American novelist Jodi Picoult could not have devised a more timely release for her latest book if she had plotted it out herself.
Sing You Home, her pro-gay-rights, chick-lit manifesto-as-novel, went on sale the week after U.S. President Barack Obama declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional - possibly paving the way for widespread legalized same-sex marriage - and the day before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under First Amendment protection, the extremist Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas could bring its anti-gay message to the funerals of U.S. soldiers. The divisive gay-rights issue was very much in the air as the book hit store shelves.
But it was another matter of timeliness that really hit home for Picoult. She had been working on the book for some time when her 19-year-old son came out to Picoult and her husband.
"All of a sudden at that point, this no longer was a theoretical novel," Picoult said during a recent interview. "This was a very personal mission of a mother who would like the world to be a kinder, gentler place by the time her son is ready to get married and have kids."
Sing You Home (which comes with an original CD meant to complement the story) deals with the rights of gay people to marry and have children. Zoe, a music therapist, struggles with infertility. Married to Max at the beginning of the novel, she repeatedly tries to have a child. But Max gives up, leaves her, and returns to drinking. Then he finds God.
Zoe, devastated, makes a new friend, Vanessa, who ultimately becomes her wife (in some states, anyway). When they decide to have a child together, Zoe figures they can use the three embryos remaining at the fertility clinic she and Max had used. But Max, now a Christian fundamentalist, has other plans.
The story is trademark Picoult. The writer has carved a path to the bestseller lists with, to quote her website, "novels about family, relationships and love" that deal with topical issues such as Asperger's syndrome ( House Rules), capital punishment and organ donation ( Change of Heart), and school shootings ( Nineteen Minutes).
Love her or hate her, you can't dispute Picoult's commercial success - or her work ethic. At 44, the mother of three has published 18 novels, releasing a book almost every year since 1992, four of which have debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. She has 18 million books in print in English; her books are published in 35 countries and four languages.
Even if some critics dismiss her, calling her work formulaic and simplistic (a 2008 New York Times review called Change of Heart "her latest tear-jerker on authorial autopilot"), she chooses, she says, to concentrate on the 200 or so e-mails she receives from her readers daily. "I will say overwhelmingly what means so much more to me than the opinion of one reviewer are the letters I get from fans who tell me how a particular book has changed their life."
This time, Picoult reports receiving multiple e-mails from "people who define themselves as part of the Christian right who said this book has really made them think."
She has received her share of hate mail about the book, too. One missive that stands out was from a woman in Toronto who said she had read every novel of Picoult's but wouldn't read this one because she is a Christian and "God hates homosexuality."
Picoult, who says she answers all of her e-mail personally, urged the Torontonian to read the book for herself before judging it. The e-mail she got back was an eye-opener.
"She said, 'I was in a same-sex relationship for many years before I became a born-again Christian ... and I think the reason this is so hard for me is because reading your book would be a little bit like being an ex-smoker in a room full of smokers,'" Picoult recounts.
"And here's the other amazing thing," she continues. "That is not the only e-mail I have received like that."
Picoult has strong opinions about gay rights and is feisty as she refutes the science and other contentions of the anti-gay movement, sometimes using their own weapon, the Bible, to counter their arguments. (Picoult was born Jewish but is non-practising.) She describes a six-hour interview with the fundamentalist group Focus on the Family as probably the hardest research she's ever done. "I was trying very hard not to come into this as the mother of a gay son, but as an author doing research."
Asked whether she plans to become a gay-rights activist, she responds: "I am an activist. I have a really big pulpit with my fiction and I love knowing that I can make people think about this issue.
"I'll be totally honest with you: If you can even change a single mind, it's worth it."
Jodi Picoult will appear for readings with live music in Toronto on Thursday at the Toronto Reference Library and in Vancouver on March 13 at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church.