Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, MAD HONEY: A Novel

Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, MAD HONEY: A Novel

Guest host Allison Pataki interviews New York Times bestselling co-authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan about their wildly successful new novel Mad Honey. The two talk about the serendipitous origins of their partnership (it involves a dream and an impulsive Tweet), how they managed to split writing duties and weave their chapters together so seamlessly (despite their conflicting planning styles), and the themes they loved exploring–secrets, shame, and the complex lives of women. They also discuss everything bees and honey, their upcoming projects, and their best advice for aspiring authors.


Allison Pataki: Hello, everybody. Allison Pataki here. I have the pleasure of chatting with Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, authors of the wildly successful Mad Honey that just hit the best-seller list again for the ninth time this very morning that we’re speaking. Congratulations. Welcome, Jodi and Jenny. Thank you for being here.

Jodi Picoult: Thanks for having us.

Jennifer Finney Boylan: Good morning. Hi, Allison.

Allison: Oh, my goodness. Jenny just told me that this whole experience of writing this book, meeting readers, talking about this book has been like a dream. I thought that the wording was interesting because of the backstory of how this book came to be. Can you just share with readers how this book, Mad Honey, came to be?

Jennifer: I can do that. I had a dream that I was writing a book with Jodi Picoult. This happened five years ago in 2017. Literally, I woke up from the dream and I thought, that’s very specific. My dreams are usually, I’m mud wrestling Captain Crunch or something. It turned out, here’s the book. I’m sure in no time at all we’re going to give you a little summary of what the book is about. I dreamed, basically, the thirty-second version of this book, woke up, got some coffee, and went on Twitter, god bless it, and tweeted out, “I just dreamed I was coauthoring a book with Jodi, @JodiPicoult.” Wouldn’t you know, @JodiPicoult happened to be online at that very second. I got a DM. “What was this book about?” asked Jodi Picoult. I told her what I had dreamed. She responded, not “LOL,” “OMG,” I think. In fact, she said, “Let’s do it.” It wasn’t quite that simple, but in some ways, it was that simple. It’s like we signed an unwritten agreement that we were going to try to figure out a way of telling this story and telling it together. It took a while for us to get to it. It took a couple years until we were each free. When our calendars cleared, thanks to COVID in part, we got to work.

Allison: Unbelievable. I have the chills. Thank goodness, in this case, for Twitter. Thank goodness you saw that tweet, Jodi.

Jennifer: Said no one ever.

Allison: Well, you said it was five years ago. Jodi, when you began writing this together, how did you craft the process? There are two narrators. It’s told from two different perspectives. How did you jump in?

Jodi: The book, basically, in a nutshell is the story of Olivia McAfee, who, years ago, was in an abusive relationship, left with her infant son, Asher, to start over. When the book opens up, years have passed. Asher is now eighteen and in high school. Olivia is a beekeeper in rural New Hampshire. Asher is head-over-heels in love with Lily, who’s the new girl at school. At the end of the first chapter, Asher calls his mom and says, “Lily’s dead.” He’s being questioned by the police. Olivia really wonders whether or not the past ever stays in the past. She’s thinking about cycles of abuse and how that manifests, even though she tried to keep her son from it. It’s really a book about whether or not the past can stay in the past and about identity and how we become the people we are and gender and all those rich things. We knew going into it that we were going to start with two narrative voices. We decided early on that I would write Olivia, the mom, and Jenny would write Lily, the dead girl. We also agreed very early on that we would each take one chapter from each other’s character and write that chapter. We wanted to do it to be able to inhabit each other’s characters, but also kind of as a fun game for all of our readers to say, can you figure out which one of us swapped? Which Jodi chapters were Jenny’s and vice versa? I will say that, to date, no one has guessed them right.

Jennifer: Actually, Jodi, this just in. Somebody wrote me recently and said, “Are these the two chapters that you switched?” They got it right, so that’s the first person in nine weeks.

Jodi: Okay, so there’s one. I’ll take that. That’s pretty good.

Jennifer: It’s cool.

Jodi: In many ways, it was that simple. What made it more complicated was that we have very different writing styles. You know this as a writer. When you are writing, you’re not analyzing how you write. You sit down, and you just do the work. It’s a little different when you have a cowriter. For example, I am the ultimate planner. Jenny is not a planner. Jenny usually writes to let the story discover itself. I pretty easily convinced her that we were going to have to create a very formal outline. In addition to the fact that we were telling a murder mystery and a courtroom drama, and you can’t get to the end of that and go, I don’t know who did it — you actually have to have a plan. In addition to that, Jenny was writing a character who literally is dead at the end of the first chapter, and so we needed to think about how to bring in Lily’s voice. The way to do it was to tell her story backward in time. The first chapter happens on a certain day in December. The second chapter is not from Olivia’s point of view. It’s from Lily’s. It’s the day that Lily dies. The next time we hear Lily, it’s a week before her death and then two weeks before her death and so on and so forth. While Olivia marches the story forward through the arrest and the trial and all of that, Lily’s narrative explains why and how.

Jennifer: It’s been long enough ago now that it’s hard to exactly remember, but I think originally, I thought Jodi’s chapters will begin the day of the murder and go forward in time, which in fact was true. I thought my chapters, the Lily chapters, will start a year earlier. I’ll work up, and my last chapter will be the day that she dies so that the book would work out that way. What’s funny is I thought — Jodi, tell me if you remember this the same way or not. I remember thinking, yeah, but that’s going to be too confusing to keep jumping back a year in time. It was Jodi’s idea to have my chapters go backwards in time. At first, I didn’t think, that’s going to be too confusing, interestingly enough. What I thought instead was, I don’t know how to write that. I don’t know how to do that. Fortunately — are you listening, Jodi? Fortunately, because we had an outline and because we worked it all out in advance, eventually, we just had a great big storyboard. It was my chapter, Jodi’s chapter, my chapter. One was going forward in time. One was going backwards. It might sound like a mess to your listeners and viewers who haven’t read the book yet. In fact, my hope is, and readers have said so far, it feels pretty seamless, not only in terms of negotiating the jumps in time, but also going between my voice and Jodi’s voice. I definitely Boylan-ized her a little bit. I was definitely Picould-ed .

Allison: I love that.

Jodi: That was the other big thing. I think we both went into this thinking, awesome, half the work. I only have to write half a book. It was twice the work.

Jennifer: Right, half the work.

Jodi: Jenny would give me a chapter of hers. I would edit my way very heavily through it, and she would do the same thing with mine to the point where now when I look at the book, it is very hard for me to tell which phrase Jenny wrote and which phrase I wrote because we really did get dirty in each other’s sandboxes, so to speak.

Jennifer: Seamless.

Allison: Seamless is the word I would’ve used as well before Jenny beat me to it. In many ways, the plot also hinges on this question of the truth and, Jodi, you said the past, but also a secret revealed that is a real hinge point. We have mixed readership here where some have read the book. Perhaps some have not yet read the book, though obviously, they all have the book and are just going to start reading it today. What can you say about that and how it was writing with a big twist, a big reveal?

Jodi: It’s really about the difference between what’s secret and what is private. There are multiple twists in this book, which we won’t disclose.

Jennifer: It wouldn’t be a book by Jodi Picoult if it didn’t have multiple twists. The twists in this book are awesome.

Jodi: They are.

Jennifer: I hope if you haven’t read the book yet, when you get to those moments, that your jaw will drop open.

Jodi: Are you really reading a book of mine if you don’t throw it across the room at some point?

Jennifer: People throw my books across the room too, but I think for different reasons, Jodi.

Jodi: This book, to me, in many ways, is also about, what does it mean to be a woman in all incarnations of that? Jenny and I, as women, have had very different experiences in this country. There is an element of that in the book. We wanted to point out how we are far more similar than we are different. That is a resonating thread throughout the book. To that space, the idea of what is secret and what is private is something we all have. Everybody who’s listening to this right now, if I say to you, I want you to think about a time that you were afraid to reveal something to someone close to you because you thought it would change your relationship or end your relationship or alter it irrevocably in some way, everybody has something going on in their head now. You do too, Allison, right?

Allison: Absolutely.

Jodi: For everyone, it’s different. For Olivia, she was a survivor of abuse for many years. There’s this question of whether or not she has to disclose that now. How many years have to pass from your abusive relationship before you are allowed to not call yourself a woman*survivor of abuse? What about someone who had an abortion in their teens? When they meet someone in their thirties, do they need to disclose that? At what point are you allowed to let go of those pieces of yourself? Does it change who you are? All the characters in this book have something that they are wondering about that is secret. The difference between what is secret and what is private, in my mind, before you jump in, Jenny, is the idea of shame. Something that you keep secret is usually something you’re afraid to tell someone. Something you keep private is really something that’s just yours that may not be anyone else’s business, basically. Go ahead, jump in.

Jennifer: As a transgender woman, I can say that these are issues that I’ve thought about in kind of a different way throughout my life. I went through transition a long time ago now, almost twenty-five years. In my day-to-day existence, I don’t feel a woman with an asterisk. I feel like a woman pretty much like other women in very late middle age, to be generous. It is also true that as someone who never had a girlhood in the way that you two did, I think about the past and whether the person that I was until my thirties is still part of me. The answer is, of course, that person is still a part of me because who else would I be? Yet I’ve been through enough change so that, in many ways, in the important ways, I’m both a different person and the same person. In a different way, everybody in this book has something in their past, everybody, that they’re negotiating with. Can you leave it behind you forever? Does it still keep coming back? That’s partially what is driving the murder mystery too. Here’s Asher, son of an abusive marriage. We see him with Lily. I wrote most of the Lily parts. When they’re together, they are very much in love, but there are these little flickers of —

Jodi: — Anger management issues.

Jennifer: Yeah, he’s angry. All of that’s going on.

Jodi: It’s a fun thing to play with nowadays too. We did write this during the pandemic when everyone was really learning how to reinvent themselves. In many ways, that’s what this is a testimony to, to reinvention.

Allison: The title is Mad Honey. Jodi’s holding up her bee mug. Jenny showed us her honey on her mantle. How much honey did you eat while you were researching and writing? Jenny’s showing us her mad honey. Sprinkled throughout are these amazing bee factoids, which just blew my mind. I learned about apiary, which is beekeeping. Can you talk a little bit about the beekeeping, the bees, the title, and all the honey that you ate and the recipes you included for the honey?

Jodi: I actually did not eat a lot of honey, which is probably a good thing in retrospect. I actually was using all these milk and honey body products. I was really into that when I was writing the book, which is kind of funny.

Allison: Perfect. Inspiration.

Jodi: Totally. Most of the bee sections come in Olivia’s sections, which were mine for the most part, so I was the one who did the research on bees. It’s worth saying that it was the only time I actually left my house during COVID before vaccines. I was terrified. I had asthma. I thought, I can’t get this. I went out every weekend to a master beekeeper’s field in Vermont. I would basically study what he was doing from six feet away with a mask on underneath my beekeeping helmet.

Jennifer: A hot look for you, Jodi.

Jodi: So attractive. Everything that you read in there is true. I actually had someone write me yesterday saying, “Was that all true, or can I just skip it?” It’s true. You know who I am. My favorite facts about bees — this is probably one of my favorites. Everyone knows that girls run the bee world. It’s a queen bee. What not everyone realizes is that if you are a bee doing any work in a hive, you are a female bee. You could be a worker bee. You could be a forager bee. You can be a nurse bee.

Jennifer: You can be an author bee.

Jodi: You can be an author bee. If you are not doing any work in a hive, you’re a drone. You’re a male bee. Really, drones do nothing but deplete the resources. They just sit around and eat the honey. They live for one lousy day in their lives when the queen bee takes a maiden flight, at which point they zoom up after her into the air. The six or seven fastest bees get to mate with her. At the moment that drone ejaculates in the queen, you can actually hear an audible snap as his genitals snap off and he falls to his death. Then he is replaced by another drone. This goes on, this little orgy in the air. When the queen comes back, she has all the eggs she needs for the rest of her life, all the fertilized eggs, which is really important because the queen’s only job is to make more bees. That happens for many years. Sometimes a queen gets sick or old, and you need to replace it. When that happens, the nurse bees kind of know this is going on. They decide they’re going to create a new queen. The way they do that is they basically go to a larva. If it is a fertilized egg larva, it would become a worker bee, a nurse bee, one of these female bees in the hive. Instead, they feed it only royal jelly. If you feed that larva only royal jelly, it becomes a queen bee. The hope is that she will hatch, kill the old, sick queen, and take over the hive. What’s fascinating is that if the nurse bees choose an unfertilized egg larva, which would be a drone, a male bee, otherwise, and they give it only royal jelly, it too becomes a queen bee.

Allison: This is just so perfect.

Jennifer: It’s really very cool. It’s very cool.

Jodi: Mad Honey, the title comes from, again, something that is very real. When bees forage from rhododendrons and mountain-laurel in the Nepal region, they create a certain kind of honey called mad honey, which tastes and looks and smells like regular honey but actually can make you quite sick. It’s hallucinogenic. It will make you vomit. It will give you terrible fevers and convulsions and seizures and heart palpitations and, in some cases, will kill you. It was actually used many, many years ago for biological warfare during Ancient Greece and Ancient Roman times. I love that idea, that something that seems sweet at first could have the power to do such damage, kind of like love.

Jennifer: Kind of like love.

Jodi: That’s my bee stuff. I love my bees. I love them. I’m so proud of the bees. Every time I look at honey, I’m like, you go, hive!

Jennifer: Another fun fact — again, this is a murder mystery. Sherlock Holmes, old Sherlock Holmes in retirement, what did Sherlock Holmes do after he stopped being a detective?

Jodi: I know. I know. He was a beekeeper.

Jennifer: He was a beekeeper.

Allison: Apiary. So good. We have so much to learn from the bees.

Jodi: We do. One out of every four mouthfuls that you use as sustenance is thanks to a bee because of pollination.

Allison: It’s really mind-blowing. There is this whole book. There are these characters. There’s the story. Just the bee facts alone, everybody needs to read and learn about the bees and the mad honey.

Jennifer: The bee world is run by women. Again, given that the book asks, among other questions, the question of, what does it mean to be a woman? each of the bees in the hive has a role, but apparently, that role can change if you have enough royal jelly. That’s going on too, the way in which the roles that we play as women, the identity that we have as women can really change over time. All that’s going on. The bees, it’s just a perfect metaphor. I didn’t know about the bees, that that was going to be a thing. My original dream was not about bees. My original dream was that there was a girl who had been murdered. The boyfriend’s mother, the boyfriend who’d been accused of the crime, the mother was wondering whether she can trust her son. The dream I had was the two voices, the mother and the dead girl. There was nothing about bees.

Jodi: I had to do something. I had to earn my keep.

Allison: Pun intended.

Jennifer: We started working, and Jodi said, “I’ve got an idea.” I’m like, “What?” She’s like, “This is going to be a bee thing.” I said this a lot of times. “I don’t know what you’re up to, Picoult, but I will follow you.” There really was a lot of mutual trust. We just had to follow each other’s leads in every way. I have to say, doing this book with Jodi was like, I hate to say a dream come true, but it really was. It really was exactly that. It was hard work. It was like a blind date because I had never met Jodi when I had that dream. I didn’t know her. So far as I know, we’d never been in the same room together. Suddenly, here we are, coauthors, collaborators. Now five years later, we’re friends. There were things we disagreed about in the plot, kind of minor things. Usually in those situations, we compromised and let Jodi have her way. It really was cool. It went from this dream to something that was real. It’s been such a wonderful ride. I would do it all over again if we could.

Allison: Amazing. Hint, hint. There we go. Is that in the works? Is that possible? What is your relationship like now?

Jodi: Oh, my god, if we found the right story, I would a hundred percent do it. I loved working with her. It was a blast. This was the right story for us to collaborate on. When you read it, you’ll understand why. I know that it could’ve gone quite badly. I’m delighted to say it did not.

Allison: You’re still friends.

Jodi: Yeah, but also, the reason I wanted to say yes so fast is because I didn’t know Jenny, but I knew her work. I loved her work. I know how talented she is as a creator and a storyteller. I think it’s really important to say, for the people who are watching this, I got a lot of emails leading up to this book saying, “Oh, you’re cowriting? We know what that means. You’re not really writing your books anymore.” I really blame James Patterson for ruining that for all of us. Honestly, I think this is us at the top of our game. When Jenny would give me a chapter, I was always like, oh, god, it’s so good. I got to do something just as good. I was really motivated to make sure that I was never phoning anything in because I wanted to impress Jenny.

Jennifer: I had to impress you too, and to impress your readers. Of the two of us, Jodi is, by far, the author with more readers and more books and more eyeballs around the world. In taking me along with her on this adventure or going on this adventure together, I knew that I had an opportunity to find a bunch of readers who have never heard of me before. It was really fun, but it was also a real responsibility that I had to live up to the challenge that I’d been given and the opportunity that I’d been given.

Jodi: Jenny, I do think it’s important to let readers know sometimes when two people cowrite, it’s because they both have the right story to tell together.

Allison: As you said, twice the amount of work, not half the amount of work. Jenny, what are you working on now? How can readers connect with you and keep up with your exciting news?

Jennifer: Step one is a website of mine, I try to post the latest things. What am I doing right now? I am celebrating Mad Honey and being just really, seriously, grateful for the ride of a lifetime. I am working on a couple new books, one of which is a memoir, which is essentially about the differences between men and women and manhood and womanhood as I’ve experienced it over the last twenty-five years. I have this idea for a novel about Amelia Earhart that begins on the last day of her life, supposedly. In this novel, it’s not the last day of her life. I’m thinking about that. You can also find my columns and essays — for the last fifteen years, I was writing for The New York Times. You can find me at Now I’m writing for The Washington Post. If you go to, you can also find the most recent columns that I’ve written, some of which are about gender, some of which are about politics. Nothing about bees yet, but there’s still time.

Allison: Yet. Fantastic. Jodi, you said, “In so many ways –” You wrote this in your author’s note at the back of Mad Honey. “In so many ways, my entire career has been about untangling the knots that society tangles itself in as we futilely attempt to separate the us from the them.” Can you tell us about what knots you’re untangling and what you’re working on next?

Jodi: Ironically, I spent last year doing almost no writing of novels. I was working instead as a librettist. A lot of the work that I have been doing has been in the theater world. We are really excited because the Between the Lines, which debuted off-Broadway, the cast album is fantastic and is being released in January. We just found out that Breathe, which is a musical I wrote during the pandemic, is coming out as an Audible theater piece right now. The Book Thief, which debuted in the UK last year, is transferring to next fall. There’s all this stuff going on in my theater life. Somehow, I also have to finish this book that I started, in which I will convince you that Shakespeare did not actually write his plays, but a woman who got no credit did. There is historical evidence for that, which I’m sure interests you as the historical . It’s fascinating stuff. It’s really something I’ve been very vocal about, which is gender discrimination in publishing. I don’t think people realize how far back it goes.

Jennifer: It goes way back. Thank you so much for having me. This has been a blast. I hope readers enjoy the book. Jodi, I love ya. I hope I see you soon.

Jodi: Love you too.

Allison: Thank you, Jenny.

Jennifer: Buh-bye.

Allison: Bye-bye.

Jodi: Bye, Jenny.

Allison: Jodi, can I just ask you one final question?

Jodi: You can ask me anything you want. I want to tell you I’m a big fan of your writing too.

Allison: Thank you. You’re very, very sweet. Jodi, what advice would you have to aspiring writers?

Jodi: I get this question all the time. The first thing that you need to do is read because you really need to figure out how and where your work is going to fit into not just bookstore shelves, but the literary canon. Then I always say that you need to somehow take a writing workshop course. The truth is it’s actually gotten easier since I did it. You can do it at a school. You can do it online. You could do it at a bookstore, continuing ed. The real reason to do that is you learn how to write on demand. You learn how to give and get criticism. Those are the two tools that a writer needs the most. You don’t have to take writing workshop classes your whole life. You just have to do it until you are your own best editor. Then you need to actually carve out the time to write. I hear from so many people who say, I’m reading all these books. I love Stephen King’s On Writing. There’s this, but how do I do it? I said, the thing is, you got to figure out what’s right for you. What works for Stephen King is great for Stephen King, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for you.

Case in point is this book. What works for me as an author does not work for Jenny as an author. We learned very quickly that — I didn’t know this. I do a lot of prewriting in my head. I do it when I’m walking, when I’m cooking, when I’m swimming, when I’m showering. I’m constantly running ideas and lines and dialogue. When I sit to write, I already kind of know where that chapter’s going. Jenny does all that on the page. Her fifth draft looks like my first draft. That was something that we had to be like, okay, wait a second, what’s going on? Oh, okay, that’s how we write. Something we never thought about because usually when you write alone, you don’t. Again, it comes down to that figuring out what works for you. There is no wrong way to be a writer. You just have to figure out what motivation and what path works for you as an individual. You have to make the time. I know people, I’m sure you do too, who have full careers and are using those careers to support themselves and their families but get up an hour earlier and go to bed an hour later and turn off all social media and do nothing but write for those two hours. Sometimes that’s what it takes. If you really are a writer, you have to write. You’re going to figure it out.

Allison: In this case, social media served you well because we heard from Jenny. The book is Mad Honey. The authors are Jodi Picoult and Jenny Boylan. An instant best-seller, a must-read for all men, women, and bees. Thank you, Jodi. Thank you, Jenny. We look forward to following the exciting updates as they come.

Jodi: Thank you so much.

Allison: Thank you. Bye-bye.

Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, MAD HONEY: A Novel

MAD HONEY: A Novel by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan

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