Tuesday, March 02, 2010

HOUSE RULES: Jodi Picoult on Book Tour

Jodi Picoult's book tour for her 17th novel, HOUSE RULES, began this morning in her home town of Hanover, NH, where the serene luxury of the Hanover Inn was set abuzz by a capacity crowd of readers. There were only three men in the group of about 200, but that only reflects the way people attend events -- Picoult says half of the people who write to her about her books are men. And for HOUSE RULES, there are going to be a lot of eager book-consumers of both journals.

Picoult gave a reading from the early scenes of the book, which follows teenage Jacob Hunt and his family. Jacob's Asperger's Syndrome -- the high-functioning form of autism spectrum disorder so often found associated with knowing incredible numbers of facts but having no clue about "reading" the people around you -- means that his fascination with crime scene analysis goes way over the top. When he tangles with a real-life crime scene, though, his unusual behaviors target him mistakenly as a possible criminal himself.

"The reason I wrote it is because our legal system works really well if you go about it in a certain way -- but if you don't ..." Picoult gave suggestions for how police and juries could both misread the flat voice, lack of eye contact, and periodic overload outbursts of a teen with Asperger's Syndrome. Yet in her reading, her delight in Jacob as her "all-time favorite" narrator comes through clearly, as it also does on the printed page. Jacob's confusions, the stresses in his loving family, and the sparkling dialogue in this book keep it lively -- and the plot makes it a true page-turner in the best sense of suspense and caring about the outcome.

Questions today for this popular author ranged all over the map, from how she came to write My Sister's Keeper (from a distraction during the research for her earlier book Second Glance) to the frustrations of how the film version of that book got changed by the director -- something that has been mercifully avoided with film versions of other Picoult novels on the Lifetime channel.

But the most interesting segments had to do with HOUSE RULES and how Picoult did her research and chose her approach to the story.
"The funny thing about writing Jacob's voice and learning about Asperger's is that I became convinced that everyone I know has Asperger's! [chuckle] Actually we all do, a little bit." Picoult spent a lot of time with boys who've been given the Asperger's diagnosis (they behave very differently from girls with the same syndrome), and sent a questionairre to about thirty-five teens with Asperger's, and their parents, in New England -- and got hundreds of pages back. "So really all of my research came from kids that have Asperger's and they are very aware that they have it." And the book title? "One of the things you learn about kids with autism and Asperger's is that rules and routines are paramount." Jacob's family has rules for him and for themselves, and that framework is critical in living as a family.
Also a hot topic in any crowd already aware of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), now said to affect one child in every hundred in America, is the possible role of disease vaccinations in triggering the disorder in toddlers. Picoult reviewed the latest research, including the controversies around how it was done in humans, as well as the less controversial work in primates.
"I do not advocate not vaccinating your kids -- I vaccinated all of mine. I do advocate having a discussion with your physician. It's not one-size-fits-all," she urged, commenting that at least one vaccine manufacturer, Merck, has responded to concerns by taking apart the classic MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccination into three units, so toddlers can get vaccines for just one disease at a time, instead of three. Picoult said children currently receive 35 vaccines against 15 diseases before entering kindergarten, a sharp rise compared to a generation ago. "I don't think vaccines cause autism. However, I think that's semantics." She noted that half of parents of children with ASD believe there's no link -- and the other half are sure there is, and have some evidence to back this up.
Picoult said readers will get a full dose of her opinions on the controversy as they read HOUSE RULES. Does she deliberately choose topics where she'll share information and education, along with her suspenseful plots and emotionally vibrant characters?
She doesn't want to preach, and is meticulous about giving both sides of each controversy. But she added, "If my books leave the world a little closer and a little more tolerant, I will have died a very happy woman."

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