When She Woke: Futuristic Twist on The Scarlet Letter

Q&A with author Hillary Jordan.

Posted Nov 28, 2011

Hilary Jordan's debut novel, Mudbound, winner of the prestigious Bellwether Prize for fiction in 2008, is one of my all-time favorite novel. I read this haunting story about racism and family secrets cover-to-cover in one sitting. I was intrigued to find that her new novel, When She Woke, deals with the same issues in some very different ways: for starters, it takes place in the future and begins with a woman who wakes up to find her skin has been turned red by the government. Here's more from Hilary:

Jennifer Haupt: When She Woke is drastic departure from your first novel, Mudbound - is this by design?

Hillary Jordan: Most definitely. I wanted to get out of the past, out of the first person and out of the Deep South. I accomplished the first two, but damned if I didn't end up back in Mississippi in Part IV!

JH: Are there themes that were in Mudbound that also appear in your second novel?

HJ: Both books take issue with absolutism. Both have strong female protagonists whose desire for self-realization leads them to defy the cultural expectations that bind them. And both are about alienation and discrimination on the basis of color.

JH: How did winning Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize change your writing life?

HJ: I'd walked away from a very lucrative career in advertising to try to become a novelist--an uncertain and quite possibly foolish undertaking. Winning the Bellwether was a dazzling, unlooked--for affirmation; a gigantic "yes" from the universe (and from Barbara, one of my all-time favorite writers) that told me maybe I wasn't crazy to think I could do this after all.

JH: Hannah is a woman struggling with her own faith as well as the religious values of her culture. What/who was the inspiration for this character?

HJ: Hester Prynne, in part; but Hester's stigmatization by society doesn't cause her to lose or redefine her faith, whereas Hannah's does. I wanted to create a character with as wide an arc as possible, a sheltered, obedient young woman who endures trials so harrowing that they change her utterly and cause her to question everything she has been taught to believe.

JH: Has your own faith been tested in writing this novel? What was the most challenging aspect of developing this story?

HJ: As always, the biggest challenge was inhabiting characters very different from myself. Hannah and her family are evangelical Christians; I'm something else I don't have a name for that involves asking a lot of questions and searching for the divine spark--of compassion, of beauty, of transcendence-within myself and others. Hannah believes that abortion is a crime and an abomination; I believe it's a necessary resort for some women given the society we live in, and that it should be legal, rare and left to each individual to decide for herself. I tried very hard to represent the beliefs of Hannah and her family without imposing my own skepticism on them, and to show the gray within these very complex issues about which we've become so polarized. And in the process of doing that, I was forced to question my own entrenched ideas and to really consider and respect other points of view.

JH: There's some interesting futuristic language in this futuristic novel. Tell me how you came up with some of the words--and how fun was that?!

HJ: It was the funnest part of the whole book, besides writing the naughty limericks about the Henleys (there were six originally, which at the insistence of my editor I very reluctantly whittled down to one) and the sappy country & western song in Part IV. I've always loved puzzles, and coming up with names--which I did professionally for many years as an advertising copywriter--is like solving them. Some were relatively easy, akin to doing the Monday NY Times crossword: melachroming and its offspring, Chrome, Chromeville and chromatized; vid, which is the generic term for a TV/computer screen and anything you see on it; thrall, the slang term for a creepy rape drug which I then made up the chemical name for, thraloxamine; kite & amp, amphetamines of the future. The real killer for me, the Saturday puzzle, was the generic term for your everything device that you carry with you everywhere, sort of like your iPhone but more much comprehensive. I spent three years staring at _________s in the manuscript before I hit on "port," which is perfect because it's both your portable and your portal.

JH: How do you know when a book is really finished?

HJ: When they make you stop revising because it's going to press! If they didn't print the books, I don't think I'd ever quit fiddling and trying to make them better.

JH: What's the one true thing you learned from writing this novel?

HJ: I got seriously stalled at several points, and it was always when I started worrying about things like "Is it literary?" and "Will people who liked Mudbound like it?" And what I learned was that you just have to let go of your fears and tell the story that's in you.

Hillary Jordan is the author of two novels: MUDBOUND, published in March 2008, and WHEN SHE WOKE, published in October 2011, both by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. MUDBOUND was awarded the 2006 Bellwether Prize for fiction, founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize debut novels that address issues of social justice, as well as a 2009 Alex Award from the American Library Association. WHEN SHE WOKE was the #1 Indie Next pick for October 2011 and one of Publishers Weekly's Top Ten Literary Fiction picks for the fall.