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Jodi Picoult Coming To Hartford To Speak About Her Latest Book And Its Topic Of Abortion

Jodi Picoult likes writing stories that challenge readers’ long-standing beliefs.

“I have become known for writing about contentious issues by showing all side of a controversial subject and encouraging readers to listen to both arguments and evaluate their own points of view,” Picoult says.

In her most recent novel, Picoult takes on a huge issue: abortion rights. “A Spark of Light” (Ballantine Books, 384 pp., $18.89) tells the story of a hostage negotiator who must defuse a live-shooter situation at an abortion clinic. At first he doesn’t realize that his daughter and sister are inside the clinic. It also tells the story of the shooter and what happened in his life that brought him to the clinic armed with a gun.

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Picoult will appear at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford on Sept. 30 to read from and sign copies of her book, and to do a Q&A with the audience. The book won’t be available in stores until Oct. 2, so attendees that evening will be among the first to get their hands on “A Spark of Light.” The event is sponsored by Mark Twain House & Museum as part of its Mark My Words series.

Picoult took a break from watching the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings to speak on the phone with The Courant. She couldn’t have known, when she wrote the book, that abortion rights would be in the news at the time of the book’s release.

“Everyone is up in arms about these particular hearings. There is a real and valid fear that with another conservative judge on the court, one who has spoken out against Roe vs. Wade, they will overturn Roe. It’s a snowball of a disaster,” she says.

This isn’t the first time a Picoult book launch has coincided with similar issues in the news. “Small Great Things” took on the issue of racism and was released in the thick of the 2016 presidential race, whose rhetoric was tinged with racial overtones. Researching that book, Picoult says, made her understand white privilege in ways she hadn’t before. She also learned a lot researching “A Spark of Light.”

“I am pro-choice. I have been my whole life. Talking to people who are pro-life, I expected religious zealots. I didn’t get them. I got really nice people who I could have easily had a cup of coffee with, sat down to dinner with, laughed with,” she says. “These are normal people who believe that at conception, a life is formed. That’s what they passionately believe.”

But that didn’t surprise her as much as talking to women who had had abortions.

“I interviewed 151 women. Only about 25 were willing to be acknowledged by name or pseudonym in the book,” she says. “The vast majority hadn’t told their partners, siblings, parents or friends they had an abortion. … We still live in a time when women are blamed for this decision. They hide, they cower. This is an extremely patriarchal society that shames women for making a valid health-care decision.”

The theme of letting go of preconceived notions is reflected in a quote Picoult uses early in the book:

“We are all drowning slowly in the tide of our opinions, oblivious that we are taking on water every time we open our mouths.”

“Whenever you write about something controversial, you run the risk of people reading it and thinking ‘oh, she is saying something that’s offensive to me’,” she says. “But if I make you uncomfortable, I’m not trying to alienate you. I’m just doing my job. I am making you think about a topic you might have glossed over.”

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Dr. Willie Parker, a Christian pro-choice advocate, helped Picoult understand what many might consider a shocking belief expressed in “A Spark of Light”: that abortion foes do what they do to “make America white again.”

“When you go into the South the one thing they do is put up billboards about black babies. They say, ‘This could be the next Obama.’ They are pro-life billboards trying to encourage black women to not have abortions,” says Picoult, a resident of New Hampshire.

“[Parker] pieced this together. The only person who can have a white baby is a white woman. The only way to make more white people is to have more white babies. If you can appeal to black women and get them to be anti-abortion, you are going to restrict abortion for black women but more importantly you will also restrict abortion for white women. So you are getting what you want, more white babies.”

Picoult’s story begins in the heat of the hostage situation, and each chapter goes backward in time, to before the incident occurred. The idea for that approach goes back decades.

“When I graduated from college, I read Charles Baxter’s book ‘First Light.’ It was a beautiful book about a brother and a sister who were estranged. Chapter one has them meeting again, then the book went backwards. Every chapter happened years earlier,” she says. “I thought that was so smart. I thought, I’m going to do that one day. I’ve just been looking for the right story.

“This was the one. This is all about the moment of conception … what brings each of these people to the clinic on that day, why they were there when the man came in with the gun.”

JODI PICOULT will be at Immanuel Congregational Church, 10 Woodland St. in Hartford, on Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. Admission is $45 and includes a signed copy of “A Spark of Light.” marktwainhouse.org.

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