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Jodi Picoult: 'I write about things that keep me up at night ... there's no shortage of them'

Bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult tells Hannah Stephenson how death threats from trolls on social media won't stop her tackling uncomfortable social themes in her writing

Deep issues: Jodi Picoult has sparked both praise and criticism for the subject matter of her novels
Deep issues: Jodi Picoult has sparked both praise and criticism for the subject matter of her novels

She's the queen of "ethical fiction", having tackled subjects such as teenage suicide, controversial stem cell research, racism, prejudice and child abuse in her novels. Her books have sold millions of copies and garnered a clutch of awards during her career, but Jodi Picoult's writing hasn't been well-received by everyone and has even prompted death-threats from trolls on social media.

Picoult (52), whose 2004 novel My Sister's Keeper was adapted into a film starring Cameron Diaz, is determined to ignore all this, though, and soldier on. She isn't worried that her books have made her a target for Right-wing opposition.

Her latest novel, A Spark of Light, which focuses on the abortion debate and reproductive rights, has already fuelled the Twitter trolls.

"I had death-threats for Small Great Things (her 2016 novel, which tackles race and prejudice), as well, because white supremacists came after me and - surprise, surprise - many of them are also pro-life," says the American author, who studied creative writing at Princeton University and has a Masters from Harvard.

Trolls don't scare her, she adds.

"One of the things I've learned is that extremists get on to social media to sow seeds of hate and discord by making it look like there are many of them coming after you, when in reality there are six or seven."

A Spark of Light opens during a hostage crisis at the only women's health clinic providing legal abortions in Mississippi, a detail rooted in fact.

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The eclectic mix of characters locked inside - after a gunman storms in opening fire, killing and injuring people before taking the rest hostage - are banded together by crisis.

Told in reverse order, with each chapter moving back an hour - so there's no "whodunnit" element - the plot focuses on the characters inside the clinic and the dilemmas they each face.

History reveals that the gunman's daughter visited the clinic for an abortion; the hostage negotiator learns that his 15-year-old daughter is in there seeking birth control; then there's the African American travelling abortion provider, who meets the needs of desperate women.

Like all Picoult's novels, the ethical dilemmas are far-reaching. How do we balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn they carry? What does it mean to be a good parent?

The idea was sparked from a personal experience, the author explains.

"When I was in college, I had a very good friend who found out she was seven weeks pregnant and she and her boyfriend made the decision to have an abortion. I supported her 100%. Years later, when I was pregnant with my third child, I was seven weeks pregnant as well and there was a complication. My doctor told me that the pregnancy might not make it and I was absolutely wrecked.

"I tried to understand how both those things could be true to me at the same time. I realised that where we stand on the spectrum of reproductive rights isn't just a matter of whether we define ourselves as pro-life, or pro-choice.

"An individual woman may change her mind over the course of her lifetime. What you believe when you're a teenager is not what you believe when you're in your 30s, or in your 50s.

"In America, we legislate reproductive rights. Laws are meant to be black-and-white, but the situations in the lives of women that cause them to make these decisions to terminate are thousands of shades of grey."

For research, she interviewed 151 women who had terminated a pregnancy. Of those, only one regretted that decision. Yet, years later, the vast majority still hadn't told anybody.

"It completely broke my heart, because when women don't tell their stories, the narrative that gets written about them is one of shame. We've seen over and over again that the woman who terminates a pregnancy is cast as somebody who is evil and selfish."

She also spoke to pro-life advocates who, she says, were not religious zealots, but simply felt deep personal conviction. All were appalled by acts of violence committed in the name of unborn children.

She shadowed Dr Willie Parker, an abortion provider and devout Christian in the Deep South, who chose his work because of his faith, not in spite of it.

"I observed a five-week abortion, an eight-week abortion and a 15-week abortion," she recalls. "The five-week and the eight-week abortions took less than three minutes and the products of conception look nothing that would suggest a dead baby.

"The 15-week abortion took seven minutes, was more complicated, and mixed among the tissue and products of conception were tiny, recognisable body parts, like a tiny hand, an elbow. Of course, that gives you pause.

"But I also interviewed the woman who had the abortion. She has three children under the age of four, could barely afford to feed them and she knew if she had a fourth child, she would not be able to feed them."

The abortion issue throws up much deeper questions concerning the economic and social problems in the US, she agrees.

"If we know that 75% of women terminate a pregnancy because they can't afford to have a child, what about increasing the minimum wage? What about universal healthcare? What about fairly funded daycare?"

What drives Picoult to write about such uncomfortable subjects?

"I write about things that keep me up at night, things that I worry about as a woman, as an American and as a mother. There's no shortage of them."

Picoult herself had a blissfully normal childhood. She was born on Long Island, New York. After studying English and creative writing at Princeton, she had a succession of jobs while writing in her spare time.

Today, she writes in her attic at large colonial-style home set in 11 acres in New Hampshire, which she shares with her husband, Tim Van Leer, her college sweetheart. They have three grown-up children.

She can switch off from her fictional dilemmas when she finishes for the day.

"I have an amazing husband and four awesome dogs and, when I come downstairs, there is such a clear line of demarcation between the very fraught situation I've been writing about and the life that I live, that it's not hard for me to separate them."

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £16.99

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