Nothing off-limits for novelist Jodi Picoult

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday June 23, 2009

Jodi Picoult has become one of the most prolific, popular, and celebrated writers of this generation. The Boston Globe got it best when they wrote: "Picoult writes with a fine touch, a sharp eye for detail, and a firm grasp of the delicacy and complexity of human relationships." Her novels are uncannily timely and have delved into such topics as stem-cell research (current bestseller Handle with Care), Eugenics, (Second Glance), school shootings (Nineteen Minutes), teen suicide (The Pact), and religious miracles (Keeping Faith). Of particular interest to our readers is the fact that come 2011, we will see the release of a book that focuses on issues close to the GLBT community. But we'll get to that.

Having been a New York Times bestselling novelist for years, her stock rose when
My Sister's Keeper was released and became a worldwide phenomenon. The book is about a little girl born to be a donor for her leukemia-stricken older sister, who then sues her parents for the right to control her own body. The novel was passed on from reader to reader, usually with a packet of Kleenex and the bittersweet warning "you won't believe the ending."

After fifteen books, three Lifetime movies and one play adaptation from her novels, the first major-motion picture based on her most celebrated work is finally hitting the big screen. Directed by Nick Cassavettes (The Notebook) and starring Cameron Diaz and Abigail Breslin, My Sister's Keeper opens wide on June 26, 2009.

I contacted Jodi at her home in New Hampshire where she was battling the remnants of a very nasty cold. With a stay-at-home husband and three teenagers, she is, in turns a soccer-mom, wife, and world-wide bestselling author who not only went to Princeton but worked on Wall Street before deciding to make it a go as a writer.

Having known Jodi for about five years now, I always look forward to speaking with her. Her manner is down-to-earth, breezy, and refreshingly blunt. No subject is off limits and she makes no excuses for her opinions and beliefs.

A new ending?

EDGE: So what was the process of My Sister’s Keeper coming to the screen?

Picoult: It was bought by Fine Line...who gave it to New Line because I guess they thought it was more commercial. Keep in mind, the book had just come out. It’s not really selling much yet. But the book then became the little engine that could. And eventually became a book that sold 18 million copies. And I think it got bigger and bigger and bigger, and at the same time, New Line got eaten up by Warner Bros. and all of a sudden we were a Warner Bros. film.

As Jodi tells it, writer Jeremy Leven (who adapted The Notebook for the screen) was brought on to write the film and possibly direct. But he did the one thing that would have every Picoult fan aghast: He wanted to change the ending.

Picoult: I had never talked to anybody at New Line. Ever. And I finally said I wanted to talk to [executive Meredith Finn]. I said, "Before you make this decision, can I just plead my case?" And I told her why I thought the ending was so endemic to the story. And why I thought it was what had sold 18 million copies of that book. And she said, "That’s exactly the reason I got it. A friend gave it to me and said ’I can’t tell you what happens. Just read it.’" [So] I said, "isn’t it worth then thinking about why that ending works?

Shortly after, Picoult explained, Nick Cassavettes was hired on as the writer and director of the project. Having handled the phenomenally successful book-to-movie adaptation of The Notebook, it seemed like a perfect fit. [Jodi and Nick] discussed the book together, to which he finally told her that he promised if he changed the ending for the movie, he’d personally let her know and would tell her why. Two weeks after he was hired, he called Jodi to tell her that he re-read the book and that she was right. It was the right ending. But here comes the inevitable Hollywood twist...

Picoult: I got an email from a fan who worked at a casting agency who wrote to tell me "we just got the script for My Sister’s Keeper. Did you know they changed the ending?" I hadn’t heard it from Nick and that still hurts me. Ultimately, it is his to do what he wants with it. That’s what it means when you sign the rights away to a property. I still don’t really know why he changed the ending or why he thought that was the right ending for his film. It is his prerogative. Do I still think it’s a good film? Absolutely. I’ve seen it. I applaud him for getting some of the strongest acting I’ve ever seen out of those actors. I applaud him for keeping the narrative structure of the book where different people narrate at different times. I applaud him for creating a beautifully filmed, emotionally resonant movie. Ultimately for me... it is a different message than what I intended in the book. It’s not going to have the same impact.

Gay rights advocacy

EDGE: Without giving anything away for those that want to still read the novel, what is your explanation for why you ended it the way you did?

Picoult: It is the only ending that will shock [the fictional Fitzgerald family] out of a cycle of self destruction. Any other ending... ANY other ending... and believe me, I’ve tried others... would keep them making the same mistakes. It is also an enormous shock for the reader. And it sticks with you because it’s such a shock. The reason that it’s such a shock is that you, like the Fitzgeralds, have taken something very important for granted.

The jury is out on whether or not her fans will embrace the changes. But as Jodi has told them, "you can always go back and read the book." Regardless of how it turns out, Jodi releases a book every Spring so there will always be more for her fans to look forward to. Her writing process is nine months long, something not lost on her. "It’s like a birth," she admits. Her 2010 book, House Rules, is about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who, like many kids with Aspergers , has a special passion for one particular subject. His is crime scene analysis. Which is fine until he winds up accused of a murder himself.

But it is the book after that which will resonate with Edge readers...

EDGE: So...? 2011?

Picoult: I’m very excited about that! It’s about gay rights. And in particular, what it means to be a family. It’s the story of a married couple (Max and Zoe), who after years of failed invitro attempts, several miscarriages and a still-birth, they call it quits. They can’t do it anymore. When the pair splits up, Max winds up becoming an alcoholic and spiraling into despair only to find redemption in his brother’s very right-wing Evangelical church. In the meantime, Zoe, who is a music therapist, winds up being contacted by a high school guidance counselor (Vanessa) to work with a suicidal teen. And as she and Zoe begin to bond over this kid’s case, Zoe realizes that she’s falling for Vanessa. She’s never been in a relationship with a woman before, but this is someone who she really loves. As a result of her failed fertility, she’s had a hysterectomy. But after she and Vanessa end up moving in together and having a commitment ceremony, she realizes that they want to have kids, and... she’s still got some frozen embryo’s left over from when she and her husband were together. With Vanessa, she has a viable uterus in which to carry them. At just about the same time, Max is coming to the conclusion his (very religious) brother and his brother’s wife, who have been so helpful getting his life back together, should be the ones to have the embryos that are left over. So, Zoe and Max end up going to court to decide who has the right to the embryos. And which of the couples makes the better family."

Jodi does much detailed research for each of her novels, and in the case of this book, she had to speak to a group that is much maligned in the gay community: Focus on the Family.

Picoult: Through Max’s character, I do plan on giving the perspective of the religious right. I did one of the most bizarre interviews of my life with a woman from Focus on the Family who considers herself ’ex-gay’. It was a really strange interview. They are tangled up in rhetoric. They say they get upset with the gay movement because: "Whatever happened to religious freedom in this country? [We] can’t even talk about what [we] believe because it’s considered wrong by the gay movement!" And I said, "Well, whatever happened to sexual freedom in this country?" I asked why, if they truly believed if you [are] happy being gay that you can stay being gay...that you don’t have to join the ex-gay movement... if that’s true then why do [they] have such a strong political arm? And they can’t really talk their way out of those things. It was a very frustrating interview for me to do. In a way, people like that are the hardest ones for me to argue with because you hit what I like to call the "Jesus Wall." Eventually they just say "because this is how it is" and they don’t want to hear reason. They don’t want to hear historical perspective.

In a way you almost can’t blame somebody for the strength of their convictions. But you can try to open their eyes. For example I asked her, "Do you worry that your message might not be given in it’s entirety to the people who look up to you? So what they take away might not be that you are doing this all out of love? What they hear is that it is wrong to be gay, because that’s what it says in the Bible?" And she said, "Yes, I can see where that would completely be a problem, but thank Goodness that hasn’t happened." And I said, "Excuse me! What about people who use that as an excuse to commit acts of violence?" And she said, "Oh well, that hasn’t happened." So I read her, like, seven headlines from the past two years. And she started to cry and she said, "That just breaks my heart because that’s not what Jesus wants from us." And to me that’s a really simple answer. Don’t take responsibility for it and pretend that you didn’t know it was happening. I find that very hard to believe.

EDGE: What interested you in gay rights?

Picoult: I think that gay rights are the last civil right in America. That I can think of. We’ve done the religious tolerance thing. We’ve done the race thing. And now it’s this. And because it does bother me that there are so many people vehemently opposed to things, that I find it hard to see the controversy. I don’t understand why there should be an issue over gay marriage. I just don’t get that. It’s interesting because I think people who say "Isn’t a civil union good enough?"... Well, no it’s really not good enough. Because if you cross state lines it’s not really valid. And if you happen to be on vacation in Disneyworld and you got married in Vermont and your partner falls off of Space Mountain, you still have to fight twice as hard to get into the emergency room with them. And because when you go to have a baby with IVF and you’re a lesbian couple, you have to worry about adopting that baby immediately after it’s born. So that you have some kind of legal control as a parent over that baby. All the things that I totally take for granted as a heterosexual woman who is married... I just don’t think it’s fair that someone who is gay should have to work twice as hard to get those same rights. And it’s not about the labels for me. It’s about the moments. It’s about being able to be by your partner’s side when he’s sick. It is about being able to say I’m little Jackie’s mom when you go into nursery school. It’s all those tiny things that everybody else takes as their due. And that’s what I meant by it’s not an issue. It’s just life. It’s just your life.

EDGE: Given the subject matter, were you worried about losing readership?

Picoult: Absolutely not. Because, first of all, I don’t need those people [that would oppose the subject matter] reading my books and they’re the ones that need to be reading it more than anything. The ones who are going to turn up their nose immediately and walk away are the ones that need to have their heads cracked open a little wider.

Hitting close to home

But there’s more to why she wanted to continue pursuing this topic. In the past year, it hit close to home.

Picoult: Here I was working up this book about gay rights and figuring out how I’m going to do this whole lesbian couple invitro thing, then my son Kyle [a seventeen year old Yale-bound senior) came out to us. And I was like, "well now I really have to write this book! Now I have to crusade for myself!" I feel it’s incredibly important because not everyone is like me. Not every parent is like me. I have friends unfortunately, or had friends, who don’t speak to me anymore. Who did not feel the same way when their kids came out to them. And whose kids did not get the support that I wish they had been able to have. And I know I have a very strong adolescent readership. In addition to an adult readership. For all those adults to realign their thinking, there are just as many adolescents who need to hear "I’m totally normal. And one day, there might just be hope for me. And I might have what everyone else has. And it won’t even be a problem." And that’s what I want this book to be to them.

EDGE: Obviously you’re a more open person, so I’m sure your reaction wasn’t as shocked. Did you have an inkling Kyle was gay?

Picoult: Totally! Totally! I firmly believe this is biological. I think you’re born this way. I think it’s who you are. And I could have told you a hundred times over the course of Kyle’s childhood, "hmmmm, he could be gay." But it wasn’t my call to make. He really needed to figure that out for himself. And I’m so incredibly proud of him for being brave enough to tell us. And not only tell us, but to tell the Yale Admissions Committee which is how he did it! He wrote this fantastic college essay about it and he gave it to me to read, and he said, "What do you think of this?" And I was like, "Well, this is really interesting." And obviously I wasn’t really reading it [as] a college essay anymore.

Kyle then continued his bravery by coming out to his friends and in turn, a few came out to him.

Picoult: I’m so happy that he is comfortable in his own skin. It didn’t matter who he was because he is my son. And I believe that 100%. And I don’t love him anymore because he’s gay. I don’t love him any less because he’s gay. I just love him because he’s Kyle."

With this revelation, I asked if I could speak with Kyle to inquire about his experience as a "newbie to the gay community" and how it’s affected him.

EDGE: Are you ready for some questions?

Kyle: I’m really happy you actually called me now, because then I don’t have to begin an essay on the relationship between neo-classicism and romanticism. So thank you!

EDGE: You’re welcome! So what’s it like having a famous author for a mom?

Kyle: I guess for me it’s not much different. She’s still, like, a mom. To other people I’ll tell them my mom is Jodi Picoult and they’ll say, "Oh my God you’re serious! You’re kidding, right?" And I’ll say, "She’s still a mom." She cooks, she goes grocery shopping. People love to assume I live in a mansion and have butlers and stuff and... I still have to clean my room... but the only thing different is that she leaves for the spring [to do a her book tours] and people know her more than other people’s moms.

EDGE: Have you read all her books?

Kyle: No. I’ve read, like, six. I had a goal of finishing all of them before going to college next year so I could say I read all of them, but it’s not gonna’ happen.

EDGE: Tell me the story about when you read "My Sister’s Keeper."

Kyle: Oh, the one she tells at every book signing?

EDGE: Yes.

Kyle: All I remember is that we used to have this love seat and that’s where I was reading it. And I was like, curled up on it, and so I finished it. And I was crying. And I think I went into my room and got really mad at her. And I was so upset that she had [done what she had at the end of the book] and I was pissed. And then the next day she was going grocery shopping and I was like, "I have to go with you and discuss the book." Because I had sort of gotten over my hatred for her and I wanted to know why she did it.

EDGE: How did you decide to come out to your family?

Kyle: I decided to write it in my college essay. [Originally] it wasn’t about me. It was about teaching someone to be themselves, um...

Kyle is suddenly distracted when Jodi comes back into the room to listen to Kyle’s answer. He reminds her she’s heard all of it before.

Kyle: See? She’s a mother! (He continues.) So then I changed it and inserted this large paragraph and she was obviously like, "yay!" But she already knew. I wasn’t surprised that she knew. My feeling is that if you didn’t know then you’re dumb.

This is funny, because Kyle doesn’t have any overt affectations. And judging from the pictures Jodi sent me, he’s destined to break some hearts.

Eventually, he gave the essay to the rest of his family and friends. He was a bit nervous about his father’s reaction but, as Kyle tells it, "he just hugged me. He was awesome." One friend wasn’t around when he made his big reveal so when he finally spoke to her he said, "in case you didn’t get the memo, I’m gay." Her response? "Well, duh."

There are other gay kids in his liberal school (close to Dartmouth) and he hasn’t had to deal with any fallout from his coming out. The people he expected to have issues with it, haven’t said anything. His official public foray was when he finally got a Facebook account and made sure that he put the fact that he was gay on his profile. "It’s the first thing I check [on other people’s profiles.] I’m such a creeper!"

EDGE: (jokingly) So how do you feel about being an icon to the gay community once this gets published?

Kyle: Maybe I’d get to meet some of the celebrities I want to?

EDGE: Who do you want to meet?

Kyle: Oh my God, you have no idea. I want to meet Jake Gyllenhaal so bad.

EDGE: I asked Jodi to sum up her feelings about the gay issue now that it has become more personal for her. And also what she really wants to say with her forthcoming book.

Picoult: The idea for me is to talk about how... when you talk about the issue of gay rights... when you talk about it as a political platform... that to me is demeaning to the gay community. Because I don’t think any of you signed up to be poster children. I think you are just trying to live your life. And the whole point for me in writing this book was to target the little old lady with blue hair in Mississippi who’s never met one of "them gays." So that [by reading the book] she meets someone, identifies with that person in literature, and hears that voice very clearly and distinctly. I think once you hear the voice of someone who is gay or lesbian, they don’t become a threat anymore. They just become people you know.

My Sister’s Keeper opens nationwide on June 26. Her current bestseller Handle with Care is out in hardcover, and expect her next opus in the Spring of 2010. The gay rights book, which will certainly stir up debate and make her a hero for the gay community, arrives Spring 2011. Gay Pride Grand Marshall, anyone?

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.

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