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The moral of her stories: Jodi Picoult's books ask the tough questions

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Jodi Picoult

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Anna was the product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis: she was conceived as a bone marrow match for her older sister, Kate, who had leukemia.

By 13, Anna had undergone countless surgeries, shots, and transfusions that helped Kate stay alive. Anna loves her sister and has never questioned her role. But that's changing.

By 13, she's questioning who she truly is and who owns her body.

The intriguing plot of My Sister's Keeper, which has sold more than 3 million copies, has characters wrestling with thorny moral issues that may be high-minded on paper, but can rip people apart.

Jodi Picoult, whose 14 books have attracted an international audience of all ages, kicks off 2007's Authors! Authors! program with a talk at 7 p.m. Tuesday talk in the Great Hall of the Stranahan Theater. Her dark, smart page-turners often include legal action, unexpected twists, and relationships sharpened by tragedy.

"My mother keeps asking when I'm going to write a happy little Christmas book and I say, 'Well, I'm sure everyone would die in it so what's the point?'" she says in a telephone interview.

"I think if I'm willing to attack a really tough issue, chances are it's not going to be an easy read. There's a certain amount of bravery involved in writing them and treading into that water, and there's a certain amount of bravery involved in reading them because I'm going to challenge you to think hard about some hard questions.

"And I may not make you change your mind, but I'm probably going to make you at least ask yourself why you have the opinion you do. And a lot of people would rather not poke at that with a stick."

Indeed, subjects of her other books include a family dealing with their little boy's sexual abuse by a priest; a suicide pact between two teens (one survives and is accused of murdering the other), and a youth, ridiculed all his life, who snaps and shoots up his high school.

In Tenth Circle (2006), a girl is date-raped. The character's doting father is a graphic novelist, so Picoult hired an artist to draw "The Immortal Wildclaw" comic, for which she wrote the text. Included in the book, it provides insight into what the father is thinking and feeling.

As a result, she was asked to write five issues of Wonder Woman for DC Comics, which she did at the urging of her children, and found to be a harder exercise than she would have imagined. The first issue will be published next week.

Picoult's novels are word-of-mouth successes. Books are passed to friends and parsed by book clubs. At first glance, they may seem to be tailored for women, but teens read them, and they show up on high-school reading lists. Half her fan mail comes from men, she says.

At 40 years old, Picoult is nothing short of a dynamo. She talks fast, with enthusiasm and deliberation, using laughter as frequent punctuation. She's an admitted workaholic. Tenacious. "If you're not, you're not going to succeed. Because this is a business that tells you 'no' more than it tells you 'yes.'•"

Her Web site (www.jodipicoult.com) exemplifies her exuberant drive. The well-organized site includes not only FAQs, biography, and family vacation photos, but segments devoted to each book with recorded interviews, lengthy excerpts, synopses, podcasts, multimedia presentations, and book-club discussion questions. Several times a year, and especially before a new book comes out, she sends e-newsletters to the 15,000 people registered on her site.

Picoult grew up on Long Island, her mother a day-care teacher and operator, her father a Wall Street analyst. At Princeton University, she worked closely with Mary Morris (Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, 1988) and met Tim Van Leer, who she married. She earned a master's degree from Harvard University, hustled to find an agent, and shortly before the birth of her first child, completed her first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale.

In the next several years, Picoult achieved the almost unthinkable by juggling writing and babies, even when she had three under the age of 4. She's continued turning out a book almost every year while at home with the kids, now 11, 13, and 15 years old.

"It's a lot of time management and a lot of being able to push away distractions and sit down and work when you have the time to work."

Several years ago, Van Leer quit his job in sales to help run their country home in Hanover, N.He. That gave Picoult more time to write in her home office, beginning at 7:30 a.m. after a 5 a.m. walk with friends.

"I read e-mail and answer fans letters for about an hour. Pull up whatever I was working on the day before, edit my way through it, and keep writing."

Now that a primed audience awaits each publication, she travels for three months a year, meeting fans and giving talks. This week alone, she's scheduled for appearances in Toledo, Columbus, Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland.

In the spring, her family will join her for a week while she tours the United Kingdom. In June she'll take her daughter to Italy, and in August one of her sons will accompany her to South Africa.

"It's really fun for me, too, to be one-on-one with them. And sometimes it's hard juggling being the mom and the writer because people obviously have demands on your time when they're dragging you all over the world for a book tour. But I think it's also really good for the kids to see what I do when I'm on the road and how hard I work - that I'm not really just sitting around eating bonbons."

Jodi Picoult will speak Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Authors! Authors! is sponsored by the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library and presented by The Blade. Tickets are $10; $8 for students, and can be purchased at the door. Information: 419-259-5266.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.

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