The Soul of a Writer: Challenges and Controversy at NYU Media Talk

It’s a tumultuous time in publishing. Authors seem to feel a deep need to address serious topics of social importance and impact, and the current political atmosphere has an effect on everyone writing for all formats and media. Recently, the NYUSPS Center for Publishing hosted an NYU Media Talk, Challenging Topics, Challenging Times, to address some of these questions. For those of us looking for answers, a stage composed of four bestselling authors and an accomplished moderator offered the optimal source of expert opinion.

The conversation was moderated by Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review and of all book coverage at the paper.  The panel consisted of Jodi Picoult, author of 26 bestselling novels, including the current Small Great Things; Jeffrey Toobin, a bestselling nonfiction author (most recently American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst), staff writer for The New Yorker, and senior legal analyst for CNN; Colson Whitehead, whose novel The Underground Railroad topped the New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award for fiction in 2016; and Lauren Oliver,  an award-winning author of young adult fiction (including Replica, Vanishing Girls,  and The Delirium Trilogy) whose book Before I Fall will be released as a movie on March 3rd.

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Panelists (left to right) Lauren Oliver, Jodi Picoult, moderator Pamela Paul, Colson Whitehead, and Jeffrey Toobin.

Before the conversation took the inevitable turn to politics, the authors each told the audience about the paths that led them to acclaim. It was no surprise to discover that Picoult wrote her first book when she was five. Years later, while she was studying at Princeton, a notable professor made an impact on her career by being overtly hard on her work because she saw potential. Picoult’s first published work was in Seventeen magazine while she was in college; it was onto writing novels from there.

Oliver has always written, but becoming an author was never her career goal. Now having an inventory of bestselling books that reach both youth and adult audiences, she continues to develop as an author. “I still don’t know what kind of writer I want to be,” she said. “I see my career as a long-form of apprenticeship.” The success she’s attained as a relatively young author is reflected in her work ethic of writing every day—even on weekends.

Colson Whitehead revealed that early on in his writing career, he devoted time to crafting screenplays and pitching ideas for sitcoms, all of which were rejected. He eventually discovered a passion for fiction. Last year, his groundbreaking novel earned him a visit to the White House, where he discussed writing and literature with President Obama.

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Panelist Jeffrey Toobin (right) tells moderator Pamela Paul (left) about his love of print at the NYU Media Talk.

Toobin’s parents were journalists, and although their advice was to not become a writer, the path was already set for him. With a longstanding career at The New Yorker and a repertoire of bestselling nonfiction books, he told the audience that one of his biggest concerns in today’s media climate is getting people off  their phones and reading more books. “I grew up with a reverence for print and have strong memories of books that I’ve read,” he said. “I’ve never been tempted to give up my print job.”

Pamela Paul led the discussion into topics of deeper context: race, politics, authors’ social responsibilities, and the future of publishing. Whitehead discussed the public’s reaction to his book and the obligation he now feels to address current social issues. “The race, class, and gender wire-cross is something we all strive to address accurately,” he said. He credits his recent success to the support and trust he receives from his editor in order to pursue new subjects through his writing.

As a novelist, Lauren Oliver takes fiction very seriously. “[Reading fiction] allows you to look at the world’s problems from a safe place,” she explained. “I think that’s an opportunity for young audiences to become more interested in reading.” Oliver is currently working on a book that addresses the sense of self in being an American.

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Bestselling authors Lauren Oliver (left), Colson Whitehead (center), and Jodi Picoult (right) discuss their writing processes at the NYU Media Talk.

Picoult revealed that she has been labeled a psychic by some of her readers because so many of her subjects have later become topical news events. In her current bestseller, Small Great Things, she tackled issues of racism—a topic she admits to trying and failing to write about earlier in her career. “I wasn’t writing about what it’s like to be an African American in Small Great Things,” she said. “If you want that, read The Underground Railroad. I was writing about three different perspectives that racism plays in a story. As a white woman, I questioned how I could contribute to that conversation and make it authentic.” Small Great Things is being adapted into a film starring Julia Roberts and Viola Davis.

Jeffrey Toobin was the outlier in the panel of fiction writers. “I’m a working journalist and part of my job is to go on CNN and talk about what happened today,” he said. “This new Presidency has been like no other story I’ve ever known. I can’t even think about what will be news two weeks from now. I’m exhausted already!”

Beyond the daily news coverage, Toobin balances his career with researching investigative stories to produce books. Two years ago, his editor advised him to look into the California prison system during the 1970s and that led him to write about Patty Hearst for his book American Heiress. Toobin explained how challenging the research period can be for writing nonfiction, but noted that, as a journalist, “I write about people whether they want to be written about or not. I don’t feel a moral quandary about it. My worry is if people will want to read it.”

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The audience listens closely to NYU Media Talk panelists in the NYU Kimmel Center Rosenthal Pavilion.

The discussion ended on the topic of the future of book publishing. With ongoing changes in technology advancement, methods of content distribution and consumption, plus social and political influences, there are many questions concerning our industry’s forecast. Lauren Oliver was arguably the biggest optimist, stating, “There’s a lot of opportunity for innovation in the publishing industry right now in 2017. There is no standard protocol anymore. Innovation and enthusiasm will remain the most important elements in our careers.”

Colson Whitehead said that after writing about slavery in The Underground Railroad, he thought he’d write about something fun, like a crime novel. “But that all changed in November,” he said. “So now I’m writing about race relations—again.” His advice to aspiring writers is simple: just do the best you can, and if you screw something up, try harder the next time and try something new.

With a devoted following of readers, Jodi Picoult is at the point in her career where she is able to take her stories in new directions and feels that as a writer, she should be using her voice to stand up for those who are having a hard time being heard. She also wants to help aspiring writers, so she spends her leisure time reading advanced reader copies of other books to write author “blurbs,” and trying to help up-and-coming authors find success in this industry: “I make an effort to shine a spotlight on someone I support who is less likely to get noticed.”

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Lauren Oliver and Colson Whitehead sign copies of their bestsellers for NYU School of Professional Studies students, alumni, and staff.

Jeffrey Toobin may be tired from reporting on the Presidency, but he’s excited to see how the public’s desire for news will change. He questions if people will want to read about the chronology of this election and Presidency in the future. As for book sales, he added, “George Orwell is doing great right now. He’s putting up the big numbers.”

Before the panelists concluded their discussion and answered questions from a very satisfied audience, Toobin added that none of the writers on the stage would have their successes to share if it weren’t for their editors and publishers. Writing takes discipline, but it’s a different skillset than publishing and it’s essential to build strong relationships. As for the bestselling authors that shared their career stories and advice at the NYU Media Talk, Toobin let it be known that, “The single easiest thing to do in life is to not write.”

by Eric Greene

Photos courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau/Olivo

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