The queen of drama tells anna coogan about actual events that have influenced h er acclaimed novels
With her tumbling cork-screw curls and open, warm face, Jodi Picoult doesn't look like someone who throws up dark dilemmas for a living. Yet the 46-year-old bestselling author of 21 novels makes a millionaire living from gripping her loyal readers with problems which most of us would struggle to cope with in real life.
Everything from having a child simply to save the life of an older sibling, to what you would do if your child was accused of murder and all the evidence pointed towards them, to suing your lifelong best friend who happens to be a medic in the hope that it will benefit your ill child.
Her new book off the conveyor belt presents us with a young woman of Jewish heritage, Sage, who is asked by an elderly and seemingly harmless visitor to a cafe where she works, if she'll assist him in his decision to kill himself.
Why has he chosen her? Because he is a former Nazi SS guard and feels that although she is a non-practising Jew, she might find it within herself to forgive him, but more importantly, that she will eventually find the hatred within herself to murder him.
The Storyteller is true to form for Picoult, in that you fly through the book, intent on finding out how the moral dilemma is resolved in the final few pages.
The Princeton and Harvard-educated author insists that she is anything but a dark and serious-minded person away from the laptop on which she creates her compelling stories.
She says: "People always expect me to have a really dark side, and when they meet me they always get a surprise. I'm a light-hearted and cheerful person, and I'm inclined to be upbeat most of the time.
"I am a person who is very attracted to 'What if?' scenarios. You know when you hear a story and you think, 'How would I have coped in that situation?' 'What would I have done if that had been me, not them?' I'm drawn to these kinds of dilemmas, so when I hear or read something that presents somebody with a difficult choice, I want to explore that in my writing.
"The Storyteller began with another book, The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal, who was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and who was brought to the bedside of a dying SS soldier who wanted to confess to a Jew, and ultimately be forgiven by one. I was drawn to this moral conundrum, and The Storyteller is all about forgiveness, about whether or not Sage can grant forgiveness, or if it can only come from the dead .And if she could possibly forgive herself if she was to do what was being asked of her." Picoult says.
On only two occasions have her ideas for dilemmas for her books come from her own personal life and that of her family.
"My Sister's Keeper asks how far you would go for a sick child and was partly inspired by my son Jake, who when he was six underwent 13 surgeries for benign tumours in his ears, which if they hadn't been removed would have burrowed into his brain," she says.
"I was writing Sing You Home about a lesbian character when my son Kyle came out to me. I had already guessed he was gay and he got the best response of any teenage boy coming out to his family and friends. Listening to him helped me get inside the head of a character."
Picoult describes her family as "non-practising Jewish" yet says her new novel about the Holocaust isn't in any way based on her family's experiences. "We lost no one in the Holocaust," she says.
She wrote Between the Lines, a novel for young adults, with help from her daughter Sammy (17). It's about Delilah, a loner who hates school as much as she loves books.
She's sent to social Siberia by her classmates, and so seeks refuge in a fairytale. Yet it turns out Prince Charming isn't just a one-dimensional character in a book, and he comes to life while she is turning the book's pages.
Jodi says, "I thought when we started that I'd really be the mentor in the writing relationship and that I'd have final say about any and all things literary. But as it turned out, when Sammy and I disagreed about something – for example, the tone of the fairytale in the story – she'd fight until I let her have her way."
In spite – or maybe even because of her success, with her last seven novels making number one on the New York Times bestseller list – it's hard to find other authors who rhapsodise about her books.
Stephen King is an exception, and has said "Somebody who's a terrific writer who's been very, very successful is Jodi Picoult."
The mum-of-three has a disciplined work life and gets up each morning at 5.30am and walks three miles with a friend, before having breakfast and settling down into her writing life. It has helped her success that her husband Tim is a stay-at-home dad, which has allowed her to single-mindedly knock out 500-page novels within a space of nine months each, including doing all the in-depth research required.
For the remaining three months of the year, Picoult tours the world appearing at every event, interview and signing session that a hyperactive author can cram in.
She is viewed as a commercial writer as opposed to a literary one, and at one point was the highest-selling female author in the UK, and doesn't seem to have any chip on her shoulder about how she is perceived.
"I don't take my readers for granted, and I strive to make each new book better than the last one. And still get a huge kick out of a reader taking the time to give me good feedback," says Picoult.
The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price €12.99