One of Picoult’s early tour stops was at Sacred Heart University on Oct. 17 for the “Join the Conversation” lecture series, sponsored by their campus radio station, WSHU. The event was held at SHU’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts, where there were 338 bookworms anxiously awaiting Picoult’s discussion.
Each ticket included admission to the event, a hardcover copy of “Leaving Time” and the opportunity to meet Picoult and get the book signed.
At 7 p.m., Picoult took the stage amidst enthusiastic applause. She began by introducing “Leaving Time,” did a brief book reading, explained the research behind the book and then finished with a question and answer session.
Picoult explained that she got the idea for “Leaving Time” based on her experience with her youngest child, her daughter Sammy, going to college and leaving her “an empty nester.” Around the same time, Picoult was at a doctor’s office and read an article about elephants.
“I read the most amazing fact. In the wild, in an elephant herd, a mother and a daughter elephant stay together their whole lives until one of them dies. And I thought, ‘How come we don’t do that?’” said Picoult.
The article prompted Picoult to delve deeper into the world of elephants and to further examine their personality traits.
“I realized I had the perfect metaphor for a book about what it means to be left behind,” said Picoult.
She then continued to explain the plot of her book, which features three main characters as narrators.
The first is 13-year-old Jenna Metcalf, whose mother Alice disappeared 10 years ago, the same night a caretaker was trampled by an elephant. Alice was a researcher who studied elephant cognition and managed an elephant sanctuary.
The second narrator is Serenity, a failed psychic who uses body language and her observant behavior as a crutch. Jenna and Serenity are also joined by a third narrator, Virgil, the detective who was originally working on Jenna’s mother’s case and has since become an alcoholic.
Picoult explained that she did an extensive amount of research on elephants while writing her latest novel, even traveling to Tennessee and Botswana to further her research.
She shared facts with the audience, starting off by sharing that no two elephants’ ears are alike, which she compared to human’s fingerprints. Picoult’s facts continued to get increasingly lesser known, as she explained how emotional elephants are such as a time when two elephants approached a deactivated electric fence; one elephant touched the fence with his trunk outstretched, anticipating the shock, so the other elephant did the same to share the pain.
Picoult continued to describe similar events where elephants have demonstrated a level of compassion that is surprising for animals. She told stories of how elephants have routinely helped other species, such as rhinos, when they were caught in a well or mud.
“Not only is this an evolutionary disadvantage, you know because then that rhino is going to grow up and could kill the elephant, but it is one of the only examples we have of cross-species empathy,” said Picoult.
Picoult also discovered that the slogan, “Elephants Never Forget,” is one that rings true. She told the story of Shirley and Jenny, two elephants who ended up living at the same sanctuary. Jenny had been living at the sanctuary for several years prior to Shirley’s arrival. On the day of her arrival at the sanctuary, Shirley took a day to meander from the truck carrying her into the barn where she would reside.
“As soon as she saw Jenny, she began to bang at the stall doors. And Jenny was doing the same thing … So the caregiver called the owner of the facility, who made the decision to open the gate between them. As soon as Jenny and Shirley could, they touched each other all over.”
Picoult explained that eventually researchers discovered that Jenny and Shirley had been at the same circus when Jenny was a calf. They had been separated for 22 years when they finally reunited at the sanctuary.
Picoult’s elephant facts surprised the audience, and were met with gasps and murmurs.
After Picoult explained the research behind her newest novel, the floor was opened for a question and answer period. One audience member said that Picoult’s “Nineteen Minutes” changed her life, and that she wrote her college narrative about her emotional experience reading the novel. The same fan asked Picoult which of her books changed her life the most.
Picoult responded by discussing two books in particular, “My Sister’s Keeper” and “Sing You Home.”
“I would say the ones that really affected me the most are the ones that have grown out of some of the most dramatic moments in my life. And there are two books in particular that have intersected very cleanly with things that were happening in my life,” said Picoult.
Picoult explained that her son Jake was diagnosed at a young age with cholesteatoma, which she described as a benign tumor that would eventually grow from his ear into his brain if untreated.
Instead of taking the safe route, which would leave Jake deaf in one ear, Picoult and her husband decided to take an experimental route. After 13 surgeries, Jake was cancer free.
“Knowing that your other children had to suffer somehow, because even when they got sick, they weren’t sick enough. That’s a horrible thing to think as a mother … That is what ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ was for me. It was an extended therapy session that you all got to read.”
Picoult also noted how “Sing You Home” was a book that personally resonated with her, which looks at what it means to be gay in modern society. She explained how her oldest son, Kyle, came out of the closet in his college essay, which occurred at the same time that Picoult was writing the book.
Picoult said that Kyle had “the best coming out story in this country,” comparing Kyle’s experience to other young adults.
Other fans complimented Picoult’s ability to completely engage readers, leaving them wondering where the characters are currently. Still others asked for advice, such as a young student asking how to become an author and a teacher asking for help with how to garner students’ interests in reading.
“They read this book and they said that this book made them feel normal. And to this day, weekly, I get letters from kids who say that my book saved their life. I am waiting for the day that book is obsolete,” said Picoult.