Jodi Picoult discusses many aspects of her latest novel, Nineteen Minutes and discusses how she finds the ideas to fuel her prolific writing.
In interview about Second Glance is located below the reading guide for that particular book.
What drew you to the subject of a school shooting for the premise of a novel?
As a mom of three, I've seen my own children struggle with fitting in and being bullied. It was listening to their experiences, and my own frustrations, that led me to consider the topic. I also kept thinking about how it's not just in high school where we have this public persona that might be different from what we truly feel inside...everyone wonders if they're good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, no matter how old they are. It's an archetypical moral dilemma - do you act like yourself, and risk becoming an outcast? Or do you pretend to be someone you're not, and hope no one finds out you're faking?
How did you go about conducting research for Nineteen Minutes? Given the heart wrenching and emotional topic of the book, in what ways was the research process more challenging than for your previous novels?
This book was VERY hard to research. I actually began through my longtime legal research helper, who had a colleague that had worked in the FBI and put me in touch with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office -- the people who investigated the Columbine shootings. I spoke with them, and they sent me DVDs and material that had never been made available to the public, which helped a bit to get into the mindset of the shooters. The next contact I made was with a woman who served as a grief counselor to the families who lost children at Columbine. However, I really wanted to talk to a school shooting survivor...and yet I didn't want to cause anyone undue pain by bringing up what will always be a difficult subject. I was actually in Minneapolis, doing a reading, when the Red Lake shootings occurred. It was the most surreal feeling: there I was in a hotel, writing a scene in the book, and on the TV next to me was a reporter saying exactly what I was typing into my fiction. I went to the bookstore event that night and was telling folks about the way my two worlds had collided...and a woman came up to me afterward. She knew someone who'd survived the Rocori shootings in MN and was willing to put me in touch with her. Through that connection, I not only spoke with two teachers who shared with me their story of the shooting...but also a young man whose friend died that day. It was his commentary that shook me the most -- as a writer and a parent -- and that became the most important research I did for this book.
What facts did you uncover during your research that might surprise readers whose knowledge of school shootings comes solely from media coverage?
Although the media is quick to list the "aberrant" characteristics of a school shooter, the truth is that they fit all teens at some point in their adolescence! Or in other words -- these kids who resort to violence are not all that different from the one living upstairs in your own house, most likely -- as scary as that is to imagine. Two other facts that surprised me: for many of these shooters, there is the thinnest line between suicide and homicide. They go to the school planning to kill themselves and decide at the last minute to shoot others, too. And that, psychologically, a single act of childhood bullying is as scarring emotionally as a single act of sexual abuse. From the point of view of the survivors, I remember being stunned when this young man I interviewed said that afterward, when his parents were trying to be solicitous and ask him if he needed anything, he turned away from them...because he was angry that they hadn't been like that yesterday, BEFORE. Historically, one of the most upsetting things I learned was that after Columbine, more than one family was told that their child was the first to be killed. It was theoretically supposed to offer them comfort ("my child went first, and didn't suffer") but backfired when several families realized they'd been told the same thing.
What appealed to you about bringing back two characters from previous novels: defense lawyer Jordan McAfee and detective Patrick DuCharme? Why the romantic resolution for Patrick this time?
Okay, I'm just going to admit it to the world: I have a crush on Patrick DuCharme. And of course, he DIDN'T get the girl at the end of Perfect Match. So I really wanted him to star in another story, where he was front and center. (For those really savvy readers who want to torture themselves with unanswered questions -- scroll back to Chapter 1 of Nineteen Minutes and do the math: how old is Nina's little girl? And how long ago was Perfect Match. Hmm....) As for Jordan -- as soon as I realized that I had a murder trial in New Hampshire, I started thinking of who might defend Peter. And Jordan happened to be free...! It's always great fun to bring a character back, because you get to catch up on his/her life; and you don't have to reinvent the wheel -- you already know how he speaks, acts, thinks.
In Nineteen Minutes, Lewis Houghton is a college professor whose area of expertise is the economics of happiness. Does such a profession actually exist? How does Lewis's job relate to the story as a whole?
It does exist! There are economics professors who run statistics about how different elements of a person's life (marriage, sexual orientation, salary, etc.) can add to or detract from overall happiness, by giving those elements a dollar value. Lewis's equation -- that happiness equals reality divided by expectations -- is from real research. However, I sort of fudged the other equation he devises: that expectation divided by reality equals hope. As for how the profession relates to the story -- well, you have to love the irony of a guy who studies happiness for a living and yet isn't aware of the discontent simmering beneath his own roof.
As the mother of three children, was the subject of popularity and the cruel ways in which children often treat one another a difficult one for you to address?
It is always hardest for me to write a book that has kids in it close to my kids' ages -- and Nineteen Minutes does. I think that every parent has probably experienced bullying in some form -- either from the POV of the bully or the victim -- so it's a pretty universal subject. But in many ways, watching my children as they struggled to find their own place in the social hierarchy of school did make them guinea pigs for me, as I was writing the book. I know that many of my readers are the age of the young characters in this book, and over the years, some have written me to ask if I'd write a book about bullying. But it wasn't until I began to connect what kids experience in school with how adults treat other adults who are somehow different that I began to piece together the story. Discrimination and difference at the high school level will never end until the adults running these schools can go about their own lives without judging others for their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. How ridiculous is it that America prides itself on being a melting pot, when -- as Peter says in the novel -- that just means it makes everyone the same?
Did you have the surprise ending in mind when you began writing Nineteen Minutes, or did it evolve later in the process?
As with all my books, I knew the ending before I wrote the first word.
You're the author of fourteen novels. As you write more and more books, is it harder to come up with ideas? How do you know when an idea is the right one?
The right idea is the one you can't stop thinking about; the one that's in your head first thing in the morning. The ideas choose me, not the other way around. And as for a shortage (I'm knocking on wood, here) I haven't faced that yet. I could tell you what the next four books I'm writing will address.
You once remarked about your previous novel, My Sister's Keeper, that "there are so many shades of gray in real life." How might this statement also apply to Nineteen Minutes?
It's funny you should compare Nineteen Minutes to My Sister's Keeper because I see them as very similar books -- they are both very emotional, very gut-wrenching, and they're situations that every parent dreads. And like the moral and ethical complications of MSK, you have a kid in Nineteen Minutes who does something that, on the surface, is absolutely devastating and destructive and will end the lives of others. But -- given what these characters have endured -- can you blame them? Do I condone school shootings? Absolutely not. But I can understand why a child who's been victimized might feel like he's justified in fighting back. I also think it's fascinating to look at how two good parents might find themselves with a child they do not recognize -- a child who does something they can't swallow. Do you stop loving your son just because he's done something horrible? And if you don't, do you start hating yourself? There are so many questions raised by Nineteen Minutes -- it's one big gray area to wallow in with your book group!
Many of your books center on topics that are front and center in the headlines. Is it important for you to not only entertain readers with a riveting storyline but to challenge them to think about timely and often controversial topics? Why do you suppose you have gravitated toward this type of storytelling?
I think that sometimes when we don't want to talk about issues that are hard to discuss or difficult to face, it's easier to digest it in fiction instead of nonfiction. I mean, no one goes into their bookstore and says, "Hey, can I read the most recent book about the sexual molestation of kids!?" but if you pick up a novel that has that as its center, you will become involved with the characters and the plot and find yourself dissecting the issue without even realizing it. Fiction allows for moral questioning, but through the back door. Personally, I like books that make you think -- books you're still wondering about three days after you finish them; books you hand to a friend and say "Read this, so we can talk about it." I suppose I'm just writing the kind of novel I like to read!
In the Acknowledgements section, you write: "To the thousands of kids out there who are a little bit different, a little bit scared, a little bit unpopular: this one's for you." What might readers, particularly younger readers, take from this book and apply to their own lives?
If I could say one thing to the legions of teens out there who wake up every morning and wish they didn't have to go to school, it would be this -- and I'm saying it as both a mom and a writer: Stay the course. You WILL find someone like you; you WILL fit in one day. And know that even the cool kids, the popular kids, worry that someone will find out their secret: that they worry about fitting in, just like you do.