The Power of an Author’s Note

I have a confession to make: If a novel contains an author’s note, I read it before I launch into the first chapter—even if it falls at the end of the book.

I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember—both before I ever tried to write a book, and now that I have a bunch of published novels under my belt. It’s the perpetual writing student in me who is always looking for a glimpse into the writer’s mind and process. Sometimes, I’ve found, the author’s note can be as fascinating as the book.

Second confession: I’ve been known to recommend an author’s note to other writers and to students, the way someone else (someone less nerdy, maybe) might endorse the novel itself.

Now, because you seem to still be reading this, I’m going to offer an author’s note suggestion to you. This one relates to a class I’m offering at Charlotte Lit on Feb. 5: “Beyond Stereotypes: Writing Diverse Characters with Dimensions.” The note is in Jodi Picoult’s Small, Great Things, a novel well worth your reading time. But even if you aren’t a Picoult fan, it would be a shame if you missed her author’s note, which is highly instructive.

Small Great Things is told in shifting third limited POV, with a protagonist who is an African-American nurse accused of jeopardizing a white baby’s life. The other POVs belong to a white supremacist and the nurse’s white lawyer.

Let’s skip to the author’s note. What we learn there is that Picoult, a white woman, tried early in her career to write a novel “about racism,” as she puts it. She failed miserably.

“I started the novel, foundered, and quit,” she writes. “I couldn’t do justice to the topic. I didn’t know what it was like to grow up Black in this country, and I was having trouble creating a fictional character that rang true” (p. 459).

She then discusses moving on to write all those successful novels with characters unlike her—men, suicidal people, teenagers, rape survivors. Why couldn’t she create a person of color facing racism? Because racism is hard to discuss, she says, so white authors often don’t.

What changed that made Picoult feel like she could tackle the topic of Small, Great Things? Obviously, it wasn’t that racism suddenly got easier to write about. When she set out to write the novel, based loosely on an incident she’d read about, it was Picoult’s intention that changed.

“I wasn’t writing to tell people of color what their own lives were like,” she notes. “I was writing to…white people—who can very easily point to a neo-Nazi skinhead and say he’s a racist…but can’t recognize racism in themselves” (p. 460).

Powerful stuff. You’ll have to read the author’s note for details on how she actually went about crafting her protagonist (and a skinhead we actually feel something for)—and for more about this topic, you can take my Charlotte Lit class.

I’m going to leave you with this thought: The uncomfortable things we think we can’t possibly write about just might make powerful fiction.

And here’s one last confession, too: I read the acknowledgments right after the author’s note.

Paula Martinac is the author of four novels, including most recently, The Ada Decades. She teaches creative writing at UNC Charlotte and is a writing coach in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.

Join Paula for “Beyond Stereotypes: How to Create Diverse Characters with Dimension” on Tuesday, February 5, 6-9 pm. Members $55, non-members $65. Register here.