By Picoult's rules
Her stories are filled with tragedy, disaster, abuse and pain, but her readers are hooked, writes Andrew Donaldson
Bad things happen to the kids in Jodi Picoult's novels. Very bad things. The sons and daughters of responsible, loving middle-class American parents, with admirable middle-class values, they wind up with terminal diseases, they're maimed, they're shot, they're abused, they're molested, they're abducted, they're hurt and they're hurting others.
The disasters come on thick and fast, a relentless barrage in what the New York Times has suggested is a genre of contemporary fiction "that might best be described as the literature of children in peril". Picoult's writing, the newspaper added, "revels in sequential miseries - no singular unhappiness ever seems sufficient".
And her readers lap it up.
"Isn't it amazing?" Picoult laughs, when asked whether her audience may be a little put off by the tragedies that dominate her work. "The great bulk of readers are willing to go anywhere I'll take them. And it's not an easy ride. There are tough issues. It's uncomfortable. Maybe they don't even want to talk about it, or think about it, but they do it anyway - which is an amazing and humbling testament."
We're sitting in a room at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Outside, the Cape Town Book Fair is grinding on, as punters mill about.
"It's a great place," she says of the country. "I wouldn't come back so often if I didn't like it. This is my fourth time here."
Despite her familiarity with South Africa, our interview is the occasion of Picoult's first encounter with some of the country's weirder flora, which, strangely enough, resemble testicles and are hanging out of a vase on the table.
"That is the ugliest flower I have ever seen in my life," she says, shrieking with laughter. "It looks ... like an organ!"
The irrepressible humour seems at odds with the aforementioned misery to which, sadly, we must return.
In My Sister's Keeper, for example, it is not enough that a couple has a delinquent teenage son, they also have a daughter who has leukaemia. They conceive a third child to be used as her sister's bone-marrow donor. In Nineteen Minutes, a couple is largely ignorant of their son's isolation - until he guns down his classmates à la Columbine - just as they're ignorant of the drug and behavioural problems of an older, apparently ideal, son.
And so it is with Picoult's latest. A brilliant teenager, Jacob Hunt, has Asperger's - an autism spectrum disorder that is characterised by considerable difficulties in social interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. In Jacob's case, it is an obsession with forensic science. He's very good at it, creating crime scenes around the home, much to his brother Theo's distress.
Despite his intelligence and wicked sense of humour, Jacob is hopeless at fitting in with the world around him. Simply put, he doesn't know how to get along with others. He is utterly alone.
Understandably, Jacob's condition means that his mother, Emma - who alone bears the burden for raising the child, as his father had all but abandoned the family years earlier rather than live with his young son's constant tantrums, screaming fits and other distressing outbursts - devotes most of her time to the boy. But Theo, not to put out any spoilers here, is in dire need of some attention himself.
When Jacob's tutor is found murdered, his reactions - all the hallmarks of his syndrome, odd and inappropriate behaviour, apparent shiftiness - make him a prime suspect, and the boy finds himself in trouble with the law. What follows is thrilling, page-turning stuff. (Not for nothing is Picoult a bestselling author; she's brilliant at what she does.)
The inspiration for House Rules, she says, was two-fold. "The first is a legal question. How do you get through a trial if you don't communicate the way other people do? Autism isn't considered a disability, like blindness or hearing loss, so you're not allowed to take special measures into a courtroom with you and that becomes an issue in the book when we get to court.
"In addition to the legal question, I have a cousin who is autistic, profoundly autistic, not like Jacob, and is living in a group home and has struggled with tantrums and anger management issues his whole life. He can't really explain how he is feeling, and he's got into trouble with the law."
The problems that arise with the siblings of autistic children are common the world over, she says. "One of the nicest things that has happened to me in South Africa is when a woman came up to me at one of my events and said, 'House Rules changed my life and my family's life because I have a child with Asperger's and I also have a younger son. Reading this book made me realise I have ignored him his whole life. We had our first talk about it and he said he does feel left out a lot of the time'.
"The whole dynamic, she said, of their family, has been altered because of this book. And that's really wonderful.
"But that is common, whether it's Asperger's or a physical illness or a learning disability. Anything that gives priority to one child over another upsets the balance in a family and you wind up with parents unintentionally devoting all their resources to that one child who needs more time and energy and you only have so much of it. Sometimes, unfortunately, another child falls by the wayside."
Picoult says her books start from a central issue. In My Sister's Keeper, it was the controversy surrounding stem-cell research. She, however, says she doesn't look at things from a political, psychological or academic angle, but merely "walks through" the lives of people who deal with those issues on a day-to-day basis.
Politics, though, does, come into it - especially with a topic like stem-cell research. "I could talk for hours about this," says Picoult. "America is a polarised country and it has got worse over the past 10 years. There is a schism caused by religion, and politically we have polar extremes and not a lot of moderation. That seems to me a dangerous place to be.
"I think that church and state should be separate. I think everyone has the right to believe in whatever they want to believe in, and whatever they need to believe in, and that includes not believing. But there are a lot of people who believe differently and maintain that America is a wholly Christian country and needs to be a wholly Christian country.
"Unfortunately, these same people tend to be the ones found having homosexual affairs in bathrooms in airports and being completely contradictory to what they're preaching. That double standard amazes and disgusts me. When you start laying out some of the restrictions - the religiously-based ones - into stem-cell research, what you wind up doing is becoming more and more narrow-minded. In my opinion, that's never a good way to keep a country healthy."
Speaking of healthy, Picoult's next book is about the right to die - cheerful, but food for thought, no doubt. "Who gets to decide when death occurs? There are so many points we seem willing to accept when life begins that it's hard for us to understand when death might be. Is it an actual moment? Is it a timeline? A spectrum?"
That book's due in 2012. Until then, House Rules will do.
- House Rules is published by Hodder & Stoughton, R185
- This book is available from Exclus1ves.co.za