This Writer’s Life: Jodi Picoult: The Fact Behind Fiction

IN COLLEGE, professors told me to write what I knew. The problem was, I didn’t know much. I’d grown up in the suburbs. My parents were happily married. I liked my little brother. I was nothing like those writing students who walked around in long, black trench coats, trailed by a cloud of angst. Frankly, I didn’t have enough trauma in my life to write about, and I feared a doomed career before it had even started. Desperate, I even called my mother to ask whether there was a smidgen of incest in our family she’d neglected to tell me about.

Alas, there wasn’t. I realized that, to take writing seriously, I needed to tweak the rule and write what could be learned.

We know fiction covers genres like fantasy, with worlds that don’t exist, and genres like romance, with men that don’t exist. And yet, in the 15 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never sat down at my desk and started making things up. It takes me nine months to write a novel; sometimes more of that time is spent researching than physically writing.

Why bother? Well, fiction’s a tightrope. I’m supposed to whisk the reader away from his everyday life, but to do that, I need to create characters and situations real enough to entice him to follow. To that end, I’ve found myself living the lives of dozens of people, all in the name of research. I’ve shadowed police chiefs and crime scene detectives, and learned how to speak Lakota Sioux. I’ve studied Wicca, held the hands of battered women and played Monopoly with pediatric leukemia patients. I’ve been to jail (but got to leave at night). I’ve been the only mom in my town to ride with the fire department and have my own turnout gear. Some of the research is heartbreaking and some is exhilarating, but all of it’s eye-opening. I always know when to stop researching and start writing. Once I learn whatever it is I’ve set out to learn, I can’t wait to teach it to everyone else.

My favorite research experience occurred when working on my 10th book, Second Glance. It was, in part, a ghost story. I’d done months of meticulous historical research but hadn’t considered researching the paranormal. If I was ever going to make something up, ghosts seemed to qualify. Then I considered how many people would write me, telling me that they’d seen a ghost, and I got it all wrong. So I found a website, the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com, and wrote to the founders.

Within 10 minutes, they’d invited me down to Rhode Island to teach me about ghosts. (Never mind that my oldest son, 9, was terrified of ghosts; that I was tucking him in and telling him ghosts were imaginary and then packing a bag to go ghost hunting.) Upon arrival, they took me out to dinner to explain why some people become ghosts and others don’t.

Dying is like getting on a bus. You’re supposed to go to the end of the line and then go on to whatever’s next. But sometimes the bus pauses at a rest stop, and people get out to use the bathroom, and when they come back, the bus is gone: That’s a ghost. The things that can make you leave that proverbial bus include a revenge scheme you haven’t finished, a love affair you’re not finished with or the fact you forgot to pay your water bill. If you ever see a human spirit, you should tell it to go the light, and it’ll immediately vanish.

Yeah, right, I thought.

The ghost hunters then took me to an abandoned mental institution, the Ladd Center, which had closed in the 1970s when patients died in their care. It was a cold, clear, black January night—no moon, no mist. There was no electricity leading into the building anymore; I’d been told to park backward and wear black (coincidentally, when you’re ghost hunting, you’re often also trespassing). Peering through the boarded slats of a window, I saw what looked like fireflies. Now, there are no fireflies in Rhode Island in January. One of the guys took his digital camera and snapped a photo—those fireflies became balls of light, or what a ghost hunter will call a globule: energy or a ghost trying to materialize.

I still wasn’t buying it.

The ghost hunters led me to another area, where a building had burned down with patients inside. Suddenly, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Before I could say anything to my hosts, one took the digital camera and snapped a picture backward, over our shoulders. When we turned around, the night sky was black and smooth. But in the viewfinder of the digital camera was a white, wraithlike, misty white figure.

“OK,” I said. “Maybe you guys have a point.”

From there, we drove over the border to Massachusetts, to the home of a family who’d been hearing moans, groans, bumps and thumps in the attic. We trekked upstairs, and the family gave me a key to the padlocked attic door. Inside, the ghost hunters set up a video camera—they’ll leave one running for hours and later scrutinize the tapes for sounds or lights or movements that can’t be explained. The last one out of the room, I closed the door and locked it.

As they went downstairs to talk to the owners of the house, I stopped off on the second floor, where the family’s two children were asleep. Six months and 22 months, they were each snoring away in their cribs, in separate rooms. Unlike my house, there were no toys, books or clothes on the floor (which, frankly, was paranormal).

I headed to the living room to listen to the homeowners. They were describing how they’d come home to find every faucet in the house running or all the cereal spilled out of the kitchen cabinets into a pile on the kitchen floor. One night, they heard calliope music and traced it to a child’s toy piano playing on the attic stairs—without batteries.

“I’m just going to check on your kids again,” I said, hurrying upstairs.

I went into the first boy’s room. Where there had been nothing on the floor 10 minutes earlier, there were now six pennies, tracing the edge of the crib like a crime-scene outline. I picked them up—they were all dated between 1968 and 1973. In the next child’s room, I found the same thing: six pennies on the floor, all dated between 1968 and 1973. Then I walked to the attic door, unfastened the padlock and went inside. Fifteen more pennies were scattered on the floor beneath the video camera tripod—all dated between 1968 and 1973.

Once home from my research junket, my husband asked if I’d seen Casper. Well, all I’m going to say is that I still have the pennies. And if you look in your purse or pocket right now, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single penny dated between 1968 and 1973.

My experience ghost hunting, in a way, is a metaphor for my research in general. It’s intense, overwhelming—maybe even a little scary. But mostly, it allows my mind to crack wide open and consider possibilities not considered before. Research allows me to go through the same motions I hope my reader goes through when picking up my book.

Ghost hunting, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve lived with an Amish dairy-farming family. I shared a bowl of beaver ball soup with a Yup’ik Eskimo, after traveling 65 miles up a frozen river on a snow-mobile to his home in minus-38 degree temperatures. I’ve met with death-row inmates and have lain down on the table where they’re given lethal injections.

Research doesn’t make you a scholar or an expert, but it does give you the ability to write with authority. It means that readers can trust you to get the facts straight. It means that you have the chance to walk a mile in the shoes of a character that might have lived a life very different from your own. It’s knowledge gained, so it can be given away freely.

And if you need to know how to make a zip gun out of an asthma inhaler and a handcuff key, I’m your girl.

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