Perennial favorite and bestselling author Jodi Picoult has 21 novels translated into 34 languages in 35 countries. Leaving Time, her latest, will be published in October from her new publisher, Ballantine, and according to Picoult, brings things full circle: “My first book was about a growing mother-daughter relationship [Songs of the Humpback Whale; Faber & Faber, 1992],” she says, “and I was closer in age to the daughter when I wrote it. Leaving Time turns it over and is born out of what happens when being a good mother means letting go of your children. It’s really how we define good parenting, raising children until they can survive on their own.”
In Leaving Time, a daughter searches for her mother, a scientist who studied grief among elephants, and who mysteriously disappeared when the daughter was a young child. “Here I was writing about a mother and daughter and about losing someone you love, and how do you ever come out the other end? My last child was leaving for college, and I read that elephant mothers and daughters stay together their entire lives until one of them dies. It was the antithesis of being a human mom.”
Intrigued with the elephants, Picoult began to do research, and what she found amazed her. “There is serendipity in writing—you find a fact and start digging.” She traveled to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, then to Botswana, observing herds. “Elephants will come up to the bones of another elephant and touch them, stroking them somberly, ears drooping, the way humans behave at a funeral.” Picoult also learned that elephants are known to break into research camps, take the bones of dead elephants being worked on, and return them to the spot where the elephants had died. “There’s a humanity to elephants that’s counterintuitive [to humans],” she says.
Picoult always researches her topics extensively.“Whether it’s medicine or law, I go out and learn what I need to know from the people who know it,” she says. “Something that I find interesting might not be a good topic for me to write at that moment; it has to strike something personal in me.” Picoult says she has an entire box of ideas that she hasn’t gotten to because there’s always something that she wants to write about that takes precedence. “I think it’s because I’m used to producing quickly. Some people write an incredible book every 10 years, and some writers write an incredible book every year.” What’s upsetting to Picoult, she says, is what she calls “the inherent bias in publishing,” that if you write a book quickly, it’s bad. “I do a lot of work, and a lot of homework. I’m not going to compare myself to a highly literary, gorgeous writer like Toni Morrison, who’s in a class by herself, but I also think there’s a wide disparity between pulp fiction and good solid commercial fiction.”
Describing her work as “commercial fiction about moral and ethical dilemmas,” Picoult covers a wide scope of topics. “If you look at the trajectory of my books, what you see is that I wrote about things that I was most taken with or scared of. I started with a mother-daughter relationship, moved on to what makes a marriage, and after having kids, my books were about all of the scary things that can happen to them: [illness, My Sister’s Keeper, 2004, which was made into a feature film with Cameron Diaz); Change of Heart, 2008; Handle with Care, 2009; rape, The Tenth Circle, 2006; school shootings, Nineteen Minutes, 2006]. All of these things kept me up at night.” She adds that despite it sounding ridiculous, she feels if she writes about a subject it won’t happen, which helps to ease her mind.
Picoult, 48, who now lives in Hanover, N.H. (“I love being a transplant New Englander”), with her husband and three children, grew up on Long Island with her father, a securities analyst on Wall Street; her mother, who ran a nursery school; and her younger brother. Picoult wrote The Lobster That Was Misunderstood when she was five years old. “My parents were always incredibly supportive of my writing” Picoult says, “but they were also pragmatic; when I got my first short story published my mother said great! But who’s going to pay your rent? You need a job.”
Wanting to study creative writing, Picoult attended Princeton as an undergrad, studying with Mary Morris, who she calls “a wonderful writer and mentor.” After graduating in 1987, Picoult went to work on Wall Street, only to be fired three months later when the stock market crashed. She took a severance package and moved to Massachusetts, where the man she’d been dating from college lived (that man, Tim Van Leer, is now her husband of 25 years). She worked at several different jobs, including copywriting at an ad agency, editing textbooks, and teaching eighth grade, but she wrote the entire time. After getting an M.A. in education at Harvard, Picoult got married, got pregnant, and landed an agent, all in two years. Her first book, Songs of the Humpback Whale, sold in three months and was published shortly after her first child was born. Picoult was 25 years old. “All I wanted to do was get a book published, I didn’t even think about readers; I thought, this is my dream.” Picoult has “basically published a book a year since then.” Asked how she found the time to write while raising three children, all close in age, Picoult credits her husband, who she says was “the primary breadwinner forever. One of the many things I love about my husband is that he really didn’t have any idea what he was getting into! He thought I was going to be a teacher.”
Picoult is enthusiastic about her career although she admits to sometimes feeling pigeonholed by people who assume “that if you are a woman you are writing for women.” How does she fight against that? “I keep writing what I write. And I love social media—when you have a platform, you have to use it. I go on Twitter and say, here are five women authors you haven’t read yet that you should read.” At the same time, the author is clearly extremely grateful for her success. “If you are a member of the group that’s in the minority and people listen to you, it is your responsibility to say I’ve had some luck, let me spread some of that.”
Her favorite thing about being a writer is “being able to go anywhere I want to go.” She travels extensively and does a 30-city tour for nearly every book she writes; and that’s only in America. Picoult also travels two to three weeks in England for each book, and goes to Australia and South Africa every three years. “I love meeting readers and doing readings,” Picoult says. “I’m basically a frustrated actress; I’m very much an extrovert.” What’s especially moving, she says, is hearing people’s personal stories and hearing what her work has meant to her readers. “When you write fiction you don’t expect to change people’s lives, but every now and then, you do.”
Leaving Time has elements that will resonate with readers across the spectrum. “There’s a description in the book that came from the woman I was doing research with that says grief is like a really ugly couch that you have to keep in your living room; you can dress it up, you can move it, but you don’t ever get to get rid of it. That is very much what Leaving Time is about.” The elephant story, Picoult says, is incidental, though she knows people will fall in love with the animals, and she hopes to raise awareness. “I definitely want to entertain,” she says, “but we are losing 30,000 elephants a day to poaching. People often have the tendency to think, it doesn’t have anything to do with me, but it does; there are proven links that terrorist groups are being funded by elephant poaching. That’s a humanitarian issue, not just a wildlife conservation issue, so I hope people will give money or time and take initiative.”