Jodi Picoult, the outspoken author of 'ethical fiction', has written 19 novels and topped the New York Times bestseller list on five different occasions.
Her latest book Lone Wolf follows Luke Baxter, a man obsessed with wolves who goes into a coma following a car accident. It traces the dilemma then faced his children in trying to decide whether to keep him alive artificially or let him die.
Here she talks about researching the book in Devon, and expresses her opinions on everything from assisted suicide to the current trend for self-publishing.
You researched Lone Wolf in the UK with real-life wolf man Shaun Ellis – what was that like?
Amazing. Sean - like the character in the book, Luke - actually went out and lived with a wild wolf pack in Canada. He spent a year living in the Rockies. I met him at a wildlife preserve in Devon with 6 captive packs of wolves. He took me to the fence right up next to them, though it wasn’t safe to go inside. He told me how to stand and where to crouch so they’d smell us. He also told me not to poke my fingers over the side because they’d strip them to the bone – oh, and not to let my heart rate go up because they’ll notice! But they were unbelievably interesting to watch. If you look at them closely, animals, they look as if they know everything about you. It was pretty phenomenal.
Do you enjoy researching your books?
I love it. You get some much inspiration from a day’s research – for example, the title of this novel came from a story Sean told me about the historical lone wolf, which came from the idea that a pack of two is so infinitely stronger than a pack of one. It became a metaphor for what happens with the family in the book.
Lone Wolf addresses that dreadful dilemma of families keeping loved ones alive artificially. Did this come out of a personal experience?
It actually came from a time about a decade ago when I was on a plane next to a man who was a neurosurgeon. He was talking about these traumatic brain injury cases and the life decisions that have to be made around them, and I talked to him for about half an hour and I said: “I’m going to write a book about this one day”. This was when nobody knew I was writing anything. Anyway I called him and he said “oh of course I remember you! I follow your career, you’ve done very well for yourself!”. He really helped me either do the medical research I needed from a neurology standpoint. But aside from that, although I’ve not lived through the situation myself, talking with my parents about do not resuscitate orders and living wills meant I got to a point in my life where this situation, this problem, was becoming a more compelling to me.
How do you feel about assisted suicide?
I have very strong beliefs in favour of that. I actually was on a TV show in England and I was talking about this. An interesting little fact about assisted suicide for example, is that in the state of Oregon they passed a referendum to make it legal, and the first year they did it there were approximately 100 prescriptions that people who had a terminal illness and asked their doctors to write out a prescription so that they could get the medication if they decided they wanted it. After 100 prescriptions had been issued, only 2 of them were actually sold. This is really interesting because I think it means what people were looking for was just the control over the situation.
It’s a big issue here in the UK...
Yeah, and in America too. Any time you talk about playing God you have the religious right up in arms, it doesn’t matter if it’s the beginning of the spectrum on abortion or right now – ridiculously - on contraception.
So you’ve potentially waded in to quite choppy waters with this book?
Well, this is a piece of cake compared to last year’s book [2011’s Sing You Home] which was about gay rights in America, a much more controversial topic. I still get emails from people who identify themselves as conservative Christians – who have not read the book because they refuse to - telling me that I’m giving Christianity a bad name. So far I haven’t had a single contentious email about Lone Wolf, just a lot of people writing to say they now have a living will, or that they have become organ donors, which is great.
After 19 books, how do you evaluate your own best work? By how well you felt it was written, or by the impact it has on people’s lives?
I’d say the latter. A book for me has two things it’s got to do, it has the impact on people but it also has to be the best work I could do at the given moment. And I don’t want to phone in a performance, I don’t want to hire people to write my books, the way many fiction authors are doing now.
What do you say to people who want to emulate your success and want to be writers themselves?
My current advice is to not self-publish. It’s still too hard for people to separate the wheat from the chaff, and what you miss out on is the marketability that is afforded to you by a brick and mortar publisher. There’s a lot of crap out there, and one day we may find a way to segregate well written self published fiction from that stuff which anyone can throw on Amazon, but I just don’t think we’re there yet. Let me put it to you this way. The anomalies of self published fiction, the Amanda Hockings of this world - what did they do with their next book? Do they self publish it? No - they make sure they get a publisher.
Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult is published in hardcover at £18.99 by Hodder & Stoughton.