Jodi Picoult has drunk too much tea and can’t remember what she ate for breakfast. It’s 5pm in Chester and the bestselling novelist is on her third city of the day. She has been touring for over a month and has another one to go. And, somehow, she’s still laughing. It’s hardly surprising Picoult is in demand. Even by her own standards – of her 25 novels, 10 have hit number one in The New York Times bestseller lists – her knack for lighting the touch paper has struck gold with her new novel, set in a Mississippi abortion clinic, A Spark Of Light. We sat down with her to talk abortions, Kavanaugh and why it’s time for us to save ourselves.
The Pool: How did you get so… gutsy?!
Jodi: [bursts out laughing] I don’t see it as gutsy. I really believe that if you’re fortunate enough to have a “microphone”, literally and figuratively, and you have people who will listen to you, you better think really hard about what you're going to tell them.
Do you see activism as an obligation?
For me, activism is about making sure that if you open a door, you leave it ajar for somebody else. For example, when I was at Princeton, I was the first woman to set foot in a men’s rowing shed. They said the women already had a coxon, but I stood my ground and wound up being the only woman on a heavyweight team. And when I left they continued to only have female managers.
Each of your novels is focused around an “issue” – what made you pick abortion?
When I was in college, one of my friends got pregnant. She was seven weeks pregnant, had an abortion. I was totally behind her. Years later, I got pregnant with my third child. When I was seven weeks along, there was a complication. The doctor said this pregnancy might not make it and I was devastated – to me, that was already a baby. I couldn’t figure out how I could hold both ideas in my head at the same time, so I started to think about what it meant to be on the reproductive-rights spectrum.
The book feels incredibly prescient. What was happening when you started writing, two years ago?
Trump had just become president – so we were at rock bottom (I thought!) – and Roe vs Wade was intact. But there were already so many threats to abortion at state level. In America, we have federal laws and state laws, and the state laws can chip away at reproductive rights. So, if a law is passed in Mississippi, say, somebody may appeal it and appeal it, and it eventually goes through all the appeal courts to the Supreme Court. With Judge Kavanaugh now in the Supreme Court being anti-abortion, if Roe vs Wade is overturned it goes back to the states to legislate, which means that the eight states in America with only one surviving abortion clinic will lose that clinic.
Of which Mississippi – where A Spark Of Light is set – is one?
Yes. And all other states in the Deep South and Bible Belt will start to see the evisceration of reproductive-rights clinics. We know this because we’ve already seen it happen. For instance, in Indiana in 2016, now-vice president Mike Pence was governor. He signed a law that said you couldn’t have an abortion because of foetal abnormality. That law was eventually overturned, but has appealed its way to the Supreme Court. It will be the first abortion case Kavanaugh rules on. So, if you’re a woman in Indiana and your baby is going to be born without a brain, you’re going to have to have that baby… and watch it die.
So, as with Northern Ireland, the only way to get an abortion will be to travel?
That’s the real problem. If they overturn Roe vs Wade, women are at the mercy of their zipcode. Rich women will continue to cross state lines. Poor women – and predominantly women of colour – will be very adversely affected. And even more importantly, 97% of the work these clinics do has nothing to do with abortion. It’s contraception, STD testing, cancer screenings, general gynaecological health… People who can’t afford to go to the doctor lose that care, too. So that tells you women matter less than men, women’s bodies are less important than men’s bodies, women’s stories aren’t as important as men’s stories. And, frankly, that’s unacceptable.
When someone calls you a women’s fiction author, what it means is you have a vagina
On the subject of women’s stories, you’ve been pigeonholed for telling women’s stories since the start.
It’s true. My last book, Small Great Things, which is about racism and doesn’t have a single kiss in it, won best romance novel in Poland! That pisses me off like you can’t imagine. When someone calls you a women’s fiction author, what it means is you have a vagina.
What made you focus A Spark Of Light around two fathers?
It’s an ensemble book, but I very definitely wanted there two be two single fathers [Hugh and George], because this is about parenthood and I wanted them to be foils to each other. Both of them are doing something, they believe, for the good of a daughter.
The whole “as a father of daughters” thing makes me want to punch a wall. Mike Pence does it, Brett Kavanaugh’s done it, Matt Damon never stops doing it.
It’s funny, isn’t it? Our daughter [Sammy] is 23, and the relationship between Hugh and Wren is based on the relationship between her and my husband. Sammy talks about the way young women are put on a pedestal and treated as if they’re untouchable, perfect. That’s not a real sustainable belief. To me, that move from protection to respect is a giant leap for a man to make, and a very difficult one.
At the same time, it still feels like those with the most vocal opinions about abortion are men – white middle-aged men.
All the people who send me death threats are white middle-aged men!
How are your death threats?!
They’re lovely, thank you! I've blocked so many on Twitter. With Small Great Things, I had so many white supremacists come into my feed that one of my friends taught me how to use Twitter blockchain to get rid of them. This time, it’s even worse, but it won’t keep me quiet because that’s what they want.
Your book tour started the week of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings...
It was crazy. When I started writing the book, I could never have imagined where we are now. In a way, it was very healing, though, because I was so angry and frustrated, and every night I got to go out and tell a thousand people why women matter. It beat sitting at home and smashing dishes!
Christine Blasey-Ford stood up at the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, told her story and has subsequently received so much vitriol that, weeks later, she’s still not able to return to her own home. Is it any surprise women are reluctant to tell their stories?
The arc of the universe moves towards progressiveness – it just moves exceedingly slowly. And what happened – in America anyway – the last time women felt they were grabbed by the throat was we had a surge in women candidates running, and we’re going to see that again. It may take years, but we are coming, we are vocal and we are smarter than you.
What’s the most important thing to you about A Spark Of Light?
Recognising that men have created this narrative in the absence of women’s voices to say this is your fault, you should have known better, you should have kept your legs together… you shouldn’t have had sex because you were clearly the only one in the room, right? That puts the blame and the stigma on women, and makes them believe they are alone. I hope this book helps shows us that women are a sisterhood. I think that is how we move forward: not as individuals, but as a wave.
All the people who send me death threats are white middle-aged men. But it won’t keep me quiet because that’s what they want
You’re pro-choice. How did you manage to be so… balanced in your research?
Here’s the mistake I made: I thought pro-lifers would all be crazy evangelical zealots – and they weren’t. They were nice, they were funny, they were people I would have gone out to dinner with. Granted, I wasn’t talking to people setting bombs at clinics, but I wanted to talk to the vast swathe of America that believes life begins at conception. One thing I do struggle with, though, is how the people who are most ardently pro-life also tend to be the most ardently anti-contraception, when all the studies prove that improved access to contraception leads to a decline in abortion.
Brett Kavanaugh has described the contraceptive pill as inducing abortion.
Yeah. He’s an idiot. Scientifically, he’s an idiot. And that gives me great pause, because if you have achieved a position on the highest court in the land, I'd like to think that you have a proficiency in all academic areas. That was an utter slap in the face and a clear indication of what he will do. It’s going to be a very dark time in America.
It feels like “we” have finally realised that nobody is coming to save us.
So you better save yourself. That’s OK, though. We’ve been the damsel in distress for a really long time.
How about you – are you tempted to save us?
On this US tour, at every single stop, I was asked to run for president, but, no, I could never do it. It takes too much ego.
If you could be president for a day, what would you do?
The first thing I would do is indict Trump because I would like him to pay for what he has done. He has opened up a world of hate; he’s normalised hate and hate speech.
What do you think will happen in the mid-terms?
I’m afraid to say. I really don’t know. It depends which side is angry enough to get out and vote. Complacent people don’t vote. I pray that I'm not the only Democrat getting out there to vote, because we need to overturn the house.