Novelist Jodi Picoult in Sacramento this week

Prolific writer Jodi Picoult’s latest novel, “Leaving Time,” concerns a teen daughter’s search for her mother.
Prolific writer Jodi Picoult’s latest novel, “Leaving Time,” concerns a teen daughter’s search for her mother. Penguin Random House

Best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult is all over the place – subject-wise, that is.

A scan of her 23 novels shows a prolific author who has taken on a wide spectrum of heartfelt and topical subjects. Among them: love and loss, grief and survival, rejection and acceptance, alcoholism and teen pregnancy, raising children and letting them go, and the complexities of friendships and family bonds. Not to mention the missing persons, murders and mysteries.

“If I have to slap a label on what I do, I say I write ‘commercial fiction about moral and ethical dilemmas,’” Picoult said. “That’s because (my stories) usually center around questions that make readers wonder, ‘What would I do in those situations?’”

Picoult was on the phone from her New Hampshire home, preparing for a six-week international book tour (“It’s a good problem to have”) for her new novel, “Leaving Time.” It’s the Bee Book Club’s choice for October. All the tickets to the free event have been taken.

Picoult, 48, pointed out that her subject matter has changed “as I’ve gotten older. I started with a mother-daughter story (‘Songs of the Humpback Whale,’ 1992), then went to relationships between men and women. Then, as I had children, I moved to all the scary things that could happen to your kids – from kidnapping and molestation to illness and murder. Then I extrapolated into larger issues, such as the right to die and the natures of good and evil. I joke around and say I’m going to start writing about putting your parents in a nursing home, but my mother does not like it when I say that.”

Given the numbers, there’s no confusion among Picoult’s readers over following her winding literary path: 25 million copies of her novels are in print worldwide, translated into 34 languages. Five of her books have been made into movies, including “My Sister’s Keeper” with Cameron Diaz and Alec Baldwin.

“Some fans say, ‘I only read mysteries and you’re my favorite writer.’ Or, ‘I only read literary fiction, you’re my favorite writer.’ Or, ‘I only read women’s fiction, you’re my favorite writer,’” she said. “I write the stories that need to be told, not ones that can be pigeonholed into a genre. Social justice is incredibly important to me because we’re all stuck here together and we’d better find a way to get along. If I’m put on this world for any reason, it could be to leave it a slightly better place.”

Picoult’s fans are fiercely loyal “and I love them for that,” she said. “They come to my events with amazing stories of why my books have been so instrumental in their lives. That’s the best gift I could receive. It’s humbling and really moving.”

One unexpected entry in her résumé is writing several “Wonder Woman” comic books in 2007, after DC Comics offered her the opportunity to take the superhero where she wished. That offer was based on Picoult’s novel “The Tenth Circle,” in which one of the characters is a graphic novelist who communicates largely through his comic books.

In an inspired move, Picoult hired an artist and together they created a graphic novel – “written and drawn” by the fictional character – which her publisher embedded inside her book, creating a book within a book.

When DC initially made the offer, Picoult recalled, “I was telling my kids about it that night at the dinner table, and they said, ‘Mom, you totally have to do it.’

“One thing all women can relate to is mother-daughter issues, so I gave Wonder Woman a big emotional arc fighting Hippolyta, her mom,” she said. “It was a good challenge and a lot of fun. I was only the second woman to write ‘Wonder Woman’ since her conception in 1941, and I’m really proud of it.”

Elephant immersion

In “Leaving Time,” 13-year-old Jenna Metcalf has lived with her maternal grandmother for the decade following the mysterious disappearance of her mother, Alice Metcalf, a research scientist who studies the nature of grief among elephants. After a tragedy at an elephant sanctuary, the questions become: What was Alice’s involvement, why did she vanish, and where did she go?

Refusing to believe her mother had abandoned her, Jenna enlists the help of two dysfunctional adults to help her find out if Alice is alive or dead. One of them is a disgraced former celebrity psychic, the other is the retired police detective who fumbled the original case. Together, they hunt for the truth, which turns out to be what none of them could possibly have imagined. Picoult calls the ending “the best twist I’ve written in 20 years.”

“Elephants and grief serve as the metaphoric framework for the story I wanted to tell, which is about keeping the people we love close to us and what it means to be left behind,” she said.

Picoult is known for immersing herself in research for her books, and “Leaving Time” required an inordinate and costly amount of it. She spent time at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee (“the best retirement home an elephant could ask for”) and traveled to Africa, where she went on safari to study elephant behavior.

“I did a lot of work on memory and cognition in humans before I began to work with elephants,” she said. “For that, I worked with a professor at Vassar College, who came with me to Botswana. We worked with an elephant researcher there to ‘translate’ the way elephants think and the way humans think, what’s alike and what’s different. Their levels of cognition are extraordinarily similar to ours.

“What amazed me the most was how human the elephants’ behavior is,” she said. “We inadvertently separated a (mother) from its baby, and had to reverse our vehicle so she could see her baby was OK. Then she stalked us (away from the herd) with her trunk up, as if she were holding up a finger and saying, ‘Unh-uh, no! That’s my baby!’ We also saw an aged matriarch sliding down a hill on her bottom, over and over, just because it was fun, just like we would sled.”

All the anecdotes about elephants in “Leaving Time” are based on real incidents, she said. For instance, before coming to the sanctuary, an elephant named Sissy had been swept from her zoo enclosure in the 1981 flood in Gainesville, Texas, and became entangled in a tree.

“She was submerged for 24 hours with just her trunk sticking out of the water,” Picoult said. “When she ended up at the sanctuary, traumatized, she carried a tire around with her, like a pacifier. She eventually befriended another elephant there named Tina. When Tina died, Sissy stayed by her grave for a few days and finally took that tire – which she was never without – and placed it on top of the grave, almost like a wreath, as if she knew her friend needed that comfort now.”

One of the key characters in “Leaving Time” is the psychic Serenity, who was partly developed with some guidance from psychic Chip Coffey of Atlanta.

“I got to see life from his (perspective), which was pretty wild,” Picoult said. “Any time you start talking about an afterlife or about the grief caused by people leaving us, you move into a spiritual realm. The thing about watching elephants grieve is they seem to do it better than we do. They don’t have the baggage we carry around, mostly because of religion. They’re able to put (their grief) aside and live their lives. People have a much harder time doing that.”

Picoult’s editor for “Leaving Time” was Jennifer Hershey, senior vice president and editor in chief of Ballantine-Bantam-Dell.

“Jodi works on a book by herself for a long time and she’s really in the weeds with it,” Hershey said. “What I do is give her a chance to step back from it and talk about it. She had a very strong grip on the structure of the story she wanted to tell, but was very open to my suggestions.”

A life lacking in drama

Picoult’s life is far removed from the tumultuous dramas of her characters.

“I grew up very happy in suburbia (on Long Island and later in New Hampshire), there was no trauma and my parents are still crazy in love with each other,” she said. “I have those things now, too – love, normalcy, stability. The strong demarcation between my work life and my personal life is what allows me to tread on the dark side.”

Picoult and her husband of 25 years, Timothy Warren Van Leer, live in a small town and care for “four dogs, two donkeys, two geese and 15 chickens. We used to have ducks, but they were killed by a wildcat.” Their three adult children are “out doing their own things.”

Van Leer is on the board of directors of the local homeless shelter and is a part-time antiques dealer. Picoult, who holds a creative-writing degree from Princeton and a master’s degree in education from Harvard, is at her desk by 7:30 five mornings a week, reading and answering fan mail. “Then I pull up whatever I was writing the day before, edit my way through it and start writing again until 3 or 4.”

The regimen is structured, but there is some excitement on the horizon. In 2013, Picoult and her daughter, Samantha Van Leer, co-wrote a “tween-young adult” novel titled “Between the Lines,” and last summer completed its sequel, “Off the Page,” to be published next year on Picoult’s birthday, May 19.

“Lines” is the fantasty tale of a teen girl who falls in love with her favorite fairytale-book character, a prince who comes to life in the real world.

“The two books are being developed as a – hopefully – Broadway-bound musical,” Picoult said. “Sammy and I are having fantastic meetings in New York. We have a composer, a writer and a producer. It’s so much fun to see this story come to life in a different incarnation. For me, it’s like playtime.”

Given that Picoult wrote herself into an issue of “Wonder Woman,” is there a chance she might get a walk-on part in the play?

“I hope not,” she said with a chuckle. “We’d really be in a lot of trouble.”

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

All the tickets to Jodi Picoult’s Bee Book Club presentation have been claimed.

Her new novel, “Leaving Time” (Ballantine, $28, 416 pages), will be offered at a 30 percent discount through Thursday at these bookstores: Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento, Avid Reader in Davis, Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, Time Tested Books, Underground Books, Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento, the UC Davis Bookstore and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.

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