Author Interview: Picoult on grief and elephants

20 January 2015 - 02:00 By Jackie May
INSTINCTIVE: US author Jodi Picoult's 'Leaving Time' is about what it means to lose a daughter
INSTINCTIVE: US author Jodi Picoult's 'Leaving Time' is about what it means to lose a daughter

Elephants are extraordinary animals. Their herds are led by females.

They have complicated grieving rituals when one of their own dies. And, as Jodi Picoult tells me over coffee, elephant daughters never leave their mothers.

Two years ago Picoult's youngest child was going to college, making her an "empty nester".

"I was very surprised how deeply affected I was," she said. She wondered why human females don't do what elephants do. It's much more humane.

Leaving Time, the best-selling US author's latest book, "is about what it feels like to have your daughter be lost, wrapped in this metaphor of elephant".

Picoult's young protagonist, Jenna Metcalf, was abandoned by her mother, Alice, after a terrible incident at an elephant sanctuary. An employee is trampled to death and Alice disappears.

Ten years later, still looking for clues to her mother's whereabouts, Jenna, 13, turns to a disgraced psychic and a shamed detective for help.

Picoult uses the irrational thinking of the pink-haired psychic, Serenity, her favourite character, to show "there is always 2% of stuff you can't explain".

Fascinated by their human cognition, empathy and grief, it's clear that Picoult came to love and respect elephants during her research. So she recalls with great irony and hilarity how she and a research group were charged by an elephant in Botswana last week.

"It was terrifying. It was an angry elephant. She lowered her head, and chased us for 200m. I had fallen in love with elephants writing the book: I had forgotten that these are dangerous animals," she says.

Picoult's new book is a page-turner - leaving you short of sleep but better informed about the supernatural and grief rituals of elephants.

  • 'Leaving Time' is published by Jonathan Ball, available for about R295