Novelist Jodi Picoult's zesty embrace of the zeitgeist has generated millions of fans (if a few crabby critics). In her 15th novel, "Change of Heart," she again dips her pen into hot-button issues, this time taking on the death penalty, Gnosticism, Catholicism, Judaism, mysticism, organ transplantation and child abuse.

To recap: A death-row inmate offers his heart to save the life of a child whose sister and stepfather he killed. Should the child's mother accept his offer?

"Change of Heart," just released by Atria with a first printing of 1 million copies, is rapidly hitting the bestseller lists, and two films based on other books are underway. Readers already are anticipating the next novel and the next. We caught up with Picoult of Hanover, N.H., en route to Minnesota during a 16-city tour.

Q What do you make of your readers' hunger? What do you think you've tapped into?

A I am writing about the things that worry me personally, as a wife, a woman, a mom [to three kids, ages 12, 14 and 16], an American. These are the issues that keep me up at night, and I think they're the same issues that keep everybody else up at night. And that's what people are responding to.

Q You tell this story through the eyes of a grief-stricken mom, a Catholic priest, a gay death-row prisoner with AIDS and an ACLU lawyer. Whose perspective was most challenging to imagine?

A One of the harder perspectives to write was the one you would think would be the easiest -- that of June, the mom. It is always difficult to write my mothers because often they don't think or behave the way I would in a certain situation, and I have to actively distance myself. By the same token, I can't separate myself from some of the traumatic incidents I put [them] through, and I wind up crying hysterically while I'm writing the scene. There's a scene where June picks up clothing to bury her child in, and I remember being totally devastated writing that. Thank God I've never had to do that personally.

Q You visited prisons as part of your research. Did you come away with something more than material for a novel?

A I think I came away with a greater understanding of the issue [the death penalty and capital punishment], a more honest assessment of why people still support the death penalty ... and a much more honest assessment of why I personally don't.

Q The convicted murderer at the heart of your story performs miracles (turns the toilet water to wine, raises the dead, multiplies the bubble gum, cures disease). Do you believe in miracles?

A Miracles happen every day, but I think we perform them as people for each other.

Q What issues will drive your next novels?

A Next year's book, which is done and at the publisher, is about a wrongful birth suit. ... The one after that is about a child with Asperger's syndrome who winds up being accused of murder.

Sarah T. Williams is the Star Tribune books editor.