New York Times Bestselling novelist, screenwriter, editor, namer, critic, movie addict and chocoholic.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Jodi Picoult talks about Gay Rights, Infertility, and her new novel, Sing You Home
I can't tell you how thrilled and honored I am to be interviewing Jodi Picoult here. A number one New York Times bestselling author of 18 novels, the prolific Picoult tackles hot button issues by giving them a distinctly human face. In the sublime--and important-- Sing You Home, she writes about infertility and gay rights--which couldn't be more timely. A multimedia experience, the book also comes with a CD of songs that Jodi cowrote. I also want to say that Jodi is one of the most truly generous writers on the planet, with a heart the size of Jupiter, and she's also hilariously funny to boot! (Plus, she has amazing hair.)
Thank you, thank you, Jodi for taking time out of your crazily busy schedule to answer my questions.
You're an author who truly seems to inhabit your characters, and you create arresting, sympathetic portraits of people we might not initially be so sympathetic to. How difficult was it to create someone like Max, a fairly intolerant member of the Christian Right? Can you talk a bit about the process?
It was really hard to create Max. He had to be a sympathetic character but his views are (to me personally) abhorrent. I had to make him almost befuddled, so that he truly believes in what he's saying without realizing how hateful it is to some of the people who hear it.
That also meant doing research with an evangelical Christian group opposed to gay rights. I interviewed representatives from Focus on the Family,a group that supports the Defense of Marriage Act, opposes gay adoption, and (under the umbrella of Exodus International, which has since taken over) offers seminars to “cure” gay people of same-sex attraction. Like Pastor Clive in my novel, their objection to homosexuality is biblical. Snippets from Leviticus and other Bible verses form the foundation of their anti-gay platform; although similar literal readings should require these people to abstain from playing football (touching pigskin) or eating shrimp scampi (no shellfish). When I asked Focus on the Family if the Bible needs to be taken in a more historical context, I was told absolutely not – the word of God is the word of God. But when I then asked where in the Bible was a list of appropriate sex practices, I was told it’s not a sex manual – just a guideline. That circular logic was most heartbreaking when I brought up the topic of hate crimes. Focus on the Family insists that they love the sinner, just not the sin – and only try to help homosexuals who are unhappy being gay. I worried aloud that this message might be misinterpreted by those who commit acts of violence against gays in the name of religion, and the woman I was interviewing burst into tears. “Thank goodness,” she said, “that’s never happened.” I am sure this would be news to the parents of Matthew Shepherd, Brandon Teena, Ryan Keith Skipper, or August Provost – just a few of those murdered due to their sexual orientation - or the FBI, which reports that 17.6 percent of all hate crimes are motivated by sexual orientation, a number that is steadily rising.
One of the great joys about Max is that he, as a character, espouses a journey I hope that some people also take when they read my book. He begins with an opposition to gay rights because of what he's been told to believe by others. But when he tries to hold these beliefs up against the reality of the gay people he knows - and has loved - he sees that disconnection, and ultimately makes a decision not based on religious dogma but on personal ethics.
You seem to have your finger on the pulse of America in the topics you choose. Infertility and gay rights could not be more timely. Was there a moment when you knew this was the next novel? Or was there an image that jumpstarted the story for you?
It was the gay rights angle. I really think that’s the last civil right we have last to grant in the US and I wanted to explore the issue, and to see why those still opposed to gay rights are opposed. I'm a little stunned, given the previous controversies I've written about, that this one is the most offensive to some readers - who without even seeing the book, have said they refuse to read it because "of what it's about." Really?? Someone else's sexual orientation is more upsetting than, for example, the sexual abuse of children by priests?? But I like stirring the pot and getting people talking. However, this subject became a much more personal quest for me when my oldest son came out to me during the writing of the book. Suddenly, I wasn’t just writing something theoretical; I was hopeful the book could open minds enough so when Kyle wants to marry and have a family, it’s not a struggle.
I find it amazing and wonderful that you are always pushing the envelope, and Sing You Home is your first multimedia tour. Can you talk about how the idea of writing songs to go along with the novel came about? What was it like writing songs? And if every life has a soundtrack, what's yours? And wait--one more question--what other creative avenue might you be exploring next?
People who oppose gay rights often don’t know someone gay very well. If you do – if you have a relative or teacher or butcher who’s gay, you know they’re just ordinary people. I wanted readers to get to “know” someone gay – and Zoe’s the one I picked. I wanted readers to really listen to her. I could have given her a first person narrative (and did) but I wanted to go one step further. I wanted you to literally hear her voice, hear her pour her heart out to you in her songs…and THEN see if they can still dismiss her dreams of marriage and a family. My friend Ellen and I have collaborated before on original children's musicals that are performed by a local theater troupe to raise money for charity every year. We've done over 100 songs together, with me writing lyrics and Ellen writing music. So I asked her if she might be interested in a different kind of project, and she was very excited to be part of it.
My playlist? Great question…I’d say “Deathly” by Aimee Mann, “Jesus Etc.” by Wilco, “Rhythm of Love” by the Plain White Tees, “Beautiful Life” by Charlotte Martin, “Wreck of the Day” by Anna Nalick, “Never Saw Blue Like That” by Shawn Colvin, “Skin” by Rascal Flatts, “Taylor the Latte Boy” by Kristin Chenoweth, “The Way I Am” by Ingrid Michaelson, the Ragtime soundtrack, my son Jake singing “On the Street Where You Live,” and every single song on the Sing You Home soundtrack!
Next creative avenue? I don't know yet! It would have to be organic, the way The Tenth Circle took you into a graphic novelist's head and this book takes you into the heart of a musician. These aren't bells and whistles - they're different ways to take in a story, and they enrich the knowledge of the characters on the page.
Has being famous changed the way you write? Obviously, money is not a concern, but I'm really interested in the creative process.
Yeah - I have less time!! I have a really hard time saying no. I'm getting better, but still...I get about 25 requests a week to speaking engagements. I receive over 200 fan emails a day and I read and answer each one - I don't have an assistant or anything. But then I also get people asking me to send a letter to their grandma for her birthday, or to come to show and tell at their daughter's classroom -- sometimes it feels that fame is just another way of saying that everyone wants a piece of you. Don't get me wrong - it's a nice problem to have - but it still infringes on the time I have to write. For example, I'm doing so much advance media for Sing You Home that the "writing hours" are being eaten up...and that means staying up till about 2:30 in the morning writing each night so that I can finish a draft of the 2012 book before I leave on book tour.
I love your "What the heck do you mean by the end of..." questions on your blog. As someone who loves books that have a sort of never-ending story quality to them, I love it that your books don't tie things up or have easy answers, that readers are pushed to question what they think they know. Has any ending of any of your books stunned you by its unexpectedness? Did you ever start out having a definite viewpoint on one side of a topic only to find yourself on the other side when you had finished the book?
I've never changed my point of view about a controversial issue, but I have changed my reasons for believing what I believe. That happened when I began to research the death penalty for Change of Heart. And although I've never changed an ending, I am CONSTANTLY surprised by the way I get there. In Sing You Home, I had no idea that Max had a crush on his brother's wife until I started writing him. The whole time I was typing, I was thinking, "No no no, Max. Bad idea!" But of course I couldn't wait to see what trouble he got into.
What question didn't I ask you that I should have?
Do you expect backlash from people because you are writing about homosexuality?
And my answer: Let me tell you a little story that happened last week! I am doing a literary salon event in NYC that will be broadcast live. A website called Premiere Collectibles was going to sell autographed books to anyone who watched and wanted one. They offered to donate $2 of each sale to a charity of my choice. Great, right? I told them I wanted to donate to the Trevor Project, which provides support to gay teens. Well, all of a sudden they called my publisher and said they’d be happy to cut me a check to make a personal donation to the Trevor Project…but that they are an evangelical Christian company and worried about offending clients…so they couldn’t put that info on the website. Immediately, my publisher told them they could not sell my books, and that I wasn’t gonna be happy. I started tweeting about this, and my fans wrote emails to their customer service people about how it’s not a particularly Christian attitude to ignore suicidal gay teens – and all of a sudden, they called back the publisher. They had had a change of heart due to all those emails, and decided we were right, and they are now proudly supporting the Trevor Project on their website as a partner for donation. I think that Sing You Home will unfortunately alienate some readers whose minds are too narrow to let in light (to quote the lyric from one of the songs on the book’s CD). However, if even one mind is changed – if even one person who was anti-gay rights suddenly decides maybe there’s a point to equality for all – well, then I know I’ve succeeded.
Stay tuned, THIS OTHER LIFE has sold to Algonquin, my beloved publisher and I am busy writing it now. My 11th novel CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD is an Indie Next Pick. IS THIS TOMORROW was an May Indie Pick. I'm also the New York Times bestselling author of PICTURES OF YOU, a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick, a Costco "Pennie's Pick." a NAIBA bestseller and on the Best Books of 2011 List from San Francisco Chronicle, Providence Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Bookmarks Magazine. I'm the recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant in Fiction. I was a 2013 finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and a finalist in the Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellowship, four of my novels were optioned for screen, and I talked my way into writing the script for two of them. My essay, HIgh Infidelity, has been optioned for film. I'm a book critic for The San Francisco Chronicle and People Magazine. I teach novel writing for UCLA Extension Writers' Program, and Stanford online, do private fiction editing, and I am a professional namer! I live with my husband, writer/editor Jeff Tamarkin and we beam with pride about our son, an actor/filmmaker in college. Visit me at http://www.carolineleavitt.com.