of them write nonfiction? Any last words of wisdom you want to share with them?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Well, you’re going to think the first part is cheesy. Okay? One is: pay attention to Lisa Tener because you teach people about this process better than almost anybody. Your books are a university of how to tell a story and why to tell a story and what to leave in and what to take out. That part is definitely true. And I admire that enormously.

The other part is when you approach a story, people often say, “I write this for myself and I don’t really care whether it gets published or who reads it.” Well, that is just such a big lie. We all care enormously.

We either don’t want anyone to read our stories or we want someone to start a religion about us or something like that. We’re enormously invested in having the stories we tell have an effect on other people. So admit that and try to think of the way that your story is going to have an effect on a reader, because a story really isn’t a story until the reader takes your hand, until someone hears that story.

The Good Son book cover by bestselling author Jaquelyn MitchardLisa Tener: That is so beautiful. And thank you. You have been such a generous teacher in this interview, and you are such a generous author. You give your readers so much. I’m very grateful for your books. I encourage everyone listening [or reading this interview] to go out and buy The Good Son and read it. You’ll read it quickly because it will captivate you. And thank you again, Jackie. Good luck with the book.


4 Responses to How to Write a Novel: #1 New York Times Bestselling Author Jacquelyn Mitchard

  1. Shalini says:

    This was such an interesting, inspiring, and honest conversation. I learned a lot even though I’m writing non fiction. And I am also creating an app. Ha!

    Thank you Lisa for all the goodness you bring to the world!

    • Lisa Tener says:

      Oh, Shalini, I’m so glad you enjoyed this. Thank you for your many gifts to our community and the world. Exciting to hear about your app. That makes so much sense! And, yes, I think we nonfiction authors can learn so much from our fiction-writing colleagues! Especially luminaries like Jacquelyn Mitchard!

  2. Mary says:

    This is wonderful. But note that she has the Jacob Wetterling story completely wrong. That’s not what happened to him at all.

    • Lisa Tener says:

      Thank you for letting us know Mary. Can you share the facts so we can include that correction here in the comments?

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