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Friday 15 December 2017

'I hate men who waltz in and write about love'

PROLIFIC: Jodi Picoult has written 23 novels and eight number one bestsellers. Just don't dare call her work 'women's fiction', as Bryony Gordon discovers ...

Before meeting Jodi Picoult, I had it in my mind that she wrote big, sweeping romance novels, guilty pleasures for hot beach holidays, and so set about my research with barely concealed glee.

This glee did not last long. The backdrop to Picture Perfect may be Hollywood, but only as the setting for a tale of horrific domestic violence. The Pact is billed as a teenage love story - only it is one that ends with a bullet in the girl's head.

My Sister's Keeper, turned into a Cameron Diaz movie, is about childhood leukaemia and stem-cell research. Second Glance: eugenics. The Storyteller: the Holocaust. Nineteen Minutes: a high-school shooting. Lone Wolf: assisted dying. I felt quite bleak by the time I got round to reading her latest, Leaving Time, whose ending I have been banned from revealing, but suffice to say, it didn't leave me feeling particularly cheery.

We meet in a hotel in London, me feeling miserable, her a bundle of all-American energy, ready to seize the day, or at the very least an appearance on Loose Women. She is to the point, no-nonsense, as I had started to suspect from reading her books. She has still-wet curls and a fresh-faced, healthy glow about her; it is the kind of healthy glow that exudes from people who have sold more books this century than William Shakespeare or Ian McEwan or Charles Dickens.

Yet despite this success - 23 novels in 22 years, eight of which have been number one on the New York Times bestseller list - she struggles to be taken seriously. "I write women's fiction," she says, an 'apparently' hanging in the air. "And women's fiction doesn't mean that's your audience. Unfortunately, it means you have lady parts."

The 48-year-old orders a pot of tea and says goodbye to her husband, who is accompanying her on this leg of her three-month book tour. Picoult does this every year with every new novel - she has a rock-star schedule matched only by her following, nicknamed the #jodiverse on Twitter.

Struggling writers might think that this commercial success should negate any need for literary fanfare, but it sticks in her craw. "If a woman had written One Day [by David Nicholls], it would have been airport fiction. Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

"If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it.

"If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink fluffy cover on it. What is it about? It's about a woman choosing between two men. What is The Corrections about, by Jonathan Franzen? It's about a family, right? And I'm attacking gun control and teen suicide and end-of-life care and the Holocaust, and I'm writing women's fiction?"

Has she ever thought of writing under a pen name?

"I did once," she says. "So let me tell you what happened. I wrote a book under a man's name. It was years ago, my kids were really tiny. It was when The Bridges of Madison County [by Robert James Waller] had been published. Nicholas Sparks was becoming big [as a romantic novelist]. Please don't get me started on Nicholas Sparks," she says, rolling her eyes. "I haven't had enough caffeine yet." But anyway.

"I was so angry about these men who had co-opted a genre that women had been slaving over for years. There are some really phenomenal romance writers who get no credit, who couldn't even get a hardback deal. And these men waltzed in and said, 'Look what we can do. We can write about love. And we are so special.' And that just made me crazy." Her agent tried to sell her pseudonymous book, but was told it was too well written for the male romance genre. "So there you go," she says, angry, and yet ever-so-slightly pleased.

Jodi Picoult writes good stories, but she doesn't have one herself. "No," she says. "I'm really boring." She was born in Long Island but moved to New Hampshire when she was 13, where she still lives to this day, with her husband and their four dogs, two donkeys and 15 chickens. There used to be 10 ducks, too, but they got eaten in the spring. "By a wildcat," Picoult says, helpfully.

She studied writing at Princeton, where she met her husband, Tim, and it was while she was pregnant with their first child that she began work on her first novel. When her career started to take off, Tim quit his job as a sales manager to stay at home with their three children.

Her next novel will be about racism in America. She is no patriot patsy. She says she often despairs of her country. "Oh, very often. It is really hard, sometimes, to love there. It's a very polarised country.

"There's this image of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave, and there are so many wonderful things about it that we take for granted," she says. "But on the other hand it is a country with a large, deep schism running through the middle of it, an ideological schism, and it's often a fault line that's caused by religion.

"Whether it's abortion or gun control or gay rights or the death penalty, where you fall on those issues tends to align with what your personal beliefs are in terms of religion. For a country that was founded on the separation of church and state, that sometimes is incredibly depressing."

I wonder, does she ever think about staying on one of her book tours forever, so she doesn't have to go back? For the first time during our interview, she appears to mellow. "You know, I haven't, and that's because of the feeling I get when I come home." She starts to smile to herself. "When I land in Boston, there's just a flood of relief. We are a pretty amazing country and having an American passport is a pretty amazing thing. And I would not want to give that up."

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton) is out now

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