The news best-selling author Jodi Picoult received while writing her latest novel, “Sing You Home,” wasn’t exactly a surprise.
The novel, Picoult’s eighteenth, was released earlier this month and debuted at #1 on both the USA Today and New York Times book lists. It introduces Zoe, a music therapist who is divorced by her husband, Max, after their long-awaited baby is stillborn. After years of infertility, Max retreats into alcoholism and later a fundamentalist church, while Zoe stumbles through her days in a blur until Vanessa — a school counselor who just happens to be a lesbian — helps her find joy again.
In Picoult’s gently crafted romance, Zoe falls in love with Vanessa. After a Massachusetts wedding, the two women set out to have a baby using the embryos Zoe froze during her marriage to Max.
But when Max decides the embryos should instead go to his conservative Christian brother and sister-in-law, the scene is set for a courtroom showdown replete with everything from a feisty feminist lawyer to a grandstanding right-wing preacher.
And as Picoult was immersed in writing the quickly paced and moving novel, her son Kyle was also writing a college admissions essay about being gay.
“That really suddenly made the book incredibly personal to me,” says Picoult, who had suspected her son might be gay. “I wasn’t just on a philosophical mission, I was on a mom’s mission.”
Picoult reads from “Sing You Home” March 21 at St. Mark United Methodist Church. In a unique twist, Picoult also wrote song lyrics to accompany major sections of the book. Her friend, musician Ellen Wilber, set the songs to music and will be on hand to sing them.
Picoult spoke with the GA Voice about gay issues, learning about lesbian sex, interviewing the religious right, and what it will take to win equality for same-sex couples.
GA Voice: What prompted you to write a book with gay rights as a central theme?
Picoult: I think in America it is the last universal set of human rights we haven’t granted. It embarrasses me as someone who has long had friends and relatives that are gay, and I have travelled enough too to know America is one of the only places that is like this. Other countries look at us and wonder.
While I was writing the book, my son Kyle came out to me. That really suddenly made the book incredibly personal to me. I wasn’t just on a philosophical mission, I was on a mom’s mission.
Did that change any of your plans for the plot or how the book would be written?
I knew where the book was headed and I knew what I wanted to say, but this just gave me a really personal connection. I really wanted this book to succeed and wanted those characters to leap off the page and into readers’ hearts.
Two of your three narrators, Zoe and Vanessa, are lesbians. Did you do specific research about how to write about lesbian relationships?
I actually interviewed a lesbian couple who were gracious enough to open their homes and lives to me. It was interesting because it was the first interview where I had to ask, “So, what is the sex like?” And they said, well, it is just like anyone else’s — sometimes great and sometimes boring. Hopefully what we see in the book is the normality at all.
Vanessa tells readers that everyone always asks about the sex, and she mentions that the cellulite doesn’t matter, and it is about the journey. As a lesbian, I wish I could say we don’t still worry about the cellulite, but joking aside, why did you think it was important to specifically address the issue of sex?
I always start my public readings with the sex line [from Vanessa]. I don’t know why, but it is one of those cultural things — lesbians are supposed to be hot. When I read that line, immediately they sit up.
You don’t want to dance around it when that is what everyone is thinking about, and that is what makes people squirm.
They throw up all kinds of excuses for opposing gay rights [like gay people will recruit in kindergarten and end marriage as we know it], but they are all really red flags. There is a veil of secrecy about gay relationships. People assume they are extremely sexual and very brazen, and I have not met gay and lesbian people who are like that. Those aren’t the friends I have made and those aren’t the relatives I have.
The fear of the unknown is something that breeds discrimination, and when you pull back that curtain, you see the wizard is really just a man, and all of a sudden maybe you can open your eyes a little wider and not be as scared.
Zoe and Vanessa’s relationship develops very quickly – five months from first date to fighting in court for frozen embryos to have a baby. This echoes an old joke: “What do lesbians bring on a second date? A U-Haul.”
[Laughs] The timeline was really needed for the sake of the embryos and the sake of the storyline. I was not trying to buy into the lesbian mythology!
In some of your books, it is difficult to discern which “side” you are on. In “Sing You Home,” it is clear that your sympathy lies with Zoe and Vanessa. Did you ever worry that this book would be criticized more as a political statement than a novel?
If you look at the air time the Christian right gets in the book, they get their say. When you and I read it, we think, “Really?!” We come at it with a value judgement. But someone with that philosophy will read it and say that is what I believe. …
What I tried to do with Zoe is let you see her as a person, not a political platform.
In your research, you interviewed a source with Focus on the Family, a conservative group that includes ex-gay ministry, who believes she is no longer “gay-identified.” Have you heard any reaction from them since the book, well, came out?
The woman I interviewed has left the organization, and I haven’t heard back from them. I really do give them credit — they knew what I was writing about and they were still willing to talk and we had an extensive interview. I applaud the fact that they wanted their point of view told accurately.
What has been the general reaction to the book from your fans and readers?
It has really been extremely positive. And it’s not just from LGBTQ people, but from straight people who said, “I consider myself conservative and this really made me think.”
I’ve heard from people who said, “I left my church. I just couldn’t reconcile their position on gay rights because I know gay people,” and that is really beautiful.
And I have had kids come through the signing line at the bookstore who say, “I want to give this book to my dad, because he doesn’t understand,” and that is really powerful.
I want to point out that most Christians are incredibly generous and tolerant and accepting. It is a very vocal minority right now that has the pulpit and the megaphone, and that is who I am talking about in this book.
Top photo: Jodie Picoult (Publicity photo)