Jodi Picoult to talk about her "A Spark of Light" Sunday at the Garde
At this point in her career, Jodi Picoult has written 25 novels that have reached number one on the New York Times bestseller charts. She's done so writing not genre fiction but, book by book, exploring an astonishing array of diverse, timely and controversial topics — racism, school shootings, gay rights, capital punishment, medical emancipation and date rape, to name a few.
That these novels promimently feature intensely human family and community dynamics, and comprehensively represent all sides of an issue without judgment, means Picoult has, through hard work, compassion and a lovely style, come up with an alchemical formula fusing literary and populist elements.
Last year, Picoult published "A Spark of Light," which even by her standards explores a truly indendiary topic: abortion. Set prinicipally in The Center, the last legal abortion clinic in Mississippi, and told from the perspective of several different characters, the novel tersely but passionately details one long day where a gun-weilding anti-abortion activist has taken several people inside the clinic hostage.
It's a heartbreaking, stunning and even-handed story — and Picoult adds to the tension using the bold literary technique of unveiling the narrative in REVERSE, thrusting the reader into the chronological finale at the top of the book — then back-pedaling hour by hour. It's an amazing approach that works in revealing and twisty fashion.
On Sunday in the Garde Arts Center, Picoult will discuss her career with another consistent New York Times bestselling novelist, Old Lyme's Luanne Rice. The two are mutual fans. Picoult says of Rice, "I've read Luanne for years, so I could not be more excited! My favorite is 'The Lemon Orchard' (about immigration). I'm pretty sure I hand-sold about 100 copies of that book for her!"
For her part, Rice says she's had a long fascination and admiration for Picoult's work.
"We share an interest in families, the secrets in their own houses, and the way women live their lives," Rice says. "And she writes about complicated characters in difficult, sometimes almost impossible situations with such balance and compassion — telling the story in a way the reader can see both sides, deeply emotional but never sentimental."
By email earlier this week, Picoult answered questions about her career and latest book in anticipation of the Garde appearance. Answers have been edited for space.
Q: You're continually exploring incredibly provocative, important and oft-polarizing topics. Your willingness to objectively explore on all sides of some rough issues makes me wonder: Does your work exact a cumulative emotional toll?
A: I think that part of the reason I'm willing to walk on the dark side is because I have such an incredible REAL life. When I leave my office at the end of the day, there is no question that I'm no longer in the difficult spots that my characters are in. That said, if researching a book doesn't break my heart or light me on fire, it's not the right idea for a book. I have to have a personal connection in some way to the material I'm writing, even if I haven't lived the experience myself. If I were numb to this world, I wouldn't be a writer — but that doesn't mean it comes without its challenges.
Q: Over the course of writing all your books, is there any particularly tough research encounter you remember?
A: When I was researching "Sing You Home," part of doing my due diligence meant meeting with Focus on the Family, a rabidly anti-LGBTQ group. At home, my son had just come out to me ... so this was a pretty personal topic. When I asked the public information officer if she was worried that some of the FOTF rhetoric had led to increased violence against the LGBTQ community, she dismissed my claim. I asked her how she would explain Matthew Shepard, and she said, "Who?"
I had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom and splash water on my face — to remind myself that I had to put on my writer hat, and not my mom hat. I always, always, always espouse a point of view diametrically opposed to SOMEONE in my books, but I also feel that it's my job as a novelist to give my readers their point of view as well, so that they can weigh all of the perspectives and figure out what their own opinion on a difficult issue is ... and why.
Q: In that spirit of writerly objectivity — and presuming you DO have an opinion on the issue you'll be writing about as you start a new book — have you ever finished a manuscript and discovered you've done a 180 on the issue or at least had the original core belief shaken somewhat?
A: I can think of two books where I changed my mind, in some way, if not 180 degrees. When I wrote "Change of Heart" about the death penalty, I was anti-death penalty. But in the course of writing the book, and meeting with men on death row as well as families of victims, I realized that the reason I was anti-death penalty was not why I thought. It really wasn't about money or recidivism — it just boiled down to whether or not you believe people can change for the better. If not, you want to remove them from the gene pool — that's being pro-death penalty, and in my heart, I don't feel comfortable with that sentiment.
The other book that surprised the hell out of me was "Small Great Things." I believed I was a good person, not a racist. While writing that book, I learned a lot of stuff about myself and implicit bias that was not particularly flattering. I learned that racism isn't just prejudice, it's power — and because of that, if you're white, you hold the winning lottery ticket. To that end, if you are not actively fighting to make the world more racially equitable every single day, you're part of the structure of systemic abuse. Not all racists are skinheads. They are also well-meaning white people who do not want to dismantle the system that currently benefits them. Before I wrote that book, I hardly ever talked about race. After all, I didn't HAVE to. Now, I don't shut up about it.
Q: "A Spark of Light" utilizes a fantastic time-reversal narrative structure reminiscent of the film "Memento." It's an exhilarating reading experience, with several main characters and points of view, BUT, in an age of shortened attention spans, were you worried the structure might alienate your readers?
A: From a personal standpoint, I don't want to write the same book over and over — I want to challenge myself. (I asked) "How, as a writer, do I pull off a twist when I technically know the ending on page one?"
Do I think it turned off some readers? Sure. But then again, I've spent years being slighted by highbrow critics for writing commercial fiction, when I think writing about moral relativism is quite different than genre fiction, a sort of hybrid. This temporal device is a highly literary one. If anyone who reads this book can still think of it as a "beach read" given the structure and the content, I'd love to hear it.
Q: It was probably great fun to write, but not easy.
A: I knew that, metaphorically, this story had to be told backward. It was really, really challenging to structure. I am not a meticulous outline kind of writer, but I had a 40-plus-page outline that I worked from, making sure that every hour followed the narrative thread for each character. I wrote it exactly in the order in which you read it.
What's MORE interesting is that the book originally had 16 narrators. My editor wanted me to cut it to seven ... and I ended up getting to keep eight narrators. But the challenge was that I had to cut the number of speakers without cutting any of the thread of action, which meant that someone else remaining had to pick up the narrative. When I finished, I made my husband go out and get different color Post-its, and I flagged each narrative voice. I read each of them, by character, from end to beginning, to make sure the story was intact. Then I edited it in total in the other direction — from page one to the end.
Q: "A Spark of Light" was published a year ago at a time when this country seemed fractured almost terminally. Arguably, it's gotten worse. There's always hope that shines through your work, and maybe even a bottom-line belief that people are essentially good. Is this true, and has any of this been shaken by events since the last election?
A: "Spark" was published the week of Kavanaugh's confirmation. I honestly didn't think this could get more relevant than that. I was wrong. Since its publication, we have seen the advent of "heartbeat" laws in Louisiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama. It is now illegal to perform an abortion there after there is fetal cardiac pole activity — often before a woman even knows she is pregnant. This is inherently problematic. For example, where are the pro-life protesters fighting against organ donation, in which there is also a heartbeat, and no brain activity? If cardiac activity is the qualification for "life," at least be consistent...
However, that's the point. Pro-life advocates have gone on record saying that the flood of legislation in the south and Bible Belt restricting abortion rights is meant to go to appeals court — in the hopes that it forces the Supreme Court to take up the issue of Roe v. Wade. Why? Because now that Kavanaugh is on the court, they believe they can get it overturned. So what does that mean? Most likely that abortion will become available on a state-by-state basis. This means there will be large swaths of states with no clinics. Rich women will be able to continue to have abortion care. Poor women and women of color will be impacted. We will likely see a rise in maternal death from unsafe abortion, since in the 1950s when abortion was illegal, millions of procedures still happened — just not safely.
Finally, we will also see a highly strapped system of welfare and foster care since the forced births will not be rosy-cheeked white babies prime for adoption, but babies born addicted, babies with severe health issues that require lifelong care, and mothers that literally cannot afford to feed, clothe, or house those children.
So yes — things have gotten worse. There is a reason my tour is taking me through several states where their last abortion clinic is under direct threat.
If you go
Who: Jodi Picoult and Luanne Rice
What: A discussion about Picoult's career and bestselling abortion novel "A Spark of Light"
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London
How much: $20-$30 includes signed copy and opportunity to meet the author
For more information: (860) 444-7373