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Sunday June 15, 2008

Pursuing perfection

She’s been to an Eskimo village in sub-zero temperatures and to prison, all in the interest of authenticity in her novels. No wonder this author receives more than 100 fan letters every single day.

JODI Picoult’s books have issues. Nineteen Minutes is about a school shooting. Mercy is about euthanasia. The Pact is about suicide pacts. Her stories seem ripped from newspaper headlines; they are irresistible hooks for readers curious to see how the characters deal with the dilemmas.

“Most people think I go through a newspaper and pick out something to write about,” says Picoult via telephone from Singapore.

Jodi Picoult writes about the things that would concern any woman, mum, or wife. – Photo from Headline

The 41-year-old American author stopped over on the island recently while on her way to Australia and New Zealand to promote her 2008 novel, Change of Heart.

She explains how her stories come about: ”It’s actually the thing that keeps me up at night. It’s the thing I worry about as a mum, a wife, a woman, an American ... and if I keep worrying about it, characters pop up, and they begin to walk through the story with me,” she says.

“It’s like a splinter,” Picoult elaborates further. “And that becomes the book.”


Picoult had always wanted to be a writer.

“I kept doing it on my own time, I just didn’t think I could make a living out of it. I just wanted to be able to eat,” she says.

So, sensibly, she became a financial analyst.

And hated it.

Luckily for her, the stock market crashed in the 1980s and her company gave her a severance package, giving her the perfect excuse to try a new career. She used the money to get a Master’s in Education. Eventually, she became a teacher.

That gave her more time, but she still wasn’t writing full time. What really set her on the road to becoming a novelist was becoming a new mother. (She met hubby Tim Van Leer while studying creative writing at Princeton University; they now have three children.)

Determined not to return to teaching after having her child, Picoult looked for ways to spend time with her baby and earn a living at the same time. Writing certainly fit the bill. It didn’t hurt that she also loved it.

Picoult’s road to success as an author is a familiar one: after receiving over 100 rejections from publishers, she finally snagged an agent who got her first book, Songs of the Humpback Whale, published in 1992.

Since then, Picoult has not looked back, churning out a book almost every year. It usually takes her nine months to finish a book.

“It’s like having a baby,” she says, chuckling.

She has written 15 books so far, some of which have even had Hollywood calling.

My Sister’s Keeper is currently being filmed with an all-star cast that includes Cameron Diaz, Joan Cusack, and Alec Baldwin. The Pact (2002), Plain Truth (2004), and The Tenth Circle (2008) have all been turned into TV movies.

“I’m a workaholic,” says Picoult at her website. “I will start a new book the day after finishing a previous one.”

Her next book, Handle with Care is with the publishers and she’s already working on the next novel, to be published in 2010, about a boy with Asperger’s syndrome (a form of high-functioning autism). And while writing that book, she is formulating plans for a future book, which could probably be about gay rights....

“It’s the last civil right that we need to grasp,” she says.

That turned out to be prophetic, as a few weeks after this interview, California lifts its ban on gay marriages; such marriages had been allowed before, and had been banned before this latest decision to lift the ban again.

Ghost hunt

When asked which book is her personal favourite, Picoult quickly replies, “Second Glance.

This is one of her rare books that does not revolve around a “ripped out of the headlines” issue; nor is it easy to categorise: it’s a romance, family drama, thriller, ghost story, and mystery rolled into one!

“It addresses themes that are rarely discussed in fiction. It has characters that I know you’ve never seen before in fiction. It has more twist than all of my books put together. And the research that I had to do for it was fantastically fun,” she says with a laugh.

Just how much fun are we talking about? Well, she went ghost hunting.

Picoult went on a ghost hunt with The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) led by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. Yes, the guys of Ghost Hunters fame. (The reality TV show currently airs on Star World, Astro channel 711, every Wednesday, at 10pm.)

“This was way before they were famous – in 2001,” says Picoult, who describes the duo as “lovely guys”.

Picoult and TAPS visited an abandoned mental institution and a haunted house, and saw things “that just didn’t make sense”.

“The owners (of the house) spoke about how they found all the cereal from the boxes in the cupboards spilled out of the kitchen cabinets onto the middle of the kitchen table, how they came home to find all the faucets running.... One night they heard music and traced it to the attic where a child’s piano was playing without batteries, and I thought to myself, I better check on the children!”

When she went upstairs, to her astonishment, she found six pennies arranged in a row, all dated between 1968 and 1973, in the second child’s room. But it didn’t end there: the pennies – all of the same vintage – were also found in the attic and in other parts of the house.

“In America those coins are out of circulation. Twenty-five in a row was remarkable,” she says.

After some research, the team found out that two people died in that house between 1968 and 1973! Hawes and Wilson actually documented this very incident – and also mentioned Picoult’s involvement – in their book, Ghost Hunting: True Stories of Unexplained Phenomena from The Atlantic Paranormal Society.

Picoult was a total sceptic before her detour into the supernatural. But she doesn’t claim to be a true believer now, either.

“I believe there’s a lot in this world we can’t explain. Not that I’m scared of ghosts; I don’t think they have evil purposes, I just think they don’t know where they’re going,” she says.

Her other research endeavours sound just as enjoyable.

For Picture Perfect, she watched actor/director Sylvester Stallone shooting a movie, milked cows on an Amish farm (for Plain Truth), went to prison in Arizona and learnt how to make crystal meth and zip (ie, improvised) guns (for Change of Heart), and travelled to a remote Eskimo village to follow a dogsled race in sub zero temperatures.

Basically, she’ll do anything to ensure that her book sounds authentic and is as accurate as possible.

Hard work

It’s bad enough that her characters have to deal with all kinds of terrible traumas. What’s worse is that many of them end up in the courtroom.

“The court room is a very natural snowball of an ending; it’s a very dramatic ending,” Picoult says.

But she quickly clarifies that not all her books have courtroom scenes: “If I do have one in (a book), it’s usually because I discovered something stupid about the American legal system and I feel the need to tell everybody about it,” she says.

Also, beware of what you say to her – it may end up in one of her books!

“I’m the world’s worst friend,” she says at her website. “Tell me something and it’s likely to end up in a character’s mouth!”

Picoult writes in the attic of her home – which is in the state of New Hampshire – five days a week, just like a regular job. When not writing, she bakes, goes kayaking, and reads (preferably an Alice Hoffman book) – something she strongly encourages aspiring writers to do; that, and to just finish the novel no matter how bad it seems.

And she tries not to read what critics say of her books.

“I always tell myself I’m not going to, but I still do,” she says, sighing. “Sometimes I get reviews that are so off base that it has become a personal attack.”

She then tells me about a critic who dislikes her books so much that she “makes fun of my fans and the fact that I write commercial fiction”.

“I’m doing something that she doesn’t quite understand,” she says, sounding puzzled.

“You read them and just shrug them off. What’s important to me is what my fans have to say.”

Which is why she makes it a personal mission to answer every single piece of fan she gets. And she gets a whopping 150 letters a day!

“My husband and I go, ‘I can’t believe this. It’s ridiculous!’ We’re so lucky and so fortunate. But there is a lot of hard work involved. All I ever wanted is to be published, and to know that I have so many readers now is staggering.”