New York Times SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW » October 9, 2014
“Picoult is a skilled wordsmith, and she beautifully creates situations that not only provoke the mind but touch the flawed souls in all of us.”
— Boston Globe
January 5, 2018. A panel convened in October 2017 to ask the question: who among Princeton's living alumni is doing the most to shape the world of 2018? They proceeded to identify today's 25 most influential alumni. Jodi is tied at #10 with David E. Kelley (creator of the hit TV shows Big Little Lies, Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, and Jennifer Weiner (bestselling author of 12 novels including Good in Bed, All Fall Down, and In Her Shoes). She's in rare company with other influential Princetonians including #1 Jeff Bezos, #2 Robert Mueller, #6 tech guru Eric Schmidt (Google) and #8 Michelle Obama.
Jodi is honored to be included in this listing of Princeton alum to shape the world in which we live. right now.
If you have a photo of yourself reading one of my books, or from a book signing, I would love to see it! Post _your photo_ on my Facebook page, and each month I will feature one in my email newsletter.
Each Thursday on Facebook, I post a photo from my past, ranging from my childhood to a few months ago.
“Somebody who’s a terrific writer who’s been very, very successful is Jodi Picoult”
– Stephen King, in USA Today, 2/09
“Picoult is a skilled wordsmith, and she beautifully creates situations that not only provoke the mind but touch the flawed souls in all of us.”
— Boston Globe
“Jodi Picoult's novels do not gather dust on the bedside table. They are gobbled up quickly and the readers want more. ... You have to admire Picoult's grace under pressure. By throwing us into these debates she gives her readers the gift of faith in a higher justice — not the law, God or modern medicine but human goodness.”
“If Jodi Picoult were a general, she would be Patton; if a sports franchise, the New York Yankees; if a natural phenomenon, the sunrise. Which is to say, Picoult is not merely relentless - so are allergies and colds - but exquisitely so.”
“Turning the pages, all you’ll care about is what happens next. That’s the mark of pretty much every Jodi Picoult book, and it’s the reason she keeps topping best-seller lists.”
—San Antonio Express News
“Jodi Picoult writes novels mothers and daughters can agree on even if they disagree on almost everything else.”
—NY Daily News
“Picoult is a rare writer who delivers book after book, a winning combination of the literary and the commercial.”
“Jodi Picoult explores dark places in perfect suburban lives. It's easy to understand her best-seller status.”
—Midwest Book Review
“Picoult is a master in dissecting and describing the tangle of family relationships and the counterbalance of love.”
“Picoult is a master of the craft of storytelling ”
—Book Review, AP news wire
“Anyone who has read any of the dozen books that prolific Jodi Picoult has released in the past 14 years knows that she is arguably the Queen of the Topical Novel.”
“Ms. Picoult is a solid, lively storyteller.”
—The New York Times
“Ms. Picoult has carved her own niche with her novels – one part romance, one part courtroom thriller, two parts social commentary.”
—Dallas Morning News
“Beginning with her first book… Picoult has refused to sweat the small stuff. She's concerned with love and truth, the blurry boundary lines implied by both. She forces the reader to look, however uncomfortable the experience might be, at complacent people who discover, much too late, the sad disparity between what they thought they knew and what they know now.”
— Orlando Sentinel Tribune
“Jodi Picoult reminds me of Sue Miller. She's a writer with literary flair who can also please the public.”
“Picoult makes her characters real as reality.”
“Her storytelling ability has established herself firmly in the ranks of highly regarded novelists, which, at age 38, is a very impressive accomplishment.... Picoult always writes with depth and clarity. She refrains from delivering the happily ever after ending to her stories, but rather presents thought-provoking questions about the human condition.”
—Ocean County Observer
“Picoult's novels never disappoint the reader.”
—Ann Hood, The Sunday Journal, (Providence, RI)
“Jodi Picoult is a gifted storyteller whose compelling works profoundly impact her audience.”
—The Midwest Book Review
“Picoult is known for writing fictional page-turners that address controversial issues.”
“With a strong, topical theme, Picoult gets into the heads of her well-developed characters.”
—The Daily Telegraph (Sydney Australia)
“Picoult has created something of a trademark.”
—Courier Mail (Queensland, Australia)
Jodi Picoult, 50, is the bestselling author of twenty-three novels: Songs of the Humpback Whale (1992), Harvesting the Heart (1994), Picture Perfect (1995), Mercy (1996), The Pact (1998), Keeping Faith (1999), Plain Truth (2000), Salem Falls (2001), Perfect Match (2002), Second Glance (2003), My Sister's Keeper (2004), Vanishing Acts (2005), The Tenth Circle (2006), Nineteen Minutes (2007), Change of Heart (2008), Handle With Care (2009), House Rules (2010), Sing You Home (2011), Lone Wolf (2012), The Storyteller (2013), Leaving Time (2014), and the YA novels Between The Lines (2012), and Off The Page (2015), co-written with her daughter Samantha van Leer. Her last nine novels have debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Her highly acclaimed new novel, Small Great Things (2016), addresses the profoundly challenging yet essential concerns of our time: prejudice, race, and justice.
Picoult studied creative writing with Mary Morris at Princeton, and had two short stories published in Seventeen magazine while still a student. Realism - and a profound desire to be able to pay the rent - led Picoult to a series of different jobs following her graduation: as a technical writer for a Wall Street brokerage firm, as a copywriter at an ad agency, as an editor at a textbook publisher, and as an 8th grade English teacher - before entering Harvard to pursue a master’s in education. She married Tim Van Leer, whom she had known at Princeton, and it was while she was pregnant with her first child that she wrote her first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale.
In 2003 she was awarded the New England Bookseller Award for Fiction. She has also been the recipient an Alex Award from the Young Adult Library Services Association, sponsored by the Margaret Alexander Edwards Trust and Booklist, one of ten books written for adults that have special appeal for young adults; the Book Browse Diamond Award for novel of the year; a lifetime achievement award for mainstream fiction from the Romance Writers of America; Cosmopolitan magazine’s ‘Fearless Fiction’ Award 2007; Waterstone’s Author of the Year in the UK, a Vermont Green Mountain Book Award, a NH Granite State Book Award, a Virginia Reader’s Choice Award, the Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award, and a Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Award. She’s the 2013-14 recipient of the New Hampshire Literary Award for Outstanding Literary Merit.
She wrote five issues of the Wonder Woman comic book series for DC Comics. Her books are translated into thirty four languages in thirty five countries. Four – The Pact, Plain Truth, The Tenth Circle, and Salem Falls - have been made into television movies. My Sister’s Keeper was a big-screen released from New Line Cinema, with Nick Cassavetes directing and Cameron Diaz starring, which is now available in DVD. She received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Dartmouth College in 2010 and another from the University of New Haven in 2012.
Jodi serves on the advisory board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, a research-driven organization whose goal is to increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing and to foster transparency around gender and racial equality issues in contemporary literary culture. She is part of the Writer’s Council for the National Writing Project, which recognizes the universality of writing as a communicative tool and helps teachers enhance student writing, and is a spokesperson for Positive Tracks/Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth, which supports youth-led charity fundraising through athletics. She is on the advisory committee of the New Hampshire Coalition Against the Death Penalty. She is also is the founder and executive producer of the Trumbull Hall Troupe, a New Hampshire-based teen theater group that performs original musicals to raise money for local charities; to date their contributions have exceeded $120K. She and her husband Tim and their three children live in Hanover, New Hampshire with two Springer spaniels, two rescue puppies, two donkeys, two geese, ten chickens, a smattering of ducks, and the occasional Holstein.
I get up at 5:30 AM and walk three miles with my friend Joan - that’s the only time of day I have to exercise, but I really do it for the gossip. By 7 AM I’m back home. They’re 17, 15, and 13, now. My husband, who is half antiques dealer/half stay-at-home-dad, is fully responsible for making my life run smoothly - whether that means carpooling the kids, packing their lunches, or being the sole parent when I’m off for months at a time on tour. Oh, and he brings me coffee and lunch and is gorgeous. (Yes, you all should be quite jealous!) I answer my emails for about 1 hour in the morning. Then I write, research, or edit until around 4 PM.
The fans. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to daily emails telling you how fantastic your writing is? Also, the fact that I do what I absolutely love to do. I don’t think many people can say that about their jobs.
The actual world of publishing. Mergers between companies, tightfisted marketing departments, and a bizarre fascination with Hollywood makes the publishing world a very difficult place to forge a career. For reasons that are still a mystery to me, companies will throw promotional dollars at books that aren’t selling (they say it’s a last ditch effort)but they will ignore some wonderful books by writers who are just starting out and could use the boost.
I worked at a two-person ad agency (I was the second person).
Ernest Hemingway, Alice Hoffman, William Shakespeare, Johnny Depp, and Rachel Ray, because someone’s got to cook!
My husband Tim. He’s great company, he’s really cute, and he could keep us alive with nothing more than a shoelace and a coconut.
My children. And my Blackberry.
An enormous Toyota Sequoia.
I have literally worn the letters off two consecutive computer keyboards.
Lots, I’m sure, but then I’d have to kill him. Just kidding. Actually, he’d tell you that I sleep with teddy bears.
Oh, singing. I think I sing better than I actually do. Not that this keeps me from rocking out in the car when I’m alone.
Aimee Mann. She’s a poet masquerading as a songwriter, who far more people should be listening to.
Aimee takes up a lot of it. You’ll also see Jack Johnson, Wilco, Queen, the Rolling Stones, my son Kyle’s piano concertos, my son Jake’s a cappella solos, and original music from kids’ plays that I’ve written with a very talented friend of mine who’s a musician.
Interestingly, when I was doing research for Perfect Match, the attorney I was working with and I went to dinner at a karaoke bar. The lady there tried to make us sing “Summer Nights” from Grease, but it wasn’t happening. I actually wrote about this in the book, it was that bizarre a moment. If I had to sing karaoke, I’d pick “It’s So Easy to Fall in Love” by Linda Ronstadt.
Well, I think by nature writers are jealous. There’s only so much shelf space at the front of the bookstore, and if you only have $25 to spend, you have to pick one hardcover… .you know? I think certain writers show an extreme lack of grace in the face of success - don’t even get me started on Jonathan Franzen, for example. But others - like J.K. Rowling - I celebrate what she’s done. I think that Jo Rowling and Oprah Winfrey have double-handedly managed to put publishing back on a consumer’s steady diet. Indirectly, the work of those two women has helped my career.
I would like to think I’d be something as sleek as a greyhound, but the truth is I’d probably be a lot like Gus, my old Springer spaniel - curly ears, sedentary nature, and all.
It’s made for some interesting moments. They all think it’s hilarious when someone refers to me as famous. My oldest, when he was little, used to sit at my feet at the library, yanking out book after book and pointing to the author photo. It could have been Stephen King’s face; he’d still yell out, “Mommy!” But it’s my youngest, my daughter, who got the writing gene passed along to her. She never just played with stuffed animals, for example… she played, “The cat needs a lung transplant but she’s on top of Mt. Everest, so the sherpa needs to take his trusty St. Bernard up to the base camp and perform emergency surgery” Everything, for her, was a story. I shouldn’t have been surprised when her second grade teacher called to ask if I could type her writing assignment up. “It’s just that it’s 36 pages long,” the teacher explained. Sure enough, when I read it, I was pretty impressed. It was about a duck and fish that meet on a pond and hit it off. The duck asks the fish to come over for dinner. The fish agrees, but then tosses and turns all night wondering if that meant that he’s supposed to BE dinner. He finally goes to the duck’s home and says he wants to be his buddy, but he’s very afraid of being eaten. The duck decides to be a vegetarian and they are best friends forever. Now, okay, I’m completely prejudiced as the author’s mom… but to have such a strong sense of conflict and how it plays into a story when you’re only eight years old… well, it reminded me a lot of me, writing all the time when I was little.
The first book of mine that my kids read was My Sister’s Keeper. My oldest decided to read it as an assignment when he was about twelve, and he got absorbed in the story and the young narrator very quickly. The day he finished the book, I found him crying on the couch. He shoved me away and went up to his room and told me that he really couldn’t speak to me for a while, he was THAT angry at me. (You’ll just have to read it yourself to see what upset him… !) Eventually, he wrote a book report on it - on the author line, he wrote: JODI PICOULT (MOM). That cracked me up. My middle son, was reading one of my books back in sixth grade when an older, pretty high school girl came running up to him and said, “She’s my favorite author! How did you hear about her?” To which he smiled and said, coolly, “She’s my mom.” (Anything I can do to help his social life, right??)
Saying no. I get at least five requests a day to be somewhere - a school, a book club, a literary festival, a workshop or seminar. It’s so flattering, that I’m inclined to say yes to everything… but I just can’t, because then I’d never have time to write a book. I try to fit in as much as I can, based on my family, my work schedule, and my general level of exhaustion — but I’ve learned that I just can’t do everything I’d like.
Parenting, I hope. Doing readings. I make very tasty Linzer tortes and broccoli soup. I’m awfully good at giving birth too - quickly, no drugs, etc. - although that definitely has a limited appeal.
Ski - the chair lift terrifies me. Find a crashed computer file. And my husband tells me I should never go into the field of recycling.
Jump out of a plane. I was in college, and my old boyfriend dared me. It was incredibly beautiful.
Ouidad Climate Control for my hair. Although I suppose if I was on a deserted island, I could use mashed bananas.
An earthquake? In New Hampshire?
My kids, my husband, my dogs. Whatever manuscript I’m working on right now, and/or research. My daughter’s tiny stuffed dog Diddley, because she’s had it for eight years. Shoes.
Uggs. Hey, it’s New Hampshire!
Love. Especially between a mother and a child.
I can’t believe I really have referenced it in ALL my books, have I??? I think that what struck me the most about the film was that it really is the ultimate heart wrenching story – the love affair that can’t survive in the real world. That’s why The Sun Also Rises is such a great book, and why Brokeback Mountain was such a successful film…you get the picture. Also because (lucky me) I married a guy who looks like Robert Redford!
Send my kids to college and make sure they have enough money to get on their feet in the world. Make sure my parents never have to worry about retirement. Buy a lake house in New Hampshire, which costs more than a million, so scratch that, actually… And give a good chunk to charities.
I’m laughing—I hear that question all the time. Also, people who want to know if I need a proofreader, an extra editor etc. As much as it would be fun to have a research assistant, it’s more fun to do it on my own!
Nope. I have a little brother.
A tricky one – because they’d both be so cool. I’d probably want to fly. I mean, people would be so amazed that if I DID sing, they wouldn’t notice if I was off key, right?
FABULOUS question. At first, my mind went toward the Holocaust – I would have loved to prevent that by challenging Hitler. But then I realized I needed to go even further back in time…I wish I had been around in the first century when Ireneus, the bishop of Lyons, was trying to codify the early Christian church by deciding what was “real” gospel and what was heresy. This comes from research I’m doing now for a book that will come out in 2008 – and looks at the editorial decisions made to include certain texts in the Bible…and to throw out others because they were too threatening to the organisation of the early church (such as the Gospel of Thomas, which advocates religion being individual and very personal and tells you that the clergy can’t tell you what to believe; you have to find it in yourself.) I really believe that the root of so many huge problems has been religion, and drawing the line in the sand between those who believe what you do and those who don’t – just look around the world to see the ramifications of what Ireneus did by deciding what constituted Christian faith, and what didn’t.
I’m not Native American, but I really am fascinated by their family-driven culture and their nature-based spirituality. When it comes to belief systems, they just seem to “get it right” when the rest of us are ruining the environment and falling apart at the seams.
God, no. Unless it’s finding topics to write about that the rest of the world is intrigued by, too. I’ll tell you what I DEFINITELY don’t have – any geographical sense. I can’t read directions; I can’t find water even if I’m close enough to smell the ocean…I’d still be wandering the streets of Rome if I hadn’t given my son, who was travelling with me, the map.
My mom, who always said “You can,” and who believed in me. And Mary Morris, who made me a better technical writer and taught me to challenge myself.
Pee-KOE, like the tea ?
Hard question, because so many of them have awful lives! I would have to pick Sara Fitzgerald, though. To live your whole adult life with a chronically ill daughter and then to lose another one – well, I don’t know if I’d ever recover.
Jake, my middle son, was six when he was diagnosed with cholesteatoma in his ear – a benign tumor that can grow into your brain and kill you. The way to get rid of it will leave a child permanently deaf. My husband and I chose a new technique that MIGHT preserve some hearing, but would require Jake to have more surgeries. It was the right choice because in the middle of ten surgeries in three years, we learned Jake has tumors in both ears (there are less than ten kids in America who do). For many years after he was tumor-free he was profoundly deaf in his left ear and wore a hearing aid; after a reconstructive surgery last year he now can hear out of both ears. He was always so even-keeled about going for surgeries – even as a tiny boy – and I used to always think he was JUST the most remarkable kid for being able to roll with punches like the ones he’d had to deflect. Like Nathaniel, he’s a survivor – just of a different trauma.
Ross Wakeman – and the ghost hunters I worked with doing research. I was a total sceptic until I personally experienced things that I couldn’t explain rationally. I’m not scared of ghosts – I just think that there might be a bit more to this world than we imagine.
I haven’t found it yet…but I think if I were actually living some sort of trauma, I wouldn’t be able to write about it until I had gotten through it, and processed it on a personal level.
The Stories of My Life – that’s catchy, isn’t it, LOL? I would probably love to have Alice Hoffman write it, if only because I’d read ANYTHING she writes.
There’s very little of me in most of my characters – thankfully, because they’re pretty screwed up! I’d probably have to say I come closest to Nina Frost or Gus Harte, because they’re ubermoms. If you cross my children, I can’t promise I’ll behave!
A string walks into a bar and orders a drink. The bartender says, “Look, I can’t serve you, you’re a string.” So he walks outside and twists himself up tight and walks back into the bar. “Buddy,” the bartender says, “I already told you: I can’t serve a string.” And the string says, “I’m a frayed knot!” (Get it? “I’m afraid not?!”) Stupid, I know, but it really made me laugh.
OK, to be honest, this is SUCH a good question I’ve been mulling over it for days. I actually think this isn’t just a question…it’s the starting point for a book, so be on the lookout!! But to answer: The last best moment the five of us had as a family – whether that’s around the dinner table, surfing in the Pacific Ocean, or just mauling me when I come back through the door of my house after being away on tour.
I totally wouldn’t want to be in the vestibule, which is pre-hell, and is reserved for people who won’t take sides or search out their own beliefs! Honestly, the best bet would be Limbo, which is reserved for unbaptized babies and virtuous pagans and great philosophers and authors…there’s a lot of sadness, but no awful punishment. But chances are equally good that I’d wind up in the eighth circle because of WHAT I write…that’s where Dante put the sewers of discord and schism!
Let them read what they WANT to – which might be Sports Illustrated or fantasy novels or comic books. Reading for joy is reading for joy, period. If school assignments are involved, let them read one book of choice for every one that they “have” to read. And above all else – model it yourself! We have library nights, sometimes – no TV, just all of us crashed out on couches with our books.
Absolutely not. A good writer is a good writer and has nothing to do with whether you’re a man or a woman!
Jesse, from My Sister’s Keeper. I just love him – he thinks he’s soooo tough, but he wears his heart on his sleeve.
Luckily, my real children haven’t had to live through the trauma of my fictional children…I think that the fact that I can leave my office at the end of the day and go downstairs to them and drive to hockey practice and quiz my son on French and make dinner really demarcates the difference between reality and fiction for me. A lot of my books function as superstitions for me – I think “whew, I wrote about it…that means we’re safe from teen suicide/childhood illness/kidnapping…” Of course that’s not true, but hey, superstitions never are. That said – often when I’m writing a really emotional scene, I find myself bawling at the computer!
‘My IQ score makes me a genius – yet I still forget what goes in the recycle bin’
Controversial. Thought-provoking. Emotional.
New York Times SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW — October 9, 2014
“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” by Karen Joy Fowler; “One Plus One,” by Jojo Moyes; “The Rosie Project,” by Graeme Simsion. Also stacked are the books I have recently read and loved: Luanne Rice’s “The Lemon Orchard”; Chris Bohjalian’s “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands”; John Searles’s “Help for the Haunted”; Jo-Ann Mapson’s “Owen’s Daughter.” In related news, I can no longer find my alarm clock when the buzzer goes off.
I remember discovering Hemingway when I was in college. I had been assigned some of the Nick Adams stories for the Princeton syllabus, and I must admit: I didn’t understand the wow factor at first. It wasn’t until I read the short story “Hills Like White Elephants” that I was appropriately blown away. Here’s a piece about abortion that never actually mentions the phrase, and in fact the omission (and its reason for never being uttered) is the most critical element in the story. It’s one thing to craft a reputation as a novelist for the words one uses — it’s a whole new playing level to be revered for what you don’t say, but manage to convey anyway. My favorite contemporary novelist is Alice Hoffman. Her work lies in the dreamy world where love collides with magical realism, reminding me of Gabriel García Márquez. With every book, she has startling, beautiful turns of phrase that take my breath away.
As someone who’s written a book that was badly translated to film, I am very sensitive to this topic, and always on the lookout for movies that are faithful adaptations of stories I’ve loved. I still don’t really understand why Hollywood continues to fix things that are not broken. My gold standard for book-to-film translation is “Out of Africa.” In that memoir, Isak Dinesen — whose Gothic fairy tales are lush and elaborately written — dramatically alters her style to describe her life. The more personal the story she tells, the more she strips down the language — and the barest bones are used to tell of her relationship with Denys Finch Hatton. We now know, from other memoirs and original source material, that the writer’s relationship with Finch Hatton was one of the seminal moments of her life; it’s almost as if her deliberate parity of description was meant to keep the private private; to suggest that ordinary words simply could not convey the depth and parameters of this relationship, thus the writer was not even going to make the attempt to do so. The filmmakers took all the ellipses in Dinesen’s memoir and filled them in visually, revealing Dinesen’s complex relationship with Finch Hatton through images the way she could not in prose.
I’ve recently finished Deborah Harkness’s “Book of Life.” The whole series is like Harry Potter for adults — it’s very visually rich, and I would love to see a filmmaker do it justice. Imagine a witch who sees spells all around her in various threads of color. Cool, right?
“Romeo and Juliet.” For years, I waited to meet a guy whose pickup lines, with my responses, would automatically turn into a sonnet. Sadly, I think that kind of guy went out of fashion with doublets and hose. What’s wonderful about Romeo and Juliet, of course, is that as long as there are adolescents who believe that they are the first to invent true love, and as long as there are parents to stand in their way, the story is relevant. And when you think of how this plot has been adapted and resurrected — from “West Side Story” on Broadway to “Warm Bodies,” the recent film about a star-crossed romance between a zombie and a live girl — you realize how mutable and timeless the nugget of Shakespeare’s story is.
One of my first memories is of getting a library card. My mom was a huge reader, and every week she’d come home with a stack of books, and all I wanted was to be like her. I started reading at age 3, and I was so excited when, for my birthday, I got a reading lamp that sat next to my bed, so that I could read before I went to sleep at night. I was a voracious reader, and I remember several children’s books that were special: “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Umbrella,” “Little Blue and Little Yellow.” As I got older, I started inhaling the All-of-a-Kind Family chapter books, and the “Little House on the Prairie” series. I remember wanting to be as kind and calm and beautiful as Mary, but realizing deep down that I was probably a lot more like Laura: headstrong, messy, and too smart for my own good.
When I was 13, I read “Gone With the Wind.” I memorized entire passages and could act out scenes between Rhett and Scarlett, playing both roles — which also explains why I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 15. It was the first book that made me realize an author could create an entire world out of words, and it was the first time I thought, “Maybe I could do that.” I’ve revisited the book numerous times, and I’m always intrigued by how manipulative and shrewd and needy Scarlett is — but how she’s also impossibly strong.
My favorite is “Second Glance.” It’s about the things that come back to haunt us: ghosts, and history. It illuminates a period in the 1920s-30s that very few people know about: when various states were in the business of racial hygiene, getting rid of people who were considered an economic and social drain on the community.
The other reason I love “Second Glance” is because the research was the most remarkable I’ve ever done — I went ghost hunting with the Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS). They explained to me that dying is like getting on a bus: You’re supposed to go to the end of the line and get off. But sometimes the bus stops at a rest stop and you get off to use the restroom — and when you come back, the bus is gone. That’s a ghost. They then took me to a home in Massachusetts whose owners had contacted them after hearing moans and groans in the attic. I was given the key to the padlocked attic door, and the ghost hunters set up a video camera on a tripod to record paranormal energy. I was the last one out of the attic; I closed and locked the door. The couple had two kids, ages 6 months and 22 months, asleep in their separate rooms. Downstairs, the homeowners described coming home to find all the faucets running, all the cereal spilled into a pile on the kitchen floor. One night at 2 a.m. they heard calliope music and found a child’s toy piano playing — without batteries — on the steps of the attic. I went to check on the kids, and on the floor outlining the edge of each crib, I found six pennies per room that had not been present 10 minutes earlier, all dated between 1968 and 1973. I unlocked the attic door, went to the video camera tripod and found another 15 pennies underneath (all dated between 1968 and 1973) that had not been there when I left. Was I scared? No. Did it make sense? No, and I’d seen it with my own eyes. Also, pennies with those dates were scarce. Eventually the ghost hunters went back and determined that there was something paranormal in the house, and did research — two people died there. One in 1968, and one in 1973. I’ve done a ton of research for my writing, but that remains the coolest.
I would be honored if the president read “Nineteen Minutes,” the book I wrote about a school shooting. (O.K. In truth, I wouldn’t just be honored. I’d probably faint.) It addresses what happens when bullying is ignored by schools, and what it means to be a kid who feels marginalized, and why the media is fostering future school shootings by focusing their 24/7 coverage not on the victims, but on the shooter. (This is obviously done for ratings, but may in fact be what makes another kid on the fringe think: “Hmm. No one notices me, but maybe this is how to get my 15 minutes of fame.”) Most importantly, the book illustrates the staggering emotional cost of a school shooting — something that is routinely left out of pro-Second Amendment arguments against gun control. Come to think of it, maybe the president isn’t the one who needs to read this book. Maybe I could require the head of the N.R.A. to read it instead?
Alice Hoffman, because I idolize her writing and because she’s just the loveliest, kindest lady. Toni Morrison, because she’s Toni Morrison. The only regret I have from my education at Princeton was that after hearing her read from “Beloved” while it was a work in progress (seriously, you could have heard a pin drop in the room as she commanded it with her voice and her prose), she went on to teach there — after I graduated. And Mary Morris, who was my mentor and is an impossibly gifted writer of fiction and memoir, and who really did teach me everything I know. I would bake a very delicious chocolate dessert to thank each of them for the gifts they’ve given me: Alice Hoffman made me a hungry reader again, after I was burned out from being an English major; Toni Morrison showed me a pinnacle to which I aspire as a writer; and Mary Morris gave me the tools of my craft.
The one genre I absolutely cannot stand is Russian literature. You need genealogy charts to just figure out the characters, every novel is a thousand pages and pretty much everyone dies. One year my son went on a Russian lit kick and tried to get me to read some Tolstoy, but I just couldn’t. Life’s too short. Which, come to think of it, is coincidentally the theme of most Russian literature, too!
One that explores why our country is so contentiously divided along the fault line of religion — a construct meant to unite, but that more often creates schisms. All the hot-button political issues in this country — abortion, reproductive rights, gay rights, the death penalty — all have ideological roots in religious beliefs that are often archaic or that have been cherry-picked to support specific points of view. I hope that same book can explain why our country, which was founded on religious freedom, so often finds itself tangled up in the screen that should separate church and state. Also, I would like Jon Stewart to write it, because he has a way of swiftly illuminating the truth when you think you’re just there to be entertained.
Nathaniel Philbrick. First off, compared with the Revolutionary War or the wreck of the Essex, my life would be a cakewalk to research. In addition, Nat’s the consummate historian, a detailed investigator, and his writing is captivating — something that is not a given for nonfiction. But most of all, he’s just a really nice, humble guy.
Please do not tell my former professors, but I never finished Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” and yet still managed to pass my comps and graduate with honors.
“The Book of Unknown Americans,” by Cristina Henríquez.