What lies beneath

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am

There are many ways a writer can measure literary stardom: sales, reviews, the appreciation or envy of your peers. American novelist Jodi Picoult prefers a more unusual method of expressing her pre-eminence in publishing: holidays.

Being No1 on best-seller lists across the world is all very well, she says, but where on earth does she

go to get away from it all? The answer, thanks to books such as The Pact, My Sister's Keeper and now Nineteen Minutes, would seem to be nowhere at all.

'My husband wanted to do something special for my 40th birthday,' Picoult says in London. 'He wanted to take me somewhere I had never been and where I would never go on a book tour. So we went to Iceland and had a terrific time. One day we walk into a store, and there is an enormous shelf of all of my books.' She looks incredulous. 'In Iceland?'

Picoult comes across as someone who can't quite believe her luck, but who is starting to get used to it nevertheless. Wide-eyed with wonder one moment, she sounds astute and ambitious the next: her tales of early struggle only remind you how far she has come, how

hard she has worked and just how big she is.

Take this recollection of Picoult writing on a laptop in her car while waiting for her children to get out of school. 'I was thinking, gee, if this novel doesn't sell I'm only one book away from getting an application at the grocery store. What are you going to do? Either you make it as a writer or you don't. I will tell you flat out that I never believed I would be No1 in America. That is a shock to me and I still can't believe it - or how well the book is selling. I look at these sales figures and I think, good Lord, never in a million years.'

Nineteen Minutes is Picoult's 14th novel. Her early books sold poorly and publishers habitually lost faith in her.

Yet Picoult refused to compromise her rather old-fashioned, even Victorian literary approach that combined interwoven plots, extensive dramatis personae and a sense for the most pressing social or moral problem of the day: teenage suicide in The Pact, organ farming in My Sister's Keeper, and high school shootings in Nineteen Minutes.

'The reason I write is to get people talking,' she says. 'What's important is that you hand the book on to someone and say, 'read this', because I really need to talk about it. You may not change your mind while reading my books, but you probably question your opinions or ask why you hold that opinion in the first place. That's what makes writing fiction so important to me.'

Ostensibly the story of a high school shooting, Nineteen Minutes offers a humane but unflinching account of violence, inequality and prejudice in contemporary US society as seen through the eyes of a bullied teenager turned mass murder (Peter Houghton), a young girl so willing to please those around her that she loses track of herself (Josie Cormier), and a community of teachers, students, lawyers and policemen who are all touched by the tragedy in one way or another.

The novel has attracted enormous interest, thanks to the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech - not all of it wholesome, as Picoult discovered when her agent tried to sell the film rights. 'Nineteen Minutes went out initially and everyone said, 'I don't want to make a movie about a school shooting'. Then Virginia Tech happened and Sony immediately called and said, 'We really want to take a look at this again', which is really disgusting.'

Far from exalting the 'mind of the killer' as she accuses the media of so often doing, Picoult dwells upon the intricate social origins and consequences of such bloody incidents. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her sensitive portrayal of bullying which, she says, motivates almost every high school shooting. Describing the book as a 'wake-up call', Picoult says she hopes Nineteen Minutes will ask searching questions of everyone who reads it.

'Why, in the 25 years since I remember being bullied as a kid, do I still see my kids being bullied? Why, in a post-Columbine world, does nobody know how to stop it? I want people to read this and not see some crazy guy like in the media portrayal of Virginia Tech, but to see someone who could be their own child, who could be anyone. Because there is a Peter Houghton in every school on this planet.

'Psychiatrists say a single act of bullying is as devastating as a single act of sexual abuse of a child. It really does beg the question: why do people think it has got to be part of childhood? I don't believe that.'

Picoult says Nineteen Minutes has already inspired hundreds, if not thousands of teenagers to e-mail her on all aspects of teenage life. These messages have encouraged her belief that answers to bullying rest not with adults, but with children. 'Honestly, it's not going to be up to adults. You've got school principals trying very hard to enforce tolerance, but you can't really do that. Instead, it becomes a very frightening thing of asking the kids, how do you do it? It's a really big step. Most adults fear giving up an iota of control with children.'

While the reaction to Nineteen Minutes has been gratifying, Picoult holds out rather less hope for her next book. Titled A Change of Heart, it examines that most divisive of topics: organised religion in America. 'My country is split on a fault line of organised religion,' she says. 'And I wanted to write a book that addresses how religion, which was meant to unify people, has become something that breaks them apart. I can't wait for the flak with this one. I mean, if this doesn't get a cross burned on my lawn, I don't know what will.'

She has solved one dilemma though - where to go on holiday. 'My family is going to the Galapagos for 10 days.' Picoult says. 'My job is to find a place on earth where nobody reads.'

Writer's notes

Genre Fiction ('I don't have a genre,' Picoult says)

Latest book Nineteen Minutes (Hodder & Stoughton, HK$240)

Age 40

Born Long Island

Lives Hanover, New Hampshire

Family Married to Tim Van Leer, with three children.

Other works include Songs of the Humpback Whale (Faber & Faber, 1992), Harvesting the Heart (Viking, 1994), Picture Perfect (Putnam Publishing Group, 1995), Mercy (Putnam Publishing Group, 1996), The Pact (William Morrow, 1998), Keeping Faith (William Morrow, 1999), Plain Truth (Simon & Schuster, 2000), Salem Falls (Atria, 2001), Perfect Match (Atria, 2002), Second Glance (Atria, 2003), My Sister's Keeper (Hodder & Stoughton 2004), Vanishing Acts (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005), The Tenth Circle (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006).

Other jobs Technical writer at a Wall Street brokerage firm, copywriter for an advertising agency, teacher.

Next project A Change of Heart is due out in 2008.

What the papers say

'Superb, many-stranded, and grimly topical.' - Financial Times

'[Nineteen Minutes is] absorbing and expertly made ... If compassion can be taught, Picoult may just be the one to teach it.' - Washington Post

'[Jodi Picoult is] the Queen of the book club, Britain's biggest-selling female author, who also tops the New York Times best-seller list.' - The Observer

Author's bookshelf

Gone with the Wind

by Margaret Mitchell

'It was the book that made me want to become a writer. I read it when I was 12. My son recently read it and said, 'Why did you like this, mom?' I loved it because Margaret Mitchell created this whole world out of words and I thought: I want to do that.'

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

'Nick is one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator. There is nothing more fun. That was very cool and to latch onto the idea that when you give your reader a vehicle for the story, a narrator, what if they are not telling the truth? That was a real eye-opener for me.'

The Sun Also Rises

by Ernest Hemingway

'Not because I am a fan of Hemingway's misogyny, but because nobody can say so much while writing so little as Hemingway. Although I prefer some of his short stories to

that book, there is something about unrequited love that is one of those timeless stories you keep coming back to.'

Turtle Moon

by Alice Hoffman

'Alice Hoffman is the writer I most want to be when I grow up. I met her this year, and it was a huge celebrity moment for me. Turtle Moon is the first book I remember reading for pleasure after college. Every time I read a Hoffman novel, my instinct is, I want to do something that good.'

The Paperbag Princess

by Robert Munsch

'It's a children's book, the story of Princess Elizabeth, who is engaged to marry Prince Ronald. The princess ends up rescuing Ronald from a fire-breathing dragon. She arrives, dressed only in a paper bag. Ronald says, 'Elizabeth, you're a mess, you don't look like a princess'. She says, 'You look like a prince, but you're a jerk' - and leaves him. I love that book. It has great characterisation, and a surprise ending. It's a terrific life lesson too.'