Saturday, April 23, 2011

Jodi Picoult Shares Her Writing Techniques

 Jodi Picoult shared secrets and insights about her best selling novels recently at Sacred Heart University, revealing how enjoyable and rewarding her research is before she ever writes a word.  Having penned eighteen novels to date, starting in 1992, she delves into her topics systematically and devotes weeks, if not months, to getting her subject matter thoroughly investigated.

Picoult illustrated her detective-like procedures by using the specific examples from a trio of her books, starting with her favorite “Second Glance,” a ghost story, that was triggered by a newspaper article about the Abenaki Indians and a plot of land, a burial ground, that they were trying to protect from being developed.

 That story led Picoult to goggle the “Vermont Eugenics Project” from the 1930’s where a group of seemingly intelligent people decided they wanted to preserve the purity of Vermont stock.  These white Vermont Yankees tried to rid their state of “degenerate society” by passing sterilization laws that affected the lives of thousands of Abenaki Indians and French Canadians.  This shameful behavior came to a halt when Hitler applauded their efforts.

 Her research carried her to Rhode Island where she actually accompanied three “ghost hunters” on their missions, met with Abenaki Indians and heard their stories and interviewed a woman who wrote her doctorate on this disgraceful period of Vermont history.

 In “Second Glance,” her research is translated into the story of Ross Wakeman whose fianc√© dies in a car crash and his valiant attempts to find and communicate with her ghost.  Can the supernatural heal his heart?

Her second example of researching was “Nineteen Minutes,”a book about the post-Columbine shooting when schools still pretend bullying doesn’t exist.  Picoult shared an incident when she was thirteen and at her school locker.  A bully came by and slammed her locker door, breaking three of her fingers.  She never reported it.  Adolescence is a time about fitting in and the fact that in high schools there is almost always bullying taking place.

 Picoult went to Littleton, Colorado, the site of Columbine, and spoke to parents, teachers and students as well as the police who admitted they did everything wrong that day.  She also went to St. Cloud, Minnesota and talked to survivors of their school tragedy.  The important fact to realize in any community is that it can happen here.

 Picoult identified that for every school shooter there are incidents of teasing and bullying, possibly accusations of being gay, the suffering of a personal loss, attacks for being different and access to guns or to the internet.  She determined “if a kid wants to commit an act of violence, he will.”  Picoult believes that the media glorifies the shooter and gives him his fifteen minutes of fame and, rather, should concentrate on the victims instead.  Kids and teachers need to decide their responses together and her book “Nineteen Minutes,” about holding a magnifying glass on a boy who is so tired of being harassed that he commits an act of violence that threatened to destroy him, his family and his community, is a good starting point.

 She applauds Connecticut for being the first state to use “Nineteen Minutes” in its school curriculum and it is the one novel she would like to see made into a movie, but she doesn’t feel any studio is “brave enough to tackle it.”

 Her third example of the critical role of research is “House Rules” about an eighteen year old Jacob Hunt who has a form of autism, Asperger’s Syndrome.  Picoult has a cousin David who is profoundly autistic and his situation pointed her to the need to investigate this disorder and how it affects the family.  The role of autism and childhood vaccinations is still unclear but she cautions that spacing the vaccines further apart is a good precautionary measure.

 Jacob Hunt has a passion for crime scene analysis that is helpful to the police until his own tutor is found murdered.  Suddenly the hallmark behavior of Asperger’s, recoiling at being touched, not being able to look anyone in the eye and not being able to be in social situations becomes suspicious to the police and Jacob is accused of the murder.

 Picoult talked to fifty kids with Asperger’s and found them “really smart,” with a passion for specific things, slavish to routines, not understanding social clues and without the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to have empathy.  Parents of such a child may never hear that child say “I love you.”

 Jodi Picoult is known for writing about medical and ethical issues, in such a way that even a King Solomon would have difficulty balancing the scales of justice.  She writes in many voices, alternating chapters as she views an issue from a mother, father, child, attorney or friend’s perspective.  Her novels often have a surprising twist in them, that catches her off-guard herself. “I know the beginning and the end but I don’t know the path it will take and, oh my god, I am often taken by surprise.”  Her characters “arrive in my head and I get paid to hear their voices.  I see them.  It’s organic.  But they make decisions on their own and I can’t stop them.”

 Picoult knew she was going to be a writer in fourth grade when a teacher she “really hopes is dead now” assigned that dreaded “what did you do over summer vacation?”  She wrote from the point of view of the piano she practiced on every day and got an “F” for her efforts.  Her mother had her teacher changed and she went on to get degrees from Princeton and Harvard.  She wrote her first novel “Songs of the Humpback Whale” while pregnant with her first child.

 Her novels, eighteen to date, have been translated into thirty-four languages, in thirty-five countries.  Her latest “Sing You Home” will be released this March and is about Zoe, a music therapist, and the issue of gay rights.  It will be accompanied by a CD of music and songs to accompany each chapter.  Most of her books take nine months to produce, much like the gestation of a baby.  Picoult admits to being a New Hampshire farm girl who “writes as a mom and wants to do justice (to her characters) and give them a voice…When I write, I am writing for me, a story I need to tell, not for my readers.  I want to ring true as a storyteller.”

 Picoult considers her books “a love letter to New England…to celebrate small towns and that charming lifestyle.”  She once complained to her mother that she had no anguish, drama or incest in her life so how could she become a writer?  She realized quickly that she couldn’t write what she knew because she “knew absolutely nothing.”  Lucky for her readers she successfully tweaked that axiom into “write what I am willing to learn.”  As Jodi Picoult has learned and researched, her readers are the beneficiaries of books that are heartwarming, thought-provoking and excellent reads.

 Thanks to that fourth grade harridan, the teacher who by giving a young and precocious Jodi Picoult an “F,” set her on a writing career path to inspired greatness.  Let’s hear it for talking pianos everywhere.

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