Jodi Picoult: Music Heals

Danielle Dreilinger
March 25, 2011
Best-selling author Jodi Picoult visits Berklee to celebrate her latest novel, which centers on a Berklee-trained music therapist.
To research her novels, Picoult relies on professionals in the field such as Berklee music therapy chair Suzanne Hanser (left) and American Music Therapy Association president Ronna Kaplan (right).
Faculty member Julie Buras Zigo
Top, from left: Kaplan; faculty members Zigo, Donna Chadwick, Kathleen Howland, and Chi Kim (teacher of visually impaired students); Music Therapy Institute manager Brenda Ross. Bottom: faculty member Karen Wacks, Picoult, Hanser, Picoult's songwriting partner Ellen Wilber, Berklee dean of professional education Darla Hanley
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

It doesn't take a village to write a novel. But in the case of Jodi Picoult's book Sing You Home, it might just take a department.

She returned to the college March 1, the book's release date, for a celebratory lunch with the faculty who helped make it happen. "Thank you for honoring our field," said Suzanne Hanser, music therapy chair.

"Thank you for helping me," Picoult responded.

Picoult really did her homework, said Ronna Kaplan, president of the American Music Therapy Association, as Picoult hugged a professor and asked about her trip to Africa: "She talked extensively to Suzanne, she sat in on classes, she asked Suzanne to write 12 lesson plans for a hypothetical child." She thought the very fact that Picoult came to Berklee on the book launch day indicated the richness of the collaboration.

In Sing You Home, protagonist Zoe's marriage with Max falls apart after years of fertility struggles. She throws herself into her work as a music therapist, eventually meeting and falling in love with a woman, Vanessa. But conflict arises when the two women want to use Zoe and Max's frozen embryos to start their own family.

Music therapy might not be every writer's first fictional career choice. For Picoult, it grew out of her vision of the character—even though she'd never seen a music therapy session before starting her research.

"It's very much about a woman who has to learn how to heal herself," she said. "I began to think about music. . . and then I found out this profession exists." It immediately clicked with Picoult's sense of the character: "She's a helper, she's a healer, and inadvertently she's healing herself by doing that."

The Berklee music therapy faculty were instrumental in developing the details, she said. She sat in classes at the college and attended music therapy sessions. That was especially fruitful, she said: "I actually loved writing the sessions that occur in the book." In fact, she took them directly from her observation notes. "I stole directly. That's really what writing is all about," she joked.

"I try, whenever I do research, no matter what it is. . . to make sure that I'm representing what they said correctly because I think that's my job as a novelist. So what I would hope is that the book will really open the minds of people who don't even know that this profession exists," Picoult said.

Picoult wove the discipline into the book conceptually as well. The book comes with an album of original songs cowritten with Ellen Silber. "My image for people reading it is to have them listen to each song at the beginning of each chapter," Picoult said. "Each track sort of gives you a sense of what that character is feeling before you read the chapter, and really makes it a much different and richer experience. In a way it's like personal music therapy for a reader."

In a way, the book began with music. "The songs were written before the book was written," Silber said, and started nearly spontaneously: "One day I got an email with lyrics" from Picoult. Between the author's commitments and Silber's job as a music teacher, it took about a year to write the album.

On the day the book came out, professionals were already responding, she said. "I have had so many emails and tweets on Twitter from music therapists around the country who've heard about this and who are so excited about the book because they feel like it might spread knowledge of what they do," Picoult said. That's one of the most gratifying parts of being a bestselling author, she said: opening readers' eyes to new ideas.

Attendees agreed the book would raise awareness. "I'm very excited, as the president of AMTA, of the possibilities," Kaplan said. "Music therapy is going to be brought into the public eye more." Kaplan wasn't just the president—she's also a fan who just finished reading Picoult's novel House Rules.

While music therapists may not experience Zoe's twists and turns, "I would hope they feel really validated," Picoult said. And who knows, she said: "Hopefully you'll have a real rise in applications!"