Wednesday night I lucked out to get a ticket to hear Jodi Picoult speak at the JCC Boston for their Jewish Literary Series. The bestselling author of twenty novels, Picoult is currently on tour promoting her most recent book, The Storyteller. She was interviewed by fellow author and Boston Globe book critic, Caroline Leavitt.
Leavitt started off the discussion asking Picoult about her research process for the harrowing subject matter of The Storyteller. In it, a former SS officer is living a quiet life as a retired teacher and coach, adored by the unknowing community. He befriends the local baker and requests that she help him die to pay for his crimes. The page-turner explores evil and atonement, and prompts the reader to question how we might act in such a complex arena. Queen of the killer plot twist, Picoult uses narrators in different time periods to weave several stories together.
Picoult said that the research she did for The Storyteller was the most emotionally difficult she had ever done. She listened to personal stories from Holocaust survivors, and interviewed real-life Nazi hunters. Their tales horrified her, and confirmed her desire to give life to the characters of Minka and Josef. All of her novels are extensively researched. She usually writes four or five drafts of a book before working with her editor, where there might be as many as three rewrites from there.
The two authors reflected on the power stories have to save us. The telling of difficult ones is especially important, and we should never be complacent in the task.
The tone of the discussion shifted when Leavitt questioned Picoult about gender inequity in the publishing world, a topic on which Picoult has been outspoken. She cited numbers by VIDA which indicate that male writers are still predominately reviewed over women authors by mostly male reviewers, when women buy most of the fiction being published. (Check out Leah’s post on this subject here) Picoult noted that her books are called “commercial fiction”, while Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, about a young woman trying to decide between two suitors, is categorized as “literary fiction”. I hesitate to apply those labels, as the former seems diminishing. It’s all fiction.
Her points really got me thinking about the disparity, which is real. The audience laughed when she mentioned Eugenides’ comments describing her tweets about gender inequality as ‘belly-aching’ . She noted with not a small hint of frustration that whenever women state negative facts, it is viewed as whining. The laughter ceased, and the mostly female audience nodded in grim silence.
Picoult’s intelligence and passion impressed me. She works hard at her craft, and treated the full house to a lively peek at her process of storytelling.