On Thursday, November 6th at 6pm at Dundee University, Jodi Picoult read from and talked about her new book Leaving Time. When I read about this event – the closing event of theDundee Literary Festival 2014 – I knew I needed to go. When I was fourteen, I read her emotional roller coaster novels and cried during every single one. Her books gave me life experience that at fourteen in the suburbs, I could never have experienced. This past Thursday, not only did I hear her read, listen to her talk, and see her in the flesh, but I had a conversation with her and took a picture – and we even talked to her husband!
Her new book, Leaving Time, is about thirteen-year old girl Jenna Metcalf who searches for her mother Alice, an elephant researcher who disappeared when Jenna was three during a tragic accident in the Elephant sanctuary. Picoult said that she got the idea for the novel from her daughter Sammy going off to college, and hence from her becoming an empty-nester. Afraid that the daughter she had raised would leave her, and looking for a metaphor to relate her situation to, she read in an article that elephant moms and their daughters, unlike most humans, never separate until one of them dies. Thus, she found the metaphor for her life and her novel.
She then introduced us to ‘some of [her] characters’, such as the heroine Jenna and a psychic named Serendipity with whom Jenna collaborates. The actress in Picoult came out, as I felt that I could really see how she intended her characters to talk and sound. While her voice did not change, her mannerisms and her word choice really created these two characters before our eyes. At that moment, I understood even better what she meant by storytelling. I was transfixed by the narrative, and needed to find out more!
After her reading, she gave us a ‘crash course’ in elephants and their elaborate rituals of grief. Her research about elephants for the novel led her to Elephant Sanctuaries in Tennessee and Botswana. My favourite story she told was about two elephants, Shirley and Jenny, living in the Tennessee Sanctuary. Jenny was living peacefully at the Sanctuary when a new elephant named Shirley was moved in. When they saw each other in the barn for the first time, Jenny began pounding on the bars between them. The caregivers opened the gate between them, and the two elephants embraced. After looking into their stories, the caregivers discovered that Shirley and Jenny had both worked in the same circus 22 years ago; at the time, Jenny was a calf and Shirley was 30. Shirley took care of Jenny like a daughter, and they have been inseparable ever since their reunion.
Her crash course – while entertaining – was also a call for action! After her emotional stories about the elephants, she slammed us with cold hard facts: thirty-eight thousand elephants are killed each year in Africa for ivory; and the money from the sale is shown to fund terrorists groups, (Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army and Al Queda, specifically). Picoult asked us to donate money if we could, or write to our government representatives that we supported government intervention on illegal poaching.
The talk then moved into a Q&A session, where Picoult reminded us: ‘Don’t give away the ending, or I’ll hurt you.’ She was asked about the book she wrote with her daughter, her favourite book, and how long each book takes her (about 9 months). One of my favourite statements of the night was that a person is ‘born a storyteller, but can be made a better technical writer.’
With a final question, Picoult was ushered out of the hall. I raced to go buy a copy of Leaving Time, but by the time I figured out where the line was, it was sold out. Luckily, there was free wine, and so I waited until the end to go up and ask for a photo along with the Dundee Poetry Society. We jokingly invited her and her husband to join us for a pint- but they had a taxi to catch!
After she left, we – the Dundee Poetry Society and the St. Andrews Literary Society – went to the pub to continue talking about Jodi Picoult, poetry, literature, and to compare our University experiences as connected by the 99 Bus.
Image Credit: Samantha Evans and Tim Van Leer