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All the write moves

'YES, it is a little posh to be howling in here," says Jodi Picoult, glancing around the salubrious interior of the Merrion Hotel. Then she giggles mischievously and gives out a series of wolf yips anyway.

The best-selling author of 19 novels, Picoult is in Dublin to promote her latest offering, Lone Wolf, the research of which involved Picoult learning to howl like a real wolf.

At the heart of Lone Wolf lies Luke Baxter -- literally, as it happens, given that Luke is in a coma, being kept alive by a life-support machine.

You may already have guessed what comes next. Luke's son wants to turn off the machine. His daughter doesn't. Yes, it's an 'issue' novel.

Married with three children and hailing from New Hampshire in New England, the petite, chatty and very engaging Picoult has no problem with being known as an 'issues' writer.

"No, I like that," she smiles. "I'm good with that."

Issues, of course, aren't enough on their own to sustain a single novel, let alone a best-selling career.

"Absolutely," she says. "Because if I was really only writing 'issues' books, I'd be writing non-fiction. And the beauty of fiction is that sometimes you can get people to think about a very challenging issue by accident. I mean, nobody ever says, 'Hey, let's have dinner tonight and talk about end-of-life care'. No one wants to talk about this kind of thing. But if you hook them with a story, hook them with characters, then before the readers even realise it they're actually thinking about these very profound issues."

For profound, read 'divisive'. In the US, Terri Schiavo -- whom Picoult references in Lone Wolf -- was a high-profile coma patient who became something of a political football when a legal battle erupted around whether or not to turn off her life-support machine.

In simplistic terms, conservative Republicans wanted Schiavo kept alive while liberal Democrats claimed she was entitled to a dignified death.

"It's religion," Picoult says simply when I ask about the current culture of political intolerance in the US. "I'd say that in Ireland you know a little something about the divisiveness of religion. You're getting away from that now, which is great, and I only hope we can as well. Because it is a scary place in America right now."

It's scary, she says, because of the rise of an evangelical Christian fundamentalism that refuses to listen to any other point of view.

Given that she engages with controversial issues in her novels, does Picoult ever worry about alienating potential readers?

"Oh I know I have," she grins. "I published a book last year called Sing You Home, which is about gay rights in America. I have never gotten more hate-mail in my life, not even for all my books put together. Again, it's because of the political climate. What I'm getting is people who self-identify as evangelical Christians telling me that I'm dead wrong, that homosexuality is a sin, that it says so in the Bible." She shrugs. "And if they know that my eldest son is gay, which he is, they say that he's going to hell. Which," she rolls her eyes, then laughs at the absurdity, "is really nice to hear."

It's not all doom and gloom, however.

"There are two things about Sing You Home that make me really happy," she says. "I have at least 100 letters from people who wrote me a nasty email that I wrote back to, who then read the book and said, 'Maybe you're right. Maybe my opinion should be different from my church'. And if you can change one mind, that's a good reason to write a book."

Not content with writing politically driven best-selling novels, Picoult likes to dabble in different kinds of creative expression.


She wrote the lyrics for the songs in Sing Me Home (the novel was accompanied by a CD of the play-list), writing in collaboration with a long-time friend of hers, Ellen Wilber. She also writes original stage musicals with Wilber. The money raised -- $65,000 to date -- goes to local charities.

Picoult has also branched out into comic books, when she was commissioned by DC Comics to guest-write five issues of the iconic Wonder Woman. Her most recent collaboration, however, is Between the Lines -- a novel she has written with her daughter, Sammy.

"Sammy's 16 now, but when she was 14 she called me up, I was on a book tour in LA. So she said, 'I think I have a really good idea for a book. I day-dreamed it in French class'. "The idea was about a Prince Charming character who wants to escape from his fairytale setting, and the 15-year-old reader who hears his cry for help.

"So we spent two years of summer vacations, weekends, after school," says Picoult, "sitting side-by-side at my computer and we literally wrote every sentence in that book together. And, yes, there were times when I wanted to kill her," she chuckles.

"And then there were times when we would be stumbling over each other to say the same words to finish a sentence. It was as if we were asleep and in the same dream. It was so cool, I've never had an experience like that."

Jodi Picoult's Lone Wolf is published by Hodder & Stoughton