Jodi Picoult discusses the facts of fiction

“We’re going to play a little game tonight. We’re going to pretend this is Monday night football, and I’m the quarterback,” Jodi Picoult, author of many well-known books including My Sister’s Keeper, said as she took the stage to applause at the Carnegie Music Hall as part of the Literary Evenings’s Monday Night Lecture series.

Picoult, addressing a sold out auditorium on the heels of the release of her new book Leaving Time, spoke to the audience about the research she does for her works of fiction. Doesn’t fiction mean that a story is made up?

While Picoult writes stories that come from the inner machinations of her brain, she often bases them around real-world things that need to be experienced to be properly explained to readers. And boy, were her experiences eye-opening. Although I’ve never read a book by Picoult, she has convinced me to try one out this winter break.

Picoult first related the research she performed for her book Second Glance, published in 2003. In the book, the narrator, Ross Wakeman, comes to Comtosook, Vt. when Abenaki Indian tribe land is being eyed for a shopping mall. If the tribe proves it was a burial ground, the mall cannot be built. Ross, a ghost hunter, comes to the town as its people are being haunted and finds out that the ghost is someone he is falling head over heels for.

To write this book, Picoult not only had to research the Abenaki tribe, but also the Vermont eugenics program, a program in which the Abenaki were forced to disband or go underground as the government sterilized them so that they could not reproduce.

Additionally, Picoult spent some time with real ghost hunters, the Atlantic Paranormal Society in Rhode Island. “If some of you have seen the TV show on the Syfy channel, Ghost Hunters, it was those guys. I knew them before they were famous. They were just ... plumbers doing this on the side,” Picoult said.

“So at the time I was going ghost hunting, my oldest son was about eight/nine years old, and he was terrified of ghosts,” Picoult continued. “So here I am going, ‘Honey, there’s no such thing as a ghost,’ and then packing my bag to go ghost hunting.”

Picoult next related the research she performed for The Storyteller, a book about a woman who is confided in by a former Nazi commander living in America who wants her to help him die.

To understand what she was writing about, Picoult talked to numerous Holocaust survivors, including survivors of concentration camps, death marches, and the ghettos. In one story Picoult told, a boy named Bernie pried a mezuzah from his doorway as he was taken from his home.

Last but not least, Picoult explained the research that went into her latest book, Leaving Time.

The book touches upon elephants’ expression of grief, which the protagonist’s mother studied before she disappeared. “Ultimately, this is a book about how the people who leave us never really do,” Picoult said. “And I began to dive into the world of elephants, knowing I was going to use it as a metaphor, so tonight what I’m going to be telling you about is everything you wanted to know about elephants and more.”

Picoult explained that she worked with a neurobiologist to understand the human brain and then learned how it was similar to and different from elephant brains. She then went to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, as well as Botswana, to work with researchers who track elephant migration patterns. Picoult said that elephants are recognizable by voice, tusks, hair, and ears. No two elephants have the same ears. She also explained that elephants have complex brains capable of remembering, feeling pain and loss, and learning. Elephants also won’t leave each other behind, according to Picoult. Picoult culminated her talk about elephants by relating the importance of ending poaching.

Picoult doesn’t just live in the world; she experiences it. From her talk, it is apparent that she’s not afraid to ask someone for help in order to understand what they are an expert on. What better way is there to learn than to ask someone who is itching to share what they know? Picoult seems to have mastered the art of delving wholeheartedly into another person’s story to understand where they come from or why what they do is so important to them. And what better outlet to relate what she learns from her ability to immerse herself than in a book?

But why does Picoult write fiction about such controversial issues when she could write nonfiction to give her readers the cold, hard facts about a topic she has researched? Certainly, nonfiction wouldn’t mesh the facts with fiction by its very nature. Picoult explained as she finished her lecture:

“There’s something that fiction can do that nonfiction cannot,” Picoult said. “A lot people will not address a controversial subject in nonfiction, but they pick up a novel, and they think they’re being entertained, and almost by accident, by the time they close that last page, they realize they are being forced to re-evaluate whatever opinions they have when they started the book.... Where I believe that nonfiction has the obligation to chronicle the past and what has happened, fiction has the opportunity to change minds, change the future, and change the course of what will happen.”

Here, here.