Q&A: Jodi Picoult | On Being a Storyteller

Author Jodi Picoult; photo: Adam Bouska

Prolific author Jodi Picoult has another hit on her hands with The Storyteller (Emily Bestler: Atria), which “confronts the oft-explored subject of the Holocaust with skill, starkness, and tremendous sensitivity” (LJ Xpress Reviews, 2/1/13). Her 20th novel is the perfect occasion for a Q&A with LJ.

You place the story of the most devastating event of the 20th century, affecting millions of Jews, in the shadow of a Catholic shrine and a bakery owned/operated by a former nun and make protagonist Sage (good name choice) an atheist. Are you hoping readers will question their own faith or draw on it with regard to the Holocaust?
I think that sometimes people feel the Holocaust is a “Jewish” issue and because it’s been 70 years since it happened, the only people who still care (or who should care) are Jews. I wanted to challenge that. The Holocaust is a human rights issue, an equality issue. It’s about defeating any type of prejudice that still exists in the world. Moreover, the reaction of the survivors I spoke with varied—some became very religious after surviving the Holocaust because they felt they had been spared by God. Others felt God had turned His back on them and were never religious again. The Storyteller is about the nature of morality: Can you be a good person and do something bad? Can you do something horrible and ever be a good person again? Well, by the same token: Do you have to be religious to be “good”? Shouldn’t we want to help others and champion equality because all people deserve it? I suppose in this, ironically, my novel about the Holocaust is really a tribute to secular humanism!

You say in your acknowledgements that you were inspired by Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower (1969). Still, why did you decide to write about the Holocaust now when so much has been already been written?
Look, I can’t even compete with Wiesenthal—he was a Holocaust survivor and has a depth of honesty and personal experience I cannot imagine. But I do think that his story had lasting power because it’s raised so much philosophical discussion. The question of whether or not Wiesenthal was right not to forgive the Nazi who asked for forgiveness has been debated by theologians and philosophers for years. The reason I wanted to put a current spin on the same story is because it is still so relevant. Think of the death penalty—should we be exacting biblical justice (a death for a death)? If a convicted felon apologizes to the family of a victim, is that enough—given that the person who should be able to forgive him (the victim) is dead? But the other reason to write The Storyteller is to remind a new generation that the Holocaust isn’t really just history. It continues today. There are genocides happening all over the world, right now. This is why it’s equally important that we have a U.S. governmental division still hunting down Nazis (who are in their 90s) because maybe somewhere in Darfur someone who is about to pull a trigger because he’s been told to will remember how some Nazi war criminals were dragged to court in their 90s to stand trial. And how if he pulls that trigger, he’ll spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, waiting to get caught. So maybe he will choose instead to put down the gun.

Could anyone be funnier than Justice Department investigator Leo Stein? Were you ever worried that readers would be offended at his humor existing alongside the stories told by Josef and Minka?
The voice of Leo Stein comes directly from the real-life Nazi hunter I interviewed, Eli Rosenbaum, of the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section office of the Department of Justice—he is just as charming and funny as Leo. I think that people who work in that sort of business have a natural “gallows” humor—I’ve seen it in detectives, too. But I had decided long before I ever spoke with Eli to make the character of Leo a little more lighthearted. I don’t think readers are offended—to the contrary, I think that when you write a book that is as heavy as The Storyteller is you need to have a moment where readers can catch their collective breath, can smile, can pause. If I can be so presumptuous, Shakespeare’s fools served the same function in his tragedies. If you insert moments of lightness into the tragedy, it gives room for the story to stretch…but it also highlights how very tragic the tragedy is, in counterpoint.

The story of the upiory, who rise from the dead in search of blood to sustain themselves, is fascinating. Is there really such a European myth? Where did that concept come from?
There really are Polish upior legends. They are similar to vampire legends in other nearby countries. After the whole Twilight phenomenon, I wasn’t really keen to write a vampire story, but there were just bits of the legend that were too cool not to use: the way you can distract a upior by leaving a pile of grain for him to sort; the way you can protect a upior by eating bread with his blood baked into it. I just loved the idea of a monster with a conscience and tried to imagine how a young baker’s daughter might interpret that, particularly one whose world was becoming more and more filled with monsters of a different sort.

Minka refers to her claiming of the photos found in the luggage of other Auschwitz inhabitants as “archiving,” of course a subject near and dear to librarians. Is it our jobs today to “archive” the stories of those who came before?
Isn’t that the point of a story, in general? To give a verbal snapshot of someone’s life, someone’s world, someone’s reason for being alive? I think so. Sometimes it is in the hopes that we won’t let history repeat itself— as with the Holocaust. Or sometimes, as in Minka’s story, it is to inspire the rest of us to be our best selves in the face of adversity. It is thanks to these archived stories that the rest of us are brave enough to craft new ones!

Check out Jodi Picoult’s website for her upcoming Storyteller tour.

Bette-Lee Fox About Bette-Lee Fox

Bette-Lee Fox (blfox@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor, Library Journal.

Now in her 46th year with Library Journal, Bette-Lee also edits LJ's Video Reviews column, six times a year Romance column, and e-original Romance reviews, which post weekly as LJ Xpress Reviews. She received the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Vivian Stephens Industry Award in 2013 for having "contributed to the genre or to RWA in a significant and/or continuing manner"