Jodi Picoult is the bestselling author of 21 novels, including My Sister's Keeper, Plain Truth, Lone Wolf, and most recently The Storyteller. She lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Q: You wrote on your website that the research you conducted for your new novel, The Storyteller, "was among some of the most emotionally grueling I’ve ever done." Why did you decide to write a novel with a Holocaust theme, and how did you research the book?
A: There is a book by Simon Wiesenthal called The Sunflower, which recounts a time when he was in a concentration camp and brought to a dying Nazi, who requested “a Jew” that he could confess his sins to…and be absolved by.
Wiesenthal did not forgive the man and said he could not, as he was not the victim upon whom the evil was perpetrated – those victims were dead. There have been countless philosophical responses to Wiesenthal’s piece by religious officials of all denominations, analyzing his response and whether it is right or wrong.
It fascinated me to think about what would happen if the same request was modernized in some way, so that a former Nazi asked the descendant of a Holocaust survivor for forgiveness. Is she morally obligated to say yes, or was Wiesenthal right – and does she not have the right to do that? If she craves revenge, does that make her sink to his level? Those were the questions I wanted to explore.
When I told my mother I was planning to write a book that had a bit of the Holocaust in it, I asked her to find me some survivors because she’d attended some ADL lectures in Phoenix.
Little did I know that she would be so good at this task she’d call me a day later with the names and numbers of five Holocaust survivors willing to help me by telling me their stories. Some of the moments these brave men and women told me will stay with me forever….
I also had the opportunity to interview a wonderful man from the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions division of the Dept. of Justice whose job is to hunt down Nazis – even though they are in their 80s and 90s. His rationale for why this still matters – and his fervent desire to pursue anyone who was a perpetrator of genocide during WWII – was incredibly inspiring.
Q: Your books tend to tackle difficult moral questions. Was that always your goal as a writer, and do you find it difficult to plunge into some of the subjects you write about?
A: I think I’ve sort of found my groove – I write about questions to which I don’t know the answers, and that’s what's most interesting for me to pursue. I don’t know if it was always my goal but it’s where I have gravitated. It is always difficult to dive into those subjects. If it’s not an uncomfortable, itchy subject, it’s probably not something I’d be writing about.
Q: Over the years that you've been writing, the world of publishing has experienced some changes, including the popularity of e-books, the rise of self-publishing, the battle between Amazon and other outlets, and more. What impact do you think these changes have had on authors, and do you have a sense of what's coming next?
A: HUGE changes. We’ve seen the rise of Amazon and Borders and B&N, and the fall of Borders. We’ve seen Target and WalMart and Costco cutting margins. The rise of e-books is astronomical – in the past year alone 75 percent of my sales have been electronic, and not physical books.
The changes are profound. Established authors are making less money on e-books than on print books; which means that publishers are wary of taking risks…which means that fewer new authors are being published.
The rise of self publishing is very interesting but it’s not the magic bullet wannabe writers expect – for every E.L. James there are 10,000 authors with a book on Amazon no one is reading. What you lose when you self publish, versus traditional publishing, is the marketing connections and the placement in bookstores that a mainstream publisher can give you.
What’s coming next? I have no idea. I swear, it changes daily.
Q: What was it like to write a book with your daughter [Between the Lines, written with Samantha van Leer]?
A: I was on book tour in Los Angeles, when my telephone rang. “Mom,” my daughter Sammy said. “I think I have a pretty good idea for a book.” This was not extraordinary. Of my three children, Sammy has always been the one with an imagination that is unparalleled.
So…when Sammy told me that, I listened carefully. What if the characters in a book had lives of their own, after the cover was closed? What if the act of reading was just these characters performing a play, over and over…but those characters still had dreams, hopes, wishes, and aspirations beyond the roles they acted out on a daily basis for the reader? And what if one of those characters desperately wanted get out of his book ? Better yet, what if one of his readers fell in love with him, and decided to help?
I suggested we write the book together. We started by brainstorming the characters. Sammy immediately named the prince after our dog, Oliver; and his committed teenager reader became Delilah, after one of our miniature donkeys.
We argued over the tone of the fairytale – I wanted it to be tongue-in-cheek; Sammy preferred it to be classic, and to my surprise, she turned out to be 100 percent right.
There were a lot of moments like that for me – where I thought I’d know best, but her instincts turned out to be spot on. Some of the coolest details in the book were ones Sammy had envisioned long before we ever pinned a plot into place: the idea of an illustrated spider being plucked from the page and turning into a vaguely arachnid-shaped word, legs made of the serifs from the P and D in “spider”; the world going white around Oliver as he starts to rewrite his ending; and my personal favorite – the way Oliver proves who he is at the end of the book, by giving himself a paper cut.
We had a great time working together, but it should be noted that it wasn’t all fun and games. Sammy and I took two years to write this book because I insisted that we be sitting together at the computer, taking turns typing, and literally speaking every sentence out loud. I would say one line, then Sammy would jump in with the next.
Sometimes we were motivated and on a roll. Other times, Sammy would just stare at me in frustration. “You do this every day?” she said, at one point. I think the reality of writing something as big as a novel hit home for her, when we spend weekends, school vacations, and summers slaving away in front of an iMac.
That said, we had some moments where we laughed so hard we couldn’t catch our breath. The coolest moments were when, as collaborators, we truly began to think alike. It’s not an experience I get to have very often as a novelist, but when you write with someone, and you are both envisioning the same unfolding moment, it’s magical.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My 2014 book is tentatively called The Elephant Graveyard (but that’s probably going to change). It’s the story of Alice Metcalf, a researcher studying the reaction of elephants to grief – they are one of the few animal species that recognize and mourn for their dead, as humans do. Along with her husband, Thomas, she ran an elephant sanctuary – until one tragic night, an animal caretaker died in an accident and Alice disappeared, leaving behind only one witness: her three year old daughter, Jenna.
Now, 10 years later, Jenna is determined to find her mother – whom she believes would never leave her behind willingly. With the help of a publicly disgraced psychic, Jenna uncovers new information – and manages to convince the former detective in charge to reopen the case.
This is a book about the lengths we go to for those who have left us behind; about the staying power of love; and about how three broken souls might have just the right pieces to mend each other. It also has a fabulous twist.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Sometimes it’s fun for people to find out that I wrote 5 issues of Wonder Woman for DC Comics…and I’m only the second woman since her conception in the 1940s to write her!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb