Mary Pearson is author of several books for teen readers, the latest of which is The Adoration of Jenna Fox. I recently read this along with my daughter’s mother-daughter book club, and when we finished our discussion we thought of questions we would like to ask Pearson. Below you’ll find our questions along with her answers. (From a July 2008 interview.)
Why did you choose to write about ethics in medicine?
MP: I am not sure that I exactly “chose” to write about ethics. I think the question of ethics naturally arose out of the situation and story. When I write, I like to explore gray areas and various viewpoints and I think the particulars of this story and situation, just happened to be ripe with ethical questions.
Why did you decide to place the story in a future time?
MP: Years ago, when my own daughter was facing a life-threatening illness but was saved by modern medicine that hadn’t been available fifty years earlier, I wondered how far medicine would progress in another fifty years. I didn’t think of it as an idea for a story at the time, but that niggling question stayed with me.
Was there something particular you wanted to say to a teen audience about the issues?
MP: No. I don’t write to “tell” teens anything. For me, when I write, it is more a matter of exploring things that I am curious about. And I write from the teen perspective because I find the teen years to be so pivotal and life changing. Teens are adults, albeit young ones, who are experiencing so many firsts and making decisions that can affect them for the rest of their lives.
Do you have strong opinions of your own on the topic?
MP: Yes and no. How’s that for wishy washy? I do believe in the sacredness of human life. I do understand a parent’s desperate need to save their child. I do believe in change and progress. But I also believe in some limits and control. The dilemma comes in who decides what. That’s the part I don’t know. The only thing I really do know, is that probably none of us knows for sure what we would do in an impossible situation.
What kind of research did you have to conduct to write the story in a way that would make sense to readers who aren’t knowledgeable about medical terms?
MP: In some respects, making it “accessible” was easy since it is all written from seventeen year-old Jenna’s point of view. When I was researching the anatomy and workings of the brain, I had to choose key brain anatomy phrases so it wouldn’t be too jargony and I tried to keep those to a minimum. I didn’t want it to read like a medical encyclopedia even though much of the story revolved around medical technology. It was a balancing act to include enough but not too much.
Have you spent time with people who have had experimental medical treatments? How about with people who rejected experimental medical treatments?
MP: Yes and yes. I have a friend who was given six months to live after a diagnosis of metastasized melanoma. She did some research of her own and found some experimental clinical trials that were being conducted at a local university. It was tough going, months of uncertainty, but she had nothing to lose. And finally one of the treatments worked. That was over ten years ago and she is alive and well today.
As far as rejecting experimental treatment, my husband and I rejected it for our own daughter who was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. It was a horribly difficult decision for us. The experimental treatment was shorter, and also had the “possibility” of fewer of the long lasting side effects of chemo and radiation, but it didn’t have a long proven track record. However, the standard treatment did have a proven track record with a great degree of success. We felt we just couldn’t take a chance when her life was at stake, so we went with the tried and true. That was eight years ago and she is well and healthy now so we feel we made the right decision.
Do you think you would make the same decision Jenna’s parents did?
MP: Honestly, I don’t know. I think I would. I think most parents would do anything to save their child. But there is also the uncertainty of how much hell you will be putting your child through. I think until we are actually faced with such horrific decisions, it is impossible to judge.
Did you change your views while you were writing the book?
MP: I’m not sure I had a view before I began the book. Just questions. And maybe that is what I was left with too, perhaps along with a greater degree of empathy for those facing the unknown.
In your opinion, what makes this a good book to read and discuss with a group in a book club?
MP: Ha! You’re asking the author to judge her own book! But I will give it a try. I think because there is so much gray area in this book and opposing opinions, it gives each reader the opportunity to weigh in with their own. There are no right or wrong opinions, but certainly there will be strong ones. We’re talking about life and death here, and the essence of our humanity. These are huge topics that affect us all, and everyone is bound to have their own ideas about what we should or shouldn’t do.
Anything else you’d like us to know?
MP: I’m truly honored that you chose to read my book for your book club, and I do hope it provided you all with some interesting discussions. I wish I could have eavesdropped!