Thursday, January 3, 2013

Jodi Picoult talks about The Storyteller, the Holocaust, moral choices, cinnamon chocolate rolls, and so much more

Jodi Picoult is known for talking big themes and thorny moral issues and turning them into riveting art. She's the number 1 NYT bestselling author of 18 novels, and her new novel, The Storyteller, about the Holocaust and the stories we tell to ourselves and others, was so haunting, that I started it in the afternoon, during Christmas, and didn't stop reading until the middle of the night. And then, of course, I couldn't sleep because I was still in the world of her story. But Jodi is something more that just a dazzling author--she's got a heart the size of Jupiter, she's hilariously funny, and of course, she has the best curls around.  I'm thrilled to have Jodi here again (my blog is always your blog, Jodi.) Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

The stories of the Holocaust here are so vivid and unsettling and disturbing--I’m wondering about how difficult this was to write, if there was ever a moment, when you had to stop and take a breath. As a reader, I was torn between wanting to stop because it was so horrific and desperately needing to keep reading to find out what was going to happen next. (I never stopped.)

It was more difficult emotionally to research than to write. I met with multiple Holocaust survivors, some of whom really couldn't even speak to me without their entire demeanor changing as their own words took them back.  One survivor, with whom I've become friendly, reminded me so much of my own grandmother that it wrecked me to hear what she had been through.  If I have done justice to the experience of being a prisoner in a camp, it is due to the fact that I really internalized the stories these men and women told me, and just squeezed back all the pain onto the page.  By the time I got to writing the book, though, I was driven -- I so badly wanted to honor their experiences, because they'd trusted me with them. Difficult but in a different way was creating a Nazi narrative.  Obviously it's pretty impossible to find a former Nazi willing to chat about his instead I had to rely on witness testimony from the Nuremberg Trials, transcripts of Nazis who have been captured by the Dept. of Justice, and the remarkable historical acumen of Peter Black, a senior historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.  I could study this stuff my whole life and still not understand the rank and file structure of the Nazi army.

The Storyteller is so much about the power of stories--and what I especially loved is that, structurally, it’s set up that way, story within story. Minka’s story spans most of the novel, but then there is also the story that Minka is writing, and the story that Josef tells us. I like to say that stories save our souls. Would you comment on that?

I think Minka would agree, and certainly Sage by the end of the book.  There are all kinds of stories we tell to save ourselves -- either literally or figuratively.  One of the things I love is that Minka's story isn't a light and breezy fairytale.  It's dark and dangerous and gothic.  I think the story she chooses to tell accurately reflects the world coming to pieces around her.  And really, isn't that all novelists do?  Our books are a mirror for our own thoughts, and for the hairline cracks we see in the world.

The book is also about the secrets we keep to protect ourselves, to protect others, and then fiction becomes the way to remind ourselves that we are not alone, that there is a family of man. “Fiction is contagious,” one character says. I often sign my books saying, “stories save our lives,” and they do here. Can you talk a bit about that?

Obviously, in the case of Minka, her story keeps her alive as Scheherezade's did.  The reason a Nazi officer protects her from a more devastating experience at Auschwitz is because he is captured by her words, which he sees as an allegory for his own life.  I do believe that fiction is an equation - the reader brings half of the final sum to the table; the writer can't do it alone.  That's why different people have different experiences reading the same book, and focus on different characters or passages that resonate individually.  Had a different officer been the one to find Minka's fragmented story, she might have been killed immediately - yet this man sees it as a mythological study of himself and his own brother...a truth that he could never utter aloud, because it would lead to his own punishment. It is the opportunity for "what if," for an ending other than the one assumed to be inevitable - that keeps this particular officer reading, and that ultimately is Minka's salvation.  The Nazi cannot imagine a future other than the hell he is living; Minka CAN imagine, and that's the one power she holds over him.

I never saw the ending coming. Did you? Or did it surprise you as well in the writing?

Oh, I always know the ending before I write.  I knew the big twist right off the bat.  There was, however, a smaller psychological twist that I can't give away that revealed itself to me near the end as I was typing and it was so PERFECT I could not believe I hadn't known it was coming!

The Storyteller asks how can we--and should we--forgive the unforgivable, and it comes up with  the answer that we can’t forgive, but we can hold accountable, that when we forgive we do it for ourselves, not for the other person, which seems to me the right response. Can you comment on that, please?

Well, of course, Simon Wiesenthal is really the one you should be asking!  It was his incredible personal story, THE SUNFLOWER, that led me to write this book. In his account, he tells of being a concentration camp prisoner and being summoned to the bed of a dying Nazi, who wants a Jew to whom he can confess...and who will in turn offer him forgiveness.  The great irony of course is that any Jew will do to this man, that they are all interchangeable, which is exactly the sort of thinking that made the Holocaust possible and is also exactly the reason you know he hasn't evolved mentally in any way.  But beyond that, Judaism holds that the only people with the capacity to forgive are the ones to whom the wrong was done, and they were dead.  The Wiesenthal book has spurred much philosophical debate about forgiveness and repentence and I'm hardly as qualified to comment as Rabbi Kushner or Archbishop Tutu.  However, I asked every Holocaust survivor I spoke with if they could forgive the Nazis.  Some said they couldn't.  Some said they could, but would not forget.  The ones who DID say they could forgive said it was not because they were erasing the grievous harm done to Jews, but because to not forgive meant the perpetrators of genocide still held some sway over them, able to make them bitter or keep them trapped in the past.  The ultimate coda to the Holocaust is not just that Jews continue to live and thrive, but that these same Jews who were once prisoners now have the ultimate power: to let go and move on.

 In your acknowledgements you talk about honoring those who survived and those who didn't. Can you talk a bit about the perils and triumphs of your research? And was there ever a moment when the horror of the holocaust threatened to undermine you?

There are just some moments I will never forget -- such as Bernie, who pried a mezuzah from his door frame as the Nazis dragged him from his home, and held it curled in his fist throughout the entire war – so that it took two years to straighten his fingers after liberation.  Or how his mother promised him that he would not be shot in the head, only the chest – can you imagine making that promise to your child?!  Or Gerda – who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and who survived a 350 mile march in January 1945 – because, she told me, her father had told her to wear her ski boots when she was taken from home. Or Mania, whose mastery of the German language saved her life multiple times during the war, when she was picked to work in office jobs instead of in hard labor; and who told me of Herr Baker, her German boss at one factory, who called the young Jewish women who were assigned to him Meine Kinder (my children) and who saved his workers from being selected by the Nazis during a concentration camp roundup. At Bergen Belsen, she slept in a barrack with 900 people and contracted typhoid – and would have died, if the British had not come then to liberate them.   I make things up for 8 hours a day and I couldn't conceive of the horrors they faced, not in my wildest dreams.  The flip side of this research, though, was the research I did with the director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy in the Human Rights & Special Prosecutions section of the Department of Justice – a real-life Nazi hunter.  Lest you wonder why this topic is still important, even after nearly 70 years – I will leave you with a story he told me.  Years ago, after extensive work, his department finally was ready to question an 85 year old man who had been a Nazi guard and who was now living in Ohio.  He refused to come in for questioning, so law enforcement professionals surrounded his house.  He came outside with a gun.  As the police lifted their own weapons he said, “Why you shoot at me?  I not Jew.”  Seventy years may have passed, but prejudice is alive and well.  Knowing that he goes to work every day, and keeps looking for these perpetrators -- well, it made me very proud of my country.

You are astonishingly prolific. Are you always thinking ahead to your next novel? Do you have a file of ideas? How do you have this 6th sense about what is going to resonate with readers and the times?

 I don't really think about my readers when I am coming up with a story (sorry)!  I just write what I want and need to write.  I have a few ideas percolating for the future; I'm not sure which one will rise to the surface first!

What also interested me so much about this novel is the whole idea of what is morally right and morally wrong, and when do the two ever switch place?  Are we our actions? Or can we define ourselves in other ways? Can you talk a bit about this, please?

This was really the nugget that attracted me to the Wiesenthal book and to writing my own updated fictional account of what would happen if a Nazi came to a young woman nowadays and wanted to confess former sins.  I was mulling whether or not you can ever atone for doing something really, really, really bad if you spend the whole rest of your life being a saint.  Conversely, could someone who feels that they have a strong moral compass be compelled to do something horrible -- such as commit a murder?  I think the line between good and evil is a fluctuating one and not nearly as rigid as any of us would like to believe.  It's Kohlberg's morality dilemma: surely, if I told you to rob a pharmacy for drugs you'd tell me I was nuts.  But what if your baby was sick and you had no money and no means to get medicine?  Surely murder is wrong.  But what if you walk in and find someone raping your wife? Suddenly the boundaries are blurry.  I'd like to say I would not steal and I would not kill, no matter what...but until I'm in that situation of desperation, I just don't know.

I have to ask if you will talk about your first story, The Lobster Who Misunderstood.

Oh God, really?  I don't remember the plot.  I did illustrate it, though.  I was five when I wrote it.  I'm pretty impressed I knew the word "misunderstood."  My mom still has a copy and I imagine one day if I do something to really annoy her she'll post it on eBay.

I always ask, what's obsessing you now and why?

I'm very excited about my 2014 book, obviously, because I'm in the thick of writing it.  I’m not going to tell you too much about The Elephant Graveyard…but here’s a snippet of information.  Ten years ago, Alice Metcalf was a researcher studying the reaction of elephants to grief – they are one of the few animal species that recognize and mourn for their dead, as humans do.  Along with her husband, Thomas, she ran an elephant sanctuary – until one tragic night, an animal caretaker died in an accident and Alice disappeared, leaving behind only one witness:  her three year old daughter, Jenna.  Now, ten years later, Jenna is determined to find her mother – whom she believes would never leave her behind willingly.  With the help of a publicly disgraced psychic, Jenna uncovers new information – and manages to convince the former detective in charge to reopen the case.   This is a book about the lengths we go to for those who have left us behind; about the staying power of love; and about how three broken souls might have just the right pieces to mend each other.  But – you heard it here first – this book also has THE BIGGEST TWIST I’ve ever written.  Yes, even bigger than MY SISTER’S KEEPER.  

And I always ask what question haven't I asked that I should have?

 "How can I bake the cinnamon/chocolate roll that Minka's dad creates for her?"  Actually I've already been asked this so much that I'm having a very talented baker friend open her test kitchen this weekend to whip this up.  It was fictional - but not for long! The recipe will be posted on my website!


Unknown said...

I'm so anxious to begin this book! I've always had an interest in this subject and now, this one,written by my favorite author; it won't be long!

Lynette Eklund said...

The Storyteller reserved! Jodi, you sold me on your next book by using the word "elephant" (even though I know that isn't entirely what the book is about) because I have always admired the civility of their culture. Caroline, thank you for the questions you asked!