A Conversation with Jodi Picoult, Author of House Rules
How did you first decide upon Asperger’s Syndrome as the focus for this novel?
JP: I have a cousin who’s autistic. Several times, my aunt found herself in a public place trying to control one of his meltdowns – and people who didn’t understand why she was restraining him contacted authorities and made allegations of abuse. As he got older, and moved into a group home, his frustrations became more intense because of his size – he’d break in windows with his fist, for example – and several times the police were called. It got me thinking that the legal system works really well, if you communicate a certain way. But if you don’t, it all goes to Hell in a handbasket really quickly. A lot of the hallmark behaviors of autism – flat affect, stimming, not looking someone in the eye – could very easily be misinterpreted as signs of guilt.
You have been known to do extensive research about the topics in your books. What was the research process like for this novel?
JP: In addition to meeting with attorneys to get the legal information accurate, I met with six teens with Asperger’s, and their parents – face to face. Even though some of the kids were very awkward in a direct setting, I needed to experience that to understand how the rest of the world would feel coming in contact with Jacob. But kids with Asperger’s, who are so smart, shine when you let them answer questions on paper. So another 35 teens and their parents answered lengthy questionnaires for me about themselves, their reactions to situations, their lives, their hopes, their frustrations. It made for some incredible reading, and many of their direct experiences wound up in Jacob’s life. One of these young women with Asperger’s Syndrome was so detailed in her writing and so open about her experiences that she volunteered to help me further. She read the manuscript for accuracy and told me, based on Jacob’s voice, what seemed consistent and what, in her opinion, Jacob would never say or do. The last bit of research I did was incredibly fun – I shadowed a CSI for a week. I got to learn blood spatter analysis, to do presumptive semen tests, to check out crime scenes, and to observe an autopsy. It was fascinating!
When your central characters are in a real-life situation that affects so many people around the world—in this case, dealing with the effects of Asperger’s Syndrome and autism on a family—is there more pressure on you as the author to “get it right”?
JP: It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Asperger’s or a rape victim or a cancer patient – when research subjects open up to me with such honesty I ALWAYS feel a responsibility to “get it right.”
If you could say one thing to the families who are dealing with the effects of having an autistic child, what would it be?
JP: That you’re not alone – and that, hopefully, more and more people will come to understand that a child who’s “different from” is not one who is “lesser than.”
In a previous interview, you referred to your novels taking part in a long line of “moral and ethical fiction.” When you first began writing, did you have the intention of using your work as a springboard for conversation about moral and ethical issues? Or did that come later on?
JP: I think I started gravitating toward that sort of niche as I kept writing. I have always written about subjects that engage me – questions I can’t answer myself. They apparently tend to be big moral and ethical issues! But I never lose sight of the fact that before I was a writer, I was a teacher. I still am. My classroom’s just gotten a little bigger.
House Rules is your seventeenth novel. Do you feel your writing has changed since your first novel? If so, was it an intentional change, or is it something you’ve noticed over time?
JP: I think my writing has become “cleaner.” By that I mean that technically I’ve improved – I might turn a metaphor in five words now, where years ago, it would have taken me a paragraph. I can’t say it was intentional – but you know what they say about practice making perfect…!
Why did you choose to end the book when you did, rather than going into what happens to the characters in the aftermath of the trial?
JP: Because at heart, this is Jacob’s book. And remember, to Jacob, there was never any real mystery here, was there?
Could you talk for a moment about Emma’s character and her struggles throughout the book? You’ve said that your characters’ voices come to you, that they take on a life of their own. Did you find yourself agreeing with Emma’s choices as the novel progressed?
JP: I think Emma is a very typical, very overwhelmed mom. A lot of the moms of autistic kids I met are so consumed with being their child’s advocate that there’s no room for anything else – least of all themselves. It’s why so many marriages end in divorce, when a child is diagnosed on the spectrum. Emma’s journey in this book is one of unwinding – allowing herself to define herself as more than just Jacob’s mother, because that’s been completely eroded by his autism.
If the main characters in this novel had favorite books, what do you think they would be?
JP: What a great question! I think Jacob’s would be, clearly, anything written by Dr. Henry Lee. Oliver would love Presumed Innocent by Turow – it’s probably why he decided to go to law school. Theo would read Vonnegut. He wouldn’t understand Vonnegut, but he’d think it’s the kind of thing a rebel would read. Rich – I think he’s a closet softy, the kind of guy who’s got a dog-eared copy of The Sun Also Rises in his nightstand. And dare I hope that Emma reads Jodi Picoult novels?
Could you give us a glimpse into your next project?
JP: Sing You Home, the 2011 book, is the story of Zoe Baxter, who has spent ten years trying to get pregnant. After multiple miscarriages and infertility issues, it looks like her dream is about to come true – she is seven months pregnant. But a terrible turn of events takes away the baby she has already fallen for; and breaks apart her marriage to Max. In the aftermath, she throws herself into her career as a music therapist – using music clinically to soothe burn victims in a hospital; to help Alzheimer’s patients connect with the present; to provide solace for hospice patients. When Vanessa – a guidance counselor – asks her to work with a suicidal teen, their relationship moves from business to friendship and then, to Zoe’s surprise, blossoms into love. When Zoe allows herself to start thinking of having a family, again, she remembers that there are still frozen embryos that were never used by herself and Max.
Meanwhile, Max has found peace at the bottom of a bottle – until he is redeemed by an evangelical church, whose charismatic pastor – Clive Lincoln – has vowed to fight the “homosexual agenda” that has threatened traditional family values in America. But this mission becomes personal for Max, when Zoe and her same-sex partner say they want permission to raise his unborn child.
Sing You Home explores what it means to be gay in today’s world, and how reproductive science has outstripped the legal system. Are embryos people or property? What challenges do same-sex couples face when it comes to marriage and adoption? What happens when religion and sexual orientation – two issues that are supposed to be justice-blind – enter the courtroom? And most importantly, what constitutes a “traditional family” in today’s day and age?
Also – in a very unique move – readers will get to literally hear Zoe Baxter’s voice. I am collaborating with Ellen Wilber, a dear friend who is also a very talented musician, to create a CD of original songs, which will correspond to each of the chapters. This CD will be packaged with each hardcover book. So – literally – stay tuned!