The so-called Queen of the Topical Novel (as crowned by the Miami Herald) is back. In her 15th book, Change of Heart, Jodi Picoult examines the nature of faith and the path to salvation. Shay Bourne, a wanderer who picks up spare jobs as a carpenter, is convicted of killing a young girl and her stepfather and sentenced to death. While on death row, he performs what appear to be miracles: bringing a dead bird back to life, turning the water in the prison pipes to wine. Who gets to decide whether he's a Messiah or a crackpot? And what should the victim's mother do when Bourne offers the one thing that can save her other daughter's life?
Change of Heart is vintage Picoult—a challenging, intelligent and powerful read. Picoult recently answered questions for BookPage about her new book and life as a best-selling author.
You're an incredibly prolific writer and you manage to write such consistently enjoyable books. What do you do to recharge and come up with the idea for your next novel?
I don't actively try—I guess that's part of the magic. Instead, I let the topics choose me. I figure out what it is that I'm particularly concerned with, or questioning, and let myself explore it in the field of fiction. Usually I know two years ahead of time what I'll be working on in the future!
Change of Heart explores the idea that religion is to some extent about having faith in things we can't prove. How did your own beliefs influence this book? It's my belief that this country is breaking apart on the fault line of religion and that something meant originally to unite people has instead become divisive. To that end, I really wanted to put the history back into religion, and to challenge those who feel that just because they think they're right, everyone else must be wrong. I would never presume to tell anyone how to believe; I get upset when people presume to tell me. It's no coincidence that I wanted to publish this book during an election year, when the boundary between church and state has become increasingly blurred.
Much of the book is set in a state prison. Your depiction of life behind bars is fascinating, from the ways prisoners pass the time to the unique language they speak. What kind of research did you do to paint such a vivid picture of prison life?
I've been to death row in Arizona, twice now. It's a very strange place—in all the years I've been doing research, I don't think I've ever seen such a cloud of secrecy like the one I found there. I was literally on a plane when my visit was being nearly cancelled—I had to arrive at the facility and talk my way into it, because they decided if I was a writer, I must be "media". I was able to charm the authorities into giving me a tour of their death row—which is more serene than you'd think, because the inmates are locked into their individual cells 23 hours a day. Then I begged to be taken to the execution chamber—the Death House, as it used to be called in Arizona. It was while I was examining their gas chamber (Arizona uses both gas and lethal injection) that the warden approached me to ask me again who I was, and why I was writing a book about this. She definitely had her guard up—and wasn't budging an inch. We started talking about the last execution in Arizona, and at some point she mentioned she was a practicing Catholic. "If you're Catholic," I said, "do you think the death penalty is a good thing?" She stared at me for a long moment, and then said, "I used to." From that moment on, the wall between us came down, and she was willing to tell me everything I wanted and needed to know—including scenes you'll see in this book, a backstage look at how an execution happens.
Your publisher is printing one million copies of Change of Heart. Have you calculated how far around the globe that would stretch?
I'm not nearly as gifted at math as you're giving me credit for!! Actually, I'd probably be more likely to count how many trees sacrificed themselves for my fiction. Seriously, though, it's a crazy number I can't really wrap my head around—million-copy print runs are for people like Stephen King and JK Rowling, not little ol' me. There's still a part of me that believes the people buying my books are all friends of my mom's, but I guess I'll have to finally admit that maybe there are a few folks who read my stuff that she hasn't bullied into it!
You have a month-long book tour coming up. What question comes up most often during appearances? And which question would you be happy if you never had to answer again?
The question I get asked over and over is "Where do the ideas come from?" I once heard another writer say, "They arrive in brown paper packages every Tuesday." I've always been tempted to steal that response! The best question I've ever been asked was by a teenager in the U.K. last year—she wanted to know what I felt were the three biggest issues facing America right now, and if I was writing about them. I said, "Intolerance/bullying, religious narrow-mindedness and gay rights." I'm happy to report that I had already written books on two of the three, and was planning to write about the third one!
What's the one thing you're most proud of?
That my three children are good-hearted, kind and thoughtful.
If you had to choose one book to reread once a year, what book would it be?
Gone with the Wind. And it's so long, it would probably take that long, too!