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Wednesday, February 5,2014

Author shares stories behind her stories

By Matt Lardner
Jodi Picoult 2
Photo Credits: Photo by Lucas Reilly.
Photo Caption: Novelist Jodi Picoult discusses her research techniques for writing fact-based novels Tuesday, as part of OU’s Kennedy Lecture Series.

On Tuesday, novelist Jodi Picoult spoke about the research process behind her books at Ohio University's Memorial Auditorium as part of the Kennedy Lecture Series.

"A lot of people don't realize how much of fiction is actually getting facts," Picoult said.

Picoult has published 20 novels; her most recently published seven have debuted atop the New York Times bestseller list. Over 14 million copies of her books are in print.

While studying creative writing at Princeton, Picoult said that she was told, like most creative writing students, to "write what you know." Trying to use that advice led her to an epiphany.

"It didn't take me long to realize I knew absolutely nothing," Picoult said. "If I wrote what I knew, you were never going to read it."

Picoult decided she needed to tweak the old saying.

"I was going to write what I learned," Picoult said.

Picoult's research for her novels has allowed her to enjoy a range of special experiences. She said she has seen open-heart surgery, learned the Lakota language of the Sioux tribe, spent a night in jail, been on movie sets, studied witchcraft and the paranormal, and been exposed to many other things.

"Second Glance" is Picoult's favorite of her novels, because of the information-gathering process.

"The research for this book was so phenomenal; nothing else has topped it," Picoult said.

In "Second Glance," Abenaki tribal land is set to be razed for a shopping mall unless the tribe can prove an ancestor was buried there. Strange phenomena begin to occur around the town; Picoult researched ghost hunters and the paranormal so she could accurately portray a main character. She recounted her time shadowing the men from the "Ghost Hunters" television series before the program was aired, and a spooky incident at one of the places they were investigating.

"Long after I had plenty of research for that book, I kept going out with those guys because it was so much fun," Picoult said.

Her explorations for "Second Glance" also included a deep look at eugenics programs in North America's past, which featured compulsory, state-sanctioned sterilization of people deemed mentally or physically deficient. One group of people persecuted by eugenics programs were the Abenaki, a Native American tribe who concealed their racial history to avoid sterilization.

"If I was writing a story about things that come back to haunt us, this would be the perfect historical subject," Picoult said.

Many of her fiction books tackle controversial issues, including bullying, suicide, school shootings, religion and homosexuality. Picoult said she is now doing research for a book about race in America.

Picoult also spoke about the research project for her most recent published book, "The Storyteller," which examines the Holocaust while set in the present. In the book, an upstanding community leader confesses that he was a Nazi to a girl whose grandmother died in the Holocaust. It is about morality and forgiveness in the aftermath of one of the worst tragedies in history.

In researching the book, she spoke to a number of Holocaust survivors with incredible stories of perseverance. Picoult advocated for the deportation of any former war criminals living in the United States, but she said that she tries to be objective in her novels and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.

"It's not my job to tell you right and wrong," Picoult said. "It's my job to lay out all of the different points of view and let you decide, if you even can."

She said that she never inserts herself into the characters, that they come fully formed, which allows her to write in the voice of those she may not agree with.

Picoult's novels are plot-driven, and usually end with a twist. Before opening the floor for audience questions, she revealed her one rule for question and answer sessions.

"If you give away the ending for a book, I'm going to kill you," Picoult said.


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