Jacquelyn Mitchard, THE GOOD SON

Jacquelyn Mitchard, THE GOOD SON

#1 New York Times bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel, The Good Son, and the brief interaction at a writer’s conference that inspired it. The two talk about the unreasoning love parents have for their children, what Jacquelyn’s experience was like raising nine kids, and the project she is working on next. Jacquelyn also shares what the experience was like being chosen as Oprah’s first book club pick, from almost missing the opportunity when she didn’t believe Oprah was really calling her to what it was like to be a part of a massive literary phenomenon.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jacquelyn. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Good Son.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Thank you so much for having me. You obviously have time to read. Look at all those books.

Zibby: You know, I’m actually staying with my dad right now, so I can’t even claim that.

Jacquelyn: You can’t claim that. He has time to read.

Zibby: I have to tell you, though, that when I started your book, I — wait, hold on, I have to get to the first page. I literally read the opening sentence out loud to my husband. I said, “This is the best opening sentence of a book I have read.” I’m just going to read it again. “I was picking my son up at the prison gates when I spotted the mother of the girl he had murdered.” How can you not want to read that book? That’s a great opening sentence.

Jacquelyn: You always try for that first sentence — you know that — that encompasses the meat, the muscle mass of the book. To put those two mothers there together in that one place was also to spark, what’s going to happen? What kind of conflict is going to happen there?

Zibby: Can you tell listeners a little bit about the plot of the book?

Jacquelyn: Yes. Thea is the main character. She has the task of helping her son, Stefan, come back to the community he left behind after serving time in prison for the death of the girl he loved since the seventh grade, Belinda. He has no memory of the crime. He was so messed up on drugs that he doesn’t know what happened on that night. He went to jail when he was seventeen. Now he’s almost twenty because it was for manslaughter. He is coming back to a community that — even his extended family are not sure that they want to have anything to do with him. Definitely, the community where he lived and the larger community does not want to know Stefan. There’s going to be no second chance for him. Also, the mom of the girl, who was their neighbor — they grew up together — has started a huge organization to protest dating violence. There are many pressures that are coming down on Thea and on Stefan. She has mixed feelings about this. She’s, in some ways, as anybody would be — I have sons of my own — wondering, I’m the only one who can love him, how am I going to do that? How am going to do that when I know what happened? But does she really know what happened? Nobody knows what happened. Nobody remembers. It’s a mystery.

Zibby: I was putting myself in Thea’s shoes — I have two sons of my own — and just thinking, what would I do? Of course, I would be driving every weekend however far she would. Of course, I would go. Of course, I would drive through the snowstorm if that’s what he wanted and risk my life and do whatever because it’s your son. Is there a point at which your offspring does something so horrendous — of course, it’s unclear at the beginning, for sure. What could they do to make me stop loving them? I don’t think anything, really. What do you do, though, when something proves — I don’t know. It just raised all sorts of questions.

Jacquelyn: That was why I wanted to write about it. Actually, I was inspired to write this book — I was speaking at a writers’ conference. This is years ago. A woman in front of me in the coffee line at this big hotel — I was going to get my coffee. She dropped her book. I picked it up and handed it to her. Having the personality of a golden retriever, I said, “Hi, are you here for the writers’ conference?” She was not. She was there to visit her son in prison. He would be in prison for a very long time. She told me that he was there because of the drug-induced murder of the girl he loved. He was only twenty years old. She further told me — there’s a scene that’s like this but not this in the novel. She went to the cemetery to put roses on the girl’s grave. The girl’s mom showed up. She was terrified. They ended up holding each other and crying. The mother of the girl said, “You’re luckier because at least you can still touch him.” I thought, how could I turn away from her? I sat there. They were introducing me on the stage when I came running up the aisle because I sat there with her for way longer than I should have. I was mesmerized by the majesty of her grief. You were talking about this. Not long afterwards, I saw a TED Talk by Sue Klebold, Dylan Klebold’s mom. He was one of the Columbine shooters, of course. The audience seemed to be aghast when she said, “Of course, I still love my son. Of course, I wish he was alive.” One of the things that has been most interesting to me about writing this book and about people reading it is the absolute intransigent power of a mother’s love. Nothing is bigger. It’s also unreasoning. Maybe all love is unreasoning. Certainly, a parent’s love is unreasoning.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s so true, oh, my gosh. The idea, though, that this woman just happened to come across your path, the message, to me, is, pick up any book that I see somebody drop. That your path could intersect and that you were so present and mindful and open to hearing someone’s story just as you were walking to a big event — here you are, this big-deal author. You could easily have just rushed past. Your taking that moment took in her story. Now I’m reading her story. It’s so amazing.

Jacquelyn: I wonder where she is. I wonder how she is. I remember the hotel. I wonder if she still goes every weekend and if there’s a way that she would know that — I don’t know. I think about things like that all the time. I don’t believe in signs or anything like that. I just know that if you would’ve been there, you would’ve done the same thing. You would have been unable to push away despite your own schedule and your own needs. I think no one had listened to that story before. When I told my agent I wanted to write a novel about it, he said, “Okay, that’s all really interesting, but I have one word for you. No.”

Zibby: Why?

Jacquelyn: He said that there’s no way that you could make those characters sympathetic.

Zibby: What?

Jacquelyn: The bitter mother of the murdered girl and the desperate mother of the son and the murderer himself, how could you ever? I was aghast. I said, “They’re already sympathetic to me. I already have compassion for them. I know that readers would have compassion for them.” My first novel, nobody liked the main character in The Deep End of the Ocean. People thought she was really hostile and a pain, and she was. She was miserable and depressed. People aren’t always dancing and singing when they’re in that kind of a state. At the end of the day, they understood why she was that way. That’s all I’m asking for, really, is for people to understand what the nature of having to live with that kind of — if you’re the mother of someone who has done something like that and who has no memory of having done it, you are responsible. I mean, you may not be responsible, but you sure feel responsible. I feel responsible for everything my kids do. I’m helpless not to, even the ones who are grown up. I still have teenagers at home, but a lot of my kids are — not a lot of my kids, but several of my kids are grown up. I’m still carrying a torch.

Zibby: How old are your kids?

Jacquelyn: The youngest is fifteen. The oldest is thirty-five.

Zibby: How many are there?

Jacquelyn: Nine.

Zibby: Nine kids?

Jacquelyn: That I know of.

Zibby: That you know of. You have the same husband?

Jacquelyn: Yes, I have the same husband. Well, I was widowed in my thirties. The first three children — I was widowed in my late thirties. That’s when I wrote my first novel, because I just wanted to do something impossible to show that there would be a life after this for us. I had three sons. Then my husband now and I got married almost twenty-five years ago. It was just a date that got out of hand.

Zibby: A date that got out of hand with six kids.

Jacquelyn: All my daughters were adopted. Two of my daughters were born in Ethiopia. Then I have five sons. It doesn’t seem like that many kids. You have four kids. People must always say, . When you’re in the thick of it, to me, sometimes it seems like I have been run over by a herd of buffalo. Sometimes it seems that I can’t imagine how people have one child. What do they do?

Zibby: I’m sorry, I did know that. I’m seeming unprepared. I do remember reading that. I’m sorry that I had to ask how many you had. I did know. I’m sorry.

Jacquelyn: But I liked the look on your face. It was worth it. It was worth the price of admission when you asked, nine kids?

Zibby: Yes, people who have one are like, oh, my gosh, four seems impossible. I think about nine. You have such a spread. Maybe it makes it easier. I don’t know. I feel like because have a spread…

Jacquelyn: Certainly, yes. Some of them were already in high school and not on their own but able to make their own dinner if they had to do that or something when the youngest one was only little. It is a huge spread. In big families like that, if they are the kind of families where the parents actually wanted the kids — I grew up in Chicago, on the West Side of Chicago. There were plenty of the firefighter’s family and the police officer’s family that had thirteen kids. The mother was gone. She didn’t know whether she was in town or not. They kind of look out for each other and are company to each other, especially now that they’re older.

Zibby: Wow, that’s aspirational. I’m just still hoping my teenagers could actually make themselves dinner. I’m sitting here thinking, I hope they could like themselves dinner. I feel like at least one of them knows how to make breakfast. No, I’m kidding.

Jacquelyn: They’re not going to starve. No one starves willingly. They’ll just eat all the cereal.

Zibby: Here I am, I’m like, could they make steak? I don’t know. They’ve never tried.

Jacquelyn: No, probably not. Well, maybe, but you would not recognize that it’s steak.

Zibby: I don’t eat steak anyway. I don’t even know what I’m talking about. I’m sorry. Anyway.

Jacquelyn: It’s fine. I’m having fun.

Zibby: More goals for me to teach. I felt like the eggs were an accomplishment. I’ll just build on that.

Jacquelyn: Yes. Scrambled eggs are a knack. There’s a knack to that. Once they can make — if you read any British novels, all they ever eat in British novels are omelets. That’s the only thing they ever have, so they’re set up for world travel, omelets and cold toast.

Zibby: We call them flat eggs. Wait, Jacquelyn, tell me how you started writing. When did this start? Tell me about your experience with your smash hit, having an Oprah best-seller. Widow, three kids, oh, my gosh. Now here you are with this book. First of all, what did the agent say when you actually came out with this? Is he still your agent?

Jacquelyn: Yes. He’s fine with it. He loves The Good Son. He loves the book. He said, in a number of places, in a number of interviews, that he loves those characters because I love them. The task of the author is to get the reader on the side of the characters. Even if you disapprove of everything about that character, you’re still wondering, what’s going to become of that person? I started writing — as I said, I was a writer of sorts. I was a newspaper reporter for most of my life. When I was in my late thirties, my husband died really young. He was forty.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Jacquelyn: It was terrible. It was more terrible for the kids than for me because they had no idea that anything like that could possibly happen.

Zibby: How old were they at the time?

Jacquelyn: They were three, six, and nine at the time. They were only little. It took a long time for them to understand that life didn’t always hold some terrible surprise because he died very quickly. He got really sick, and he died. I started to write The Deep End of the Ocean. I had heard a story in high school about a family — it’s a very famous story, actually — about a family whose child was abducted. After eight or nine years, he was returned to the family. He went to a police station. You know that story. I’m trying to think of his name. I wondered what that would be like. What’s interesting to me in stories is the aftermath, not the before-math. I’m interested not so much in the thing itself, but the way that the thing affects the lives of everybody going forward. In The Deep End of the Ocean, within the first few pages, the boy is back with his family after nine years. There are more tears shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers. By the time I finished it, I knew it was good enough to get published. I had never done any creative writing other than for the freshman elective at the University of Illinois. I knew it was good enough to get published, but I didn’t know what would happen to it. Then it became a best-seller. Then Stedman Graham gave a copy of it to Oprah Winfrey when they were on vacation.

She called me on the phone. I erased her message three times because I thought it was somebody horsing around with me. I thought it was one of my friends saying, “This is Oprah Winfrey. Could you please return my call?” When I finally called her back, she was really mad. She said on the message, “This is Oprah Winfrey. I don’t even know if you live here. If you do, could you at least do me the courtesy of returning my phone call?” I called her back. She said, “I’m going to start the largest book club in the world.” Even my publisher said, “Now, Jackie, do not have such big expectations for this because these are antithetical media,” TV. “People who watch daytime TV don’t read.” First of all, I thought, that may not be true. As it turned out, on the night that she announced the book club, by that night, there were four thousand holds on the book at the New York Public Library. It was crazy. Even she would have not imagined. She was not able to imagine how much of a hunger and thirst people had to gossip about books. See, that’s what books are for. Books are to gossip about. They’re to say, did you get to the part…? I can remember, my mom was a — she didn’t graduate high school, even. She was a high school dropout. She would talk about books with the guy across the alley who worked for my dad. I heard her say one day to him, “Did you get to the part in the train station yet?” It was ten years until I realized she was talking about Anna Karenina. No one knew that she wasn’t too stupid to read that book. She didn’t know she wasn’t too stupid to read that book.

Zibby: Wow. I love that you said that about gossiping around books. I keep saying it’s community. I’m trying to build this community and word of mouth and all this stuff, but that’s really what it is. You want to share — we don’t have enough people in common. That’s why we have to talk about all sorts of other people. We have to read Us Weekly or talk about celebrities. You don’t always just want to talk about celebrities. It’s like, enough already. It’s having a book that’s like a moment that you’re all experiencing the same emotions and all of that. I feel like we still don’t quite have it.

Jacquelyn: Also, when you have a book at your book club — I have a book club. When people read a book, they want to disagree about it. They want to say, oh, if I were that woman, I would never have done that. Oh, yes, I would have. It makes sense that she wouldn’t have done that. Well, but she didn’t really love her husband. No, I think she did. They were gossiping about people who aren’t real as if they were real. That’s what kicks my spokes out about books. The beginning of a book and the end of the book are so important. At the end of the book, basically, you’re saying, okay, I’m going to let you go back to the world now. I’m going to release you back to the world, but we’ll always remember each other, the author and the characters and the reader. It’s almost like a journey that you took together. Then at the end of the journey, you have to say goodbye.

Zibby: That’s part of why I like keeping books around. I feel like when I look around at all my books, it’s like I’m checking on my old friends. Just seeing it, I don’t remember the specifics of a book I read twenty years ago, but I get all those feelings and flashes. It all kind of comes back. It’s very comforting.

Jacquelyn: It is to me too. I still remember the first time I read the book that I consider, still, my favorite book.

Zibby: Wait, which is what book?

Jacquelyn: It is called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, which I think of as this magnificent book about books. It’s a book about a girl finding her way out of this grinding immigrant poverty through the fact that she could read. It opened the world to her. She saw that there was a different possibility for a life than the life that she understood and everyone around her lived. I can still be brought to tears reading parts of that book because it’s so moving to me that reading — when a kid realizes that she can read, then you can never keep her prisoner anymore, right?

Zibby: Absolutely. I read that book in grade school. I haven’t read it since. I should go back and read it my kids, honestly.

Jacquelyn: It holds up. It really does hold up. You think of it as this little middle-grade or young adult kind of book. There’s a lot of stuff going on in that book. There’s a pedophile. There’s the poverty and the alcoholism and the parents battling. Francie Nolan, as a character, means so much to me that my firstborn daughter’s name is Francie Nolan. She is becoming something that her family would not recognize. She’s becoming a different kind of person. It’s very inspiring and very gritty. I’ve read it a few times in my life. When I’ve read it again, I recognize the achievement of that writer.

Zibby: I think maybe some of that went over my head on the first reading, so I think I’m going to have to go back.

Jacquelyn: That happens. We read books in our lives at different times. We notice things. There’s always something that’s revealed to us later on the next time we read it, maybe.

Zibby: Do you go back and read your own writing?

Jacquelyn: Are you kidding?

Zibby: I’m just saying, maybe if you read The Deep End of the Ocean now, what would you think about it?

Jacquelyn: I’ve read pages of books that I’ve read. There’s two things that happen, and both of them are horrifying. One is, I read something and I say, geez, that’s pretty good. I think I’ve slipped. I think my brain is going. I don’t have the skill I used to have anymore. Or you read something and you think, what a pretentious jerk you are. Thankfully, no one is reading that anymore, or if they are, they’re not writing to you about it. No, I don’t read my own stories anymore. I don’t long to change them the way — I was telling someone the other night at a book event that when you have just written a book, it’s like you have a great marriage and you’re on your honeymoon. Then the book is published. Then time goes by. Then you’re down at the mailbox and kind of flirting with the guy across the street thinking, I really like him. I think he understands me better than my current book husband. You’re ready to write another book because you’re moving on to a new love, kind of.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh. Have you been flirting with anybody lately? Do you have another book coming?

Jacquelyn: I have been, yes. I just got started. I just figured out the plot of a new book. Again, it’s not giving anything away to say what it starts with. What it starts with is a woman who is a young woman. She’s an underwater photographer. She’s acclaimed in her work. She comes back to her home to see her father who is widowed. He’s sixty years old. He’s a wildlife biologist. The first thing she finds out is that he is going to marry her best friend.

Zibby: Whoa.

Jacquelyn: Whoa, yeah. It’s just the beginning of the complications in this story. I thought, what if that happened? Oh, my god. You can inhabit those emotions and try to figure out what they all would mean.

Zibby: It’s so crazy, too, because it’s impossible to run out of plots. There’s an endless series of things in the world that could happen. The novel is a big what-if? You just have to keep going. Anybody who worries or thinks about — the ideas will somehow just keep emerging.

Jacquelyn: There are only a couple of stories in the sense that either you’re falling in love or you’re getting in trouble, or you’re falling in love and then getting in trouble, something like that, but there are endless permutations on how it happens and how people get out of it.

Zibby: Are you still in touch with Oprah?

Jacquelyn: In touch, no, of course not. We call and trade makeup tips. No, I’m not at all, but I did go on — when she ended her network show and started her OWN network, she did a series of shows with four people who had been meaningful turning points in her first career on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I did go out there and do that. That was about five years ago when she was ending that show. That was really fun. It was really fun. Nothing about that experience is anything I would ever change. People say to me, were you intimidated? Do you wish you wouldn’t have started with this huge success? I think, are you crazy? Really? No. No, everything about it is just fine.

Zibby: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Jacquelyn: This is going to sound stupid, okay? Finish your book. I have so many writers whom I teach. I teach at seminars or in MFA programs. They invariably say to me, I’ve started three or four novels. I’m about halfway through each of them. Oh, my goodness. If you don’t push through the hard part and complete it, then you will never have a story that will be published. You’ll never feel satisfied. You’ll never know whether you could’ve done it or not. That would be the biggest thing that I would say. Make a commitment to your story. Finish what you start. Also, obviously, read more. I hear so many people say, who has time to read, right? So many people say that. If you have to stay up late and if you have to never watch TV again — it’s your priesthood. You have to read. You just have to read, period.

Zibby: I obviously read.

Jacquelyn: Obviously, you do.

Zibby: I feel like the benefits of reading even just a little bit are so huge. People just forget or they feel like they have to finish the whole thing or they’re intimidated or they have to read a certain book and they don’t really want to or they’re too tired. I’m like, skim the book. Read sixty pages. Skim. Just get into it. Just lose yourself for a minute. It’s so much more effective than any other medium because it’s the only thing where you’re — maybe virtual reality or something. I don’t know. It’s the only thing, you are literally immersed in something else, in some other world.

Jacquelyn: You’re brain-deep in it. You really are. Your brain is suffused with that story. That’s why short stories are so great sometimes. Anybody can read twenty pages. It’s a digestible, memorable event. In a busy life or a busy culture, you can still make a civilized amount of time to read twenty pages and have that experience.

Zibby: Or even an essay, a thousand words. On the Medium site, it’s a five-minute read. Come on. People have a five-minute read. I don’t think your advice is stupid. I think it was spot-on. Thank you so much. This was so much fun.

Jacquelyn: You are so welcome. It was a great deal of fun. Somewhere out there, maybe we’ll see each other someday out there in real life. Is real life going to ever happen again? I don’t know.

Zibby: I’m hopeful.

Jacquelyn: I’m hopeful too.

Zibby: I’m hopeful, and I would love that. That would be really nice and fun. I’ll drop books everywhere and hope that you come pick them up.

Jacquelyn: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thank you, Jacquelyn. My pleasure. Buh-bye.

Jacquelyn: Bye.

Jacquelyn Mitchard, THE GOOD SON

THE GOOD SON by Jacquelyn Mitchard

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