An interview with Jodi Picoult

Bestselling, award-winning author Jodi Picoult’s newest novel, Sing You Home, features two women, Zoe and Vanessa, who fall in love and sue to gain custody of the embryos from Zoe’s previous marriage to a man name Max. Picoult is known for taking on hot topics — one of her more popular novels is My Sister’s Keeper, the story of a 13-year-old girl who sues her parents for medical emancipation when she’s expected to donate one of her kidneys to her sister—and this time around Picoult takes on gay rights, the Christian Right and reproductive science.

We spoke with Picoult about her inspiration for the novel and how readers have responded so far. In Sing You Home you tackle gay rights, reproductive science and the Christian Right. What inspired you to write about these subjects?

Jodi Picoult:
The idea began with gay rights. To me that is the last civil right that we have not granted in America and I think it’s an enormous embarrassment. I wanted to address the issue with people who would rather pretend it’s not an issue or people who are vocally opposed to gay rights without thinking about what it is that gay people want when they want to get married and have a family. I was thinking about it from a theoretical standpoint, a civil rights standpoint, but in the middle of writing [the book] my oldest son came out.

AE: That’s interesting.

It was great. I could have told you that he was gay when he was three years old. I was so happy for him and so proud of him and this book took on a very personal meaning for me. Kyle’s in college now and when he decides that he wants to get married and start a family I would like the world to be a little gentler and a little kinder. I would like the process to be a little easier for him.

AE: Both before and after your son’s coming out, did you feel pressure to “do right” by the LGBT community? Or even the Christian Right community, which is also represented here?

Any time you put on the mouthpiece of somebody that you’re not, there’s a professional responsibility to get it right. I did a great deal of research in both of those arenas. To start with, I met with several lesbian couples who were more than willing and happy to open up their lives and their struggles to me, which is incredibly kind because unlike asking questions like, “What do you do at work?” I was asking questions like, “What’s your sex life like?” That’s not something I usually ask my research subjects.

But people want to know and that’s what I needed to hear in order to come at the story the right way. I was really lucky to have some very generous women who were willing to talk with me. One of the things that I learned, of the women that I spoke to, was that about half of them were like Vanessa, who knew very young that they were attracted to women and had predominantly same-sex relationships, and then the other half were like Zoe. [The women like Zoe] had been in loving, committed relationships with a man but then had something in their past where they’d been attracted to a woman or even just fell in love with a woman after being in a relationship with a man. I wanted to represent that as well.

I dovetailed this with the story of embryo adoptions because many times I write about points where science has outstripped the law and this is one of those points. We have so many reproductive issues that are not legislated. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is no standard. Everything differs from state to state and case to case. To address the struggle to have a family as a lesbian couple by dragging in the question of who has the right to an embryo set it up for a terrific battle that allowed me to [also] drag in the Christian Right, who I thought would probably be the most vocal opponents.

AE: How did you research that perspective?

I went to Focus on the Family. I have to say I give them credit for even talking to me because I told them what I was [writing] about. I said it’s really important that I get your point of view right. I spoke with a woman who recently left the organization, Melissa Fryrear. She was one of the people who use to speak at the Love Won Out conferences. I had a six-hour conversation with her about her life and how she came to realize that she was “not a lesbian woman,” although she had been in a relationship for years, but that she was “gay-identified.” That’s the way they put it. You’re never gay. She [said that she] could change because she has been born again. And now she is, as she says, a heterosexual woman. She doesn’t even like to call herself a former gay person because she feels that she was ever anything less than a heterosexual woman. I said things to her like, “Have you slept with a man?” and she said, “Oh my gracious, no, because I’m not married and that would be against the Bible.”

AE: You use that line in the book.

I had this vision of her running for the hills on her wedding night. She has the language down. It’s not the “who,” it’s the “do,” and like I said, you’re never gay, you’re gay-identified. You’re not a lesbian, you have a “lesbian problem.” They almost can’t conceptualize in language a happy gay person. They assume that everyone gay must be suffering. They say that they don’t want to change everyone, just the people who want help. They also admit, if you push them, that when you go to these conferences you don’t get a stamp on your forehead and suddenly you’re not gay. Really deciding not to be gay is a matter of not acting on a natural inclination.