Jodi Picoult once said superstition prompted her to write issue-driven books that put her 'through the emotional wringer’. The US author’s global hit My Sister's Keeper, which became a Hollywood movie, featured a young girl with leukaemia whose sister rebels against her role as a bone-marrow donor, while her latest novel, A Spark of Light, is set in a reproductive clinic where those inside are taken hostage by a gun-toting protester.
The new story, remarks Picoult who is appearing at Off The Shelf in Sheffield for the 2018 festival’s closing event, is certainly prescient.
“In America women’s reproductive rights are even more under threat than before, so maybe I was trying to protect that, subconsciously,” she says, bringing up the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, a lawyer accused of sexual assault, to the United States’ Supreme Court with the full endorsement of president Donald Trump.
As well as the abortion debate, A Spark of Light touches on gun control and racism, three incredibly emotive issues, but Picoult – one of the most popular fiction writers in the world, whose last nine books have debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list – doesn’t worry about becoming a target for right-wing opposition.
“These people send me hate mail, and email, and pop up on my social media feed all the time. I will engage in a conversation with anyone who thinks differently from me, but if they call me names or curse or threaten me or my family, they’re blocked. I think it’s far more important to speak my own truth than to be cowed by their antics.”
In Picoult’s novel, as in real life, there is only one women’s health clinic that provides abortions in Mississippi. The gunman George Goddard’s daughter, it turns out, went to the facility for a termination, while the other characters include African-American travelling doctor Louie Ward and Wren, a 15-year-old visiting for a birth control prescription.
The story is intended to reveal the complexity of balancing the right to life with the right to choose; during her extensive research, which involved shadowing a real abortion medic, Picoult quizzed 151 women who had terminated pregnancies. The women, who came forward on Twitter, were asked to fill in a 'very specific’ 10-page questionnaire.
“I felt I needed to speak to that many to really get a sense of why women were making that choice – and like statistics show, the vast majority did because of economic reasons. However, the circumstances of what led to that decision were as varied as the women themselves. Of the women I spoke to, only one regretted her decision.”
All thought about the abortion daily, but one thread united them – ‘feeling shame’. There is, she says, 'a sort of internalised oppression’ around abortion. “We have been told, repeatedly and clearly, that women who do this should know better or be blamed for ‘getting themselves’ into that situation.”
Fewer than 25 of those who filled in the survey were willing to be acknowledged by name in print, albeit mostly by initial or pseudonym. “That devastated me. It’s time to take back the narrative. I hope A Spark of Light encourages women to have the courage to tell their abortion story, so that in the future, another woman might be equally as brave.”
Picoult shadowed Dr Willie Parker at the West Alabama Women's Health Centre. “He is one of the fiercest champions of women I have ever met, and he is a devout Christian. An abortion, he feels, should not be the benchmark by which a woman will measure her entire life. He is also one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met, and by far the biggest feminist.”
She observed, first hand, three abortions at five, eight and 15 weeks – and doesn’t flinch from describing the details. “The five and eight-week abortions took less than three minutes. The products of conception were nothing remarkable. The 15-week abortion, however, took seven minutes and mixed among the products of conception were very tiny body parts – a hand, an elbow.”
The woman who had the latest termination had three children under four, ‘and couldn’t afford another’, Picoult says. “Did that make her a very bad mom… or a very good one? I left that experience awed not just by the courage of the doctors who are on the front lines of the abortion debate, but moved by the courage of the women who, in spite of literally having to walk through a gauntlet of protesters, make this decision.”
Picoult – who answered questions over email – doesn’t believe legislation is the answer to solving the abortion debate; indeed, she says, ‘there is no scientific agreement on when life actually begins’. But she does suggest measures such as increasing the US minimum wage, universal healthcare and government-funded daycare. Does she believe these ideas are realistic in America today?
“Not right now, for sure,” she says. “But I do believe the arc of moral justice curves toward the progressive. It just takes time.”
Under President Trump, the issues covered in A Spark of Light often seem more intractable than ever. Does Picoult think the USA can recover from his presidency - and how?
“The USA, and the planet, have been deeply traumatized by his sham of a presidency,” she says. “This is a man who thrives on dividing, rather than united; who mocks and bullies; who cages children at the
border; who has made America a punch line. Another president will eventually correct that. However, Trump has unleashed a Pandora’s box and he has created a national platform for hate speech and racism and has normalized the language and behaviour of white supremacists who formally were at the fringes of society. That is going to be very hard to stuff back into a box. The longer he remains in office and touts the ludicrous lie that straight white men are the ones who are being threatened, the more we will see voices being silenced: those of women, people of colour, immigrants, LGBTQIA. Moreover, his reversal of environmental policies has already caused irrevocable damage to our planet.”
Picoult, 52, was born in Nesconset, New York, on Long Island, where her childhood was ‘ridiculously happy’, she told The Guardian in 2009. When she was 13, her family – who she has described as ‘non-practising Jewish’ – moved to New Hampshire, where she still lives in the small town of Hanover with her husband of nearly 30 years, Timothy Warren van Leer, and their three children.
Her grandmother and mother were teachers, and she has credited them both with being a ‘tremendously important' influence, instilling her with a ‘sense of busyness’. She wrote stories from a young age and studied creative writing at Princeton University where she met Timothy – after graduating she edited textbooks and taught eighth-grade English then, while pregnant with her first child, wrote her debut novel Songs of the Humpback Whale, published in 1992.
In the years since, more than 25 million copies of her books have been sold across 35 countries. She has written roughly a novel a year since the early 1990s - could she ever envisage taking an extended break?
“A few years ago I started writing books every two years, thinking I’d have time to relax,” she says. “Well, nope. Instead I filled the time with another kind of writing: librettos for Broadway. I helped to adapt one of my novels, Between The Lines, which is about to go off-Broadway this summer, and with the same creative team I am currently writing the libretto of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. If I ever took an extended break you’d probably find me in the Maldives.”
Jodi Picoult is at the Pennine Theatre, Owen Building, Sheffield Hallam University, Howard Street, tonight (October 30) at 7pm. Ticket price of £18/£17 includes a signed copy of A Spark of Light.
‘Do you ever hear anyone called a male fiction author?’
Jodi Picoult objects to being pigeonholed as a producer of ‘women’s fiction’.
“Female writers in particular need to continuously challenge the arbitrary label,” she says. “My fan mail is 50 per cent male... and yet I get called a women’s fiction author. You do the math. We know that women read male and female authors but that men tend to only read men – and I believe that’s because of the gross mislabelling of female writers as women’s fiction writers. Do you ever hear anyone called a male fiction author? When a book is called women’s fiction it has less to do with the content than with the genitalia of the author.”
Her book Small Great Things, she recalls, won an award in Poland for the best romance novel. “Now, I love romance as a genre, and I know amazing, talented romance authors. But Small Great Things doesn’t even have a kiss in it.”
The problem, she believes, lies in the institution of publishing, where the gatekeepers – agents, executives, reviewers of literary journals – are ‘still overwhelmingly cisgender white males’.
In 2016, Picoult joined the board of Vida: Women in Literary Arts, which calculates an annual breakdown of the number of men reviewed versus women, as well as the amount of female reviewers. “As a result of their hard work, some of these literary establishments have recalibrated towards equity. But some have not… and don’t seem to care.”