Friday, October 3, 2014

Jodi Picoult talks about LEAVING TIME, elephants, memory, why things are not where they should be (yet) for women writers, and more

 Okay, here is an astonishing fact. It is estimated that there are 25 million books by Jodi Picoult in print —in 35 countries. She's one of the most beloved writers on the planet, but I also need to tell you, she's also one of the most down-to-earth. She answers every e-mail. She can kick back with you and have you laughing in a nanosecond. She's got the best hair on the planet. And she not only champions women writers--she uses her considerable clout to fight for them.

Her newest novel, Leaving Time, is with a new publisher, Random House, and it's a stunning story about memory, love, grief and healing. As always, my gratitude to Jodi is huge, and my delight at having her here again, overwhelming. Thank you, Jodi!

I always have to ask, what sparked this particular novel?

JP:  I have three kids, and my daughter – my youngest – was getting ready to go to college, which meant I’d be an empty nester.  It was daunting, to say the least.  Then I read a fact:  In the wild, an elephant mother and daughter stay together until one of them dies.  I thought, How enlightened! Why can’t we be like that!?  I began to do a little digging on elephants, and learned how advanced their cognition is.  And when I discovered that they actually grieve and experience and process loss, I was completely hooked, and knew I would be writing about what it meant to be left behind…and also that I had my profession for the character of Alice.

I know you actually worked with the elephants at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. Did you have any preconceived ideas that were changed by your experience? What surprised you the most?

JP:  I was privileged to spend time at The Elephant Sanctuary – and I really do mean that, because the whole point of the sanctuary is that their elephants are no longer on display but in a lovely retirement setting.  Since this was my first experience with elephants I didn’t have many preconceived notions, but I was touched again and again by the stories I was told.  For example, Sissy is an elephant who survived the 1981 Gainesville Flood by being submerged for 24 hours with only her trunk above water.  When she got to the sanctuary, she was traumatized and took to carrying around a tire, like a child’s security blanket.  Eventually she bonded with an elephant named Tina and they were fast friends.  But Tina died, and when she did, Sissy stayed with her – and then remained by her grave for a few days.  Finally, she placed her tire on the grave – like a wreath – and left it behind, never to return to it – almost as if she believed Tina needed the comfort more, now.  What surprised me the most was how easy it was, given these very human-like interactions, to assume that these elephants are tame.  They’re not.  A keeper was killed at The Elephant Sanctuary and recently in Maine, one of the owners of a small sanctuary was killed by an elephant. 

So much of this novel is about what, how, and why we remember what we remember. Can you talk about that please? And is it true that elephants’ memories rival our own?

JP:  I think these days I can’t remember anything, LOL.  My brain is fried!  But yes, there is a fine line between a bad memory and a traumatic one in the human brain.  My friend Abby Baird, a psych professor at Vassar, taught me all about the human brain and cognition.  Bad memories get coded as red flags, to remind us NOT to repeat the same behavior.  This is similar for elephants, too, who will avoid corridors where poaching has historically occurred.  But a traumatic memory can be so scarring that it gets morphed and warped by the brain, as a protective measure – so that you can actually function and not be crippled by it.  Elephant memories are BETTER than our own.  At the Elephant Sanctuary in TN, they had to institute a no-fly zone because the elephants got so agitated by the sound of planes and helicopters, even though the only helicopters that the elephants had ever heard were 50 years ago during the South African culls when they were captured.  Also at the sanctuary were two elephants with a terrific story of memory:  Jenny lived at the sanctuary when Shirley was brought there, and that first night, in the barn, they kept roaring and banging on the gate between them, touching through the bars.  Eventually the keepers opened the gate and let them into the same stall.  They immediately touched each other all over, and when Jenny lay down to sleep, Shirley stood over her like a mom would.  They were inseparable for years.  As it turned out, they had been at the same circus when Jenny was a calf and Shirley was 30 years old.  They’d been separated for 22 years but hadn’t forgotten each other.  And here’s a story from the wild:  In Pilanesberg, SA, a reserve existed for elephants that were orphaned after culls for population control.  It was a social experiment – they thought these teen elephants would bond into a herd, but that didn’t happen, because there was no matriarch.  So a decision was made to bring two older females, Durga and Owalla, back to Africa from the US where they had been working and training.  It was a success – the two matriarch formed two thriving herds.  However, Owalla got bitten by a hippo 16 years later and couldn’t be anesthetized for medical reasons.  They knew she was going to die, if not treated.  So Randall Moore – Owalla’s former trainer –was called in.  He found the herd, got out of his vehicle, and called Owalla by name.  The younger members of the herd scattered, terrified of this human contact.  Owalla came forward and greeted Randall, and then lifted her trunk and her leg according to his commands, letting the vets treat her without any anesthetic.  After sixteen years of being completely wild, she remembered him, and his commands.

Leaving Time has a really different--and totally gorgeous cover--than your other books, and you are now with a new publisher.   Somehow, this very simple design is so incredibly arresting! Did you have input into the cover?

JP:  I am very happy to be with Random House – a really committed group of folks who love this book as much as I do.  They wanted a cover that looked different from my others, and Paolo Pepe – the art director I had once worked with at S&S – is now at Random House and was given the task of creating the cover.  When I saw the two tendrils of grass grasping like two trunks, I was sold.  I got to pick the color – I went for the greeny blues instead of a rosy pink.

You’ve also started writing these wonderful e-shorts,  novellas which feature the characters from Leaving Time, which is richly satisfying. What gave you the idea to write them? Where these written after you wrote the novel, before, or during--and should they be read after the novel, or are they stand-alones?

JP:  When Random House took over and wanted to move my pub date from March to October, I knew I was going to have a lot of furious fans.  I wanted to give them a taste of the book, and Gina Centrello at Random House suggested that I write an e-short.  It’s really hard, you know, to take a completed book and find a hole in it!  But I read a sentence in one of Alice’s sections that began “the first time Africa healed me…” and I thought, Hmm, why was she hurting?  That became Larger than Life.  However, I apparently did SUCH a good job that Random House wanted to use that piece in late August, to drive readers to pre-order LEAVING TIME.  So I wrote a second piece, this one a flashback in Serenity’s voice, because she’s so much fun to create.  That was released first, actually, in the spring.  You don’t have to read the e-shorts before you read the book.  Or even after.  But if you do, it will really make the characters even more three-dimensional.

I always ask you this question, because I think it’s an important one, and we need to keep hearing the answer over and over again. You’re a huge champion of women writers and you fight constantly about getting women the same sort of attention that male authors do. Can you talk a bit about this please? Do you see the situation improving at all?

JP:  We’re still not there yet – ask VIDA, which crunches the numbers.  Sometimes I feel like we are improving.  There are outlets for reviews that have dramatically undertaken to balance their coverage of books by women and men.  One lovely thing that happened this year was the Year of Reading Women – a concerted effort from the reading public to search out female authors they might not otherwise have read.  And of course Pamela Paul’s appointment as editor of the NYTBR is a great start, and has led to some welcome changes – reviews of genre fiction, even new bestseller lists devoted to categories that usually didn’t merit NYT coverage or mention.  I just think it’s really important to remember that for every literary star like Matthew Thomas, who wrote an excellent book (We Are Not Ourselves) that is a sweeping, generational family saga – there are women who have been doing that sort of writing for years who have been marginalized and sidelined as “women’s fiction” authors.  What, all the men just woke up and started reading this stuff?  Really?  And of course, when you wake up to the news that of ten NBA longlist finalists for non-fiction, ONE is female…well, you just want to crawl into bed again.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

JP:  Racism.  It’s the topic of my next adult book and God knows it’s a conversation we need to have in this country.  It struck me that when white writers write about racism, it’s from the safety of a historical context – i.e. slavery.  I mean, no one reads about slavery and thinks, “Man, those were good times.”  But why aren’t white writers talking about racism NOW?  Why only the writers of color?  Well, because it’s terrifying to speak out.  You don’t want to upset anyone, and you are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and/or of being called to the carpet for what you say and why you think you have any right to say it, as a white person.  It took me a long time to grapple with this (and several workshops about racism) but I have the right story to tell, and the right way to tell it.  I am not writing this book to tell my fans of color what the world is like.  They KNOW, and they feel it daily.  I’m writing this book to tell my white fans that racism isn’t about intent – it’s about power, and privilege, and just by being born with your skin a certain color you have had privileges you’ve never had to think about (which in itself is a privilege).  I’m writing this book to open people’s eyes.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

JP:  What’s next for you?  Well, I’m so glad you asked, Caroline. My daughter Samantha and I just finished the sequel to the YA book we wrote a few years ago, BETWEEN THE LINES.  The next installment, OFF THE PAGE, will be published on May 19.  We’re so excited about it – for many reasons.  Not only is it a great read, but the two books combined are being developed into a major musical, hopefully headed for Broadway.  Stay tuned!

1 comment:

Michele Young-Stone said...

I really enjoyed this. It's funny: I used to be at Random House (well, Shaye Aerheart) but now I'm at Simon and Schuster... Loving it there.

I'm glad to read about the elephant sanctuary in Tennessee and what you learned about memory and loss. I wish that people would wake up and stop going to the circus. No one seems to acknowledge what circuses like Wringling Bros. do to animals, especially elephants.

Thank you for your Q & A. I look forward to reading LEAVING TIME!