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Looking for answers
Jodi Picoult embraces shades of grey

Jodi Picoult has written 11 novels in the past 13 years, many hopping onto the New York Times best seller list. Her newest, My Sisterís Keeper, will debut at No. 11 this Sunday, coinciding with a four-stop visit April 23 and 24 in Rhode Island, the setting for this book. Picoult jumped into writing after several post-college jobs (including work at an ad agency and teaching eighth-grade English), and she published her first book just after her first son was born. She and her husband live in New Hampshire, with two sons and a daughter.

In her fiction, Picoult has tackled many difficult contemporary issues, including teen suicide (The Pact was made into a cable-TV film), sexual abuse by priests (Perfect Match), and now, in My Sisterís Keeper, the consequences of a genetically-engineered child, born to provide umbilical stem cells to an older sister with leukemia. Unfortunately, that sister has a very difficult kind of cancer and, at 13, Annaís body has been harvested many times, for blood cells, for bone marrow, and now possibly for a kidney for Kate. The numerous medical procedures have taken their toll on the whole family, including older brother Jesse, firefighter dad Brian, and former lawyer mom Sara. As for Anna, her decision to sue her parents for the right to make decisions about her own body sets the novel in motion.

Picoult is a whirlwind of energy, currently promoting the book on a 41-stop tour. She won the 2003 New England Booksellers Award for fiction, and she has a dedicated group of readers who eagerly await each new book. She spoke with me from a Manhattan hotel.

Q: Which authors have influenced you over the years?

A: The book that I remember really making made me want to be a writer was Gone With the Wind ó I loved the fact that you could create a whole world out of words. In college, I read a lot of Hemingway, not because I find him such a fabulous feminist by any means, but because he can say so much with so few words. When I left college, the writer who most influenced me was Alice Hoffman, who, I think, makes this job look so easy.

Q: What made you set this novel in Rhode Island?

A: I write a lot about New England, and I hadnít set anything in Rhode Island. I spent a lot of time there researching another book. Besides that, you have just got to love a family that lives in Providence but doesnít have a lot of hope left. Plus, there are these little details about living in Rhode Island that only people in the area will pick up on. Things like the judge needing to drink coffee milk.

Q: How did you juggle so many characters in this book?

A: For me, it wasnít hard. It was a necessary evil. The first one I conceived was Anna, and I realized almost immediately that if I was going to tell her story, I was also going to have to tell the story from her parentsí point of view. That made me think that Jesse should have a say and while I was at it, I might as well let her attorney speak. I realized that every character had the right to tell the reader why they made the choices they made. I really do think itís up to the reader to decide whoís right and whoís wrong, if thatís even possible. The point is that not one single character could give you this book; you need a quilt made up of all of the patches of their voices.

Q: What was it like to write the character of Jesse?

A: Jesse was one of my all-time favorites. He was the easiest, because Jesseís all heart; he just doesnít realize it. Itís a matter of sliding that characterís brain into your own head and thinking from it. Which is really no different than Iíve asked any reader to do.

Q: What part of your own experience with an ill child [her son Jake needed multiple surgeries on his ears to remove benign tumors that would eventually burrow into his brain] got into the book?

A: I can tell you exactly what it felt like to tell my other kids, "Weíre going to be missing Open School Night, ícause Jake has a surgery," or "Guess what?Youíre moving your birthday party and thatís it." I can remember what it felt like watching Jake being given anesthesia and to think, "Just take off my ear, letís just not do this to him again." No matter how angry you get at Sara, you have to remember that cancer or illness in any family ó illness is its own cancer and spreads throughout an entire family to where everyone is affected, not just the sick child. As a mom, facing that, you do say things to your other kids that youíre not proud of. You do wind up getting to a point where it rules your life, and you let it do that, because if you step back and look at the big picture youíd be overwhelmed and youíd get really upset. And thatís why Sara is the way she is. It was very important to me to write that mindset. Sara is not me. She is very matter-of-fact; she canít give you any emotion, because she will break down.

Q: What issue was uppermost in your mind in writing this book?

A: When I finish a book, I donít always know the answers, but I know Iíve given it a really good thrashing. You may not change someoneís point of view, but youíve probably made them see the other side. Thatís really what Iíd like to do.

This book to me is about the nature of stem cell research and the debate around it. I wanted to examine it, because itís become part of our national dialogue. Weíre going to hear a lot more about it come November. We have gotten to the point where we believe itís something that can be legislated or discussed by Congress or our president. We tend to forget that at the bottom of this are people who are living this every single day. This isnít a political platform. Itís a family. I really wanted to shine a spotlight on that. And to make people think really hard about what the nature of right and wrong is.

I canít tell you what the answer is here. I can tell you what I would do in the same positions as Sara and Brian. But I canít tell you that theyíre wrong. But I can also tell you that Annaís not wrong either. Weíre encouraged in America to see things as black and white. Iíd like people to close this book talking about all those shades of gray. I want readers to talk.

Jodi Picoult will read from My Sisterís Keeper on Friday, April 23 at 7 p.m. at Borders at Providence Place (401-270-4801); on Saturday, April 24 at 11 a.m. at the Avon Cinema (260 Thayer Street, Providence, followed by a book signing at noon at the College Hill Bookstore, 252 Thayer Street, Providence, 401-751-6404), and on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Kingston Free Library (2605 Kingstown Road, 401-783-8254). She will also appear on Reading with Robin on WHJJ (920 AM) on Saturday at 7 a.m.

Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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