Jodi Picoult on writing in the age of Covid


Jodi Picoult is the queen of ethical fiction. His books have addressed controversial issues ranging from organ donation to teenage suicide, sexual abuse to domestic violence and school shootings.

The American author has never shied away from tackling hard-hitting topics head-on, and it’s her 2004 novel My Sister’s Keeper – about a 13-year-old girl who defends herself when told to donate a kidney. to her sister with cancer – which brought her fame in the UK and spawned a film adaptation starring Cameron Diaz.

But nothing could have prepared her for a global pandemic that meant she wouldn’t leave her 11-acre home in New Hampshire for 16 months because she suffers from severe asthma.

“My lungs aren’t good on a good day. I have trouble breathing. I know what my triggers are, but I didn’t think that a disease that turns your lungs into frosted glass was something my lungs were going to do well with, ”Picoult, 55, explains on Zoom from his desk, a large sticker Black Lives Matter affixed to its library in the background.

She and her husband, university sweetheart Tim Van Leer, an antique dealer, were left alone in the house, while two of their three grown children and their partners moved into their nearby lakefront home.

Some states in the United States have found asthma to be a reason for getting vaccinated early. Not that of Picoult, she explains. The worst thing about the lockdown was that the award-winning author of 27 novels, with 40 million copies sold worldwide, became unable to read – or write.

“I’ll be there sobbing at my desk.” I am not a person who suffers from depression but I was really beside myself at first. I couldn’t read. And forget about writing. I couldn’t stay focused enough to even look at a page. It took me a long time to get back to reading and figuring out how to become a writer again.

It took months to regroup. But the result was her new novel, Wish You Were Here, in the context of Covid. The rights were recovered by Netflix for a film.

Her novel centers on a 29-year-old art scholar in New York City, who goes on vacation to the Galapagos without her young surgeon boyfriend, who has had to stay due to the burgeoning Covid crisis.

So she leaves alone, only for the island – and the world – to close when she arrives. “It’s a story about what happens when you are in heaven and the rest of the world has gone to hell in a hand basket,” says Picoult.

Writing the book was kind of therapy for her, even though she had already completed her next book and a fictional Covid story hadn’t even been ordered.

“As a writer I thought, how are we going to tell the story of the pandemic? I’ve had a hell of a change myself. The only time I was gone [the house] was to hike everyday alone in the woods or with a group of friends 6ft apart. I didn’t go to stores or anything and was really scared. I needed to deal with what was happening to me in 2020. “

The idea was sparked by a story she heard about a Japanese tourist who got stranded in Machu Picchu when the country closed its doors.

“He became a member of a community, taught martial arts to children, and eventually the community asked the government to open up the historic site so he could finally see what he had come to see.”

Picoult also tracked down a young Scotsman stranded in the Galapagos and interviewed him and the families he interacted with as the coronavirus made the world worse. She also interviewed doctors, nurses and medical professionals, especially young doctors, as well as 40 people who had been on ventilators and survived.

“It’s interesting that the survivors and first responders all came from the same place, namely ‘Please tell our story and let people know what it was’ because there are so many people. in America who think it’s a hoax, the flu, no big deal. ”

What does she want readers to take away from the book? “They should ask themselves some questions. The first is, what have you lost? Because everyone has lost something. It could have been a graduation, a vacation, a wedding, a job, a person, but we all lost something. The second question is: what did you learn? When you press pause, you discover uncomfortable truths.

“I remember thinking that the measures of success that I had always thought of as a degree, a job, money, a title, those things didn’t really matter. The reality was that success was measured by: Am I healthy? Do I have food? Do I have a place to live? Can I sit next to my loved one when they are really sick? ”

The cover of Wish You Were Here, by Jodi Picoult.

She was vaccinated and, via social media, urged others to do the same, but received hate messages because of it, she reveals.

“America is a nightmare right now. We have a lot of selfish people here who don’t get the shot. We are at a stage where we have protection but still need to assess our level of risk management. ”

She blames the Trump administration for the lack of vaccination in the United States. “It was presented as a political issue and a matter of personal freedom, when in reality all those Founding Fathers that these right-wing anti-vaccines keep citing were among the first to support the smallpox vaccination.

“It’s nonsense, looking for the wrong sources, a distrust of science and facts, these are all seeds that were sown in the last presidency, unfortunately. And once you open this Pandora’s box, it is very difficult to close it.

The pandemic has forced her to refocus her priorities, she admits. Highlights that would have been linked to work – the debut of a musical she helped adapt (Between The Lines, rescheduled from April 2020 for a New York premiere in June 2022, and a musical adaptation of The Book Thief opening in Bolton next year) – now compete for space with family time.

“I am very aware of the time I spend and how I spend it. I have a lot of irons in the fire, a busy year and I try to make sure that I leave time for myself and my family and that I don’t prioritize work and others over seeing my family She said. said.

“I’m also much more aware of checking in with my parents and son on the West Coast, making sure I don’t postpone a visit because of a work issue. Because who knows when we’re going to close again? I don’t want to be in a position where I don’t see them for two years.

Picoult herself had a perfectly normal childhood. She was born in Long Island, New York. Her mother was a kindergarten teacher while her father worked on Wall Street. After studying English and creative writing at Princeton University, she held a succession of jobs – in finance, textbook editing, teaching, and copywriting – while writing during his free time.

She received hundreds of refusals, finally finding an agent. But his books were a slow burn, receiving attention through word of mouth rather than advertising.

She remains enthusiastic about opening up the world, because of her change of perspective, she accepts. “I’m not taking anything for granted now.”

  • Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Available now

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