Jodi Picoult © Nina Subin

Writes… and Rights

12th October 2018

Jodi Picoult is an author who always comes out of her corner fighting. Kathy Walton talks to her about her controversial new novel…

They say that life often mirrors art – and on the very day I interview Jodi Picoult about her latest novel A Spark Of Light (in which an armed man breaks into an abortion clinic), a Marie Stopes centre in West London wins its legal battle to maintain a 100 metre buffer zone between pro-life protesters and women using the clinic.

Jodi, 52, is on a ten venue UK tour, culminating in a visit to Chorleywood on 1 November as part of Chorleywood LitFest, and she reminds me that, by further coincidence, America is currently in the throes of a Supreme Court nomination that could overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that made abortion legally available.

The timing could hardly be more apposite; the plot of A Spark Of Light works backwards, very cleverly, to reveal how patients, staff, a police hostage negotiator and a deranged gunman find their lives colliding during a stand-off in a women’s reproductive health services clinic. As each detail emerges, the reader is challenged with balancing the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn child.

Given the theme of the novel – her 25th – Jodi is well aware that it is bound to trigger heated debate wherever she goes. Most of her novels do, as it happens; she’s not one to dodge a contentious subject. In fact, just mentioning American abortion law is like lighting a touch paper.

“Those who hope to overturn Roe v Wade are quick to say that they aren’t ‘banning abortion’ but just giving the decision back to the states,” she explains passionately. “What’s most problematic is that in conservative states, there has been a barrage of laws [more than 280 since 2012] restricting access to abortion. Without Roe, the seven states that already have only a single remaining clinic will lose that facility and more will likely follow – which means that women become victim of their own zip code for access to reproductive rights.”

Jodi could never have predicted that her subject matter would prove so topical on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of publication, and says she drew her inspiration for the novel from two very different personal experiences.

When she was a student, a friend got pregnant and, after many tearful conversations, decided to have an abortion at seven weeks, with ‘100%’ support from Jodi. Several years later Jodi nearly lost her third child, also at seven weeks, and recalls that she was devastated. “To me, that was already a child,” she says.

It marked a turning-point that has caused her to argue ever since that “how we feel about reproductive rights changes, not just whether we define ourselves as pro-life or pro-choice, but for an individual woman over the course of her own lifetime.”

She goes on: “What a woman feels is right at 16 might not be what she feels at 30 or 40. Laws are black and white, but women are a thousand shades of grey, which is what makes legislating reproductive rights problematic. That’s the message I want to get across to readers.”

She is even hoping that message will get to President Trump. In 2014, Jodi famously said that, of all her novels, she wanted President Obama and America’s National Rifle Association (which lobbies for guns for all) to read Nineteen Minutes, which describes the repercussions for a small town of a fatal high school shooting. Four years later, she wants the present occupier of the White House to read A Spark Of Light. “Most specifically, I would like to pose this question to him: if the debate over reproductive rights is about the point at which a foetus becomes a person who has the right to bodily autonomy, then, by the same logic, at what point does the woman stop being a person who deserves the same right?” She draws breath and chuckles… “assuming that President Trump can read....”

Jodi’s novels have been translated into 34 languages, with an estimated 14m currently in print worldwide. Her popularity rests largely on her extraordinary ability to tackle a theme, not head-on, but from all sides, with each character compelling the reader to engage with the issue from their point of view, until we reach the often jaw-dropping dénouement. No matter how hard you try, you never see the twist coming.

Indeed, it is hard to think of any other novelist who embraces subjects as varied – and sometimes as harrowing – as those that Jodi explores, while also making her stories so easy to read. Her delicate themes include the ethics of organ donation within a family (My Sister’s Keeper); bereavement as experienced by both humans and elephants (Leaving Time, which ends with what must surely be best twist, ever); and child abuse (Perfect Match).

So is there a subject she wouldn’t touch?

“I haven’t run across one yet, though there have definitely been some that have given me pause,” she admits, citing her 2016 novel Small Great Things, which looked at cultural appropriation (when, for example, a writer imagines what life is like for people of other races) through the eyes of a Black woman. She stresses the capital B. “My audience really was white people [who can’t] recognise the role white privilege plays in institutional racism. I really thought long and hard because race is complicated and cultural appropriation in publishing is real.”

On a lighter note, she says she is delighted that we Brits were so thrilled when she dedicated her 2013 novel The Storyteller (about forgiveness and redemption) to us, and insists that visiting Britain is a highlight of every publication for her. She says she loves the passion with which we read, the questions we ask her at book events and our belief (“you may be right”) that everything can be made better with a cup of tea.

Once her promotional tour is over, she plans to take it easy at the New Hampshire lake house she shares with her husband of nearly 30 years and their three adult children, along with various pet birds and animals. But don’t imagine she will go completely native.

“My kids say that if I were stranded on a desert island and allowed to bring only one thing, I’d choose the internet. Hell hath no fury like me when my wifi crashes. It’s actually more relaxing for me to be able to answer the 200 emails I get each day from fans, instead of knowing that it’s piling up while I’m off the grid.”

She might unwind occasionally by kayaking down at the lake, but happily for her legions of fans, she confides (please don’t tell anyone) that next up, “you can expect a book that explores a transgender kid.”

As I say, never one to duck a sensitive issue…

Jodi Picoult will be discussing ‘A Spark Of Light’ at a lunchtime event on Thursday 1 November, at The Junction, Christ Church, Chorleywood, as the guest of Chorleywood Bookshop.
There will be a sandwich buffet served from 11.45am, with the talk at 1pm, followed by a Q&A. Vouchers cost £25 and include the lunch and a pre-signed copy of ‘A Spark Of Light’ (rrp £16.99).
01923 283566 or
www.chilternbookshops.co.uk

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