Jodi Picoult ’87 (Adam Bouska)
Bestselling author Jodi Picoult ’87 answers questions from alumni this month. Her young-adult novel Off the Page, written with her daughter, Samantha van Leer, came out in May.
Where do you find inspiration for your writing? Are any of your characters based on real people?
Submitted by Joyce Lee ’17
My inspiration comes from “What if?” questions I can’t answer. I wonder, “What would I do in that situation? What if this parameter changed?” Often I write about controversial issues because I wish I had the answers to them, and the act of writing is my way of thrashing through an issue. Often, we form our beliefs at the knees of our parents, or because of our faith — but we don’t really challenge ourselves to hear what the other side might have to say. Ultimately, the writing of a book for me is a way to ask myself why my beliefs are what they are about a given situation. I may not change my mind about an issue, but I will likely have a better sense of why I believe what I do.
Can you talk about how your Princeton thesis adviser shaped your own writing and career trajectory? I listened to an interview where you discussed the move from literary to commercial writing. Do you think your writing has changed since your undergraduate years in this regard, or did you just decide to call it “commercial” and keep the literary style?
Submitted by Carter Greenbaum ’12 Continue reading
Professor Peter Singer
To some, an ethical life and a career on Wall Street may seem paradoxical. But in his new book, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically, Professor Peter Singer tells the story of Matt Wage ’12, a philosophy major who abandoned his plans to study at Oxford to take a job at a Wall Street firm.
After taking a class taught by Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton’s Center for Human Values and a prominent philosopher, Wage — whose senior thesis won a prize from the philosophy department — considered which career would help him do the most good. He chose a job at an arbitrage-trading firm because, he reasoned, he would have more money to give away than if he earned a professor’s salary, Singer says. In 2013, Wage says he donated more than $100,000 from his earnings. Singer also writes about a professor who decided to donate two-thirds of his salary, calculating that over his lifetime, his donations could cure 80,000 people of blindness.
These are illustrations of the effective altruism movement, inspired by Singer, which asks individuals, primarily young people, to make career and lifestyle decisions designed to maximize their contribution to worldwide wellbeing. Continue reading
Professor emeritus Toni Morrison
When professor emeritus Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, the award committee described her writing as “characterized by visionary force and poetic import” and said that her novels give “life to an essential aspect of American reality.” In her latest book, God Help the Child, she explores the complex effect that racism has on the psyche, echoing the themes of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, about an African American girl who desperately wants blue eyes. God Help the Child tells the story of a woman called Sweetness and her daughter, Lula Ann, whose “midnight-black” skin horrifies her mother from the moment of her birth.
It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs for me to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father. Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color.
As a child, Lula Ann tells a lie to gain her mother’s approval and ends up sending an innocent woman to jail. Years later, plagued by the guilt and half-veiled insecurities of her past, Lula Ann abandons everything that reminds her of her childhood and remakes herself — changing her name to Bride and wearing only white — but her childhood cannot be escaped so easily. Sweetness says in the novel, “I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”
Publisher’s Weekly writes, “This haunting novel displays a profound understanding of American culture and an unwavering sense of justice and forgiveness.”
Jane Hirshfield ’73
“A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem — protean, elusive, alive in its own right,” Jane Hirshfield ’73 writes in the opening of her essay collection Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. But what factors make a poem move its readers? In her essays, Hirshfield answers these questions by walking readers through a series of classic poems. Of Seamus Heaney’s Oysters, for example, Hirschfield writes, “We stand in this poem with a master of shaking things together — the personal with the historical, the local with the large .… Part of this poem’s specific gravity is its confident leaving out of the inessential.”
A member of the first undergraduate class to admit women as freshmen, Hirschfield is herself a poet, renowned for her spare language and spiritually infused verse. As a companion to Ten Windows, she released a collection of poetry, The Beauty, which explores the physical body interacting with the sensory world. In the poem Like Two Negative Numbers Multiplied by Rain, she begins:
Lie down, you are horizontal.
Stand up, you are not.
I wanted my fate to be human.
Like a perfume
that does not choose the direction it travels,
that cannot be straight or crooked, kept out or kept.
Of her poetry, The Washington Post wrote, “Very quietly, Jane Hirshfield has been producing work that is earning her a place in the pantheon of those modern masters of simplicity.” This is Hirshfield’s third essay collection and her eighth collection of poetry. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Kathleen Coggshall ’05
At the end of medical school, Kathleen Coggshall ’05 often found herself in the sky, flying across the country for interviews for residency programs. During several trips, as her mind drifted to thoughts of airlines disasters, she was struck with an idea for a novel about a plane crash and a young woman whose medical expertise keeps the survivors alive.
In Girl Underwater, Coggshall’s debut novel, competitive college swimmer Avery and two of her teammates are on a red-eye flight from California to Boston when the plane crashes in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains. Only Avery, fellow swimmer Colin Shea, and three little boys survive, and the medical knowledge imparted to Avery by her physician father helps her care for them for five days until they are rescued. The book follows Avery’s fraught recovery at home and the crash’s aftermath. The novel was published under the pen name Claire Kells. Continue reading
Peter Slevin ’78 (Andrew Johnston)
In 2014, first lady Michelle Obama ’85 told a group of students “to never, ever listen to the doubters,” and cited a moment from her undergraduate years to illustrate her message. She recalled a Princeton professor whose class she had aced telling her, “You’re not the hottest thing I’ve seen coming out of the gate.” Wounded, she decided “that I was going to do everything in my power to make that man regret those words,” she said. Obama worked doubly hard for him as a research assistant and eventually won his praise, concluding that she had shown “not just my professor, but myself, what I was capable of achieving.”
That anecdote is one of many in Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin ’78. The book is a comprehensive account of her life, from her childhood in a working-class, largely segregated Chicago neighborhood to her role as “the unlikeliest first lady in modern history,” according to Slevin. A former Chicago bureau chief for The Washington Post who began reporting on Obama during her husband’s run for the presidency in 2007, Slevin is a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
The book takes a detailed look at Obama’s parents and extended family, and devotes a chapter to her years at Princeton, of which she once said, “As a black girl from the south side of Chicago, I wasn’t supposed to go to Princeton, because [my high school counselors] said my test scores were too low.” Slevin interviewed Obama twice during her husband’s 2008 campaign but did not speak to her for the book. He interviewed her friends, relatives, colleagues, professors, and mentors. Continue reading