Part 2: Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan

An ‘in conversation’ event with Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, authors of trans-themed novel Mad Honey, interviewed by Juno Dawson. Contains spoilers about the novel.

Promotion for the event held with Sarah McBride in the US – Boylan must be on his knees in this photo

The blurby bit

Join bestselling authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan as they discuss their new novel Mad Honey with bestselling author Juno Dawson.

Mad Honey is a moving and powerful exploration of the secrets we keep and the risks we take in order to become ourselves. The most compelling, challenging and contemporary novel you will read this year – and which will start conversations we need to have around authenticity, identity, and gender.

From the Eventbrite website

Boylan and Picoult have been on tour together to promote their novel Mad Honey (reviewed here). Unsurprisingly the novel is full of deranged transgender propaganda with particularly egregious lies about the efficacy of vaginoplasty surgery. Dr Marci Bowers literally appears as a character in the novel as the offending ‘gender confirmation’ surgeon. In the acknowledgements section of the book we learn that Bowers and Boylan both served as directors at the same time at the US LGBT media advocacy organisation GLAAD (page 451 of Mad Honey).

(At the time of writing, GLAAD’s board of directors is unpublished but a blog post from August 2022 reveals two new additions are a Goldman Sachs Diversity and Inclusion grifter Maeve DuVally and Samantha Lux, a YouTube star, who jokes about ‘transing kids’ in this video.)

In Delaware they were joined by fellow trans activist and Senator Sarah McBride, in London, Juno Dawson. Dawson looked as if consumed by an out of body experience.

It wasn’t until Picoult had completed the physical tour, however, that she decided to be publicly outspoken about the issues raised in her novel, giving an interview to The Independent (the core of which also appears in the Authors’ Notes section). Sensing that robust criticism was coming her way, she tweeted out to followers that she was about to begin a blocking spree if anyone said something she didn’t like.

The interview begins

Does the past really stay in the past?

Picoult began by explaining to us what the novel was about. A condition of entry to the event was the compulsory purchase of the hardback book and the women who got there early (i.e. me) were also treated to a rather snazzy yellow tote bag, so we were all gingerly fingering the pages of the book before the authors came out. Needless to say the audience were all women.

Picoult told us that the past forms who we become and that that novel was about that, gender and identity. The reason why she wanted to write the book with Jennifer Finney Boylan, a man who ‘transitioned’ in his mid-forties, was because:

She and I have had completely different experiences as women in America. And I knew that if I was going to write a book about what it meant to be a woman in America, she and I could create something that had never been done before.

Jodi `Picoult on the inspiration for Mad Honey

How did the novel come about?

Finney Boylan recalled that he had a dream on 8 May 2017 in which he had been co-authoring a book with Picoult. The dream had included the bare bones of what they came to write: two narrators, that of a young girl and that of a mother. The girl was dead and the boyfriend, the son of the mother character, was being questioned by the police. On waking he got himself a cup of coffee, started to read the newspapers, checked out Facebook and then finally onto Twitter and put out a tweet about his dream. In the Authors’ Notes to the book, the tweet ran: ‘I dreamed I was co-authoring a book with Jodi Picoult!’ (page 443). Picoult happened to be online at the very same time, and, as they had followers in common, she saw the tweet and DM’d him to ask what the book was about, liked the idea and thus the partnership was formed there and then.

So I looked up the tweet. Guess what, it contradicts the story given, as it rather suggests that Boylan contacted her directly to tell her about it and then posted the outcome of the conversation on Twitter. Okay, so a fake origins story. You’re forgiven. Most of us have a fake origins story.

The actual tweet

In another piece of sure mythology Picoult immediately responded to Boylan’s early morning DM ‘LOL let’s do it!. They had done enough tour dates by this point that Picoult was able to provide this punchline seamlessly. Dawson, faux scandalised, asked whether she had really meant it. Both were due to write other books and so planned to start writing together in late 2020 but then the pandemic started in the March and they realised they were going to have a lot of time on their hands.

By-the-by Picoult provided the blurb for Boylan’s novel Long Black Veil, published in 2016, making it likely they have been known to each other prior to the alleged revelation. Long Black Veil sits within the erotic transgender fiction section on Amazon’s website.

On the writing of the book

Boylan wrote the part of the 18 year old girl (i.e. the trans identified male) and Picoult wrote the mother. Picoult said it had been a big learning experience for her and that she had had to be the one who had to house the master copy on her own computer and that Boylan had to send in his chapters for incorporation. They didn’t want it to feel as if two different authors had written the book, so they would edit each other’s chapters. It had gotten to the point where now when Picoult reads the text back she can’t remember which had authored it. (Clue Picoult, you didn’t write the bits in which Lily froths at the mouth about the seismic orgasms from his vaginoplasty, which is not actually a thing by the way.)

They also challenged themselves to write one chapter in the other’s character and Boylan explained that they were competitive about that. He invited us to guess which we thought it might be. Picoult added that readers had emailed her and guessed the Olivia chapter that Boylan wrote, but no one had guessed her Lily chapter. They really had worked out their patter.

‘As a transgender woman,’ said Boylan

Needlessly. Standing at over six foot four with the effortless demeanour of a nightclub bouncer and an unmistakeable guy voice, no one could ever be under any apprehension that Boylan was anything other than male. He wanted to tell us that there was a value in doing lots of drafts, not just of your story, but of your life. It’s never too late to do your next draft, to become a better person. That presumably was the line he fed his wife and children when he transitioned in his mid-forties.

Did Lily have to die?

Boylan said that he found it difficult to find the character at first and started by writing Lily ironically. The first drafts he submitted to Picoult were rejected but he finally found a way in by giving the character elements of his own teenage nerdiness, being a know-it-all and a lover of trivia. The kind of happiness Boylan most cherishes is the kind you find after fighting for yourself as there was a joy that could only come after having suffered and been through a lot of trauma. (Or, put more simply, when you have hit rock bottom the only way is up.)

Jodie’s range of topics

‘You’ve written so many things,’ Dawson squeaked at Picoult, ‘yet you’ve never truly been given your flowers as a controversial author. Could it be that you’re a woman?’ Dawson’s voice dropped suddenly and looked slightly mortified. As it turned out Picoult had received an email that very same day from a woman who had picked up one of her books in the chick lit section of the bookshop who’d remarked that the books were nothing like chick lit/romance section, given that those books always had a happy ending. Picoult had nothing against those genres but it wasn’t the genre she was writing in.

Boylan is a literary writer, who got reviewed and nominations, on the other hand Picoult got money and sales. ‘That means people actually read your fiction,’ quipped Boylan for probably the umpteenth time on this book tour. Picoult claimed that having that power to reach so many people with her fiction made her ‘very comfortable with where I’m labelled’ but admitted that it would be nice if she got a little bit of recognition sometimes. I suspect it plays on her mind quite a bit actually, now that she is 24 novels into a long career. (For the record, I think Picoult is an amazing writer, it’s her politics, and, in the case of Mad Honey, the falsehoods I take issue with.)

Your writing is like honey, wheedled Dawson

And then reminded everyone he was a writer, and that his books were on sale. Which, to be fair, was quite funny. In fact all three were wisecracking and entertaining. I did enjoy the banter. Quality bantz.

Boylan wanted to talk more about the power of fiction to ‘open the heart’. Something that I think Mad Honey does in spades, as for second half of the book, after it is revealed that Lily is male, I still had in my head until the end of the book that she was a girl really. Statistics and factual information could not do the same thing, said Boylan (although I note they didn’t shy away from including such false information).

An ‘impromptu’ imploration

Boylan then got everyone to sign language the word for ‘transgender’ – a flower in your heart.

Even the sign for trans is controversial – don’t do it with up or down movements! Horizontal only.

Picoult added that they wanted the book to be a springboard for conversations around gender, but clearly indicated those conversations had to fit the criteria of complete capitulation to transgender activist talking points. Sorry, Picoult. Not going to happen.

That is where we’re at in this country, people refer to it as the transgender debate. There is no such thing as the transgender debate, there is transgender people and that is who I tell stories about and who you tell stories about as well.

Juno Dawson

Why do you write about LGBTQ issues?

Picoult responded that her book Sing You Home, about a lesbian couple who sued to get the right to embryos, had bought her much closer to the issue. Whilst she was writing that book her 18 year old son came out as gay informing her in an essay he had written. Of course, she fully embraced him and his news and only wished that ‘every LGBTQIA kid’ could have the same experience. Picoult then got very excited, standing up and punching the air, informing us that her first grandchild, care of the gay son, was due in February. I look forward to her next book in which a privileged gay couple sues a surrogate mother.

More interestingly though, in the Authors’ Notes section of Mad Honey, Picoult tells us that just before she started to write the book ‘One my closest friends’ who she had known for years, came out as a ‘transgender man’ (page 447). Given that Picoult is 56 years old it seems likely we are talking about a middle aged woman here, you know that demographic a lot believe doesn’t exist, despite there being plenty of examples. I think it’s just because they are much more lowkey about it. Anyway, I digress.

Boylan wanted to tell his coming out story, which involved needlessly confusing the fuck out of his 85 year old mother with the news he was ‘born in the wrong body’. He made her a large strong gin and tonic and told her that he had known he was female since he was a child but he had never been able to tell her because he was afraid she wouldn’t love him anymore. He alleges his mother got out of her chair and over to the sofa to wipe the tears from his face, telling ‘I would never turn my back on my child’ and ‘love will prevail’ and then quoted Corinthians. Boylan admitted his mother had a miserable year concealing the secret he had shared with her. Brave and stunning stuff.

Factoids about bees

The principal reason I think Boylan wanted to write a book with Picoult is that she is renown for the research she does into the topics that she writes about. Picoult didn’t leave her house for fifteen months during the pandemic, i.e. until a vaccine was available, except for one day each weekend she would spend the day with a beekeeper. Everything she learnt about bees she put into the book.

Picoult entertained us with the anecdote that female bees – worker bees – do all the work, whilst the male drone bees sit around watching football (or in the case of trans-identified drones, swapping lipstick tips?). She told us, with slightly too much relish, that the only function that the drones had was on one day of the year when they had to pursue the queen bee to impregnate her. Ejaculation was audible after which his genitals snap off and he falls to his death. Ha, ha, ha, went the audience (including me). Boylan recalled one time on the book tour Picoult had told that anecdote and the audience had burst into applause. All very salient when you think about the topic of this book, a 17 year old boy who undergoes castration and vaginoplasty, and that the two men on the stage had been through the same. Why does our culture think it’s funny?

Picoult continued that fertilised eggs became female worker bees, unfertilised eggs were destined to become male drone bees. When the queen started to fail, the nurse bees decide to replace her and create a new queen. They do this by choosing a fertilised egg and then feed the larva only royal jelly to create a new queen, who then kills the old queen and takes over the colony. However, this could also be done with an unfertilised egg too (i.e. one that would normally become a male drone). ‘Trans bee, explains a lot,’ Dawson uttered conspiratorially and got a round of applause.

Except it really doesn’t. Bees are born with the capacity to either become male or female, as Picoult had already explained, as they are gynandromorphic. Humans do not change sex, even if they do consume large amounts of cross sex hormones, and especially if they have sexual organs removed.

Picoult regaled us with further factoids about bees, including the one about mad honey, which sounded like she’d picked it up directly from this article, rather than an experienced beekeeper or an academic tome about bees. Then we were done with the bee segment.

Questions from audience

What were your compromises?

Boylan had wanted the mother of the trans character to get the sexy detective, but Picoult had written back ‘No way, he’s mine!’. Girls just have so much fun, don’t they!? This was also yet another anecdote from the Authors’ Note section at the back of the book.

Has your research been so emotionally exhausting that you have had to abandon a project?

Picoult told us the most emotionally draining had been talking to the parents of child cancer patients. The most physical was going to Alaska in minus 38 degrees temperature on a snow machine with food poisoning to talk to an Eskimo (and she did say Eskimo, which I thought was verboten, I think she has to forfeit some woke points for that). Living with the Amish People for two weeks was hard because they expected her to pitch in. There is one book she has written that she never published, that was about an astronaut, and she had spoken to a real astronaut for the research, however the only time he had to talk to her was between two and three in the morning. Around that time a very successful male romance writer had come onto the scene, so Picoult decided to publish the book (which I presume was also a romance) under a male pseudonym in direct competition and her agent started to pitch it. The book was turned down by everyone because ‘it was too well written’.

How do you navigate the ethics of telling all but not embarrassing others within memoir?

Dawson reflected that no one had warned him that his mum would be very pissed off (I’m assuming The Gender Games is the memoir Dawson was referring to) which simply means that Dawson did zero research because it’s the first thing everyone talks about with memoir.

Boylan admitted that it could create awkward situations and had started out as a novelist, moving to non-fiction when he transitioned. Now he felt it was easier to get closer to the truth through fiction, rather than memoir, and that memoir had the downside of hurting the people who love you the most. In retrospect some of his memoir he would have preferred to have written in a different way, or not at all.

‘The dreamiest thing’ happened for Boylan

When Boylan paid tribute to his friend and collaborator, he said it was the dreamiest thing that could have happened to him, and I totally get it. Picoult split her pay check, something she didn’t need to do, to write with an author unknown to her huge rich white yummy mommy fanbase. The novel contains exactly the type of messaging that a trans activist would want, in particular one Dr Marci Bowers and the WPATH organisation, all with the Picoult populist stamp of approval. It’s just too perfect a result for him and his mates. I’m not sure what Picoult has gotten in return, apart from the woke cookies she was clearly desperately seeking.

But I do have to return to what I think the central message of the novel is, i.e. that vaginoplasty surgery is so realistic it leaves an unsuspecting lover, well, unsuspecting. Watch the video below, the latest in the long line of men who have simply had a horrible result from vaginoplasty surgery (note also that ‘Zaya’ is not a ‘detransitioner’).

If Picoult was really up on her game she would know about these problems but I suspect her supposed penchant for research is just a marketing angle. Alternatively it is possible she trusted Boylan to provide the research in this area, since ‘trans people are the experts on their own lives’ and she dared not intervene or double check. Whatever the reason, once the pigeons come home to roost, there will be nowhere to hide from the disinformation purposely inserted into this novel.

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