"Like humans, elephants are one of the few species who have cross-species empathy. Most species will only save their own," Jodi Picoult explains to me with the ease of someone who's spent years studying zoology. Those familiar with her novels are well aware that the work involves healthy doses of real-world research with more than a sprinkling of social consciousness.
With "Leaving Time," which debuted as the best-selling fiction book in the U.S., Picoult highlights the plight of elephants, specifically their targeting by humans. The novel is pointed in its assessment: "It's crucial when studying the grief of elephants to remember that death is a natural occurrence, murder is not." It's no surprise when Picoult unapologetically tells me that she's a "huge animal advocate" before giving a brief history of her animal companions, including a canine she saved from a "sad situation in the Caribbean."
Picoult recounts the story about an elephant who saves the calf of a rhino, despite the threat that calf could become as an adult. "There's no evolutionary advantage," she adds before noting that the number of animals with human-like psychological structures is expanding. "Elephants, whales and dolphins are being seen almost as a sub-group at this point because their brains function so differently from other animals in the animal kingdom and so much more like human brains."
"Zoos made a lot of sense once. Now, that's changed. We were keeping them in captivity for our own educational needs. That doesn't exist anymore. Elephants are not made for captivity. They need space that is rarely available in a zoo. They are not animals that will bond with whoever you stick in a cage with them. They form their own friendships. They develop severe physical problems being in zoo settings, and that doesn't even begin to touch on circus animals who are forced to perform their whole life." - Jodi Picoult
I asked if perhaps our increased understanding of animal lives was causing an evolution in the way we interact with them. "I imagine it is," Picoult responded, highlighting an increasingly "animal-centric" mindset. "Anytime you can leave the world a better place cross-species, you're doing something right," she added.
Apart from its bold take on animals, "Leaving Time" deals with the notion of the paranormal head-on. Serenity, a psychic, is a central character and drawn without the tropes that often follow fictional psychics. Picoult laughs when I tell her that I've perceived her to be wildly areligious, "Yes, that would be true!" She goes on to do describe her husband as an "ardent atheist."
Picoult says that those who haven't had unexplained experiences in their lives should not irrationally believe in the supernatural, but that folks who have shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge them. "When I first did paranormal research, it was for 'Second Glance.' I had some remarkable experiences when I was ghost hunting for that book that I can still not explain," she tells me, sharing a story about mysterious coins.
"Can I tell you that there's an afterlife, that there are ghosts? Absolutely, I can't. Can I say I'd like to hope that maybe one day we will be reunited with people we love? Yeah, I would like to believe that." - Jodi Picoult
The consciousness shown in "Leaving Time" is followed off the page into Picoult's real life. Unafraid to wade into political waters, Picoult vocally endorsed Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for re-election in New Hampshire. In fact, I received an email from Shaheen's campaign signed "Jodi Picoult" shortly before I spoke to her.
When I asked about the involvement, she effortlessly slid into campaign mode: "I love my state, and I love the idea of someone representing us in Washington who is making choices for the people." She says writing her first stump speech was "so fun," especially since her son has served as an intern for Shaheen for two years. Picoult described Shaheen as "smart" and "kind," a politician who stands for her values. I jokingly asked if we should expect a Jodi Picoult run in the future. She not-totally-jokingly responded to watch her son.
Her words for contender Scott Brown were pointed: "I don't think he's in this campaign for the right reasons."
Picoult is also a tireless supporter of LGBT rights. One of her sons is openly gay, and "Sing You Home" is about the plight of queer citizens in the United States. The book has been personally optioned by Ellen DeGeneres for a planned feature film.
When will the movie head into production? I ask. "You know, your guess is as good as mine." Picoult had nothing but praise for DeGeneres, calling her a "terrific advocate" for the book because of its personal nature to her. She also added that she hoped marriage equality would be the law of the land nationwide before the film ever hit theaters.
Picoult has already begun work on her next novel about racial relations in the U.S. She described the goal as "opening the eyes of people who are not of color to moments of privilege that they've had that may not really have realized they had."
She was quick to clarify after I used the term "racial advocacy" that "it's not telling people of color what their lives are like. They know."
While "Leaving Time" has just been released, Picoult doesn't plan to break before diving right into this project: "It's a conversation that has been very important to me personally and to my family. I think it's a dialog we really need to have in this country, and I'm very excited to bring it to my readers."
Picoult is currently on tour for her novel "Leaving Time." Click here for dates.