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.”