Recently DIVA sat down with author Jodi Picoult (pictured,
right, being titillated by DIVA's recent Sex issue) and her good
friend Ellen Wilber, who wrote the soundtrack album that
accompanies Jodi's latest novel, Sing You Home, which deals with a
bunch of themes including gay rights (two of the main characters
are lesbians) and the religious right.
You can read the interview in the July issue of DIVA, which is
available now. In the interview Jodi talks about Sing You Home, how
she thinks music may be able to help to demystify homosexuality and
what she's learnt about lesbian sex (!). Here, though, is a bit of
extra material: Jodi and Ellen talking about Jodi's son coming out
and Jodi on the response to her novel in the US.
DIVA: So what made you choose to write a novel that
deals with the issue of gay rights?
Jodi Picoult: I think gay rights are the last set of human
rights that we haven't granted in my country. It's an enormous
embarrassment to me that we are so far behind the rest of the first
world countries when it comes to gay rights. I feel that this is
something that is exacerbated by religion in America in particular,
and the religious right, which has a lot of political influence,
power and money right now, as well as being very vocal for a
minority. And when I was writing it, my own son came out. He
actually came out first to Ellen about a month earlier, because
Ellen's a really close family friend.
I don't know that. I knew he came out to you by giving
you his college essay application to read, but how did he come out
to you, Ellen?
Ellen Wilber: Well, Jodi and I had been talking about it for
quite a while. Wondering.
Jodi Picoult: I mean it wasn't like.. I would have guessed that
Karl was gay, that's what I would have assumed.
Ellen Wilber: And [Jodi and I] talked about it and then he and I
got close, and he loved talking to me about my sexuality, and
asking me questions about it. So we were out to lunch and I had
kind of decided before we went that this was going to be the day,
that I was just going to ask him, and I did.
I said, "So what about you, are you gay?" And he said "I think
so." And so then from there we just started talking and of course I
told [Jodi] right away so she already knew before he said anything,
but I think he knew I would tell her, and it's been fine.
Jodi, I read in an interview that you knew when he was
three? How did you know?
Jodi Picoult: Yeah, there were several different things which
pointed in that direction, I mean only on a purely, you know,
stereotypical level, every time the kids played dress up, every
time they were acting out a play, Karl was the princess. In as much
floofy paraphernalia as he could, right? He'd rock those high
heels, all the time, and he was hilarious. And also, all his
friends were always girls, he was never a rough and tumble sports
kid, he was always very artistic, very quiet, very thoughtful.
And when he would watch a movie, even when he was little, he
would watch TV and he would comment on how the boys looked, what
they were wearing, if they were good-looking, but he wouldn't ever
comment on a girl, never said 'she's pretty', you know. It was
always like 'oh, he's handsome, I like his hair'. And it was a
really off-the-cuff comment but it played itself out later on when
he wasn't really interested in girls at all, and he tried, he went
out with a girl a couple of times, I'm sure it was the most boring
date ever, you know it really didn't do anything for him, and it
was an inkling I had, a hunch as a mom, that Karl was probably gay
because all of those signs kind of lead up to it for me. All those
little moments in his childhood when I would watch his eye follow a
boy across the Dartmouth campus, which was where we live, but never
a pretty girl. You know, so...
How does he feel about all the publicity, being
mentioned in DIVA for example?
He's probably more excited about being mentioned in People
magazine! They did a story that came out in May about him coming
out and how it tied into the book. But he, ah, I would never have
brought him up if I didn't have his permission, so for me when,
well I was writing the book already, I could have easily just
presented this book as another theoretical journey for me about gay
rights and a controversial issue, but I asked his permission to see
if I could tell his story and I think… he's very out, he's very
happy and comfortable in his skin, um, which is phenomenal, you
know and I think that he realises he's lucky enough to have a
family and friends who accepted him. Not all kids have that. And I
think he feels that if this book can help people who don't have
necessarily the same support system he does that's a really good
thing. Plus he's a media hound.
Does having a controversial topic help you focus when
you are writing?
It does for me. I think writers gravitate towards what they need
to write. And that's not to say I couldn't churn out a beach read
or a mystery or any other genre. It's just not what makes me want
to get up in the morning. I prefer something that's very thorny,
that twists me up in knots and I have to untangle myself during the
course of the book. It just happens to be what I'm comfortable
doing, but I'm just very grateful that people are willing to go
there with me.
From a publicity and marketing point of view it must
work well too? It gives a conversational focus for any appearances
on chat shows, for example.
[laughs] Only here. Only here. Only abroad. In America nobody
goes on TV if you're a fiction writer, because we don't matter.
They say there's nothing to talk about with fiction, which I think
is fascinating. But from a publicity and marketing standpoint,
actually, it's a harder sell in my country. Because people prefer
the beach read, the James Patterson novel with chapters that are a
page long. It's easier to read and there's this very short
attention span thing going on right now in America. When I started
out, you know, I couldn't have paid people to read my books.
Because it was something people really hadn't seen. Nobody was
writing anything that had to do with morals and ethics. Now when I
see other, new writers being described as the new Jodi Picoult, I
think it's really funny because that sure didn't get me anywhere
years ago. [laughs]
Can you tell me a little bit about the research that you
did for the novel?
Yes, it was multiple… multifold. There was infertility research.
There was legal research. There was music therapy research, which
involved going out with different music therapists, um, in
different clinical settings, from nursing homes to drum circles
with ganged warring teenagers to hospital settings, burn patients,
you know. I know music therapy is not as well-known here as it is
in the US, but it is a phenomenal and fascinating discipline. And
it really is scientific, which most people don't think, they assume
it is very new age and there is so much scientific basis,
chemically in the brain for why music affects you, why it can heal,
it's fascinating to see
[On her interviews with lesbians while researching the
The other thing that really surprised me was of the women I
spoke to it was split 50/50, between women who knew that they were
attracted to other women from when they were very, very young, and
women who had been in very successful heterosexual relationships
and then fell in love with a woman. And I really wanted to
represent both of those paths which is why I had both Vanessa and
Zoe in the book coming at their relationship from different
The other research that I did for the book, which was really
painful, was with Focus on the Family which is part of this
umbrella evangelical group called Exodus International, and their
website says they champion freedom from homosexuality through the
power of Jesus Christ and they basically run these seminars in the
Bible Belt, in the south where if you don't want to be gay you can
go there and they will show you how not to be gay. And although
they do not think you can cure being gay they do believe that you
can choose not to act on those impulses, it's like alcoholism, it's
like a disease, and they have lots of excuses for why all the
biology and all the genetic reasons for being gay is not valid. And
I did a 6 hour interview with a woman who was one of their media
reps, and we talked about all the different studies that they use
to show why there is a developmental basis and not a genetic one
for being gay. And then of course we talked at great length about
the Bible, all the Bible quotes that they throw up as evidence of
why god doesn't want you to be gay and then you know finally, I
I challenged her at every point on every Bible quote and talked
about how the Bible really makes a lousy sex manual because of all
the other things that it endorses like polygamy and stoning to
death someone who is not a virgin when they get married and things
like that. And the circular reasoning was phenomenal. I mean what
she actually said when I brought that up was "Well, the Bible is
not always god's intent for sexual behaviour". It's only god's
intent when it works to their favour.
Finally I said to her, do you worry that your message is not
being interpreted correctly, that people are waving the Bible and
saying that in the name of religion I am committing this hate crime
against someone gay, and she burst into tears and said "Thank
goodness that's never happened". And I was speechless.
And I said "Really?" and I listed a bunch of people, from
Matthew Shepherd all the way to Tyler Clementi, who obviously have
been targeted by hate crimes and she just had no response.
So had she not heard of them?
Well if she had she sure wasn't admitting it.
The Christian right's take is "We as Christians are being
silenced. The gay agenda is so loud and so vocal and so pushy that
we as Christians are not even allowed to say what we think anymore.
We're the victims here, not them!" Which is really interesting
because that's how it's played out in America with people saying
they don't want to read the book, because they can't handle the
It's too politically incorrect for them to say "I'm homophobic"
so instead they say "I don't want to read this book, I don't want
to because I don't like it, I don't like the characters, I don't
like what it's talking about". But they do say "I'm a Christian and
you're bashing Christianity" and that's the biggest response I've
gotten from the Christian right.
If you read the book, it really doesn't. It's very clear that
Max's group is not your average Christian church and that group
does exist. Those groups, they're out there. And they are really
loud. But people can't wrap their heads around that and say
"Honestly the reason I don't want to read your book is that I'm
homophobic." That's really the problem. We had this one exchange -
there is this Facebook page for me - and this woman wrote and was
talking about how she had returned the book to her library because
she was very upset and didn't want to read it and I was bashing
Christianity. So Ellen wrote her back first and basically just said
everything that I just told you, which she's heard me say 80 times.
And then I wrote her back and I actually gave her clips from emails
I'd received, not just from gay people who'd read the book and
write to me and said "this has helped me because…" but from people
who identified themselves to me as conservative Christians saying
your book made me realise that maybe what my church is telling me
to believe is not what I know in my heart is right.
She wrote back and said, "Well, the other reason I didn't like
your book was because there was so much sex in it." And I wrote
back and said, you know, actually, there's a lot more sex in some
of my other books. Others that she had read, but there is very
little sex in Sing You Home, the difference of course is that it is
between two women.
She wrote back and said I don't have a problem with gay people,
I just don't want to hear about them. And at this point a whole lot
of strangers leapt into the conversation and said, "Yeah, you do,
you have a problem with gay people." But again, the Christian right
can't articulate that and I find that really interesting.
And the other thing in America that I've found, is that this
group of very conservative Christians are not willing to hear the
other side's point of view. They're more willing to say "I'm not
reading that", whereas gay people will. They'll sit down and have a
conversation and they'll listen. But it's almost as if this
uber-religious group have closed off their ability to listen.
For more from Jodi and Ellen, get yourself a copy of DIVA's
Jodi's latest novel, Sing You Home is available at
PHOTO of Jodi Picoult and Ellen Wilber by Emli Bendixen