On the phone about her appearance at Meredith College on March 8, Jodi Picoult is friendly, bubbly and frequently laughing. There’s no indication of the misery and tragedy visited upon the characters in her best-selling novels, including My Sister’s Keeper, Handle With Care and her latest, House Rules, which hit bookstores on Tuesday.

Picoult’s novels often involve such horrors as school shootings, execution, infanticide, date rape, sexual abuse, suicide pacts and more. The tales frequently combine courtroom drama with deeply flawed characters that don’t always make it through the story intact. (On the other hand, last year’s film of My Sister’s Keeper angered many fans of the book by cutting the last tragic twist, something Picoult says she was unhappy about.)

Though she’s closer to her characters than anyone else, Picoult has few qualms about what they go through in each book. “I don’t really feel bad about it, though very often I want to slap them. I want to say, ‘God, can’t you see the bigger picture?’” Picoult says with a laugh. “I wish they’d make better decisions, but if they did, I wouldn’t have much of a book.”

House Rules, Picoult’s 17th novel since 1992, deals with a teenager with Asperger syndrome who is accused of murder. The story uses the crime as a window into the teenager’s life and the effect his condition has on his family.

Picoult said that the idea for the story came from discussions with an attorney about how the legal system breaks down when there are problems with communication. “That got me thinking about what would happen if you had some sort of disability that made it difficult to communicate with law enforcement,” says Picoult, who has an autistic cousin.

“There’s always some kind of disconnect when someone who is autistic is brought in before a judge, or the police, or anyone in law enforcement, and I thought that was something people should know about.”

To research House Rules, Picoult not only shadowed CSIs, but met with nearly 50 children with Asperger’s and their parents, combining face-to-face interviews with a detailed survey.

Picoult says the surveys yielded hundreds of pages. “Many of the observations went into the book, because they said it better than I could myself.”

“The thing about a kid with Asperger’s is that while they might have trouble talking to you, if you ask them to write something down, they’re incredibly articulate, because they’re very bright, once you take away that fluster of being in a social situation,” Picoult says. “It’s one reason the Internet has been so important to people with Asperger’s, because in chat rooms, you don’t have to look anyone in the eye.”

Picoult has already completed her next book, a tale of embryo donation and gay rights called Seeing You Home, which will include a CD featuring songs “sung” by the main character (actually an actor-musician, of course). She believes the secret to her writing is the focus on the characters. “I think what attracts a reader is emotional honesty,” Picoult says. “Most readers can tell when a character doesn’t ring true, or the contrary, where the character rings so true that it almost hurts to read that part of the book. I think if you write with emotionally honesty, you can write about almost anything at all and you’ll be able to take an audience with you.”

Jodi Picoult appears at Jones Auditorium at Meredith College at 7:30 p.m. on March 8 to read from and sign copies of House Rules. This is a ticketed event; tickets are available with purchase of House Rules or her other works. For more information, call 528-1588 or visit www.quailridgebooks.com.

This story was originally published on our Artery blog.