A fascinating page turner

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JODI Picoult’s writing is issue-driven: her novels — there are 21 of them — deal with serious moral and ethical questions. But she’s not above having a bit of fun along the way.

Speaking to a spectacularly large (for a book launch) crowd at Exclusive Books in the Pavilion last week, she had three volunteers up in the front learning to howl like a wolf pack. What the rest of the centre made of that is unrecorded.

Picoult’s Lone Wolf has recently come out in South Africa and will be followed in March by The Storyteller. Lone Wolf is her 20th book and, like many of her others, shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists in her home country.

As always, Picoult sets up a dilemma for her readers to ponder. In this case, it is who should make the decision to switch off life-support when a man is left in a coma following a car accident?

Should it be his 23-year-old son, who left home at the age of 18 following a row with his father and has been living in Thailand ever since — his only family tie being minimal contact with his mother? She, in the interim, has divorced his father and remarried.

Or should it be his daughter, aged 17, who, until the accident in which she was also involved, lived with her father? She is three months short of her 18th birthday, and is desperate to keep her father alive in the hope that he will somehow recover, despite advice from doctors that this will simply not happen.

Picoult has created a page turner, but perhaps the most fascinating parts of the book are not the viewpoints of the various characters, as they struggle with the issues and their pasts, but the sections dealing with Luke, the man at the centre of the drama.

Before his accident, he had studied wolves, to the extent of spending two years in the Canadian north, accepted by and living with a wild wolf pack. It makes him a real and extraordinary character, and it also offers an incredible insight into wolves and the way they live. Hence the howling session at the book signing.

Picoult gave her audience, which mixed men and women, young and middle-aged in a way that shows the breadth of her appeal, a lot of information about wolves. Her research meant spending time with British wolf researcher Sean Ellis, who once lived with a wild wolf pack in the Rocky Mountains, and his research informs Picoult’s book.

By making Luke such a larger-than-life character, though a lousy husband and father, Picoult makes the moral issues for his family harder to handle.

But it was the ethical dilemma of switching off life-support that came first. More than 10 years ago, Picoult sat on a plane next to a neurologist and got talking about traumatic brain injury. “I’m going to write a book about that,” she told him, and when she phoned him for medical information for Lone Wolf, he remembered.

I ask Picoult why she believes fiction is the best way to deal with the big issues her writing tackles — date rape, sexual abuse, school shootings, gay rights, assisted suicide and the like.

“Often people don’t want to tackle the non-fiction reports. For instance, official data on sexual abuse of children by priests is not appealing to read,” she says. “But if I do it fictionally, readers become invested in the story and characters almost surreptitiously. It gets them to make the connections between fiction and life.”

Picoult keeps her own opinion out of her books, except that, by tackling the subject in the first place, you know she has one. “I have no right to tell someone what to think,” she insists. “My role is to present all different sides of a dilemma, so you can think it through for yourself.”

However, earlier on, during her speech, perhaps she gave herself away just a little bit. Talking about social hierarchy in a wolf pack, and the importance of family structures — the reason she wanted to use wolves as a metaphor for the family in Lone Wolf — she describes with a grin the alpha wolf, the brains of the pack, as “the American Republicans’ worst nightmare”. This is because the alpha can terminate the pregnancy of any wolf in the pack if it is for the good of the pack. And she admits that reaction from the religious right to an earlier book, Sing You Home, which dealt with gay rights, was extreme. But she takes it in her stride.

I ask where she gets the ideas for her books. Does she trawl newspapers and news broadcasts for potential subjects? “No. It’s the things you worry about at night when you wake up: what if my kid is the one who gets shot at school? What if my husband has an affair? I draw on my greatest fears, the worst things that could happen.

“But I’ve always been careful not to bring my own kids into it. They didn’t sign up to be research for me. And I suppose I’m superstitious. Part of me thinks: if I write that, it won’t happen to me.”

Picoult is a professional to her left-handed fingertips — incidentally, she tells me that all five members of her family, her husband and three children, are lefties. For the past two decades, she has been producing a book a year. She writes for nine months and then does exhausting publicity tours for three. On her way to South Africa for the current tour, she visited Botswana, but not for a holiday. She was doing research into elephants.

So, with the wolves done and dusted, her fans can look forward in the future to another hit novel, but this time with elephants playing a role.

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