Although Jodi Picoult is the bestselling author of 26 novels which have collectively sold over 40 million copies, the pandemic affected her just like everyone else. After interviews with frontline workers, Covid-19 survivors, and a man who accidentally got trapped on the Galapagos Islands in March 2020, Jodi wrote Wish You Were Here, her take on a pandemic book. She joined Zibby to talk about the horrific stories she heard through her interviews, which projects she has resumed working on, and what questions she hopes all readers will ask themselves as we begin to emerge out from Covid-19’s shadow.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jodi. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Wish You Were Here.

Jodi Picoult: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Wow, this book was so good and also so intense on the heels of COVID. All the details, I just feel like I was reliving the whole thing. You must have written this — I read in the acknowledgments, you said it was in like two seconds. Tell me about this whole thing and what it was like to incorporate COVID into a novel and relive it through someone else’s experience.

Jodi: I like to think of this as the book that I never wanted to write or intended to write. This book was not under contract. This book was not something I ever really considered writing even when the pandemic began. As a writer, I was thinking, at the beginning of the pandemic, hmm, how are we going to chronicle this? That’s kind of the job of the writer. I couldn’t not figure out how to do it. Then one day, I heard about this tourist who went to go visit Machu Picchu and got stranded there because they shut down the whole country. He not only didn’t get to see what he’d come to see, but he was stuck there. He was Japanese. He wound up becoming part of the community. He started teaching martial arts to the kids of the families in the area. They began to petition the government for him months later to open up the historic site so that he could finally see what he’d come to see. He did what no one else gets, which is, he got this dawn view of Machu Picchu by himself without any other tourists. I started to think about that. I started to think about what it would be like to be in paradise when the whole rest of the world is falling apart.

Suddenly, I thought, I know how I’m going to write this story. I have never been to Machu Picchu. I certainly was going nowhere in 2020. I started to think, what are some other bucket-list destinations? I have been to the Galápagos. I took my kids there when they were little. I thought, all right, I think I can make this work. Sure enough, I found a tourist who was stranded in the Galápagos and hunted him down and interviewed him and the families that he stayed with and the people that he got to know while he was stuck there for months. I began to craft this novel around this concept, the idea of someone who is a planner and whose life is completely upended by the universe. That, I think, was something that we all felt in 2020. For me, it was also really therapeutic. I didn’t plan to sell this book. I started writing it for myself because I really needed to make sense of what happened to me in 2020. I am a doer. I am always on the go. I have a million projects lined up. Everything just went blank. I have asthma, pretty serious asthma, so I didn’t leave my house for sixteen months. My husband did all the grocery shopping. The only time I left my driveway was to go hiking in the woods.

For me, that was a complete sea change. It’s just not the way I live my life. It was demoralizing and upsetting and confusing. Writing Diana’s story in this book helped me put 2020 into context for me. I gave the book, as I was writing it, to a couple of writer friends. To my great shock, their comment was, oh, my gosh, this feels like the hug I couldn’t have last year. This is the validation I was waiting for. I started to think maybe this book was for more than just me. One day, I literally sent it to my editor as an attachment to an email with the subject line, “Surprise.” That was in March of 2021. We talked a little bit about the book. She loved it. She said, “I really think we should publish this.” We talked about the timing. We feel that now is the right time to publish this. Yes, we are still living through this pandemic. We’re in a different place than we were in 2020. We have vaccines. As far as I’m concerned, that’s hope. I think five years from now, people are going to want to push this so far in the rearview mirror. They wouldn’t be able to sit down and read a book that really asks them, what did you lose? What did you learn? What are you going to do with that?

Zibby: Wow. I’m so glad that your therapy project ended up coming out and hitting bookstores and all the rest. Well, soon. When the pandemic was happening, I feel like in addition to everything else going on, I was always thinking, what is the worst? What is happening to other people? I’m going to hear these stories later. I’m not hearing enough of the stories. What are some of the consequences? as I was in the midst of my own universe. This story, even though it’s not real, is one of those things where you’re wondering, what if? What if I had gotten stuck here? What if this had happened? What if you were separated from this person? Even having her, not fiancé, but boyfriend, hopefully fiancé, deep into the medical part of it was really interesting. I was also wondering, when you did that part, because you included so much — I saw that you had interviewed a bunch of doctors. It was very detailed, as if you were saying, do not forget this. Here is the record. This is what it was like. Don’t forget.

Jodi: In the book when Diana winds up taking this dream vacation without her boyfriend — the book opens on March 13th, 2020, which is the day that everything shut down in New York. He’s not allowed to leave the hospital. He’s a resident. She gets stuck in the Galápagos without him. She gets intermittent email responses from him, basically. They are the stories of what’s going on in the hospitals in New York, which, of course, was overwhelmed. We all saw that on the news. When I did my research for this, by Zoom, I should add, because it was 2020, I interviewed a whole ton of doctors and nurses. In particular, I was looking for young medical residents whose work and jobs were put on hold by the pandemic, who were reassigned because of the pandemic. They were surgical residents, but there were no more elective surgeries. What do you do? You wind up in a COVID ward because that’s all there is in the hospital. It was so heartbreaking hearing their stories and their exhaustion. For me, the anger at the dissonance between what they were seeing and what they were hearing when they walked outside of the hospital after a thirty-six-hour shift exhausted where eighteen out of twenty of their patients had died and then they’re hearing people say, “This is like the flu. This is nothing. You don’t have to wear a mask. Don’t worry about it,” I cannot imagine how invalidating that would be for a person.

I actually think that we are going to see in future years, a lot of fallout from this in the medical community. I think we’ve already started to see an exodus of people who can’t work there anymore because of the trauma of COVID. I think that there’s going to be a lot of mental health care needed for the doctors and nurses who were really on the frontlines. It is just heartbreaking. Of course, that was half the research. The other half of the research was with forty people who had very severe COVID to the point of being ventilated and survived it. Again, what was weird about it was — two very different groups of people. When they were talking to me, you could hear their motivation. They kept saying over and over, it’s so important that this story is told. I want my story out there. I want people to know what it was like. Like you said, we saw it on the news. We saw pictures. We heard things, but we didn’t hear the individual stories. These people so badly wanted their information in the world in some way to validate their experience of what COVID had been for them. It was really exhausting and draining and scary to do all that research. Again, also, from the cocoon of here, of my little office, I was safe.

Zibby: I don’t know if you know, my mother-in-law had very severe COVID and was on a ventilator but did not make it.

Jodi: I’m so sorry.

Zibby: It was horrific. We were with her every stage. Some of the things with the doctors, these are things that we had been hearing on our, every three hours, these calls and talking to her and her saying, I can’t wait to get out of here so I can tell everybody what’s going on. That kind of fell to us a little bit, my husband and his sister and me. Reading about it again was just like, oh, my gosh. The impact, what if she had survived? What would she be saying about it now? What can you do with that? What do you do with all of this pain?

Jodi: You do this. You know what you do? You take the small corner of the world that you have a hold on, and you use your voice to amplify it. This is the way I can do that. Obviously, you can do it too because you’re an icon in your own field. You can do the same things. You tell people stories when they can’t tell them themselves. That’s honestly what it comes down to.

Zibby: It’s true, I guess. Thank you for saying I’m an icon.

Jodi: Again, I’m so sorry. I had very close friends who lost family members. I cannot imagine the devastation of that, of not being able to sit next to somebody who you love when they need you at that moment. That’s a privilege that none of us ever thought was a privilege.

Zibby: I love the scene in your book when you had — what is his name? Quinn? Something like Quinn? No.

Jodi: Finn.

Zibby: Finn. Sorry, I’m really bad with names. At the very beginning when he left the room and it took him forever to disrobe and do all the protocols and whatever, and then he couldn’t wait to get out because he was so worried about himself a little bit at the start being a surgical resident and everything. Yet he saw this one nurse who just sat there with a patient. It literally brought tears to my eyes because there are these — not that doctors aren’t giving, but comparing Finn to the — just this magnanimity. I don’t know what you call it where you just give of yourself like that. So many health care people did.

Jodi: I will say, so many of the doctors that I spoke with really called out the nurses for that because they were the ones who were on the frontlines and in there with the patients. The doctors were in and out. Yeah, they were doing risky things that exposed them to COVID if they were putting in trach tubes. On the other hand, the nurses were the ones spending time in the rooms. We are so lucky to have people like that.

Zibby: Even how you described it with everybody coming in gasping for air.

Jodi: It is important to say as a COVID book.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Jodi: No, no, you’re right. To me, this is a book about human resilience. It’s set in the time of COVID. That, to me, is a difference. Yes, you’re going to live, through Finn, what he’s going through in maybe a front-row, open-eye way that you didn’t get to see from someone in the medical profession. You’re also going to see a lot of the other experiences of what it felt like to be in the same boat as everyone else but completely isolated, which is what all of us were feeling in 2020.

Zibby: Yes. I’m sorry. It’s because of my own experience that I have such a spotlight on that, but I know that was not the whole book. Let’s talk about Diana and her wilderness experience and eating poisonous apples and breaking out in hives and wearing crazy T-shirts.

Jodi: Zibby, that’s what cool about this. Everyone had a pandemic experience, everyone on this planet, which means, technically, you can pick up this book, and you can relate to it in some way, which is kind of cool. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book that everybody finds themselves in. Wow, all right, nailed that one. Next.

Zibby: My target audience is everybody. Thank you very much. No need to refine our messaging. Blast it out. Meanwhile, you have Diana, who has these series of relationships that she forms and gets stranded in the Galápagos. This kind woman takes pity on her. I literally was putting myself in her shoes. Many people have traveled over the years and had things go wrong. Every single thing went wrong. Every call she made was the wrong call. All of a sudden, she was like, um…

Jodi: Help! Yeah, I know. For me, one of the great lessons that I learned during this pandemic is that I am an absolute control freak. Perhaps I knew that going into it, but it was never so clear as in 2020. For me, whenever something goes wrong, this is me, I’m like, okay, how are we going to fix it? I don’t care what it takes. I’m going to find a plan. I’m going to find a way out. When it feels like the universe is conspiring against you and you can’t fix it, you don’t have the tools or the resources to fix it, that is incredibly unsettling. For me, that was devastating. I’m not someone who suffers from depression. I was really low for a long time because I just couldn’t find my footing. To me, that was what I wanted to recreate in Diana, this person who has mapped out every inch of her life to the point where she can see them stretching out like telephone poles in the distance. These are the high watermarks of my life. Here’s where they’re going to happen. All of a sudden, she’s blind or there are no telephone poles or whatever, but it’s all gone. I think that I really needed to put her in a situation where she was completely lost. Not only were all of her defenses stripped away, but also, all of her resources were stripped away.

Zibby: There was no Wi-Fi for a while and no ATMs. First of all, I was worried she was going to starve at the beginning. I was like, I hope this book doesn’t end up being some — she’s going to starve herself to death on a desert island. That would be so depressing. I’m glad she figured out a way.

Jodi: It is true. That’s all very true. There really is not good internet on that island. The guy who I spoke with, this guy Ian Melvin, the Scottish kid who was stuck there for months, he was teaching. He was supposed to be teaching remotely. He couldn’t get a signal. He had a British cell phone. It wasn’t until three or four months into it that he was able to get a phone that worked on a local network that would allow him to connect. It was a whole thing. That in itself would be absolutely a nonstarter for me. I need my internet.

Zibby: What seemed very clear to me reading this is, when Diana got to the island, it didn’t occur to her what it being closed meant. Nobody had any conception of what it would mean. Okay, something’s closed, but the idea that everything around could be abandoned and closed and shut, everything, none of us could’ve processed what that looked like.

Jodi: No, and it did happen. Every business in America had to figure out a pivot so that they could stay afloat. Some made it. Some did not. What becomes really intriguing about the Galápagos is that — in a way, I’m really grateful that that was the bucket-list destination that I went to because metaphorically, it works so beautifully with this story. When you look back to what Darwin discovered when he was in the Galápagos and his theory of natural selection, the idea that great adversity and stress is what makes an organism begin to adapt and change for the better is exactly what I would like to believe 2020 did for all of us. The reason that Darwin was able to study all of his, not his finches, but his mockingbirds, as you will learn in the book, is because the islands are so far apart that there isn’t a crosspollination of species, basically. When you’re locked down on that island, you are locked down on that island. What was so cool to me was talking to the locals who began to move into the hills of Isabela and farm plots of land and trade. They had a bargain network. Instead of money being transferred, it was good and services. If you loaned your wetsuit to a guy who was going to go out and go lobster diving, he would bring you and your family lobsters for dinner, just crazy stuff like that that feels very primitive but actually was incredibly advanced given what they were going through.

Zibby: The crazy part to me is that all of this stuff happened. It all happens in the book and in real life. Now we’re catapulted back into pseudo-reality. Now what? We’re supposed to just brush off our old clothes and keep going? Dust off the high heels? I don’t know. It just feels like, how do we reconcile that?

Jodi: That’s kind of why I’m really excited about this book coming out. Look, there are going to be a lot of people who are like, ugh, why is she writing about a pandemic? We’re in the middle of the pandemic, which I think is fair. You might not be ready personally to read this book, and that’s okay. It’s still going to be there for you when you are. I think, though, that this is exactly the right time because we are coming out of this. We are in a different place than we were in 2020. I should be so lucky as to think that maybe this will serve as a blueprint for some people on how we move forward. When I think about what I want people to take away from this book, it’s very specific. I want you to ask yourself, what did you lose? Everyone lost something. It might have been a graduation. It might have been a birthday celebration or a vacation. It could’ve been going to your freshman year of college. It could’ve been the ultimate loss of a person. I think we like to play the game of, my loss was worse than your loss. The truth is, everyone felt that feeling of having to give something up that they didn’t want to. That’s valid. You’re allowed to grieve that. The second thing I want people to do is to ask, what did you learn? When we were forced by the universe to stop and take a breath, I think we all started to realize that our measures of success might not have been as engrained as we thought. I think we tend to measure success by promotions, by money, by degrees earned when it turned out that success meant being healthy, having a roof over your head, having food, being able to sit at the bedside of someone you love who’s sick. That’s what success meant.

Then the next question is, what are you going to do with this knowledge? That’s how we move forward. For me, I really needed to recalibrate. If you had told me that in 2020, the highest point of my year, what was it going to be? I would’ve told you it was watching a show that I’ve been working on for eight years debut off-Broadway. As it turned out, it was playing four square in my driveway with my adult children on a court that we made out of flour-and-water paste. It was amazing. Spending all that time with them truly was a silver lining and a gift. Then the last bit is, what has changed? How do we identify what has changed? There is no question, the world is never going back to the way it was, but neither are we. We’ve evolved too. Now how do we take all of those changes and all of those moments of understanding that we had in 2020 where we really reckoned with ourselves and take a step forward? How do we do that and not lose what we’ve learned? That ultimately is, for me, why I want people to read this and what I want them to take away from it.

Zibby: Is that all? I’m kidding.

Jodi: That’s all. Tall order, but hopefully, they enjoy it. Hopefully, they enjoy it.

Zibby: For me, I also just loved the escape to the Galápagos. I’ve never been there. I’ve always read about it, heard about it. I just love books with a strong sense of place like this where you literally feel like you’re walking down the road and in the water. Oh, my gosh, you could feel — it was a very sensory experience to read Diana’s experience for me.

Jodi: I tried to get my publisher to do a book tour in the Galápagos, but they nixed that.

Zibby: Not so much. Maybe eventually. Maybe you could lead a tour or something. Everybody gets a book. So this was not the plan for you. What is the plan? What other books do you have coming out or big, exciting projects? What else is in the works? I know you always have a million things.

Jodi: I do. I have a whole bunch of things. Next year is going to be insane. This book is actually the second book that I wrote in 2020 because I was under contract to write a book that was going to come out in 2022, and still is, cowriting it with Jenny Boylan, who’s an incredible author. The funny thing is, we weren’t supposed to start working on it until the end of September because that was kind of when our schedules aligned. In March of 2020, she called me up and said, “Hey, I don’t know about you, but my schedule has just totally cleared. Want to get started?” I did. We started working on this in 2020. Of course, the first thing we did was say, okay, I guess we’re going to have to figure out what our timeline is. We didn’t want the pandemic to be part of this particular novel. We moved it back a year, which cracks me up because at the end of the book, I just keep thinking, those poor people don’t know what’s going to hit them next. Jenny and I wrote this book together. That was really important for me because I was a wreck at the beginning of the pandemic. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. Couldn’t do anything. That sort of got me back into the groove of working as a writer. That will come out in 2022.

Zibby: What’s that one called?

Jodi: That’s called Mad Honey. It’ll come out in October of 2022. I’m really excited for it.

Zibby: That’s a great title.

Jodi: Thank you. I also have this show that I thought was going to come out. It was due to come out in April of 2020 off-Broadway at Second Stage Theater. It’s Between the Lines. It’s based on a book that my daughter and I wrote years ago. We’ve been working on adapting it as a musical for eight years. Honestly, crossing that finish line was like, we’re so close. Then, of course, Broadway shut down. That is actually going to open again at Second Stage, or for the first time. That will open in June of 2021. We’re super excited about that.

Zibby: 2022.

Jodi: 2022, sorry. Thank you. June of 2022. We’re very excited about that. Then in September of 2022, we will open the musical adaptation of The Book Thief, which I also cowrote. I’m really excited about that. Markus Zusak is an incredible author. It’s been such an honor to turn that into a musical. It’s very beautiful and very deeply moving. It will open in the UK in 2022 in September. Then I’ll go on my book tour in October. Before all of this, one of my sons is getting married. That’s my year.

Zibby: Wow. I loved The Book Thief, like basically everybody. Oh, my gosh, a musical.

Jodi: It’s so good. It feels so epic and deeply, deeply moving. It was so interesting to come back to it after the pandemic because I think we have a whole new relationship with what it means to trade in the currency of kindness, which is really what The Book Thief is about. What makes humans worth saving? Come on, if ever there was a metaphysical moment to look at that, it’s now. It’s been very interesting playing around with that. It’s really fun for me. Writing librettos is something I only started recently doing. I love it because it’s the anthesis of writing a novel. I’m always here alone when I’m writing a novel. The libretto is a very collaborative experience. Super fun. 2022’s going to be a great year. I will, unfortunately, not be home very much.

Zibby: Hopefully, that’s the way it plays out. I feel like with every plan I have, I’m like, well, this is my plan if plans are plans. If not, we’ll handle it.

Jodi: It’s funny. It’s kind of, I don’t know. I’m hoping to get there, but we’ll see. I have a very different relationship now to planning because of the pandemic.

Zibby: This was a very deep conversation for early in the morning.

Jodi: I know. Thank goodness I have my coffee.

Zibby: I know. I need to go get another cup at this point. Thank you so much. Thanks for the chat and the book and the escape to the island, the whole thing.

Jodi: Thank you. Thank you for reading it. Thank you for taking it to heart. I hope it was valuable.

Zibby: Very. It was very valuable.

Jodi: Thank you. Maybe in my future, I can have a bookshelf like that. I’m just blown away by it.

Zibby: I should start offering my services. I should just go to people’s homes.

Jodi: It’s so beautiful. What’s funny is, I can look at the colors and be like, I bet there’s a Casey McQuiston book on the purple-ish side over there based on the spines that I know.

Zibby: There’s not. I don’t think there is.

Jodi: She’s pretty into the purples and the pinks on the bottom there. One Last Stop, that’s the color palette. I love it. So impressed.

Zibby: Thank you. You can do it. You have all those shelves right there.

Jodi: I know. This is my work stuff, all my research stuff.

Zibby: It would not take long. You should just put in your calendar. Carve out like three hours. Just try it.

Jodi: Maybe if there’s another pandemic, I can do it.

Zibby: You could just do one shelf. Try one shelf. See how that goes.

Jodi: I should. You’re right.

Zibby: Just do one shelf. That’s how I started. I didn’t mean to even do this. My husband said, “Try one shelf. Just try one shelf.” I was like, “Okay.” Then, you know, I’m crazy, so I did the whole thing.

Jodi: I love it. I just love it. It’s really nice to meet you too.

Zibby: Nice to meet you too.

Jodi: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Hopefully, our paths will cross in real life.

Jodi: I hope so. Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


WISH YOU WERE HERE by Jodi Picoult

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