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Interview: April 9, 2004

April 9, 2004

Jodi Picoult, author of MY SISTER'S KEEPER,, talks to's Bethanne Kelly Patrick and Carol Fitzgerald about why she chose the plot, her thoughts on her characters and what made her cry while she was writing. She also shares a glimpse at her next book, which is a work-in-progress.

BRC: What made you choose to write a book with a plot that concerns genetic planning, namely with one child being conceived as a possible donor for another?

JP: I stumbled over this idea by accident while I was researching my last novel, SECOND GLANCE. That book involved the VT eugenics project --- namely, how Vermont was one of twenty-six states in the US in the 1920s and 1930s that had a law on the books to sterilize people they felt were degenerate. When Hitler praised these laws during WWII, funding dried up --- as did the American Eugenics Society. The organization that moved into its corporate headquarters, believe it or not, is the Human Genome Project. In many ways, this incredibly advanced science has the potential to be "our" eugenics project, if it's used incorrectly.

I found an article about a family that was the first one in the US to conceive a child as a bone marrow match for an older, ill sibling. The newborn's cord blood stem cells were given to his sister; she went into remission; it's been three years. Happy ending, right? Well, I started to wonder what might happen if that sister goes OUT of remission --- if the brother would feel morally responsible. I wondered how he'd feel if his parents mentioned that he was conceived because his sister was sick. Of course, I was flashing forward, and offering the worst-case scenario ... but it seemed like such a heavy load to lay on a child. I started thinking about what that child might be like as a teenager --- an age when you normally try to figure out who you really are --- and so Anna Fitzgerald, and her family, were born.

BRC: How did you research this topic? Where did you begin? In the course of your research did you ever feel this story was too emotionally painful to write?

JP: I started in my own life, which is very rare for me. My middle son, Jake, was diagnosed at age 5 with a cholesteatoma --- a very rare, benign tumor that grows from the inside of the ear. It's not cancerous, but it will burrow into your brain and kill you if you don't get it out ... and it's an awfully aggressive tumor. The typical treatment involves removing the ear canal wall, making it easy to remove subsequent growths --- but also rendering the child deaf in that ear. My husband and I decided to go with a more experimental treatment instead --- one that would require extra surgeries for Jake, but might preserve some of his hearing. In three years time, he was diagnosed with tumors in BOTH ears ... and he had ten surgeries. Now, at age ten, he is a happy, healthy guy who is deaf in his left ear and has hearing somewhere in the bottom-normal range in his right ear. It's something we look back on now ... but for a while there, we were used to dropping everything at an instant to take Jake in for surgery; hospitals became a comfortable place; our other children learned that their lives came second to Jake's illness.

All this played heavily in the writing of MY SISTER'S KEEPER --- as did the basic feeling I had as a mom: that I would have done anything to keep Jake from having one more surgery. Sara, in MY SISTER'S KEEPER, would say the same about Kate.

From there, research became twofold: speaking to oncologists and oncology patients (as well as their parents), and to attorneys about medical emancipation. You'd be surprised --- talking to pediatric cancer patients is remarkable, because they are all so amazingly upbeat. It's as if they know that they've got to make the most of the time they have here --- every time I interviewed one, I'd come away amazed and inspired.

I didn't get emotionally overwhelmed writing this book initially, because I'd known all along there weren't going to be any happy endings. But then I got to the end of the book and was so upset about finishing it that I actually called an oncology nurse, asking her if there might be a different ending --- a medical miracle. I won't give it away for you, but rest assured: I cried the whole time I was working on it.

BRC: Did the direction your characters took surprise you, or do you typically have a plot etched out when you start?

JP: The interesting thing about MY SISTER'S KEEPER was that I realized almost immediately I needed more than one narrator. Everyone has a point of view in this book, and I thought you deserved to hear why they all feel the way they do. It felt like patching together a quilt of different voices: one alone wasn't going to keep you warm, but when you hear the whole symphony of their emotions, you are able to fully understand the conundrum this family is facing. Although I hear that this book is a real page-turner, it always felt to me like a character study ... of seven characters! There were moments in the book that surprised me --- for example, what happens to Brian on the witness stand --- but for the most part, I knew the beginning and the endpoint of the book and let the characters tell me how to get from point A to point B.

BRC: MY SISTER'S KEEPER is the perfect title for this book. How soon in the writing process did you come up with it?

JP: I should lie, and tell you I'm naturally brilliant and had the title from Day One. In truth, I'd finished the book and was completely clueless. Then, one morning I was walking three miles with my friend at 5:30 AM and talking about the book ... and suddenly the title was there on the tip of my tongue. Who says exercise doesn't spark creativity?!?!

BRC: One of the most remarkable things about this novel is how many voices you write in and keep distinct. Talk about your process, your challenges.

JP: When I write, I get bored easily --- so I need something that keeps me on my toes. That might be flashing around between time periods, or testing out different narratives --- or in this case, differentiating seven of them. I like trying on different voices, it's a little like being a medium. Some of them are naturally more difficult than others. Interestingly, for me, the men are pretty easy, and feel very distinct to me. I had more trouble with Sara --- because I knew people would find her a hard-edged character, and I had to somehow make her matter-of-fact without incurring hatred. As for the process, it's really just a matter of slipping into someone else's skin. Before I'd start writing, I'd consider who was speaking and how the plot was affecting them at that moment ... and then I'd step back and let him/her talk.

BRC: Sara not only makes a decision that marks her, she's let the rest of her life slip away because of her daughter's illness. Talk about this, if you will. Did you speak with parents who have had this happen to them?

JP: I wish you all could speak to the parents that I spoke with. You'd expect them to be martyrs, but they're not --- they're just very realistic about their expectations and their challenges. They celebrate the hours their child is alive past whatever date the doctors anticipated; they gear up for the moments when there's a crisis. They expect the other shoe to drop, even when everything's going well, because they've seen it happen before ... and when they talk about the past, the markers for them are the scary moments, not the smooth ones. The thing is, these parents --- every single one of them --- would suffer through another lifetime punctuated with trauma if it meant getting a few more terrific, normal days with their ill child. If you asked any of these parents about Sara's decision, they'd all say the same thing: decision implies that you had a choice --- and when you love someone, that doesn't even enter into the equation.

BRC: The bond between Anna and Kate is strong. Do you believe it would be equally strong without Kate's illness --- or are the two girls defined by the roles this illness has forced on them?

JP: I'm sure that any two sisters so inexplicably intertwined as Anna and Kate are would have a stronger bond than some other sisters --- but they've also sort of flirted their whole lives with the knowledge that they might not both always be here. As Anna says, are you still a sister even when yours dies? The interesting parallel for me is to hold Anna and Kate, who are inseparable in so many ways, up to Julia and Izzy --- identical twins who are as different as two women could be.

BRC: Interestingly enough, you don't go too far into medical ethics, choosing instead to explore family dynamics. Talk about why you chose this path.

JP: That's the very reason I wrote this book. I'm no ethicist, and I have no right to lecture to anyone about what's right and wrong. However, I CAN offer my opinion ... and it's that we're on the cusp of a remarkable science that is growing by leaps and bounds scientifically, yet hasn't been addressed from an emotional standpoint. For every "case" we see that involves stem cells, there's going to be a family behind it --- maybe one like the Fitzgeralds --- and to assume that this science is a medical issue, or even a political one like it will be this November, is awfully shortsighted and facile. I wanted, basically, to hold up a medical case involving stem cell research for your inspection --- and make you realize that behind every case is a living, breathing, conflicted person.

BRC: One could argue that Jesse is the most damaged character. Or is he simply the most overlooked? Or are those one and the same?

JP: Oh, let me wax rhapsodic about Jesse! I loved writing him (which means, I think, that I was a teenage male juvenile delinquent in a former life). In this book, he's certainly overlooked and he's certainly damaged goods, but most importantly, he's punishing himself. He learned early that he couldn't be Kate's hero; he assumed therefore that he had to be the villain. What Jesse is most afraid of, I think, is being loved. He's always believed that he has nothing worthy to give in return, ever since his marrow was rejected for donation. It's this that makes his reconciliation with Brian so much sweeter.

BRC: Your metaphors slip beautifully into one another --- fire, stars, bruises, old wounds, etc. Do you start with some, or do they develop as you write? Are you often surprised to see them woven into your words?

JP: Sometimes I go back and read one of my books and just stop at a sentence, thinking, "Gosh ... that was awfully good!" When I'm writing it, however, I'm never taking stock of it as it happens. I knew, because of Brian's profession, that I would be using star metaphors and did a little research on the cosmos before writing; I like to think that it naturally bleeds out into metaphor and simile. Oops, look at that. I used the word "bleeds." You see?!

BRC: Talk to us about the subplot of Campbell and Julia. What made you create a character like him as her attorney?

JP: The best thing about Campbell, of course, is that he's more immature than Anna. And he's the ultimate escape artist, so actually committing himself to his client is nothing short of a miracle. Plus, helping Anna get the rights to her own body is a bittersweet substitute for his own lack of control over his personal medical history. The plot between Julia and Campbell derives from a misunderstanding --- and from each of them thinking they couldn't be what the other person needed. This resonates with the feelings that lead Anna to hire an attorney in the first place. But on a more basic level --- Campbell provides comic relief and sarcasm in a book that is often very heavy emotionally and psychologically.

BRC: What do you feel is worse: to intentionally conceive a child to use her, or to raise a child and neglect her?

JP: What a loaded question. I would think that it's worse to raise and neglect a child. I hate seeing parents who have children as accessories ... you know, the ones who trot them out in pretty holiday outfits but never actually sit down and ask them to play Candyland or talk about what foods at the school cafeteria are the most rubbery. If you are planning to use a child as a donor for another child, you are most likely making that decision out of utter love --- and that's a better family to be born into.

BRC: Does this book represent a departure for you in any way? If so, explain. If not, why?

JP: I think I've heard every new book of mine called a "departure." I suppose the only constant in my writing is that I do something different every time. I don't personally see this as a departure at all --- in fact, I think it's the book most similar to THE PACT in terms of wrenching drama and depth of character. What I DO think is that this book is going to reach a lot of people who might not have otherwise read my novels --- because it manages to reach out and grab you right from the gorgeous cover, and because it's the kind of book people will be talking about at the water cooler.

BRC: Which character did you find most difficult to write?

JP: Oddly, Anna. She was one of my favorites, but there was a very fine line between making her sound like a brat and making her sympathetic. Also, she has a secret for most of this book, and I couldn't spill it too early.

BRC: Both of us feel that the Epilogue in the book is superfluous. What made you decide it was needed?

JP: Because otherwise I would have people writing to me, begging to know what happens! I think, given the outcome of this book --- and the supreme amount of Kleenex needed to finish it --- the reader deserves to know how the family is holding up in the distant future. And they need to know if the sacrifice made was, ultimately, a good one.

BRC: People are saying that MY SISTER'S KEEPER is your best book to date. Why do you think this is being said?

JP: Um, I'm not sure, but I'm awfully glad they're saying it. :) What I keep hearing is a) "I never cry but boy oh boy, did I SOB..." and b) "It's your fault I'm exhausted/haven't cleaned the house/took a sick day off work today, because I couldn't put the book down last night." Those are both fabulous compliments, for any author. I suppose the comments go back to the accessibility of the novel --- the narrators are infectious, the characters are people you care about, and there are no easy answers from page one --- which brings you into page-turner territory. I also think that it's the kind of book you really want your friend to finish at the same time, so that you can dissect the ending and the issues raised.

BRC: If readers were going to go back and read your earlier work after reading MY SISTER'S KEEPER, where do you think they should start? Is there an order you would suggest reading these books in, as they are not series titles?

JP: Most people who've read me started with THE PACT or PLAIN TRUTH. I think, personally, that you can jump in any ol' time and go backwards or forwards. If you like MY SISTER'S KEEPER read THE PACT next, and then SALEM FALLS (because there's character crossover) --- then you can go wherever you like. If you've enjoyed the multiple narrators, try SONGS OF THE HUMPBACK WHALE; it has five voices too.

BRC: What can you tell us about VANISHING ACTS, your work-in-progress? And when can readers expect to see it?

JP: VANISHING ACTS will arrive in the Spring of 2005. It's the story of a woman named Delia Hopkins, who was raised by her single dad after her mom's death. She's lived in NH her whole life and, at 30, has a search and rescue dog service, a four-year-old daughter, and is on the cusp of marrying the little girl's dad --- an on-again-off-again boyfriend. As she's planning the wedding, however, she begins to have memories of a life that she can't recall ever living. She does a little digging --- and discovers that she was stolen during a custody visit at age four, moved across country by her dad, given a new identity ... and that her mom is alive and well and living in Phoenix.

I love this book because it's really about whom we trust to tell us the story of ourselves before we are old enough to remember it --- and it's also about the very nature of memory: ALL memory is really a fiction, recreated from the actual event --- so who's to say that we're ever even telling ourselves the truth about our past? And if that isn't enough to whet your appetite, it includes a glimpse of life up-close-and-personal in a hard-core jail system --- including how drugs get smuggled into jail, how to make your own zip gun, and how to kill someone with a soup ladle. Aren't you glad you asked?? :)