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Famed author Jodi Picoult novelizes the pandemic in new book 'Wish You Were Here'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Done anything special during the pandemic? Jodi Picoult, who's already written 25 novels, was pretty much locked down at home. But she didn't use the months to perfect her recipe for sourdough bread or binge watch a new 12-part Scandinavian detective series. She wrote what will probably be another bestseller, "Wish You Were Here," about a woman who thought her life was all going according to plan until March 2020 and then...

Jodi Picoult joins us now from Hanover, N.H. Thanks so much for being with us, Jodi.

JODI PICOULT: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: So Diana O'Toole - she's an associate specialist at Sotheby's on the crest of a huge deal. She's about to fly off to the Galapagos with her boyfriend, Finn, who is a physician. But remind us of what happened that week, March 2020.

PICOULT: Well, the book opens on March 13, which is the day, of course, that New York City shut down. And Diana's boyfriend, Finn, was told by his boss, you are not allowed to leave the hospital. And he says to his girlfriend, look; this vacation is paid for. You should go. And so Diana winds up out of her comfort zone, flying to the Galapagos. She arrives and is told the island is shutting down for two weeks. Her accommodations are voided, and she has to find a way to get by. And, of course, those two weeks spool out. And, you know, this island does not have a lot of Wi-Fi. It does not have good cell service.

SIMON: I was about to say - to some people, paradise would have Wi-Fi. Yeah, but OK...

PICOULT: Right, but, you know, when your partner is on the front lines in New York City and a pandemic hits, you're getting sporadic messages from him that are very different from the life that you're living at the time.

SIMON: And I gather this plot premise was put in your mind by not just the actual events of the pandemic, but people you read about during the pandemic.

PICOULT: Yeah. So I actually had a very strange pandemic. I have asthma, and I was just really scared. You know, I thought if I got this, it wasn't going to go well. And I wound up not leaving my house for 15 months until I was fully vaccinated, except to go hiking in the hills of New Hampshire. And I kept thinking about how we, as writers, were going to tell the story of the pandemic and how we would both memorialize it and make sense of it. And I just couldn't wrap my head around it.

And then finally, I heard a real-life story about a man, a Japanese tourist, who got stranded in Machu Picchu. And instead of going home to Japan, he actually wound up staying there for months and becoming part of the community until the community petitioned the government to open up the historic site so he could actually see it. And I thought, oh, I've never been to Machu Picchu. I can't write about that, and I'm not going in 2020. But I have been to the Galapagos. We took our kids there many years ago, and it's everyone's bucket list destination. And I thought, surely somebody got stuck there. And I did find a young Scottish man, and I tracked him down. He did an interview with me, and the families that he stayed with did an interview with me. And from that, I began to craft the story.

SIMON: Diana, at first, feels lost. But what begins to happen? Lost and lonely and out of touch and no clothes and - yeah.

PICOULT: Yeah. I mean, in many ways, setting the book in the Galapagos felt like a beautiful metaphor because of Darwin's theory of evolution, which was really born there, which is all about how, when a species faces adversity, they either adapt, or they die out. And I would argue that 2020 was really some of the greatest adversity the human race has ever faced.

So Diana really learns to reevaluate the goal she had and the life she wanted and begins to ask herself, why did I want those things in the first place? - which I think is an experience that many of us had. The pandemic was such a strange time because we were all so isolated, but we were all feeling the same things. You know, we just weren't connecting about it.

SIMON: Diana learns a lot, not just about herself, also about her art, which is interesting.

PICOULT: Yes. So she is an art specialist at Sotheby's, and she works in - with impressionist paintings. And that sense of what art means to you and why art is important to us changes and evolves just like she does when she's on the island. I kept thinking a lot about impressionism, and I kept thinking about how if you see a Monet painting from six inches away, it's a lot of blobs of pretty color. But if you step back a few feet, you go, oh, it's a cathedral; oh, it's water lilies - because you have perspective. And we are just now beginning to get perspective on what 2020 was.

SIMON: Am I wrong to think having read this novel that although COVID-19, as you just explain, shook up the convictions that many people thought they had about the world, in some ways it reconfirmed your own convictions that you should be writing novels?

PICOULT: Yeah. But, you know, I learned so much about myself in 2020, some things that, you know, weren't particularly flattering. Like, I learned that I really am a control freak, and I don't do very well when I can't, you know, manifest things to change. But I think we all learned a lot. We learned that it's OK to grieve for the things you've lost, and that might be a job or a graduation or in-person schooling, or it might be the ultimate loss of a person.

And I think we also learned that the measures of success that we've always had - maybe they aren't what we thought they were. Maybe it's not getting a degree or a promotion or a slot on a bestseller list. Maybe instead it is having your health and knowing your family's healthy, having a roof over your head, being able to hold the hand of someone who's dying. You know, and suddenly, I think having all these new senses of what our priorities are, that's what I'm really interested in. Maybe we will be better and stronger in the future because of it.

SIMON: Jodi Picoult - her latest, "Wish You Were Here." Thank you so much for being with us.

PICOULT: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.