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Change of Heart (Atria Books)

Interview with Jodie Picoult

Mar. 4, 2008
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No stranger to difficult moral issues that society likes to avoid discussing, Jodi Picoult’s new book, Change of Heart, deals with capital punishment, religious dogma, the crippling loss of a loved one and the fact people can surprise you in ways you’d least expect. She talks to us about this, her 15th novel to date.

What do you feel sets you apart from other commercial writers?
I write about the things most people would rather not talk about, much less write about—big questions that are thorny moral dilemmas and that usually make us feel a little uncomfortable and leave a reader thinking hard. This is a big departure from the easy breezy beach read!

Why did you choose to structure your book in this way, with multiple voices and some time lapses? Were you trying to throw readers a little off guard?
The time lapses were practical—I needed the reader to see how much time passes between conviction and sentencing and the ultimate carrying out of the death sentence. As for the multiple voices, they correspond to the Bible's main gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John become Maggie, Michael, Lucius and June—and just like the Bible, the savior character does not have a narrative but exists in everyone else's descriptions of him.

What was the most trying part of your research for this book?
I was en route to death row in Arizona when my visit was cancelled—they decided I was the WRONG kind of media. I had to beg to be let into prison, and to visit the Death House. While I was there I stumbled across the warden and pushed her with some tough questions until she was willing to give me a great deal of information that is not usually released to the public about the procedures of capital punishment, step by step. It was really horrifying to learn how much time actually elapses between when the sodium pentathol is administered and when the potassium chloride is injected to stop the heart—basically the length of time it takes to say a few sentences, a prisoner's last words - which means the prisoner is paralyzed but not unconscious and can probably feel his heart being stopped. This is why the supreme court is revisiting whether or not lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.

Do you feel capital punishment is a pressing issue today or does it get relegated to the background?
I feel that like religion, it's something we tend to go along with without really wanting to explore it further—probably because we might get answers that make us a bit uncomfortable. Given that we're the only first world country that still has capital punishment on the books, I think it's at least worth an honest look at whether it is a fair system of justice.

In your book religious zealots get little airtime. Have you, or do you intend to, offer a deeper exploration of religious fundamentalism in your work?
Gosh, I thought the religious zealots got some good airtime in Change of Heart! I love the Reverend Justus Arbogath; his church is modeled on one I saw in Michigan that really does convene at a former drive-in. I think that the message in Change of Heart needles religious zealots just as it does any religious group that defines itself by excluding people who don't think like-mindedly the novel is about how religion, which was meant to unite, has somehow become very divisive; how "I'm right" these days seems to imply "you're wrong" when in fact there may be historical precedent for a very personal religious or spiritual journey. To the extent that evangelism has a strong component for preaching the faith to others in hopes they'll join it, it is part of what I scrutinize in Change of Heart!


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