Jodi Picoult on 'The Storyteller'

Don't mess with Jodi Picoult. The author of a string of best-selling popular novels with weighty themes ripped from the headlines, Picoult pulls no punches. Her latest book, out this month, is "The Storyteller," which is about a young woman who finds herself on the horns of a moral dilemma when she meets a nice old man, Josef Weber, who turns out to have been a Nazi war criminal.

Although pleasant and engaging in interviews, as she was in a recent chat with Printers Row Journal, the author is frank to the point of bluntness. If you're a fellow writer and she doesn't like your work, she'll say so — publicly. And if you're the editor of a book review, she and her friend, the best-selling chick lit author Jennifer Weiner ("Good in Bed," "In Her Shoes") have certain opinions they're itching to share with you.

We caught up with Picoult by phone before her book tour stops in Libertyville and Lisle on March 16. Here's an edited transcript.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


Q: You and Jennifer Weiner have had similar careers in some respects and have gotten into some of the same kerfuffles, in particular with book review sections.

A: Yes, we're both passionate about the disparity in review coverage between male and female writers, particularly in commercial fiction. We both went to Princeton. And we've been published by the same publisher, Atria, for years. She's outspoken.

Q: You're also both sometimes described as writers of chick lit. She kind of owns that, and you don't.

A: That's right. God knows, there are plenty of people who love chick lit, and it's a terrific commercial genre. I don't happen to think it's what I write, but I certainly don't use it as a pejorative term, like many other people would.

Q: In what ways is chick lit not what you do?

A: There are elements of family relationships in my books, which certainly is a hallmark of chick lit. Chick lit tends to center on a woman and how she relates to the most important people in her life, whether that's a partner — or the lack of a partner — or a family. My books tend to center on a particular moral or ethical issue. So where there are elements of chick lit in my books, you won't always find the same elements of morality in chick lit books.

Q: There's also humor. Jennifer once said to me, "If it's not funny, it's not chick lit."

A: My books are very funny!

Q: But not primarily so.

A: No. When I think of the staples of chick lit, like "Bridget Jones's Diary" and Jennifer's books, and the book covers that came in a parade of pastels, there was a look and a feel and a sound to those books, and I don't feel my books fit that category. If anyone calls "The Storyteller" chick lit, I'll be shocked. (Laughs.)

Q: For sure. A seed of "The Storyteller" was Simon Wiesenthal's "The Sunflower," about his time in a Nazi concentration camp.

A: Yeah, I'd read it a long time ago. I was thinking about the nature of good and evil, and whether if someone did something truly heinous, then spent their whole lives trying to make up for it, whether that would ever really erase the stain. I thought about what would be the worst thing anybody could ever do, and immediately my brain went to the Holocaust. That triggered a memory of the Wiesenthal book, which is about his being called to the bedside of a dying Nazi officer who wants to atone for his actions and have a Jew forgive him. The interesting thing, of course, is that any Jew (would have sufficed), which lets you know there wasn't a lot of evolution going on in this Nazi's mind. Wiesenthal had to explore the morality of whether to forgive this man — whether he even had the right to forgive this man, because he was not the Jew upon whom the infractions had been perpetrated. Since that book was published, philosophers and religious professionals and humanists and ethicists have weighed in on whether Wiesenthal did the right thing. And it got me thinking about whether I could create a situation where that happened in the modern day. It's your typical chick lit book. (Laughs.)

Q: You grew up Jewish, though your family wasn't very observant.

A: I was raised by Jewish parents who were not practicing Jews, really, and I wouldn't define myself as a Jew. I would say I'm an agnostic.

Q: Was the Holocaust discussed in your home?

A: Never. Certainly we studied it in school, and I knew, distantly, that I had relatives who died in the Holocaust. But it was by no means a dinner topic.

Q: Did your parents make a point of not discussing it, or was it just not on their radar?

A: I think it wasn't on their radar. They defined themselves as Jewish, but they were Reform Jews — very, very Reform. We practiced the cultural traditions of Judaism, but not really the religious traditions.

Q: I read that your father gave a Seder in the voice of Donald Duck.

A: He still does! And of course I use that in "The Storyteller." It made it a lot more interesting, I gotta tell you.

Q: The theme of the book is articulated early on by Mr. Weber, who asks, "Can a person not be two things at once?"

A: Yes, that's the central question of the book: Do people ever change? Can people ever change?

Q: Of course we don't want to give away the ending but my sense is that you're a liberal, and liberals tend to be fairly forgiving.

A: An interesting thing I learned when I was doing research for "Change of Heart," about the death penalty, came from speaking to families of murder victims. They ran the gamut. Some really wanted those inmates to be executed. Some wanted them to be incarcerated for life. And the ones who seemed to have evolved the furthest from that crime against a loved one were those who were able to look that perpetrator in the eye and say, "I forgive you," because they could let go of what was hurting them. Do I know that if I were in that situation, I could do the same thing? I don't. But it does seem that the ones who can are the ones who can move forward.

Q: I recently interviewed your editor at Atria/Emily Bestler, about some of the very conservative novelists in her stable —

A: Oh, yes. I'm the only liberal in that barn.

Q: She basically said, "We also have writers like Jodi, who are on the other side of the aisle."

A: Well, what I try to do is present all different facets of a controversy, and try to get readers to ask themselves why their opinions are what they are. I'm not saying, "You should believe what I believe."

Q: Which in itself is a liberal point of view.

A: Yeah. Although I have to say, there have been times in Emily's office when I've moved my book away from Glenn Beck's on the shelf, just because I didn't want my book to be touching his that closely. (Laughs.)

Q: The conventional wisdom is that readers of popular fiction don't want serious content; they want escapism. But you dive into some pretty heavy subject matter. Your first No. 1 best-seller, "Nineteen Minutes," was about a school shooting. You've also taken on the death penalty, infanticide, euthanasia, child molestation, teen suicide, gay rights and now the Holocaust. How is it that you sell so many books?

A: Knock on wood! Actually, my books have not been an easy sell. I always laugh when people call me an overnight success, because that was the longest night ever! I've been writing for 20 years, and I'd like to think that my success has been grounded in not just the content of the books but the quality of the books. I mean, nobody goes to the bookstore for the latest FBI report on school shootings. But when you address very heavy topics in fiction, people wind up getting captivated by the story, by the characters, and thinking about the big issues almost by accident.

Q: You're leaving Atria now for a new publisher, Random House, and you recently told the New York Times that it's because you want to join a higher echelon of name-brand writers such as James Patterson and Janet Evanovich. But what you do — the meatiness of it, the hot-button quality — is very different from what they do.

A: What I was trying to get across is that there are certain writers that readers know, and then there are certain writers that non-readers know. I never want to write like James Patterson or Janet Evanovich, either. But I think there's room for a lot of different types of writers at the top. People know who Joyce Carol Oates is, whether they read her or not. It's a matter of a slight tipping of the balance, a ubiquitousness, a recognition factor that this is someone who's been in the business for a long time, and even if I don't read her, I know who she is.

Q: Be careful what you wish for.

A: Oh, I know. But I do think there are a lot of men who've broken through that name-recognition barrier more than women have. John Grisham, for example. Nicholas Sparks.

Q: Poor Nicholas Sparks. You're not a fan, I gather.

A: No, but he's very successful.

Q: You also have writers you dearly love.

A: Sure. There are writers who, if they published their grocery lists, I would not only read them over and over, I would buy copies for everyone in my family for Christmas.

Q: Who?

A: Alice Hoffman, no question. That woman can do no wrong, in my mind. Caroline Leavitt is amazing. Chris Bohjalian is a terrific writer. Sue Miller. Anne Tyler. Anne Tyler has a new book coming out, and I'm like, "I'm pre-ordering that!" That's my fan-worship moment.

Q: Then there's Jonathan Franzen, who's one of those writers who sort of get anointed.

A: Yeah, they do. Usually it's someone who writes literary fiction, and often it's someone who's male. Not always. Jennifer Egan, who's an excellent writer, has certainly had her share of the limelight. Karen Russell is getting a lot of wonderful press and totally deserves it.

Q: And there are certain writers — maybe yourself and Jennifer Weiner — who you feel maybe get the short end?

A: No. Actually, because we've talked about this issue repeatedly in various venues, people assume that Jennifer and I feel that we get the short end of the stick, that we're whining about ourselves. We've never done that. In fact ... we do not get the short end of the stick, not at all. We have reviews. We have a readership. We have fans. We have commercial success. We have what a lot of people want, and we know it. We are really, really fortunate — so fortunate, in fact, that we want to use our podium to say, "Guess what? You should be paying attention to these other people, too." I want to use the success I've been fortunate enough to have to point out that there are a lot of writers, great writers of fantastic commercial fiction and genre fiction, who don't get noticed, sometimes because so much attention is lavished on certain writers who are over-hyped. That's what I'd like to do.

Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.

"The Storyteller"

By Jodi Picoult, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 480 pages, $28.99

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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