I was lucky enough to be part of the ‘Audience with Jodi Picoult’ as part of the Huddersfield Literature Festival on Wednesday evening: coincidentally on the same day that her new novel ‘The Storyteller‘ was announced to be in the UK Bestseller’s top ten.
It was a fascinating experience. Jodi spoke of her new novel, it’s roots and research, read an extract from The Storyteller and then went on to answer questions from the 350 strong crowd. Here’s what I managed to scribble down during the 90 minutes she was on-stage.
Sage Singer is a baker, a loner, until she befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses—and then he confesses his darkest secret – he deserves to die because he had been a Nazi SS guard. And Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. How do you react to evil living next door? Can someone who’s committed truly heinous acts ever atone with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And, if Sage even considers the request, is it revenge…or justice?
The original inspiration for this book began with ‘The Sunflower‘ about a dying Nazi seeking absolution from a Jew. It has been republished with commentary. Jodi wanted to explore the concept of good and evil, asking: if you have something truly horrific can you ever make up for it? Or, if you have led a life of goodness what one act would unbalance this to make you a bad person?
It was clear that research is at the heart of every one of Jodi’s novels when she spoke of three of the Holocaust survivor’s that she spoke to whilst creating the character of Minka. Much of what she retold can be found on the website page for The Storyteller – and I would recommend reading her experiences with them. It speaks volumes for the heroism of some people and the tragedy that comes with the atrocities committed by others.
Unsurprisingly, the best part of the night was when Jodi opened up the floor for questions. The first speaker had no query, she thanked Jodi for writing this story, for reminding people of this tragedy and keeping the stories of survivors alive: she was the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Proof that Jodi’s writing is not only emotional and relevant, but also moral and moving.
Q: How long does it take for her to research and write her books?
Typically it takes 9 months to write with 3 months spent on touring. Those 9 months can be split unevenly depending on the amount of research required: sometimes it takes longer to research and sometimes longer to write or vice versa. The Storyteller took 4 months of research and 5 months to write.
Q: How does she organise her ideas for such complex stories?
She always knows the beginning and the end to her novels. As she is fond of putting a twist in the tale, she knows she has to leave a paper trail for her readers, something they can look back and understand that the twist was the only thing that could have happened!
She doesn’t actually know her way from A to B though: she let’s her characters define this. She listens to their voices. She often says that writing is ‘Successful Schizophrenia’ [I love this phrase!] and often it takes her to surprising places. She doesn’t always know the plans until they happen!
Q: Does she ever get time to read for pleasure, and if so, who does she read?
Occasionally she does get chance, at which point she tends to read novels by the following: [I only got a handful of the names she mentioned!]:
Alice Hoffman, Anne Tyler, Sue Miller and Caroline Leavitt
Q: Where did the idea for ‘My Sister’s Keeper‘ come from?
It is one of only two books she has written that reflects some real link to her actual life. Jodi’s middle son was diagnosed with a congenital aural tumour, for which the only cure resulted in permanent deafness. They decided upon an experimental surgical treatment, which identified that her son had the condition in both ears. The experimental treatment has had a severe affect on his ability to hear but he is now a successful tenor singer and his doctor’s do not quite understand how he manages this with such a deficit of hearing.
Jodi used this as her exemplar: exploring how, although parents should not have ‘favourites’, on occasion some children do take precedence over others. She dovetailed this with the issue of Stem Cell research that was occurring at the time.
Q: Does she have another book due out?
[Her initial response to this made me laugh – she compared her books to babies, saying – ‘hey, everyone look at my newborn’ and only hearing in reply ‘Are you pregnant?’]
Currently in the works is a book with the working title of ‘Elephant Graveyard’ – related to the grieving process of elephants and a woman who studies the phenomenon who goes missing. Ten years later, her 13 year old daughter – the only witness to her disappearance, who cannot remember it – partners up with a psychic to try and find out what happened to her mother. She’s keeping us all in suspense as she suspects it is her ‘best twist in twenty years‘!
Q: As she writes about a lot of moral issues – are there any issues too controversial for her to tackle?
No – it’s very clear that if a topic is controversial then it is an indicator that she should be writing about it!
Q: Out of all the books she’s written, which is her favourite?
Second Glance – because it is historically based and she felt that she researched it really well. It was a very hard book to write but she feels that she nailed it.
Q: What was her inspiration for Lone Wolf?
Ten years before, she had met a neurologist on a plane who began discussing with her the difficulties of families deciding when to turn off life support for those patients with brain injuries. Jodi asked for his contact details, saying she would (eventually) want to write a book about this topic so he had to remember her when she came asking for help. Fortunately, after such a long time he did remember her and he was a great contact for her research.
Originally the book had nothing to do with wolves, but the idea of a wolf pack being a metaphor for family seemed like an original concept (that came to her because she couldn’t stop thinking about wolves!). Only then did she find out about The Wolf Centre, where Shaun Ellis lives with wolves, and spent time with him in order to integrate it into the novel.
Q: How did she get involved with the Amish Community [Research for Plain Truth]?
Her mother, oddly enough, encouraged her to write about the Amish. Jodi was also lucky enough to spend a week with an Amish family on their dairy farm thanks to a contact she made on the net.
Q: What research for which novel had the most profound effect on her?
Change of Heart – about the Death Penalty in the US. She visited a federal prison to find out about the process and met with the warden who presided over the executions. When Jodi asked the warden if she had ever attended an execution that she was not presiding over, the warden said ‘Once’, admitting that she ‘used to believe in the death penalty’. This warden went on to show Jodi a 100 page document about how the Death Penalty works in Arizona and she found out the following:
– ‘Do you have any last words’ is the cue for the anaesthetic to be administered
– ‘May God have Mercy on Your Soul’ is the cue for the Potassium Chloride to be administered
Because the prisoner’s last words are typically very short, it is more than likely that the anaesthetic never gets chance to take effect.
Jodi also met with a prisoner on Death Row and started up regular correspondence with him. She admits that he was a bad person – he committed a burglary whilst high, taking captives and ‘sedating’ them with battery acid – but that there was also another side to him – he loved to sketch and would paint using the pigments from M+M’s. He asked Jodi for advice when his son told him he was gay (Jodi’s son is also gay) and invited her to the execution. She could not attend (she was on a book tour at the time) but afterwards his son wrote to Jodi asking her if they could be friends, as his father had recommended it. Their son’s are now friends also.
Q: How much involvement did she have with the film, ‘My Sister’s Keeper‘?
[Jodi seemed very upfront and honest about this, and you could tell that the discrepancies with the ending bothered her]
Leading up to the film she did meet with the Director, who agreed that it was important to maintain the original ending as per the novel. They kept in touch during the process, and Jodi felt that it would work out well. However, a fan who happened to work for the casting people emailed her to say that in their script the ending had changed dramatically. Jodi attempted to contact the Director, but to no avail. She eventually went to the set and was thrown off for her protests about the changed ending.
Ironically, she points out, she now has more clout in Hollywood than before because she actively predicted the financial loss that the movie incurred due to the changed ending!
There are other novels she has written with production potential, including – Change of Heart, for which the rights are independently owned and hopefully should become an independent film someday. Sing you Home – rights held by Ellen Degeneres, who although perfect for this story, is a bit slow in getting it done (Jodi urges us all to write to Ellen to hurry her along!). House Rules – which is currently being discussed by a Network for a TV Drama.
Q: Given all the ideas she has, is she ever overwhelmed by the exposure to them?
She admits there is no shortage of issues and she often gets emails from those suggesting she write their life as a fictional account! She admits is isn’t the controversy that drives her to write about an idea, often it is like the cream rising to the top; it all depends on where she is in life. So, she started writing about the relationship between a mother and daughter, then moved onto men and women once she got married and then graduated to kids and their parent’s worst nightmares for them…
She’s certainly not yet out of ideas.