By Advocate Contributors
Originally published on Advocate.com March 09 2011 5:20 PM ET
Jodi Picoult’s newest novel, Sing You Home, is the first book club selection for the Trevor Project's TrevorSpace. Heart-wrenching and at times laugh-out-loud funny, Sing You Home follows the story of a lesbian couple and their struggles to start a family.
The book, which debuts at number 1 on the New York Times Best-Seller list this week, was also personal for the author. Her oldest son came out to her while she was writing Sing You Home.
Below, Lee Wind, who will be interviewing each of the authors taking part in TrevorSpace's book club, talks with Picoult about researching the novel, mentoring gay teens, and why she's fighting to change the world for her son.
Read more about TrevorSpace's book club before the interview.
The TrevorSpace book club kicks off here with this exclusive author interview. (And as the book just hit shelves officially March 1, I’ll try not to spoil any plot twists to give you all a chance to read it!)
Every day from today until March 22, there will be a new conversation thread started over at TrevorSpace, where we’ll talk in depth about Sing You Home. About the characters. About the songs on the accompanying CD. About what happens in the story — and your perspective on it all. And every one of those discussion days, one randomly chosen participant will win a signed copy of the book! You even have one more chance to win by commenting here today!
The finale will be a live Web chat March 22 hosted by Advocate.com, where I’ll moderate a Q&A between you and Jodi. It’s going to be amazing!
And now, let’s get to the kick-off interview ...
The Advocate: You’re donating part of the proceeds of each signed copy of the book sold at http://bit.ly/JodiTrevor to the Trevor Project. Can you share with us why you’re so passionate to help GLBTQ teens?
Jodi Picoult: I started writing Sing You Home because I think gay rights are really the last civil right we have yet to grant in the U.S., and I wanted to explore the issue and to see why those still opposed to gay rights are opposed. However, this became a much more personal quest for me when my oldest son came out to me during the writing of the book. Did I know beforehand? Sure. I could have told you he was gay when he was 3, and it didn't make any difference to me. I wouldn't love him any more if he wasn't gay; I don't love him any less because he is. Kyle is brilliant, a Yale sophomore who is an Egyptology major and who can read hieroglyphs (and about four other languages) and can do math that gives me an aneurysm; who competes in ballroom dance and runs a children’s theater and outreach drama program in the New Haven schools. His sexual orientation is the least interesting thing about him.
But I also know another young girl who is a member of a theater troupe I run for teens. She was suicidal because she is a lesbian and that's just not something her very conservative evangelical Christian family can handle. She worried about them finding out she had a girlfriend. She worried about being disowned so she couldn't go to college. She had to hide who she was every time she walked in her own door. Going home, for her, meant living a lie. Her parents gave her no support when she hinted at her sexuality, and in fact suggested she talk to a Christian counselor. This girl felt like she had no one to turn to, no adult who cared about her, until I started to mentor her. Unlike Kyle, coming out was not going to be a celebration.
Many teens who decide to come out have a disastrous experience, unlike my son. We've seen the media picking up on LGBTQ teens who have been bullied and who have turned to suicide. I want all LGBTQ teens to have an experience like my son had. It's hard enough being a teenager without having to hide who you really are. The Trevor Project is a safe haven for kids who need the support they're not getting from their families. What I dream of is a world where there's no need for the Trevor Project because no matter who you are, you're accepted.
The buzz about Sing You Home hit the message boards on TrevorSpace months ago. And while your books are published as adult titles, you have a huge teen and young adult following — with high schools and colleges among your upcoming book tour destinations! Does awareness of your teen readers shape your writing?
I love my teen fans. First of all, they're not shy. They write me all the time and talk about how much they enjoy my books, and who wouldn't like that kind of feedback!? I've had teenage fans bake me cupcakes and bring them to events; I've had them make up Jodi Picoult Fan Club T-shirts — they make me feel like a rock star. I do actually think about them when I write my books, which is one reason I often have a teen narrator. I love teen narrators because they have a built-in BS meter. They won't let you get away with a lie; they always cut to the heart of the matter. When it comes to making decisions, they have great swinging passions and sometimes too little cerebral cortex, which also makes for a great character.
Music is so integral to the lives of teens and young adults, and also to your main character, Zoe. She’s a music therapist, and the CD that accompanies Sing You Home has 10 tracks, with lyrics by you and music written and performed by Ellen Wilber. You wrote in the book that the songs were to give Zoe a real voice — what was the process of creating those songs with Ellen?
People who oppose gay rights often don’t know someone gay very well. If you do, if you have a relative or teacher or butcher who’s gay, you know they’re just ordinary people. I wanted readers to get to “know” someone gay — and Zoe’s the one I picked. I wanted readers to really listen to her. I could have given her a first-person narrative — and did — but I wanted to go one step further. I wanted you to literally hear her voice, hear her pour her heart out to you in her songs ... and then see if they can still dismiss her dreams of marriage and a family. My friend Ellen and I have collaborated before on original children's musicals that are performed by a local theater troupe to raise money for charity every year. We've done over 100 songs together, with me writing lyrics and Ellen writing music. So I asked her if she might be interested in a different kind of project, and she was very excited to be part of it. I'd basically write a poem that encapsulated what Zoe was feeling in each chapter and give it to Ellen, and she'd come back with an amazing melody that brought it to life.
Kinsey came up with a scale of sexuality, saying that almost everyone fell somewhere between 0 and 6, with some people at 0 (completely heterosexual) and some at 6 (completely homosexual), and most people somewhere in the middle. One of the characters in Sing You Home was in a straight relationship and then fell for someone of the same gender. Do you think there’s an element of time that needs to be considered — that people’s attraction to others and/or identity shifts over time? Or is it that some people are bisexual and never realized it because they either fell for someone of the opposite gender first or because our culture reinforces straight relationships in a way it doesn’t support queer relationships?
My first crush was in second grade on a boy named Kal Rustiala. He had a jungle gym in his basement and an iguana. I never made the conscious decision to like him — it just happened. So I assume that it's exactly the same for someone who is gay.
It is! Though my first crush didn't have an iguana. He had a rock tumbler.
When I was interviewing lesbian couples for research, I found that while some of the women knew they were attracted to the same sex very early on, an equal number had had committed relationships with men before falling in love with a woman. I wanted to represent both angles, which is why Vanessa is the “gold star” lesbian but Zoe comes to her same-sex relationship after having a heterosexual one — and yet Zoe also reflects on a same-sex attraction as a child that she dismissed because it wasn’t “how she was supposed to feel” about her best female friend. So I guess that the answer to your question is all of the above.
Writing from three points of view, getting inside your characters, must have been challenging, especially when your characters are on completely opposite sides of their beliefs in the equality of gay people. Is there a part of you that felt a sense of danger in having your characters articulate antigay sentiments?
It was really hard to create Max. He had to be a sympathetic character but his views are, to me personally, abhorrent. I had to make him almost befuddled, so that he truly believes in what he's saying without realizing how hateful it is to some of the people who hear it.
That also meant doing research with an evangelical Christian group opposed to gay rights. I interviewed representatives from Focus on the Family, a group that supports the Defense of Marriage Act, opposes gay adoption, and (under the umbrella of Exodus International, which has since taken over) offers seminars to “cure” gay people of same-sex attraction. Like Pastor Clive in my novel, their objection to homosexuality is biblical. Snippets from Leviticus and other Bible verses form the foundation of their antigay platform, although similar literal readings should require these people to abstain from playing football (touching pigskin) or eating shrimp scampi (no shellfish). When I asked Focus on the Family if the Bible needs to be taken in a more historical context, I was told absolutely not — the word of God is the word of God. But when I then asked where in the Bible was a list of appropriate sex practices, I was told it’s not a sex manual, just a guideline. That circular logic was most heartbreaking when I brought up the topic of hate crimes. Focus on the Family insists that they love the sinner, just not the sin, and only try to help homosexuals who are unhappy being gay. I worried aloud that this message might be misinterpreted by those who commit acts of violence against gays in the name of religion, and the woman I was interviewing burst into tears. “Thank goodness,” she said, “that’s never happened.” I am sure this would be news to the parents of Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena, Ryan Keith Skipper, or August Provost — just a few of those murdered due to their sexual orientation — or the FBI, which reports that 17.6% of all hate crimes are motivated by sexual orientation, a number that is steadily rising.
It's always scary to give voice to an opinion that you feel spreads hate, but sometimes that's what you need to do to really hold a mirror up to the people in the world who really do think like Max and Pastor Clive, to get them to really listen to what they're saying. One of the great joys about Max is that he, as a character, espouses a journey I hope that these people also take when they read my book. He begins with an opposition to gay rights because of what he's been told to believe by others. But when he tries to hold these beliefs up against the reality of the gay people he knows — and has loved — he sees that disconnection and ultimately makes a decision not based on religious dogma but on personal ethics.
There's a lot of tragedy in Sing You Home — particularly in Zoe's fertility struggles — but I actually think of this book as an uplifting one. I think the book leaves you with the belief that the world now, for LGBTQ folks, is so much better than it was 20 years ago, and that changing one mind at a time is the way to gain acceptance for all regardless of sexuality. If you have been struggling to be honest about your sexuality and you finally come out, you might change the mind of a relative or friend who previously opposed gay rights — because you force them to rethink their logic. They already love you and know you're not a bad person, therefore not all gay people can be bad. I hope it doesn't take another 20 years to achieve equality, but I do think we are headed in the right direction.
Early in the story, on page 18, there’s a really tender moment of Zoe’s mother saying that her daughter couldn’t disappoint her if she tried. And in track 9, “Where You Are,” there’s a beautiful lyric Ellen sings, “I think home is a person and not so much a place.” Is there a healing for you in your writing?
Writing this book, for me, was not just healing but proactive. I had been writing about an issue that I supported, but it was theoretical. Sure, I had gay friends and colleagues, but it wasn’t until Kyle came out to my husband and me that I realized I had a personal stake in this fight. I want to do my part to change the world for my son. I want to know that this book has opened minds so that by the time Kyle wants to marry and have a family, it’s not an uphill battle.