Have you ever wondered what you would do if faced with making an end-of-life decision for a family member? What would you want your family to do if you were incapacitated and not able to consider your own options? These are some of the questions that arise in Jodi Picoult's new novel Lone Wolf. I know my Yummy Mummy Book Club members will be eager to read Jodi's new novel after our Twitter discussions about her novels House Rules and Sing Me Home. I can't wait to hang out with a few book club members while we attend this bestselling author's book launch in Toronto on March 13th. In other exciting news, I had the awesome opportunity to ask Jodi some questions about Lone Wolf and her writing process, so without further ado...
Q&A with Jodi Picoult
WLY: Lone Wolf introduces an interesting family dynamic with an ethical dilemma. Two adult siblings face making a decision about their father's comatose state. Their father's work as a wolf conservationist is referenced throughout the story. How much research did you do for Lone Wolf and did it influence the development of the story?
JP: I thought I had created a unique character – a man who wants to study wolves not by observing them but by LIVING with them. Then I found out about Shaun Ellis, a British man who did just that for a year, living with a wild wolf pack in the Rockies. He wanted to study how they lived, instead of shaping how they live. I went to visit him in Coombe Martin, at the wildlife park where he now keeps several captive packs of wolves, and got to meet him and his wolves up close and personal. His job, as he sees it, is to bring people the truth about wolves, because they’ve gotten a bad rep. They aren’t cold blooded killers; they are very intelligent animals for whom nothing matters more than family.
The first thing he taught me are the rankings of a wolf pack. The first wolf you’ll encounter is not the alpha, but a beta—tough, comes rushing up to you, responsible for discipline in the pack. Betas are expendable; they are the thugs in the mafia family. The alpha will hang back. Wary. The brains of the group, and too valuable to put him or herself in danger – he’s like the king not going into battle. The alpha is the one who tells everyone —including the big tough beta – what to do. An alpha can hear the change in the rhythm of your heart rate from six or seven feet away. An alpha female can terminate her own pregnancy if she feels that it’s not a good time for breeding in the pack. She can keep the other females in the pack from coming into season, so that she is the only one breeding. She can create a phantom pregnancy, which puts all the adult wolves on their best behavior, trying to be picked as nanny—and then when everyone’s acting on their best game, she reveals that she isn’t pregnant at all. The way she directs her pack: gland on the tail, which is as individual as a footprint. That’s what dogs are always sniffing. By moving her tail one way or the other, she directs her scent, and it’s like an arrow for the wolves in her pack to follow.
Next is the diffuser wolf—which used to be called the Omega or the Cinderella wolf. This is the low man on the totem pole, the one who eats last, the one who seemingly is picked on by the other wolves. They actually serve a purpose in the pack—to diffuse tension. Whenever there’s bickering, they jump in like a jokester, rolling on their backs and howling or licking – immediately doing something to bring down the tension level. They are the peacemakers who will jump between two wolves fighting to the death, greet one, draws attention to itself, clowns around and suddenly both the animals are very placid and no one gets hurt.
There’s a tester wolf—the quality control dude. He’s a nervous wolf, always on edge, who makes sure that everyone is doing his job. So for example, he’ll fight the beta to make sure the beta can still protect everyone. He’ll challenge an alpha’s decision to make sure that the alpha is still the smartest animal in the pack. A lot of people mistake the alpha for the tester because there’s a fine line between a nervous, suspicious animal and a self-aware, self-preserving alpha.
Then come the numbers wolves, which fill in the pack with strength of size, and nanny wolves—older alphas and betas who are now like great-grandparents and are given the role of teaching the new wolf pups how to survive.
Shaun also explained to me how diversity in food is really important to a wolf since differint foods do different things for them. Social foods help them remember pack structure. An example of this would be the entire pack feeding off the same bison, but alpha gets the organs, beta gets the muscle meet, diffuser gets the stomach contents, etc., based on ranking. Emotional foods are given when the alpha wants the pack to recall a time in their life that was placid. So for example since milk products remind wolves of being pups and calm them down, an alpha might direct her hunters to kill the one lactating deer in a herd so that her pack, when feeding, becomes more easygoing before the arrival of pups.
But most importantly, Shaun shared with me his experience living in the wild with wolves. After working as a traditional biologist for a Native American group of researchers, he decided he wanted to try to live with a wild pack. He spent months in the forest, tracking them, getting adjusted to their schedule and moving at night. One day a beta came up and nipped at him. He stayed still, and they vanished. Eventually they returned. Finally they began to sleep, play beside him, and treat him like a member of the pack – a numbers wolf. The pack clearly knew he was human, but the human world is encroaching on the wolf world, and they need to learn about us as much as we need to learn about them. So gradually, they accepted him. They wouldn’t normally let him hunt because he was so slow compared to wolves, but they would bring him back meat from a kill to eat, which he said tasted like a warm, slimy scotch broth. Occasionally he’d hunt in ambush situations, when they needed strength in numbers to surprise prey. He told me the hardest part of living with the wolves was not the cold, rain, or starvation. It was losing the emotional ties to the human world. When Shaun returned from the wolves, at first, he couldn’t be in a grocery store—the smells were overwhelming. Horses 25 meters away would shy away when he passed by. He could see, hear, and smell better in the dark.
One of the things he taught me to do was to howl, so that I could communicate with wolves. Howls are like wolf email. They use them to communicate with other packs, telling them how strong their pack is. This helps the alpha figure out what the pack needs—i.e. how many pups need to be bred; what sort of food she needs to get the pack to eat to keep them stronger than the rival packs, etc. The different wolves in a pack have a different role in the howling. The alpha is strategic; the beta has that iconic Hollywood howl, and the numbers wolf creates the illusion that there are more wolves in the pack then there actually are. Shaun showed me that there are three types of howls: a rallying howl, which is a vocal beacon to bring back a missing member of the pack; a locating howl, which is like a voice message to give the placement of any pack that’s in the area – not just where my family is, but others as well; and finally, a defensive howl, which is much deeper, and used to protect your territory. With my son and my publicist in tow, Shaun taught us the melody that an alpha, a beta, and a numbers wolf would use, and how to sing them in concert. I started as the alpha—a deep intermittent tone, howling for five or six seconds and then listening to make decisions based on what I hear. My son’s beta howl was three times longer than mine – it was all about strength, to let those listening know how tough he was. Finally, my publicist, as the numbers wolf, created the illusion that there were many of her, with a howl that circled and pitched between the tones my son and I were using. The most amazing thing happened: the packs all around us began to howl back. It was the coolest feeling to know that we had “sent” out our position, and were getting responses because we were speaking their language.
WLY: What came first in the development of the story LONE WOLF, an interest in the lives of wolves or the controversial topic surrounding end-of-life decision making?
JP: I first thought about writing about the right to die when I was on a plane over a decade ago. I was sitting next to a neurologist who dealt with these sorts of issues all the time. His name was James Bernat, and time flew by (pardon the pun) because I was so intrigued by what he was telling me. I said, “I’m not ready to write this book now, but one day I will be, so remember my name…because I’ll come calling!” Sure enough, when I started mulling over the fact that we often hear about parents and spouses who differ in their opinions about life sustaining care for a victim of a serious brain trauma, we rarely hear about two parties who have an equal claim to that decision. That led to wonder what would happen if two children were fighting over whether or not to terminate life support for their parent. So I called James Bernat and said… “Remember me?” Luckily, he did! The wolf stuff came later…I was thinking of how a family functions like a pack, with everyone taking a significant role, and the metaphor evolved.
WLY: As a reader I sometimes find it hard to accept when a story has ended. Do you find it hard to write your final chapter and say goodbye to your characters?
JP: Good lord, no. I'm so excited to get RID of these people, because usually they've spent 400 pages making bad choices! Plus, I'm already doing research for whatever book is next, so I'm looking forward to that.
WLY: If people can choose the way they want to live, then shouldn't they have the right to choose the way they die? What are your personal thoughts on the right to die, euthanasia, assisted suicide, do not resuscitate (advance directives, living wills), and organ donation?
JP: I think that although we seem to be able to amiably disagree on where life begins (i.e. at birth, at conception) we do not agree on when death begins. I think that it's inhumane to euthanize a terminally ill dog but not a suffering human who has made a valid and informed choice to help end his/her life on his/her own terms. As for organ donation - I'm all for it. I think that's a conversation you should have with your loved ones long before it's a timely issue, because if this book taught me anything, it's that anything you can do to make the decision YOURS makes it less traumatic for your family members.
WLY: What can your readers look forward to discovering in your next novel?
JP: It's about a young woman, Sage Singer, who befriends an old man who's particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone's favorite retired teacher and Little League coach, and they strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses...and then he confesses his darkest secret: he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who's committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren't the party who was wronged? And most of all - if Sage even considers his request - is it murder, or justice?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Meet Jodi Picoult event will take place in Toronto on March 13th, 2012 at 7:00pm
This event will take place at Church of the Redeemer, 162 Bloor St West, Toronto, ON
Simon & Schuster Canada is having a contest with two grand prizes consisting of a pre-event meet and greet with Jodi for the winner and a friend, two tickets to the event and a complete Jodi Picoult backlist library (GTA residents only). There are also 3 runner-up prizes consisting of a complete Jodi Picoult backlist library and a signed copy of Lone Wolf. Click on this link to enter Simon & Schuster Canada's Jodi Picoult sweepstakes
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Jodi Picoult photo credit © Adam Bouska