Jodi Picoult: ‘Abortion will become a privilege, not a right’
Reproductive rights are under attack in the US, the bestselling Spark of Light author says
Jodie Picoult: A Spark of Light is about a hostage situation in an abortion clinic. Photograph: Nina Subin
“It’s a child. Not a choice. Isn’t it?”
This is the short, provocative synopsis on the back cover of Jodi Picoult’s latest novel, A Spark of Light, the story of a hostage situation in an abortion clinic in Mississippi.
I received a review copy of the book in late May of this year, just days after Ireland’s abortion referendum, when the arguments were still ringing in our ears. It felt like the matter was finally settled here, at least in the short term.
The truth, however, is that Ireland’s experience as a country that provides abortion services has not yet begun and there’s something still to learn from Picoult, who is writing from within the day-to-day reality of abortion in the US, where picket lines form outside clinics and volunteers must escort women safely inside.
“[The US] is a really conservative place right now. Reproductive rights are under attack,” she says, speaking on the phone from London. This is Picoult’s 25th novel, the last 10 of which were New York Times bestsellers. She is well known for lifting her stories straight from the headlines, but with this one, she had a personal angle she wanted to explore.
“When I was at university one of my best friends wound up pregnant, and after many sleepless nights, she and her boyfriend decided to get an abortion. I supported them 100 per cent. She was seven weeks’ pregnant at the time.
“Fast forward another 15 years and I was pregnant with my third child. I was seven weeks pregnant and I was spotting very heavily. I went in for an ultra sound and the radiologist who was not a particularly good doctor said, ‘well either it’s going to stick or it’s not’, which is really not what you should ever say.”
Picoult was devastated. “I was in a position in my life where I wanted that baby, where at seven weeks that already was a baby to me, and it made me wonder how could that line in the sand have shifted so dramatically for me?”
Picoult wanted to look at how that “line in the sand” might shift for a woman over her lifetime, whether she is pro-life or pro-choice, based on her circumstances at the time. “Given how complex that issue is, it makes legislating reproductive rights a very tricky business. Laws are black and white, and women are a thousand shades of grey.”
Nuanced arguments might not make for good protest placards, but they certainly make for a good story.
Picoult says this is not a protest novel. “The point isn’t for me to go out waving my flag. I’m very clear about being pro-choice and I have never not been pro-choice even when I myself wouldn’t have wanted to terminate a pregnancy at seven weeks.” She insists that instead she is writing “to get you to clarify why your opinion is what it is.”
She was keen to look at how quick we are to judge “the other side”. In her discussions with pro-life campaigners, she realised “my mistake was believing they were either all crazy and waving placards of dismembered foetuses. I assumed everyone was a religious zealot. I spoke to some really lovely people who were deeply Catholic. They had just grown up believing the life begins at conception.
“No one is debating that a foetus is a potential for human life, everyone knows that. We spend a lot of time talking about when a foetus becomes a person, I urge people to flip that and say, at what point does the woman stop being a person.”
In her author’s note and in conversation, she presents a dazzling array of statistics. “Since 2012, over 280 laws have been passed restricting abortion rights, mostly in southern conservative states. There are 89 per cent of counties in America [that] don’t have a clinic and there are seven states in America that only have one clinic for the entire state,” she says. “A state like Wyoming, which is the size of the entire UK, has one abortion clinic.”
Brett Kavanaugh had not yet been appointed to the supreme court when we spoke and Picoult was mindful of the possibility of Roe v Wade (the right to access safe abortion) being overturned. “Abortion is going to become a privilege, not a right, reserved only for the wealthy or the northerners.”
She is keen to redirect the conversation around abortion towards access to birth control and “raising taxes or minimum wage in a way that allow for women to have more decision-making based on economic power”.
I tell her about the prevalence of US pro-life voices in the Irish debate and the perception that pro-life and pro-gun seem often to go together in the US, and usually within a religious context. “There is this belief that the most important thing a woman can do with her life is reproduce. That’s a great thing if that’s what you want but there’s a lot more a woman can do with her life. And that is rooted biblically and the inherent contradictions in this group of people is what gives me pause. If you want to tell me that you are pro-life, if that’s true, then you better be down there on the border of Texas right now making sure that all those babies in cages are getting released.”
A Spark of Light uses shifting perspectives which will be familiar to Picoult readers. One particularly intriguing character is Dr Louie Ward, who is based on a real doctor, Dr Willie Parker, an abortion provider in the southern US, who Picoult shadowed for her research.
“He’s a fascinating man who very much like Louie in the book is a devout Christian. He says that he performs abortions not in spite of his religion but because of it. He believes that it is his job to help women in need. He’s a really cool guy.”
As with all her novels, the research was all-consuming. “When I was with Willie, I went to two different clinics. I interviewed a lot of women having procedures done.” Picoult also witnessed a five-week abortion, an eight-week abortion and a 15-week abortion.
The first two procedures took “less than three minutes. When you looked down at the products of conception, there was nothing that looked anything more than tissue. 15-week abortion is different. There’s a disarticulation as the foetus comes out and you did see tiny little body parts and it is quite jarring.”
I ask her why she decided to include such a scene in the book.
“Because one of the things that I learned from Willie is that we can’t talk about abortion as a euphemism. We have to be very clear about what’s going on and in spite of that still be able to say this is still the right thing to do. And it is because the woman who had the 15-week abortion, she had three children under the age of five in her house. She was making less that minimum wage. She could not afford another child. She decided to have an abortion. Did that make her a terrible mother or an excellent one?”
How did she think the inclusion of such a scene might affect her readers?
“I think the readers should have their eyes opened. It is hard, but there is not a single women on this planet who has had an abortion who has not thought long and hard about that. One out of four women has an abortion [according to Planned Parenthood]. I interviewed 151 women who had abortions and less than 25 wanted to be named in the acknowledgements because they’d hidden this their whole lives.
“That’s why I wanted to be so transparent. I wish that women felt confident enough to be able to say, 'I’m one of those four'. Because I think that’s the way that other women will stop being anonymous.”
Picoult almost didn’t write this book having dealt with weighty issues of race in her previous novel Small Great Things.
“I didn’t know if I could do another heavily issue-driven book but ultimately I was starting to feel attacked as a woman. I don’t often feel like a second-class citizen but these days in America, I kind of do. I’m the best kind of second-class citizen in that I’m a white woman of means, but I’m still a woman and there are decisions being made on my behalf that I think people should not be making.”
Picoult has a master’s degree in education and hearing how earnest she is about researching her work, it’s hard not to wonder if she feels bound by some overriding duty to educate. “Totally. I was trained as a teacher and I just think that I’m still doing that but I think that I’ve a really big class.”
Does she worry that her books might be too message-driven? “I don’t think they can be. Like for this book, I’ve had people who are pro-life read it and tell me this is definitely a pro-life book, and I’ve had people who are pro-choice read it and say this is definitely a pro-choice book. I promise you that whatever contentious issue, I will do the research of the other side no matter how hard it is for me on a personal level. It’s my job as a writer.”
Until recently, Picoult’s work tended to focus on stories of children in danger and the anxieties of parenthood. “There was a whole run of books where it was like, what are the worst things that could happen to your kid,” she concedes. “I think that was really borne from where I was in my life at that moment; what did I fear the most as a parent.” With her children “older and out of the house” she now feels she can turn the page. “I feel as though my books are turning more philosophical in terms of the nature of good and evil and how do we judge people who are different from us.”
She has spoken before about “snide” treatment of her work by certain factions of the media, particularly the New York Times. “They don’t believe that commercial fiction is worth their space and I don’t agree with that. I think there’s some really poorly written literary fiction, and some really well written genre fiction. But I don’t particularly care because I’m really fortunate and have plenty of readers. I think ironically it is genre that leads the way in fiction in terms of creativity and equality.”
She made a conscious decision to be a commercial fiction writer and not a literary fiction writer, she says, “a silly dichotomy created by marketing departments. I will never win a literary prize because they don’t give those out to commercial fiction writers, but what I have are sales and it’s a trade-off. You just figure out what kind of readership you want.”
She is clearly irked, however, by the dismissal of her work as “women’s fiction”. She describes a “fun little game” that her UK publishers played last year when Small Great Things was released. As part of a campaign called Read Without Prejudice, they released copies of the book without a title or Picoult’s name on the cover.
“They gave it to people who would never in a million years have picked up a Jodi Picoult novel because they had predispositions about it, preconceptions that it was chick-lit, that it was women’s fiction, that I write only commercial trash.”
The feedback was that this was “a highly literary novel, was very important, was beautifully written. Fifty per cent of my fan mail comes from men but there’s an assumption that if you have a woman’s name, you must be writing women’s fiction and that’s total BS. The real problem isn’t just that there’s a bias against female authors but that’s there’s a bias towards male authors. If a woman writes about family or about the relationships and connections between people, it becomes women’s fiction. If a man does it, it’s a literary masterpiece.”
A Spark of Light is published by Hodder & Stoughton