The long road to forgiveness: Jodi Picoult on why the Holocaust is not just a Jewish tragedy

Interview: The bestselling novelist is celebrated for her prolific output and social conscience.

Jodi Picoult is that rare breed of novelist whose life, for three months of the year, resembles that of a rock star. She is taken on marathon world tours in chauffeur-driven cars and looked after by PR fixers so that she can meet the fans, sign the books and open the deluge of mail, like publishing's own pop queen.

This is all because she has the bankable talent for writing books that are read by millions. She has produced one novel a year for the past two decades, while juggling the job of rearing three children (as well as four dogs, two donkeys and innumerable chickens) in her New Hampshire home.

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So it shouldn't be all that surprising that she is on a schedule, and that we meet in the chauffeur-driven car, on the Essex leg of her latest UK tour. Nor that she has managed to turn up to her publisher's central London office beforehand, immaculately dressed, and sign 1,100 copies of The Storyteller (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) inside 62 minutes - a record that breaks even Jamie Oliver's, I'm told.

Picoult – petite, effervescent, with a steely look in her eye – can polish off a book in nine months, including the rigorous, primary-sourced research that underpins all of her stories. Her themes have ranged from postpartum depression to stem-cell research and teenage suicide, and her readers have written to her time and again to tell her how authentically these issues are woven into her page-turning narratives. It is tempting to assume that her latest novel – a Holocaust story (with a quirky vampiric twist) set in modern America and in Auschwitz, is mined from family history, given her Jewish heritage. This isn't the case.

Unlike her protagonist Sage, a young baker who unknowingly befriends a former Nazi in America, none of her family experienced the Nazi camps of the Second World War; though like her heroine, Picoult is also an atheist. "I grew up in a family that was marginally Jewish. I don't consider myself Jewish now, I consider myself a humanist," she says.

It was important for Sage to be irreligious, as Picoult wanted to highlight the fact that a story about the Holocaust is not just a Jewish story. "There's almost a misconception that the only people who care about the Holocaust or who should care are Jews or descendants of Jews. Although six million Jews died in the Holocaust... it was not a Jewish problem. It was really a human-rights problem, and that's why I think everyone has a stake in remembering what happens when intolerance gets out of hand."

The idea for the book came after she re-read The Sunflower, a book by the Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal. It recounts how he was brought before a dying SS soldier who sought the forgiveness of a Jew.

"I was sitting there wondering that if you do something really, really awful in your life, could you spend the rest of your life trying to do good things and ever erase that stain? From there I went to 'what's the worst thing you could ever do?' and then I remembered Simon Wisenthal's book. What if I could take the situation that Wiesenthal found himself in and bring it to a modern-day sensibility?"

Her readers are in the habit of writing her letters, both to tell her why they loved a novel and why they didn't. Nineteen Minutes (2007) about a school shooting, the first of her novels to debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, elicited a huge response, as did My Sister's Keeper (2004) and Sing You Home (2011). But this latest book has inspired some of the most rewarding letters that Picoult has ever received, several from Holocaust survivors and Jews – but also from non-believers and young Germans who have expressed their gratitude.

It's no small feat, given the vast literature. Because of her tight deadline, she didn't visit Auschwitz (though she is going now). Writing about the camp did unnerve her at times, but she felt confident in her research method, which not only involved consultation with Holocaust historians but a Nazi hunter, Eli Rosenbaum, who leads a dedicated 35-strong FBI department on the quest for war criminals."In 1981, the Supreme Court said anyone who was a guard at a concentration camp was responsible for crimes against humanity, so it didn't matter if you were working in the kitchens or putting the Zyklon-B tablets in the showers. You were equally as culpable."

She tells stories of Rosenbaum's accomplishments; of Nazis found decades after their crimes, some working as diligent US citizens, others unrepentant. Within this, and within the central ex-Nazi character of Josef, swirl thorny debates about forgiveness, justice and revenge. From the Jewish religious perspective, there is the requirement to seek forgiveness from the harmed person, she says. In this sense, the Holocaust becomes unforgiveable, as the dead are incapable of conferring forgiveness. "That's what any rabbi will tell you."

So how then do we move on from it? This question plays across the novel. Not just Sage but also her grandmother Minka, an Auschwitz survivor, shows how it might be possible.

Part of the problem, Picoult reflects, is that the Germans have not offered the apology so vitally needed for forgiveness to take place. "Germany has paid reparations but it's very different from South Africa, for example, where they issued a very formal government apology to the victims. Angela Merkel recently said that they acknowledged their role in the Holocaust... but that's not the same thing.

"The first step in forgiveness is hearing someone say 'I am sorry'. I have heard from lots of Germans in their twenties, who say their parents' generation bore a large burden of guilt and didn't want to talk about it. Many of these young Germans have written to me and said they can't wait to read this book because they think not enough has been written about it. [An apology] is for the Germans too. They need to be able to make that history history."

More than half the survivors Picoult interviewed said they forgave the Nazis, though they could never forget. She braided the experiences of four survivors to create Minka's story.

Picoult always knew she wanted to write. She enrolled onto Princeton University's creative writing course as a student. There she was taught by Robert Stone and – after switching out of Joyce Carol Oates's class ("her teaching style didn't mesh with the way I write") – also by Mary Morris, whom she speaks of as her "mentor".

Her reason for writing fiction is idealistic. "I would like to leave the world a better place than I found it. If I can take one book and make people re-think their prejudices or rigidity in opinion, then I've done my job."

But this campaigning spirit of social conscience was a niche she grew into, once she realised that her life, and psyche, was not tortured enough to mine for fiction. "Jonathan Ames was on the [Princeton] course with me and he literally used to walk around in his black trench coat, his hand covering his forehead. I thought, 'why don't I have that?'"

Her life has remained happy, grounded and stable ("the donkey's lame, that's the only blot on the landscape"). She met her husband at college and juggled motherhood with writing by scribbling in every 15-minute gap she could find. The only real thorn in her side is the rank prejudice she faces as a writer of commercial fiction, she says.

Picoult's success might well be – and most probably is – the secret envy of many "literary" writers, yet she feels unfairly judged by that establishment. "I'll never win a book prize… There is that assumption that if you write commercial fiction it couldn't possibly be any good. That's total crap. By the same token you can write literary fiction and it can be really bad. I will be the first one to tell you that there's a lot of bad commercial fiction out there, and there's a lot of great literary fiction – but they are not mutually exclusive."

One criticism that keeps coming back to Picoult is that she is formulaic. "I tend to have a first-person narrator, a driving plot, a twist at the end. OK, those are formulas. I would argue, though, that any writer who has successfully found readers has a formula. Jonathan Franzen has a formula. Even Jane Austen had a formula."

*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine

 

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