Q&A: Author Jodi Picoult on balance, exercise, kids and elephants

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Bestselling author Jodi Picoult, in her more than 20 novels, explores emotionally charged topics. In her latest book, “Leaving Time,” a girl searches for her missing mother, a prominent expert who documents how elephants grieve. For the story, Picoult, 48, went to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee and studied herds in Botswana. In her author’s notes, Picoult says: “There were many moments during the writing of this book when I thought that elephants may be even more evolved than humans — when I studied their grieving habits, and their mothering skills, and their memories.”

You’ve had a long and very successful career while also being a mom to three kids. How have you been able to balance the demands and stresses of these two worlds?

I learned how to write when I had five minutes at a time. Later, when my kids were in school for eight hours a day, I had a ton of time to write. … However, my kids also know that they come first. I’ve flown 36 hours straight from a book tour on another continent to be able to attend a school performance.


Your novels have explored childhood cancer, organ donation, sexual abuse, a school shooting. How do you choose your topics, and how do you handle writing about them without having it affect your view of the world?

My topics are things I worry about as a mom, wife, American. I wonder what I’d do in a given situation. If I keep being awakened at night thinking about something, it is probably a good idea for a book. But I also do not live the lives of my characters, who are often miserable. I have a great husband and three healthy kids and a wonderful home. If I were living in the darkness, I don’t think I could write about it.

Your son had a serious health problem, which resulted in significant hearing loss. Can you tell us about that?

When my son Jake was 5, he was diagnosed with a cholesteatoma — a benign tumor in the ear. It’s not cancer, but it can burrow into the brain and kill you, so you have to have it removed. … After 13 surgeries in three years, he was tumor free, with profound hearing loss in his left ear and marginal hearing remaining in his right ear. I remember just getting through it, and I also remember smiling at Jake in the hospital room to keep him upbeat and happy, and then going into the hall to cry my eyes out. Today, Jake is a college senior at Yale. He still has hearing loss but has learned to compensate in a remarkable way. He is an accomplished tenor singer and was chosen to be in the very elite a cappella group, the Whiffenpoofs.

You start out each morning by taking a three-mile walk or run. Why is that an important part of your day?

It’s the only time of the day I have to exercise, because I’m so busy. But it gets my body and brain kick-started, and then I’m raring to go when I sit down at my desk. I work in a chair all day — I have to do something to stay in shape.


Your new novel deals with loss and memory, through the world of elephants. You did a lot of research and are now concerned about the poaching of herds in Africa, for the illegal ivory trade. Why is this an issue we should all care about?

Right now, 38,000 elephants are being poached annually in Africa. In 10 years, there won’t be any African elephants, at this rate. That is a wildlife crisis, certainly, but it’s also a humanitarian crisis because we know where the money from poaching goes, and we know it has direct links to us in the United States, even if we don’t have elephants roaming the wild here. The money from poaching is linked to criminal and terrorist networks.