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Jodi Picoult rules the literary roost

'House Rules,' her new novel, is a whodunit involving Asperger's syndrome.

March 09, 2010|By Julia Keller

She takes none of it for granted. Not the sales figures, the fame, the fortune, the fact that her name pops up on bestseller lists with the frequency of freakishly popular scribes such as Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark.

If you're inclined to trust what Jodi Picoult says -- and if you're not, then you're the kind of cynic who probably isn't interested in her or her books, anyway -- she is still, after 17 novels and 18 years on the job, just as humble, wide-eyed and hardworking as she was at the beginning of her career.

"I can't believe anyone buys my books," Picoult says from her home near Hanover, N.H. "I would've been happy just being published and having my mother buy a copy. I've been very fortunate.

"It's still a little bit of a miracle."

Even miracles, though, need some muscle behind them. For Picoult, 43, the push comes from a rigorous writing schedule -- she's up at 5 each morning and, after a three-mile walk with a longtime pal, settles down in her home office to write until 3:30 p.m., when her three children barge in from school -- and an amazing ability to put her finger on hot-button social issues that her novels explore with honesty, authenticity and emotional power.

Her trademark is the domestic drama, the story that puts ordinary people in the midst of contemporary crises: teen suicide, bullying, childhood sexual abuse, school violence.

But in novels such as "My Sister's Keeper" (2004), a story about parents who conceive a child so that an older child, ill with leukemia, will have a match for blood marrow donation, and which was made into a 2009 movie starring Cameron Diaz, Picoult doesn't use the family-in-peril motif as a cheap gimmick. Her books are written with naturalness and flair. She knows how to tell a story, and how to fill it with intriguing, believable characters.

Her latest novel, "House Rules," published last week, is a whodunit with a twist. The young man accused of murder, Jacob Hunt, has Asperger's syndrome. It falls to his plucky mom, Emma; his brooding brother, Theo; and a bumbling young attorney named Oliver to go to bat for Jacob.

Like many of Picoult's works, "House Rules" is told from multiple points of view and includes a great deal of information about its theme -- Asperger's -- but the facts are added gently, artfully, so that it never feels like a term paper.

To research "House Rules," she met with seven young people with Asperger's and corresponded with many more. "It was like cracking open their minds. This was an important part of making Jacob real."

Picoult, a native of Long Island, N.Y., is a graduate of Princeton University. That's where she met her husband, Tim van Leer. She began writing seriously in college and never stopped.

"For me, books start with the voices of my characters," she says. "I can hear them all so clearly."

And those topical themes? "I worry about these things myself. The things I write about are the things that keep me up at night.

"You don't do this to be famous or to have money. If you're going to write, you do it for you. It's a compulsion. When I don't write, I get itchy. The stories are like something under my skin."

Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune.

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