Jodi Picoult ’87 churns out best-sellers on tough topics

Jodi Picoult ’87 produces novels with amazing regularity — mimicking nature by researching and writing them on a nine-month cycle — to the delight of her many fans. Her 14th novel, Nineteen Minutes, hit stores in March and topped The New York Times’ best-seller list its first week out.

Her fiction has tackled euthanasia, sexual abuse, child abduction, fatal illness, and teen suicide pacts. Her latest novel takes on bullying and school shootings, and was published by Atria Books just weeks before the April 16 Virginia Tech rampage by a student who killed 32 people. Bullying and school shootings are disturbing subjects that Picoult says she hopes to help her readers examine through her characters, fleshing out “What would I do?” as the action twists and turns.

“My job is to look at all sides of an issue, to give you a sense of why you have your opinion, and let you see the other side,” says Picoult during a book-tour stop March 26 — her first author-related return to Princeton — sponsored by the student chapter of the Friends of the Library.

In Nineteen Minutes, lives are changed irreparably when an often-bullied high school junior acts out his revenge fantasies in a school shooting. The setting is a small town in New Hampshire, not unlike where Picoult lives now with her husband, Tim Van Leer ’86, and their three children. And while she did not mine her children’s tough knocks for inspiration, bullying strikes a chord for most adults, she says, including herself. As a 13-year-old, she and some friends lobbied for an English honors class, and “a kid came by my locker and called me a freak,” she recounts. “Then he slammed the locker closed on my fingers.”

To write this book, Picoult conducted extensive journalistic research, as she says she does for all her novels. Her interviews with Columbine grief counselors surface in the plot with a technique employed to comfort parents — telling each family that their child was the first to die to make them believe their children didn’t suffer so much — a strategy that backfired in Columbine and again in the novel when parents talked to each other about their tragedies. She didn’t interview students from Columbine: Eight years later, “the experience is still so raw,” she says. But she based a main character on a young man who lost his best friend in a 2003 Cold Spring, Minn., high school shooting.

Picoult would not comment about the Virginia Tech tragedy beyond a statement she posted on her Web site, noting that shootings on college campuses often are motivated by different factors than the ones she researched on high school shootings for Nineteen Minutes.