Sunday, June 13, 2010

Interview with Jodi Picoult

From The Wire (NH) --

Looking autism in the eye --

By: Matt Kanner --
06 April 2010 --

Best-selling author and N.H. resident Jodi Picoult discusses her latest novel at The Music Hall

After a grueling national tour in support of her new best-selling book, Jodi Picoult was elated to be back in her home state.

“It is so nice to be in New Hampshire again,” she told the crowd at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, where she participated in the Writers on a New England Stage series on March 31.

At the time of her visit, Picoult’s new novel “House Rules” sat atop the New York Times bestseller list for fiction. Topping the list for nonfiction, coincidentally, was “The Big Short,” the latest book from Michael Lewis, who will take The Music Hall’s stage on Wednesday, April 7.

This isn’t the first time Picoult has authored a bestseller. At the age of 43, she has already published 17 novels, several of which have been made into TV movies. Her 2003 hit novel “My Sister’s Keeper” was made into a major motion picture last year starring Cameron Diaz and Alec Baldwin. She has also authored several issues of the “Wonder Woman” comic book series for DC Comics.

“House Rules” tells the story of Jacob Hunt, a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome. Jacob is phenomenally intelligent, but he struggles to express himself socially. And, like many kids with Asperger’s, he has a specific passion—in Jacob’s case, forensic analysis and crime scene investigation. Tipped off by his police scanner, he begins showing up at crime scenes and offering pointers to the cops. But the tables turn when Jacob, himself, becomes a murder suspect.

Picoult, who is known for plotlines that revolve around controversial social issues, said she chose to write about Asperger’s because it’s an often misunderstood condition that affects countless families, including her own. “Like many people, I’ve had autism touch my family personally,” she said in an onstage interview with Virginia Prescott, host of New Hampshire Public Radio’s “Word of Mouth.”

Asperger’s is on the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum and manifests itself in a variety of ways. Picoult spoke of her cousin David, who grew up with the syndrome and now lives in a group home. He is prone to destructive tantrums, which, at over six feet tall and 250 pounds, often draw attention from police.

Like many of Picoult’s novels, “House Rules” is written from the perspective of several different narrators. At The Music Hall, Picoult read a section of the book with narration from Jacob, his mother Emma and a police detective named Rich.

Getting into the head of a teenage boy with Asperger’s was a challenge Picoult did not take lightly. She researched prodigiously on the topic, interviewing and surveying dozens of people with Asperger’s and their families. She also studied ongoing debates about what causes Asperger’s and how best to treat it.

“I literally wound up with hundreds of pages of research,” she told Prescott.

Some of the stories Picoult heard from real people made it into her book, and a woman with Asperger’s read over the final manuscript to verify its accuracy.

Still, although Picoult has heard positive feedback from thousands of fans, some people have criticized her fictional portrayal of Asperger’s. But if Picoult weren’t confident with the accuracy of her work, she said, she never would have published it.

“Jacob is a compilation of a lot of real kids, and every kid with Asperger’s is different,” she said. “You can’t please everybody all the time, but I can tell you that if the book is out there, I stand by it.”

Picoult does exhaustive research for all her books. She has no assistant and does all the work herself. During her research for “House Rules,” she even attended an autopsy, which she said was “fun.” For her 2003 novel “Second Chance,” which involves supernatural forces, she visited haunted buildings with a team of “ghost hunters” and witnessed some truly spooky happenings.

Picoult is no stranger to writing about murky and often contentious issues. The Hanover resident, who has three kids of her own, has written about teen suicide, date rape, bulimia, the death penalty, school bullying and stem cell research, among other things. Her forthcoming novel “Sing You Home,” due out in 2011, will deal with embryo donation and gay rights.

Prescott asked Picoult how she has managed to sell millions of books in a country where most people are uncomfortable discussing the types of social issues she addresses.

“I think it’s because I try very hard not to preach to you,” Picoult said. “I really think that my opinion is no better than yours.” Instead of telling readers what to think, she added, she attempts to illustrate all sides of the argument.

Part of the price of tremendous commercial success is that Picoult does not receive much esteem from the highbrow literary community. Like some past regional authors to participate in Writers on a New England Stage, including Stephen King and Dan Brown, she’s considered more of a commercial writer than a literary writer.

Picoult said going the commercial route was a deliberate choice. Although she will likely never win a National Book Award in the United States, she said, reaching a wide audience is more important than garnering personal accolades, and she’s encouraged by the support of fans who have been touched by her work.

Also like King, Picoult is not always completely satisfied with the film interpretations of her books. Many fans of “My Sister’s Keeper” were disappointed that the film version dramatically changed the ending.

Picoult said she had no control over the screen adaptation. She said having one of your books made into a movie is like having someone else raise your baby. “Sometimes you find out that your baby grew up with crack whores, and that’s just the way it is,” she said to immense laughter.

Picoult’s work has been tagged with a reputation for appealing mainly to women—a theory supported by the predominantly female audience at The Music Hall. But Picoult thinks she is equally popular among men. She started tracking all the emails she receives from fans (she gets about 250 per day and responds to every one). “Forty-nine percent of them came from men, so hah!” she said.

Why, then, were there so many more ladies than men in the audience?

“That’s because women need a night out,” Picoult said to applause.

Jodi Picoult’s appearance at The Music Hall will air on New Hampshire Public Radio during “Word of Mouth” on Thursday, April 8 at noon. For more information on Writers on a New England Stage, a collaboration between The Music Hall, NHPR, RiverRun Bookstore and Yankee Magazine, visit

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