Jennifer Finney Boylan has no idea why she had such a vivid dream about Jodi Picoult.

Sure, as a writer herself, she’s long admired Picoult’s work, which includes more than a dozen New York Times best-selling novels, and she follows Picoult on social media. Boylan is pretty well-known too. Her 2003 memoir, “She’s Not There: A Life in Two,” became one of the first best-selling books by a transgender American. But the two had never met and never spoken.

Then one morning in May of 2017, Boylan woke up and realized she had just dreamt she wrote a book with Picoult, about a young girl who’s murdered and whose boyfriend is the main suspect. The book was written in two voices, those of the murdered girl and of the suspect’s mother. Her first thought was, “That’s really specific.” After morning coffee and checking her emails, she decided to tweet about her odd dream.

Picoult happed to be online that very moment and messaged Boylan for more details. After a brief exchange Picoult wrote, “OMG, let’s do it.”

Some five years later comes the result – “Mad Honey” published by Ballantine Books on Oct. 4. Within a couple of weeks, the murder mystery reached No. 3 on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-sellers’ list, two places behind fellow Mainer Stephen King’s latest, “Fairy Tale.”

“Normally what I dream about, like everybody else, is fighting a giant squid in the airport or being lost in the supermarket. I just sort of laughed and thought, ‘Where did that come from?’ ” said Boylan, 64, who splits her time between a home in the Belgrade Lakes town of Rome and an apartment in New York City.


The pair have appeared on national TV shows together to talk about the book and in early October embarked on a tour of the United States, Canada and Europe. They appeared at Portland’s State Theater on Oct. 16, in a conversation moderated by Maine author Bill Roorbach.


“Mad Honey” focuses on Olivia McAfee, who moved with her teenaged son Asher from Boston back to her sleepy New Hampshire hometown to escape her husband’s “darker side” and take over her father’s beekeeping business. The other voice in the story is that of peppy, optimistic teenager Lily Campanello, who moves to the same area with her mother in search of “a fresh start.” Their paths cross when Asher and Lily start dating. Lily ends up dead, and Asher’s a suspect.

Boylan and Picoult decided to alternate chapters, with Boylan writing chapters in Lily’s voice and Picoult writing her chapters in Olivia’s voice. But since Lily dies early on, Lily’s chapters are in the past and go back in time as the novel progresses, while Olivia’s chapter go forward in time. The authors did a pretty structured outline to keep all the time changes straight. They did all the writing during the pandemic, with Boylan working from her home in Maine and Picoult from her home in Hanover, New Hampshire.

They also agreed, to test their mettle as writers, to switch characters for just one chapter. So there’s one Lily chapter written by Picoult and one Olivia chapter written by Boylan, but the authors aren’t saying which ones. They want readers to guess.

Picoult said she’s long been a fan of Boylan’s writing and had wanted to write a book that explored themes of gender and identity. She also thought working with Boylan would help her creatively.


“Jenny and I have had very different lived experiences as women in this country – and I felt that combining our knowledge would allow us to create characters who might seem very different at first glance, but who ultimately have more in common than they do not,” Picoult said in an email written while on her book tour with Boylan. “Jenny can break my heart with a single turn of phrase. She is a gorgeous writer. I also love her fiction for her ability to educate gently and subtly through the lives and experiences of her characters.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan, left, and co-author Jodi Picoult talk about their book “Mad Honey” at the State Theatre on Oct. 16. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Boylan had imagined that writing a novel with someone might be half as much work, but found it’s nearer to twice as much. That’s because each writer wrote their own chapters, emailed them to each other, then edited their collaborator’s work and made sure everything flowed together. But she says the work was well worth it.

“This is literally a book that began as a dream, and as a result of that dream, Jodi Picoult, who was always someone I admired from afar, became my friend and collaborator,” Boylan said. “Dreams are powerful things, both while you sleep and the dreams of hope, the dreams of ‘what if?’ ”


Boylan lived much of her life hiding her true self from others, wondering, “What if?” She grew up in a conservative, well-to-do family in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. She went to prep school and boys’ summer camp. She got her undergraduate degree in English from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and her graduate degree from John’s Hopkins University in Maryland. She began teaching at Colby College in Waterville, known to colleagues as a man, in 1988. She shared an office there with fellow teacher and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo.

Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Boylan alternated writing chapters in their new book, “Mad Honey.” Photo by Tim Llewellyn

In her 2020 memoir “Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs,” Boylan wrote that, when she was living as a boy and a man, she found it difficult to show her true feelings, except with her dogs.


“There are times when I struggle to remember what it was like to live in that world, but then I remember the dogs, and it becomes really clear,” she wrote. “There was the dog that I had when I was a boy. There was a dog for when I was a teenager. And there’s one for when I was a cool college boy, and there was one for when I was a husband, and a boyfriend, and a father.”

In 2000, while in her 40s, she came out as a woman. She was married and had two children and was teaching creative writing and American literature at Colby.

Much of her writing since then has touched on issues faced by trans people and other members of the LGBTQ community. She’s published some 18 books and has been a regular contributor to the New York Times opinion section. She often explores the idea of secrets, what it’s like to keep them and what can happen when they are revealed. While she doesn’t want to give the plot of “Mad Honey” away, Boylan said that people familiar with her writing will not be surprised that LGBTQ issues play a role. As does the impact of secrets.

“The biggest difference for me was not going from male to female, it was going from someone who has a secret to someone who doesn’t, ” said Boylan.

Boylan dealt with some agonizing “what ifs” when she came out in 2000, at a time when that was much less common. What if she lost her wife? Or estranged her kids? Or lost her job? But none of those things happened. She kept working at Colby and eventually took a position as the Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City in 2014. This year, she’s a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where she plans to work on a novel inspired by pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.

Her two children – now in their mid-to-late 20s – helped her write the “Falcon Quinn” middle-grade books, about children who turn into monsters and are sent away to a special school to learn how to hide their true identities, imitate humans and fit in. Her wife, Deirdre Boylan, went through “a place of uncertainty and sadness” but stayed in the marriage. The two have been married for 34 years.


Maine-based writer and LGBTQ advocate Jennifer Finney Boylan had a dream she wrote a book with Jodi Picoult. And it came true. Photo by Tim Llewellyn

A few years ago Boylan’s daughter came out as transgender. Boylan’s own mother – an evangelical Christian and conservative – had embraced her and told her “love will prevail” when Boylan came out as a woman. But when her own daughter came out as transgender, Boylan was “just afraid and a little sad.” She worried that her daughter’s life would be much harder from then on.

“You don’t want your child’s life to be harder and I know first hand exactly how hard this life can be, ” said Boylan. “I went through a little of what my friends went though when I came out. I felt a little like I was losing the person I love, which of course I wasn’t. Maybe it’s only human, but I feel a sense of shame that my own evangelical Christian, Republican mother was able, on the day I came out, to hold me in her arms and tell me that love would prevail. It did humble me that I wasn’t better in that moment.”

Before her transition, Boylan says, she wanted to write “literary fiction with a wicked sense of humor,” not unlike Russo’s. But she said that being trans before her transition “messed with my prose” because “it’s hard to write about the world if you don’t really live in it.”

Boylan used to bristle a little at being called an activist, saying she wasn’t chaining herself to a fence or carrying a sign. But she’s come to understand that storytelling is a form of activism. She and Picoult have both said they think “Mad Honey” might be banned in some places for its treatment of LGBTQ issues. Boylan says that means the book will be making people think, and feel, differently.

“In some ways, there’s no greater way of opening people and changing people’s minds than by telling them a good story. That’s why there’s all these efforts now to ban books,” Boylan said. “A single person on a school board will try to not have you be able to read Margaret Atwood or Jodi Picoult or Jenny Boylan because – it’s not these works are obscene or dirty or any more obscene or dirtier than anything else people are reading these days – it’s because there is a great fear your heart might open and your mind might change. And for certain people that is a thing they cannot allow to happen.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan, left, and co-author Jodi Picoult talk about their book “Mad Honey” at the State Theatre. The event was moderated by Maine author Bill Roorbach, right. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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