homepage logo

Picoult explains research key to her writing success

By Staff | Dec 10, 2009

During Monday night’s inaugural 2009-10 Author Series event at the Sanibel Public Library, New York Times best-selling fiction writer Jodi Picoult engaged the standing-room-only crowd with stories about her background and upbringing, researching the intricate details behind the characters in her books and her writing regimen which has produced 15 titles over the past two decades.

Delivering a 45-minute presentation entitled “The Facts Behind The Fiction,” Picoult immediately brought smiles to the faces of more than 200 members of the audience during her opening remarks.

“It’s really a pleasure to be here tonight… and I’m not just saying that because it snowed this weekend,” said the Hanover, N.H. resident. “And then I find out that there are a lot of Red Sox fans here on Sanibel, so that makes me feel right at home.”

Since her first novel, “Songs Of The Humpback Whale,” was published in 1992, Picoult has written a number of best-selling books. Among her most popular titles are “Picture Perfect,” “Keeping Faith”, “Salem Falls” and “Second Glance.” “Nineteen Minutes,” released in 2007, was her first novel to debut at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list, followed by “Change Of Heart” the following year.

In her books, the Princeton University and Harvard University graduate seems to gravitate towards hotly debated or controversial subjects – including domestic violence, sexual abuse, kidnapping, date rape, teen suicide, medical emancipation, murder and the death penalty – which give her work far more detail than other fictional interpretations.

“I was told by one of my teachers to write what you know,” Picoult recalled. “But it didn’t take me very long to realize that I didn’t know anything.”

During her lecture, she cited doing investigative work for three of her favorite titles – “Second Glance,” “Change Of Heart” and her most recent release, 2009’s “Handle With Care” – as examples of just how deeply involved she can get with her subjects and story-lines.

“People ask me what my favorite book I’ve written is,” she told the crowd. “I think ‘Second Glance’ is my favorite because of the amount of research I had to do for it.”

“Second Glance,” set in the fictional town of Comtosook, Vt., explores the paranormal world as well as the largely unknown American eugenics (forced sterilization) projects of the 1930s, which – according to the author – were cited by Adolf Hitler as the basis of the Nazi’s T-4 Euthanasia program.

In “Change Of Heart,” for example, Picoult visited an Arizona prison with a working death row, spoke with a Catholic warden who did not believe in the death sentence but – since it was her job – had to oblige the consequences of carrying out such penalties, and interviewed a death row inmate who must face his own mortality every day.

“The best argument I’ve heard to explain the death penalty comes from another author, Scott Turow,” Picoult offered. “He says it’s the adult equivalent of ‘I don’t want you playing in my sandbox anymore.’ It’s society’s way of saying to a person that they will never fit in. They will never be like the rest of us.”

Of Handle With Care,” the author profiles the moral dilemma faced by the family of a young girl born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease which causes bones to shatter easily. The scenario also explores medical ethics, how disabled is too disabled, and how far people would go to care for their loved ones.

During a question-and-answer segment, Picoult was asked how long it usually takes her to write a book.

“Nine months,” she responded, triggering a good amount of laughter from the audience. “I don’t know why it takes me the same amount of time to deliver either a book or a baby, but there you have it.”

After talking a little bit about her home life and raising three children, she was then asked if there was anything she’s written that embarrassed her.

“Writing a sex scene. But not embarrassing for me… embarrassing for my kids,” she explained. “I’ve told them that if I didn’t know how to write a sex scene, none of them would be here.”

Picoult’s next book, due in March 2010, is titled “House Rules.” The plot centers around a teenage boy afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

“He’s a crime-solving analyst who winds up being accused of a brutal murder,” she said.

Currently, she is working on her 17th novel, an as-yet-untitled book which explores perhaps two of the most talked-about controversies in recent times: embryo donation and gay civil rights.

“Like most of my books, this one is going to offer some questions that will keep you up at night,” the writer added. “The issue of gay rights in America is one of the last few civil rights people are still actively fighting for.”

After signing books for a long line of faithful island followers and fans, Picoult noted that she would be heading home the next morning.

“I’m spending less than 20 hours in Florida!” she said, flashing a slight frown. “I’ve got to fly back home because we’re expecting a nor’easter on Wednesday.”

“The next time I’m down, I’d like to spend more time on Sanibel,” she added.