Jodi Picoult's new novel imagines a shooting at an abotion...

Jodi Picoult's new novel imagines a shooting at an abotion clinic from multiple points of view. Credit: Nina Subin

Jodi Picoult is drawn to controversial topics. She wrote about a school shooting in “Nineteen Minutes” and explored the effects of racism in “Small Great Things.” In her latest novel, “A Spark of Light” (Ballantine, 369 pp., $28.99), she examines abortion not from a theoretical or political standpoint but through the gritty lens of a violent attack on a women’s clinic in Mississippi.

“A Spark of Light” is told through the eyes of a teenager, her hostage negotiator father, the shooter, a doctor, patients and a anti-abortion activist, among others. Picoult, a pro-abortion rights advocate, interviewed people on both sides of the debate. She talked to members of the anti-abortion movement and women who have had abortions. One in 151 said she regretted having an abortion; the others said they didn’t but still think about it every day.

What these conversations taught Picoult was empathy.

“No matter what you believe about reproductive rights, it’s coming from a standpoint of deep personal conviction,” says the author. “You can’t say everyone who decides life starts at conception is evil. But nobody takes having an abortion lightly.”

Picoult, who grew up in Nesconset and now lives in New Hampshire, will discuss the book with author Meg Wolitzer at Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 2. The event is sold out, but Picoult spoke with Newsday by telephone; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

“A Spark of Light” opens with the final moments of the standoff and works backward to its beginning. Why did you write the book non-chronologically?

In the ‘80s I read a book by Charles Baxter called “First Light,” about two siblings. Every chapter went backward in time. I thought it was so smart. I thought, “One day I am going to do that,” but I wanted to find the right book. To me, it was “A Spark of Light,” which is about the moment everything begins, whether it’s personhood or life. I wanted to write about what brought everyone to the clinic that day. 

Did you use an outline?

I’ve never done that. I always write a short synopsis, and I know the twist at the end, but I don’t write it in detail. But for this book I wrote a 48-page outline. I had to because I was juggling so many voices, and I had to make sure the threads tracked backward. The hard part wasn’t writing but editing.

What did you learn in writing this book?

I was flawed in the way I imagined the people who weren’t like me. I was wrong about how I thought about them. I thought they were crazy and violent. But they turned out to be lovely, interesting people. I could completely understand why they believe what they believe.

Why is fiction a good way to tackle divisive subjects?

People don’t want to talk about controversial topics because they don’t want to offend anyone. The beauty of fiction is that it allows you to be entertained, to take a journey and walk through someone else’s shoes in a low-stakes way. It’s made up. Of course, everything in this book has happened to someone. But fiction is also a diving board into a pool of difficult conversations.  

Do you think we’ll ever come to an agreement on abortion as a nation?

I don’t think we will ever come to terms on this issue. Both camps have such strong convictions. But I do think we can have a real discussion. There is a way to reduce the number of abortions, and that’s to allow women to have true choice. I don’t think we’re talking about the right things. . . . There are important reasons Roe v. Wade needs to stand, and it has to do with fair and representative access to abortion rights. If it doesn’t stand, we’ll have more places, particularly in the South, where women can only get an abortion if they have wealth and can travel. It becomes a privilege.

We have to talk about how 75 percent of women can’t afford to have another child because of financial reasons. Would you support a tax for women in this situation to have access to funds that might make them change their minds? Let’s talk about laws that allow for universal health care for the life of the child. State-funded day care. Let’s penalize companies that prevent women from advancing so they can have those babies. I want to reframe the conversation. I think we can all truly say that it would be great if women didn’t have to choose to terminate their pregnancies.

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