It is a beautiful morning at the New Hampshire home of best-selling author Jodi Picoult ’87, and all seems right with the world. Pumpkin-spice coffee is poured into orange Princeton mugs. Homemade chocolate-banana bread is served with apples picked from one of the trees on the 11-acre farm; chicken soup is simmering on the stove. A pastoral scene beckons outside the window: the working barn built by Picoult’s husband, Tim van Leer ’86, which houses two donkeys, a calf, and chickens, and two geese and dogs roaming nearby.
The peaceful setting is interrupted only by the occasional need to tend to a teenage daughter, Sammy, who has a cold (two sons are students at Yale), and a needy puppy.
Yet the ideal setting stands in sharp contrast to the scenes that Picoult (pronounced “Pi-cóh”) creates in the books she churns out every nine months or so, with about 19 million copies in print. After she leaves the kitchen, she will climb a steep set of stairs to her third-floor study, where she toils in a world of her own making — a world in which characters in her books face violence and abuse, families are in crisis, and children are sick or in trouble.
What if your child considered suicide? Or became deathly ill, or was kidnapped? What if your child was hurt or killed in a school shooting? Or caused a school shooting? These are the kinds of things that keep her up at night — surely, other parents must worry, too. By writing about them, Picoult tries to convince herself that she is immune. “All of those are things I’m terrified of,” Picoult says. “And these are the things that bleed into my writing.” Such is the focus of many of her novels that The New York Times Magazine has called her work “the literature of children in peril.”
One might think, judging from the topics that Picoult covers in her books, that the author is consumed by dread. Not so — not by a long shot. Picoult has a literary light side, too. With her daughter, she co-wrote Between the Lines, a novel for tweens that is scheduled to be published next summer; it’s about a girl who falls in love with a fairy-tale prince who wants to break out of his fictional existence. Each year, Picoult writes an original musical that is produced by a local teen theater group she co-founded, with the proceeds going to charity. For the last four years, she has co-written the musicals with her son Jake. “It gave me a way to share my writing with my kids ... albeit a very different kind of writing,” she says. “Our plays are upbeat and funny and lighthearted — not quite what I choose to do with my novels.”
Still, in her novels — 18 so far — Picoult wraps powerful tales around contemporary controversies from child sex abuse and school bullying to designer babies and gay rights, all with sympathetic characters caught in some moral dilemma. In September, she was writing a novel about a young woman who suspects that an elderly man — a pillar in the community — is a former Nazi; at the same time, she was fine-tuning the galleys of her book Lone Wolf, which will be published in March. In that novel, the children of a man left in a vegetative state after a car accident disagree about whether to take him off a life-sustaining ventilator, and end up in court. The novel explores end-of-life decision-making and the questions raised by advanced medical technologies, including the appropriateness of hastening the end of one life to donate organs that could save others. Picoult “is very good about pushing her audience to grapple with issues that they might not otherwise consider part of the realm of their everyday lives,” says Jill Dolan, a Princeton professor of English and theater and director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Her goal, Picoult says, is to explore what makes people act the way they do, examining issues of morality, justice, and ethics along the way. In many of her novels, she inhabits the various viewpoints of her characters by deftly shifting voices from one chapter to another. Changing narrators offers the author a way to explore different angles of an issue. “I am not going to ask you to read one of my books and change your mind, but I am going to ask you to ask yourself why you believe what you do,” she says.
The relationships and topics Picoult mines for her novels occasionally track the stages of her own life. Her first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale, published five years after she graduated from Princeton, explores the relationship of a mother and daughter. Picoult’s second novel, Harvesting the Heart, examines how a child changes the relationship between a husband and wife, focusing on a new mother overwhelmed by motherhood; she wrote it when she was a new mother herself, learning to balance her budding career as a novelist while caring for her baby. Writing the book, she says, was “therapy.”
Eventually she began exploring “my worst fears as a mom.” The Pact examines an apparent suicide pact among teenagers; the author has received hundreds of letters from young people who said reading the book turned them away from harming themselves. In House Rules, a single mother is raising a son with autism who is wrongly accused of murder; in Nineteen Minutes, the parents of a high school student who goes on a shooting spree examine their past to see if they are at fault; in My Sister’s Keeper, the parents of a daughter with leukemia decide to conceive a child to be a bone-marrow donor, and the child rebels. Picoult began writing her 2011 novel Sing You Home to ask questions about gay rights; as she was beginning to formulate the story, her oldest child came out as a gay man. “What really began as a theoretical journey as a writer became a very personal one,” she says.