She has written about teenage gun crime and suicide pacts, visited death row and befriended a condemned man. She has even spent a night ghost-hunting in the name of her craft. Is there any subject novelist Jodi Picoult will not tackle? “No,” she says. “I haven’t found one yet.”
But she did tread warily when writing The Storyteller, about an elderly former Nazi and a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter. Ms Picoult felt a great sense of responsibility to those who lived to tell the tale. “They cried with me as they recounted their stories and they entrusted me with their lives. I really wanted to make sure that I did justice to that.”
The 46-year-old American has authored more than 20 books, including My Sister’s Keeper and The Pact, and with UK sales alone in the millions, she could comfortably retire tomorrow. But if the speed of her conversation and her direct, efficient manner is any gauge, relaxing is not a high priority. She explains that in writing a fictional account of the Holocaust, she wanted to educate young people on “why 70 years after the fact we need to still be talking about this”.
Like many of her novels, The Storyteller is based on a question of ethics, in this case good versus evil, and whether “if you’ve done something truly bad in your life could you ever erase that stain from your soul.”
Inspired by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower — about an incident from his time as a prisoner in a Lvov work squad — which she read in her youth, Ms Picoult crafted the tale of Josef, a Nazi seeking the forgiveness of a Jew.
She accepts that telling part of her story from the perspective of an ordinary German soldier, particularly one seeking absolution, might be controversial given that it challenges the accepted notion of how “Holocaust fiction” should unfold.
“I’ve heard from so many readers who say: ‘I hated myself because I felt bad for Josef but then I remembered that he did awful things’. But every single survivor I spoke to told me a story about a German soldier or a Nazi who in some way had helped them survive. What they said was that to call all Germans evil is equally as damning as saying all Jews deserve to die. I think you have to humanise it.
“We have boiled it down to black and white because we know it was such a horrible event in history and we want to believe these people were evil and these people were good. Certainly the overwhelming evidence lies in that favour, but you do have to look at it individually and as many shades of grey.”
It was important for Ms Picoult to open the subject to readers who might shy away from a factual account of the Nazi era.
“There’s no way that anything I write is ever going to discount the real life stories of survivors,” she accepts. “The books that have been written by survivors are probably the most valuable piece of Holocaust literature that we will be able to have. On the other hand, for some reason — and I don’t know what it is — readers are willing to pick up something that they think is ‘made up’ and then they end up thinking by accident about very difficult issues that they never would have confronted had they read a non-fiction piece.”
To that end, she made Sage, the woman Josef befriends, 23, and, like the majority of her age group largely unfamiliar with the details of the Holocaust. “She is part of a generation with their mindset that ‘if it doesn’t have to do with me, why am I bothering’?”
Sage’s atheism — the character is Jewish, but broadly indifferent — was also carefully considered. “We have seen the story ‘Jewish girl taps into her heritage when she hears her grandmother’s Holocaust story’ a thousand times. We need to stop thinking of the Holocaust as a specifically Jewish problem. Six million Jews died but five million non-Jews died too and it’s really a human rights problem that everyone should be concerned with. For Sage to come to terms with that not through religion but through humanity is critical, because it means that anyone picking up the book should care.”
Like Sage, Picoult comes from a non-practising Jewish family — her brother was barmitzvah but Judaism was only really encountered in family gatherings. “It wasn’t about doctrine, it was really about everyone getting together and we did it at certain times of the calendar year.”
Nonetheless, religion has featured heavily in her books, not least Keeping Faith, about a half-Jewish girl who develops stigmata. And it’s apparent that her personal views are not entirely divorced from her work. She is a strong advocate of gun control, a subject she covered in 19 Minutes, about a shooting spree at a high school. In the wake of the Newtown massacre, she would “love the Obama administration to actually get laws passed to restrict guns in America” and improve access to mental health care for those who need it.
“In addition to that, the role of the media must change immediately. The American media actually glorifies shooters. You turn on the TV and see stories about the shooter and his childhood and his mother and his manifesto — and here’s a picture of him on Facebook the day before he shot everyone. There’s a kid out there right now who is feeling a little marginalised who is watching, and 10 years from now he’s going to think: ‘Nobody knows who I am but I know how I can get them to.’
“If they stopped identifying the shooter and instead focused on the lives of the victims and how they were cut short, they would sell a lot less ad space but they would probably prevent future school shootings.” After barely a breath Ms Picoult launches into another passionate outburst, this time about the death penalty. She is clearly a crusader and believes “this book can break new ground [for Holocaust education]”.
Although Ms Picoult shied away from reading or watching Holocaust stories during her research, concentrating on historical books, she was particularly moved by Schindler’s List and fulsomely praises Steven Spielberg’s efforts to preserve the testimony of survivors. Would she like to join forces with him?
She laughs. “If he comes calling, I’d be happy to help.”