What if you were on your own in one of the most beautiful places on Earth when the world shut down in March, 2020?
That's the premise of "Wish You Were Here" (Ballantine Books, $28.99), the 27th novel from Nesconset native Jodi Picoult, who traces her roots as a writer to the encouragement she received in a classroom at Smithtown East High School.
Picoult returns to her home turf on Nov. 30 for a Long Island LitFest talk at Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington to discuss her latest book with actress Julianna Margulies. We caught up with Picoult, who now lives in New Hampshire, by Zoom to get a hint of what that conversation might include.
Though your protagonist gets stuck in the Galapagos Islands, you wrote this book at home in New Hampshire. How did that come about?
When COVID hit, I was working on a different book with my friend Jenny Boylan. We did our whole draft through severe lockdown — because I have asthma, I was really, really scared. After going out to buy food on March 11, I stayed home for 16 months, until I got the vaccine. I started this book that fall, without a contract or any plans to publish. I wrote it for myself, as a way to untangle everything I had been feeling and thinking. Just coming up to my desk every day and working gave me a sense of purpose.
Was it easy to get started?
I wasn't sure how to begin until I heard in the news about a Japanese tourist who got stuck in Machu Picchu during lockdown. I started to think, what would it be like to be in paradise when the rest of the world is going to hell? Out of that came Diana O'Toole, a young woman with a perfect life. She has a dream job working for Sotheby's and a great boyfriend named Finn, a medical resident who she's pretty sure is about to propose on their upcoming vacation. But as the book opens, it's March 13, 2020, and Finn is told he cannot leave town. Since the trip is already paid for, she goes by herself.
There's a huge plot twist in the middle of the book. Without spoilers, how did that came to you?
I am a plotter. I always know my twists and how to get to them. But usually, they're at the end of the book. This one is not, and I had no idea what happened next. It wasn't until I started doing research with medical professionals and people who had survived COVID that I understood where the rest of the story had to go.
There are characters based on John Lennon and Yoko Ono, plus an imaginary painting by Toulouse-Lautrec. Tell us about that.
I was thinking about Impressionism, how when you look up close it's just a blur and perspective comes with distance — a beautiful metaphor for 2020. So I asked my daughter-in-law-to-be, who is an artist, to help me create a painting from that era. After a lot of research, she chose Toulouse-Lautrec, whose work is often about the difference between the public face you put on and what is really happening behind the scenes. I needed a career for Diana, so I gave her a job at Sotheby's where she's trying to sell this imaginary painting to a character closely based on Yoko Ono. Who better than she to connect to that theme?
Another metaphor for 2020 comes from the Galapagos setting, the cradle of Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest.
There are three questions Diana faces that I too faced. One, what did you lose? I was a massive control freak, and I lost all control over my life. Second, what did you learn about yourself? Most of us realized that the measures of success we believed in prior to 2020 were no longer as important as, am I healthy, is my family healthy, do I have a roof over my head, can I hold the hand of someone I love when they're dying? And third, what do you do with what you now know?
The book functioned for me as a kind of blueprint, as encouragement to move forward. When I finished it, I showed it to a couple of friends who both said almost the exact same thing: "Oh my God, this book felt like the hug I couldn't get last year. At that point, I emailed it to my editor. Her reaction was — we need to publish this right now. I've never seen a publishing company move so fast in my life.
WHAT Long Island Lit Fest presents Jodi Picoult in a chat with Julianna Margulies
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Nov. 30, Landmark on Main Street, 232 Main St., Port Washington
INFO $48 (includes signed copy of "Wish You Were Here"); longislandlitfest.com