We talk to Jodi Picoult about her latest novel, and feature an extract from it

It’s rare to meet an author who is both prolific and profound, but in 27 years and 28 novels Jodi Picoult has proven herself to be both, tackling the grey areas of morality with sensitivit­y and skill. We talk to the author about her latest novel, The Book of Two Ways, and how she found publishing during a pandemic.

Jodi Picoult hasn’t really left her home in New Hampshire much since March 2020, but she’s been quite busy, thank you very much. ‘Quite busy’ in her world involves simultaneo­usly co-authoring a novel, writing a piece of musical theatre and releasing her latest novel, The Book of Two Ways. Just to be clear. It’s lunchtime in the United States when we meet on Zoom and, in spite of her gruelling schedule, the woman on my screen is smiling, her trademark red curls in two plaits over her shoulders.

Jodi’s latest novel follows the journey of Dawn Edelstein, a death doula who comes close to dying in an aeroplane crash. She survives, but in what she believed would be her last moments she found herself thinking about the man and life she left behind in Egypt, where she had worked as an Egyptologi­st many moons ago. Instead of boarding a plane back to Boston, where her husband, Brian, and daughter, Meret, are waiting, Dawn decides to go back to Egypt and settle a burning question we all harbour: What if I had made a different choice?

Q Where did the idea behind this book come from?

JP: My son, who majored in Egyptology at Yale, was home one holiday and busy translatin­g a text from Middle Egyptian called ‘The Book of Two Ways’. I casually walked past and said, ‘Oh, that’s a great name for a book.’ I later learnt, of course, that ‘The Book of Two Ways’ is actually an ancient funerary text that was found in the coffins of nobles in the Middle Kingdom. It’s famous for being the first known ‘map’ of the afterlife.

I thought it was interestin­g that the idea behind a good death for Ancient Egyptians was that, as long as you had the right knowledge and instructio­ns surroundin­g you [in your coffin], you would get to where you needed to be, regardless of the path you had chosen. I wanted to create a character whose life mirrored this metaphor.

I once shadowed a chaplain who worked in a Texas hospice and I was introduced to death doulas, and it clicked: this was what Dawn would do.

Q Dawn was a gifted student of Egyptology, but abandoned her work in an Egyptian dig when her mother fell ill. Why did she become a death doula instead?

JP: It seemed to me that if Dawn hadn’t become an Egyptologi­st there would still be a part of that career that called to her, the idea of a good death. I once shadowed a chaplain who worked in a Texas hospice and I was introduced to death doulas, and it clicked: this was what Dawn would do. I loved the idea of somebody who would do anything for you as you neared the final days of your life, whether it was selling your car, organising your finances, making sure your social media was shut down after you passed away, or simply buying you butter pecan ice cream.

Q The Book of Two Ways grapples with the questions of life, death and change. What was it like releasing a book like that during a pandemic?

JP: No one wants to publish a book during a pandemic, trust me! But the more I think about it, the more I realise that it was actually the perfect time for this particular book to be released. To me it’s a book about the things we’ve lost, the paths we didn’t get to take, the decisions that were taken away from us, and the lives we might have led if the world had been a little different.

I think everyone in the world right now has experience­d some kind of loss. For some, it’s the loss of a vacation, a wedding or having your

family over for the holidays. For others, it’s the ultimate loss.

In that sense, I believe The Book of Two Ways is almost a guidebook, a primer for the time we’re living in right now.

Q Do you, like Dawn, have a parallel life you could have lived?

JP: Yes, absolutely! I know what I would have been if I weren’t an author; I would be a teacher. I taught English to 13- and 14-yearolds when I was younger, and I loved it. I left when I got pregnant and ended up writing instead of going back to education, but you can see a lot of parallels in what I used to do and what I do now, very much like Dawn. I still have a classroom, only now my classroom is much bigger.

Q Brian, Dawn’s husband, calls her ‘selfish’ for leaving her family. Do men have more space than women do to be selfish?

JP: Hell, yes! There is no other way to say it. We live in a patriarchy, and because of that women are expected to be what other people need them to be: partners, wives and mothers. Women are not given the grace to step outside the family unit to rediscover themselves. They are vilified if they do, whereas men are not, and that is an absolute double standard.

Women must understand that there’s nothing wrong with taking time for yourself, be it in the form of a pottery course or a walk in the woods while your partner takes the kids to soccer practice. That is not selfish; that is self-preservati­on.

Q Do you think the fact that we’re moving into the kind of world where increasing­ly writers are only ‘allowed’ to write from their own experience, and not in the voice of another sex or gender, that creativity is being stifled?

JP: I feel there are two questions embedded in that. The first is whether a writer can be political. I was having a talk with a reader the other day who said: ‘I love your books, but could you please keep your politics out of them?’ I replied by saying that all art is political. Any character you create has a point of view, and therefore a political point of view. I wanted her to realise that what she feels is political is probably… just not her politics.

The other part of the question involves writing as ‘the other’. What I will say is this: there is no fiction police. No one will ever keep you from writing a story. That said, as a writer, I do think taking responsibi­lity means asking yourself, ‘Is this my story to tell?’ I don’t think that necessaril­y means the character you create; I write male narrators all the time, but that’s different from choosing to write as a black narrator. As a white writer I had to think long and hard about why I was writing a book about racism when I wrote Small Great Things. There is nothing I can tell a black reader about their lives that they don’t know. But I realised it was actually a book targeted at white readers, to educate them about white privilege. You can’t write about white privilege without writing about racism – hence I needed to have a black character in that book.

Q Do you feel there is more racial tension in the US after Trump?

JP: There’s always been racism and inequity in America, but never before has it been so blatant. Trump made it ‘acceptable’ in some quarters to be ignorant, uninformed and divisive. More to the point, I worry about how we shove all of this ugly stuff back into Pandora’s box now. He embodied none of the ideals I would associate with a good citizen or steward of the government, and for that reason I think he was irreparabl­y damaging to this country.

Q When are you next planning to visit South Africa?

JP: I make a trip over there every three years; I was supposed to come last year [2020], but then… I love South Africa so much; it truly is one of my favourite places. The people are warm and welcoming and, of course, you have perks to offer that other countries do not, mainly in the form of four legs and a trunk. I long for the day I can return.

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