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Interview with Jodi Picoult

How do your ideas for books take shape?

Usually my ideas take the form of a what-if question: What if there was a mother who . . . ? I start mulling it over, and before I know it I've got a whole drama unfolding in my head. . . . Interestingly enough, The Pact was not a big page-turner when it started to take form in my mind. I was going to write a character-driven book about the survivors left behind after an unfinished suicide pact between two teenagers, and I went to a local police chief to do some preliminary research. He was restating the facts of the plot for me-a plot in which I expected the teenage girl to be the one who lived. "Huh," he said. "The girl? Because if it was the boy, who was larger physically, he'd automatically be suspected of murder until evidence cleared him." And before I knew it I was leaning forward in my seat, saying, "Really???" From there, I created the character of Chris. . . . The story just began to unfold, and I could play around with the bigger questions of how well we really ever know the people we love.

How much time do you spend researching a book and how much time on the actual writing?

It takes me the same amount of time to write a book as it does to have a baby. It's always nine months, give or take a couple of weeks. . . . For some reason that's the length of time it takes for my mind to gel a batch of ideas into a cohesive book. I know that I write fast, compared to other authors, but if it took me much longer I'd probably get bored with the plot and want to move on. . . . [And] I always do my research before I write a single word-I'm a stickler for getting things right in a book. . . . Sometimes that means role-playing with a lawyer or observing cardiac surgery or speaking to astronauts or milking cows on an Amish farm ... it varies from book to book. . . . The most bizarre research I did for The Pact was go to jail-something my four-year-old gleefully announced in nursery school that day. It was like being in a zoo full of humans-very demoralizing-and the inmate who spoke to me during an interview was incredibly enlightening. You know all those little tidbits in Chris's jail scenes, the ones you figure had to be made up? They're not.

You have three young children. How do you find time to write?

Well, to answer your question, I am currently typing these responses and simultaneously playing Trivial Pursuit Junior. I'm really a mom; I just moonlight as an author. I spend most of my daylight hours with my kids- ages seven, five, and three-and work when my husband gets home at night and does the bedtime routine. . . . Because I have very little time to write, every moment is precious. ... If I didn't somehow make the time to write, I'd go crazy-it's something I need to do, like a compulsion. ... To many women, being a hands-on mother with a thriving writing career seems impossible, but to me they are complementary: I am a better mother because I see the world through a writer's eyes . . . and I'm a better writer because I see the world through a mother's eyes.

In the process of writing, do you work in sequence?

In six novels I can remember only one scene I wrote out of sequence. However, I can start a book and discover that it goes off in a different direction from the way I expected. There is always a point in a novel where I believe it starts writing itself, and I'm along for the ride. . . . Certain scenes stun me after they're written-I'll just stare at my computer screen in amazement and think, "Good Lord, where do I go from here?" .. . It's a little unnerving, but I love it when there are moments where my characters almost walk away from me on their own feet-it makes me feel like I've really brought them to life.

When you work on a book, do the characters inhabit your thoughts as if they were real people?

Oh, sure. I once had a dream when I was in the middle of my second novel; the protagonist came to me and said she didn't like what I was writing for her. And why shouldn't my characters be real? While I am writing a book, I spend more time with them than I do with my husband! Actually, when readers say they put down the book and the characters were still living with them for a few days, it is the highest form of praise to me. . . . The Pact has brought a lot of interesting comments from readers-one woman wrote me to say she'd made peace with her mother's suicide after reading the book; one mother said it opened up a line of communication with her teenage daughter she'd never expected to have.

In some ways, Emily is the main character of The Pact, yet we learn most about her through observations and recollections of others. Had you thought about writing through Emily's eyes?

As soon as I realized that the first image you have of Em is of a dead young woman, I knew that she would have to be pieced together by every other character. Part of the grand mystery here is that we never really know Emily . . . [but] we're struggling to make sense of her. . . . However, Hollywood has now optioned The Pact, and I was asked to co-write the screenplay, so the characters of both Chris and Emily have been expanded. That meant adding conversations and scenes between them, and really reexploring her thoughts and her motivations. It was heartbreaking to clarify the words and thoughts that Em might have spoken which would make Chris ultimately decide to do what he did. There were moments when I was writing scenes for the script that I found myself crying all over again.

On page 175 Emily tells Chris, "Wanting isn't the same as loving." Can you comment on Chris's answer?

When Chris answers and tells her that wanting only makes him love her more, I think it's at that point that we as readers realize that Chris envisions this relationship very differently from Emily. Chris has bought into his parents' expectations; Emily of course has not. For Chris, the sexuality that's coming into their relationship is growing out of their lifelong connection. For Emily, it's grafted on in a way that sticks out sorely. Chris tells Emily that he's always loved her, that the wanting part is new. But it's the part that's going to dissolve the relationship, in Emily's mind. I don't think we can say whether Chris and Em are right for each other, because that makes us as flawed as their parents. The only ones who can say this are Chris and Em themselves, and when their opinions on the topic diverge, love suddenly isn't enough.

The title refers to the pact between Emily and Chris. Are there other pacts? And what about the subtitle, A Love Story ?

There are so many pacts in this story I lose count: the pact of each set of parents' marriage, the pact of friendship between Melanie and Gus, the pact that Michael and Gus nearly break about coveting a neighbor's wife. As for the subtitle, I've gotten some flak for that. Some readers think it's the anti-love story. I think it's really interesting to have a love story where one lover is dead on page 1. However, the love story between Emily and Chris follows a certain arc of infatuation, intimacy, betrayal, and resolution. Another pair goes through the same arc: Gus and Chris. To me, the parent/child love story is just as crucial to the novel as the romantic one.

As you wrote The Pact, did you know what would happen at the end?

I knew it would culminate in a trial. I didn't know whether Chris would be convicted or acquitted. I actually think that he should have been convicted . . . but I didn't write it that way because the book was so full of heartache and sorrow that I envisioned readers sending me hate mail-the novel called for an uplifting ending, if you can call it that.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished the first draft of a novel about a young Amish girl who is charged with murder after her newborn baby is delivered in secret and dies. And I've begun spinning ideas for the next novel I'll be writing, which is currently a messy set of hasty notes stuffed into a box in my office.

Are you ever surprised by the reactions of reviewers and discussion groups? Do people ever not get the story as you intend it to be interpreted?

I learned a long time ago not to listen to reviewers because, after all, they're just one person with an opinion. Readers, though, are a different story. I set up a Web site (www.jodipicoult.com) when The Pact was published, and got over a hundred E-mails from fans. It was fabulous-usually, you don't get to hear from your readers, and this has been a gift to me. ... I also often go to book discussion groups when one of my books has been read. . . . I love to meet people who are as passionate about my stories as I am. . . . They ask questions about the characters and the plot and make connections that sometimes I never even saw. ... As an English major, I can only applaud different interpretations. What's fiction but a great starting point for discussion?