Like most novels about the Holocaust, Jodi Picoult’s latest book takes readers on a harrowing, unforgettable journey. But fans aren’t the only ones who experience the story’s emotional punch.
“I get really upset when I’m writing,” confesses Picoult, author of 20 other novels. “I get buried in the material. Lucky I can leave it and go downstairs to live a happy lifestyle. If I didn’t have that it would be hard for me to write the things I do.”
Picoult, who lives in New Hampshire with her family, appears Thursday at Temple Judea for Books & Books to talk about The Storyteller (Emily Bestler/Atria, $28), a haunting novel that ties together several narratives. In the main story, Sage Singer, a young baker reeling after the death of her mother, befriends the elderly widowed Josef at her grief counseling group. He confesses a shocking secret about his youth in Germany, and the ugly past he reveals prompts her to contact a dogged Nazi hunter from the Department of Justice.
What forms the backbone of The Storyteller, though, is the testimony of Sage’s grandmother Minka, an Auschwitz survivor, who has never told her granddaughter the details of the nightmare she endured as a girl. Minka also provides another vital piece of this literary puzzle: a supernatural romance her younger self spins to entertain her best friend and, later, her fellow prisoners and a concentration camp guard.
A graduate of Princeton and Harvard, Picoult often deals with difficult subjects in her books — unsettling medicine-and-morality issues in such novels as My Sister’s Keeper and Handle With Care, school shootings in Nineteen Minutes — and says a need for responsibility always accompanies such controversial material.
“There’s always pressure to be accurate and respectful,” says Picoult, who adds that she got creative whiplash from writing the “light, fluffy fairytale” Between the Lines with her daughter at the same time she was working on The Storyteller. “The thing that made this book weighty for me was that I was entrusted with the stories of multiple Holocaust survivors who were willing to share their lives. I braided their lives together to create Minka. Any time I work with people who have suffered a great trauma, and they offer it to me for fiction, I am so intensely devoted to getting it right.”
But Picoult isn’t just relating the horrors of the Holocaust in The Storyteller. She’s also asking tough questions: Can a person who has committed monstrous acts ask for or expect forgiveness? Is there a cost to refusing to forgive? “Inside each of us is a monster; inside each of us is a saint,” Josef tells Sage. “The real question is which one we nurture the most, which one will smite the other.” Is good and evil really so simple as he says?
Posing such questions is a big part of why The Storyteller is so compelling, says novelist Caroline Leavitt.
“She’s dealing with a thorny moral issue where there is not one right answer,” says the author of Pictures of You and the upcoming Is This Tomorrow. “Do we forgive the unforgiveable? I think people will come up with a lot of different answers. My mother would never, ever, ever forgive a Nazi for anything. She won’t even buy anything if it comes from Germany. But this is one of those subjects we should write about. It’s brave of Jodi to do it because she’s going to get a lot of different responses. She always takes chances and writes about subjects that can be polarizing.”
Picoult was inspired to examine the concept of forgiveness and the Holocaust by Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower, in which he writes about being a prisoner in a concentration camp and being brought to the bed of a dying SS officer who wanted forgiveness from a Jew.
“It was a book I had encountered years ago, probably in high school,” Picoult says. “It was when I started to think about this book and good and evil, and whether you could do something evil and erase that stain by doing good for the rest of your life. ... It made me think of Wiesenthal’s book. Tons of religious professors and politicians have weighed in on whether Wiesenthal did the right thing. It’s a situation that has inspired debate for many years.”
Wiesenthal remained silent when faced with the choice of accusal and absolution. Sage, who is an atheist, wavers between rage and compassion.
“Sage was always going to be an atheist,” says Picoult, who like Sage comes from a Jewish family but is nonpracticing. “The Holocaust isn’t just a Jewish issue. Six million Jews were killed, but also five million non Jews. It’s a human rights issue. And it’s still important to talk about today because of that. I do believe that sometimes people don’t listen when those who have been persecuted are doing the yelling. ... It would’ve been easy for Sage to be a Jew. It’s more interesting to me for someone who’s not religious to say ‘This is important to me.’ ”
Still, talking to Holocaust survivors had a lasting impact on Picoult.
“They’re the real heroes of this book,” she says. “The thing that makes it incredible is that everyone has an amazing story; that’s why they survived. Horrible stories, emotionally draining stories. You sit there thinking, ‘This is the stuff of fiction,’ but it isn’t. It’s real life. Everyone has faced unbelievable loss. But how inspiring these people were. They were so committed to tolerance. I was talking with 90-year-old men and women, and what they were talking about was gay rights and how important they are because intolerance is wrong.”