My goal was to create a world not so different from our own

After a first novel under the influence of Southern Literature and winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Hillary Jordan delivers a radically different second novel. Written as an hommage to Hawthorne’s masterpiece, When She Woke is a chilling dystopia taking place in a country where religion is the new justice.

Abortion, the role of Church in people’s lives, the reinsertion of criminals in society: to tackle such delicate and major issues from a dystopian perspective is all the more frightening because what you describe in the novel could actually happen in the near future. What do you think was the right balance between realistic fiction and science-fiction?

Personally, I don’t think of this novel as science fiction, but rather as dystopian or speculative fiction. But whatever you call it, my goal was to create a world not so different from our own, because I knew that the more familiar and plausible it was, the scarier it would be.

The novel is inspired by The Scarlet Letter and contains clear references to this novel. As an author, how did you feel building on one the first and most studied works of American fiction?

I love The Scarlet Letter. It’s a book of great power and beauty whose themes are still extremely relevant today. When She Woke is my hommage to Hawthorne. I hoped and tried to make it a worthy one.

You seem to be quite at ease with literary fiction, science-fiction, and even short form fiction. Do you need this sort of challenge when you write? 

When you think of the really great writers—Shakespeare, Stendhal, Hawthorne, to name a few—they all did something completely new with each work. Who wants to write the same book over and over again? Certainly not me, I’m much too easily bored!

The different genre of the novel may be unsettling after your debut Mudbound, although it covers some similar topics such as the issue of social justice. What was the feedback from your readers?

The book has been well-received for the most part. I lost some religious readers and also my Italian publisher, who told us, « We don’t do dystopia, » a response I found very amusing—of course they don’t, they’re Italian! But I gained other readers, especially young women and science fiction fans.

I think that at their cores, the two books aren’t that different. They both explore themes of discrimination and persecution, and they both portray the struggles of women to escape from the narrow boxes in which their respective societies have sought to imprison them.

The novel actually echoes the current situation in America in terms of women’s rights and the involvement of the Church in people’s lives. Do you think the reelection of Obama is a good prospect regarding these issues? 

Yes, but it’s not just Obama’s election that gives me hope. In the legislative races also, all the worst crazies—those opposed to contraception and abortion, those against exceptions even in the cases of rape, incest and grave risk to the mother’s life—went down. And it was often the votes of women who took them down. I don’t believe the kooks will vanish, but I think the American people sent them a clear message that their extremism is not shared by most of us and will be tolerated less and less.