All of your books are inspired by ethical and moral questions, deeply relevant to our society. Did you have a personal investment in writing about SS guards involved in the Holocaust, who have escaped justice and are plagued with guilt?
For The Storyteller, I wanted to toy with the idea of the nature of good and evil. If you’ve done something very bad, can you spend the rest of your life trying to make up for it and erase that stain on your soul? By the same token, if you consider yourself a good person, can you ever be motivated to do something the rest of us would consider truly evil? From there, I asked myself: ‘What’s the most evil thing a person could do?’ Immediately, I thought of the Holocaust. The more I began to play around with the concept, the more I was convinced that this was the right book for me to write. I do not subscribe to any religion but I grew up in a Jewish household – and yet, I realised that the Holocaust is not a Jewish issue. It’s a HUMAN RIGHTS issue, and everyone has a stake in making sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Moreover, as survivors die off every day, it is so important to keep younger generations aware of why their stories should continue to be told.
We love the theme of baking in this book, which embodies wholesomeness and survival; the direct opposite of what happened in the Nazi concentration camps. Your recipes sound excellent and authoritative – did you have to learn how to bake?
I too love the chemistry of baking: how the most ordinary ingredients can turn out to be extraordinary when combined with a little heat and pressure. In many ways this is the story of every survivor, right? I have always loved baking – I’m a pie queen – but for this story I had to learn to bake bread. I studied with a master baker at a major American flour company. I would bring home challah, breads, rolls, bagels, bialys . . . I am pretty sure that my family enjoyed this research more than anything I’ve ever done.
Your mother introduced you to Holocaust survivors for your research. How did she know them?
My parents have a home in Arizona, and when they are out there they are very involved in community discussions. One group they frequent is the Anti-Defamation League, which has many lectures of interest. It was there that my mom first heard a survivor speak. So when I called her and asked her if she might be able to find me some survivors, she immediately called her contacts at the ADL and presented me with a list of seven names. I called all seven people on the list, but I didn’t wind up interviewing everyone. Some men and women wanted to help but found that it was too stressful to talk about their experiences. Some had stories that didn’t intersect with my fiction (i.e. they were babies and did not remember much). The remaining people were all wonderful to me – so open and willing to share their lives so that I could braid together bits and pieces of their experiences to create Minka’s. From Bernie, who showed me the mezuzah which he pried off his doorframe as the Nazis were dragging him away and which he literally clutched in his hand for the entire war – to the point where his fingers had to be surgically opened to remove it once the conflict had ended; to Gerda, who survived a forced 150-mile march in the dead of winter; to Mania, whose command of the German language saved her life multiple times during the war. All of them became bits and pieces of my own literary heroine.
What’s the next bestseller on the Jodi Picoult list? Which ethical conundrum will you focus on now?
Leaving Time will be published in the fall of 2014. Ten years ago, Alice Metcalf was a researcher studying the reaction of elephants to grief – they are one of the few animal species that recognise and mourn for their dead, as humans do. Along with her husband, Thomas, she ran an elephant sanctuary – until one tragic night, an animal caretaker died in an accident and Alice disappeared, leaving behind only one witness: her three year old daughter, Jenna. Now, ten years later, Jenna is determined to find her mother – whom she believes would never leave her behind willingly. With the help of a publicly disgraced psychic, Jenna uncovers new information and manages to convince the former detective in charge to reopen the case. This is a book about the lengths we go to for those who have left us behind, about the staying power of love, and about how three broken souls might have just the right pieces to mend each other. And after Leaving Time . . . I’ve been doing lots of research for a book about race and discrimination. That’s a story I’ve been dying to tell for a long time, and I’ve found exactly the right plot!