RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When you think about blockbuster best-sellers, what comes to mind generally are mystery, crime novels, romances, not so much ethical or moral fiction. That's what Jodi Picoult calls her novels.
With 33 million copies of her books now in circulation, NPR's Lynn Neary wondered how Picoult could be so popular by writing about divisive issues.
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
While promoting her new book at the Free Library in Philadelphia, Jodie Picoult made some members of her audience howl - literally.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOWLING AND APPLAUSE)
JODI PICOULT: Thank you.
NEARY: Picoult used this lesson in howling to show how much she learned about wolves while researching her latest book, "Lone Wolf." It was also a vividly demonstration of Picoult's special talent for connecting with her fans.
Her longtime editor Emily Bestler says that special bond with the reader was there from the beginning. Bestler remembers that right before she began working with Picoult, she saw two young women on the subway reading her books.
EMILY BESTLER: And I said, oh, you know, how are those? Are those good books? And they both went on for five minutes - complete strangers - about how they worship Jodi Picoult, how they waited breathlessly for every trade paperback. And I thought, wow, that's impressive. That's not what you hear every day.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
NEARY: At the event in Philadelphia, a long line of fans snake through the echoing hallways of the Free Library, eager to get a moment with Picoult. It was the end of a long day, but Picoult was unfailingly cheerful as she signed copies of her books.
PICOULT: How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good. How are you?
PICOULT: Thanks for being here tonight. There you go.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you.
NEARY: What makes Picoult's popularity somewhat surprising is the subjects she chooses to write about. In her novels, Picoult has taken on a long list of issues that a lot of people avoid thinking about.
PICOULT: Neonaticide, the death penalty, mercy killing, stem cell research, what it means to believe in God or not believe in God, the right to die, gay rights...
NEARY: Just to name a few. Picoult takes a controversial issue and lets her characters hash out their differences over it, usually in the context of a family facing some kind of crisis. Picoult says she tends to write about subjects that keep her awake at night.
PICOULT: Really, I think I have sort of gravitated toward issues that I don't know the answers to, because that's what's more interesting for me to write. The act of writing it is the act of trying to understand why my opinion is what it is. And ultimately, I think that's the same experience the reader has when they pick up one of my books.
NEARY: In "Lone Wolf," a brother and sister must decide whether to terminate medical care for their father, who is in a vegetative state after a car accident. The sister, Cara, was also in the accident and is determined to keep her father alive. The brother, Edward, who has been estranged from the family, wants to let their father go and donate his organs to someone who needs them. In one scene, the brother thinks the two have resolved their differences.
PICOULT: (Reading) My sister is glassy-eyed, slack-jawed, almost asleep, but she fixes her gaze directly on mine. I can't do this, Cara murmurs. I just want it to be over. It feels like a plea. It feels as if, for the first time in six years, I might be in a position to help her. I look down at my sister. I'll take care of it, I promise, knowing how much these words have cost her. I'll take care of everything.
NEARY: At the center of this story is the father, Luke, a researcher whose life was so taken over by the wolves he studied that at one point he left his family to live with a wolf pack. Picoult says she wanted Luke to be a larger-than-life character.
PICOULT: 'Cause I think that's probably the most devastating thing, when someone who is larger than life winds up a shadow of themselves in a hospital bed. And one day I woke up thinking about wolves. No idea why. I have no affinity for wolves; I know nothing about wolves, you know, beyond what most people tend to know.
And I started to do a little research, and I began to think what if I created a guy who had lived with a wild pack. Who didn't just study them from afar, but actually lived with them?
NEARY: Picoult is not the kind of writer who just makes things up. She does extensive research for her books, delving into medical, scientific and ethical research, visiting hospitals - even prisons, if necessary. In the case of "Lone Wolf," she learned everything she could about wolves and spent time with a researcher who had actually lived with a pack.
But for all her interest in research and facts, Picoult still believes she can have the greatest impact on her readers through fiction.
PICOULT: If you read a book that's fiction and you get caught in the characters and the plot, and swept away, really, by just the fiction of it - by the non-reality - you sometimes wind up changing your reality as well. And often, when the last page is turned, it will haunt you. It's a much gentler approach, sometimes, into a controversial subject than nonfiction is.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)
NEARY: Waiting for Picoult to sign their books the other night, Rachel Minnick, Susan Berkelbach and Carrie Dunn said they've been reading Picoult's books for years.
CARRIE DUNN: Thank you, Jodi.
PICOULT: Sure, thanks for being here.
SUSAN BERKELBACH: We feel very blessed 'cause we've seen you twice now. So...
PICOULT: Where did you see me last time?
BERKELBACH: In Reading.
NEARY: The three friends say they love the way Picoult combines fact with fiction.
RACHEL MINNICK: I love the fact that she tackles some really, you know, tough topics and her character development is amazing. And you just fall in love with her characters. And her stories are just - she's an incredible storyteller.
NEARY: Yeah. And what is it you like so much about her books?
BERKELBACH: I just like the different ideas she comes up with and the different stories. They're just so interesting. And, like Rachel said, they really make you think about things that you haven't normally thought about.
DUNN: I think primarily I like the fact that there's so much research that goes into her books. I really do. I think that it's not just that she's a good storyteller, there's research behind it, so you learn something every time you read one of her books.
NEARY: Picoult doesn't take her fans for granted. She gets around 200 emails a day and answers them all. But she doesn't think it's just personal attention which brings readers back to her books year after year.
PICOULT: I think the reason these readers come back to me is because I represent their points of view. It may not be my point of view, but that's OK. You know, everyone still deserves to have their say. And I always look at it sort of like the facets of a diamond. You've got to illuminate each one and then let the reader decide what's the brightest one and why. You know, my job isn't to tell them which is the brightest one. It's just to illuminate every single facet.
NEARY: Picoult, who also happens to be a mother of three, generally writes a book a year. She finished the first draft of her next book before heading out on this book tour and already has started researching another one.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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