You’re looking exceptionally lovely today. Have you lost weight?
No, but you obviously have.
Your second novel is being widely described as The Scarlet Letter meets The Handmaid’s Tale. How do you feel about such comparisons?
Honored, on the one hand; both are great writers. A little impatient, on the other; such descriptions strike me as reductive and simplistic. Yes, I riffed on Hawthorne’s story, and true, my book shares a theocratic dystopian setting with Ms. Atwood’s, but When She Woke diverges sharply from both books and has its own thematic, stylistic and plot trajectory. I guess I’m a lot like my heroine, Hannah Payne; I don’t like being put into little boxes.
I hear you. I’ve been described variously as a Southern novelist, a political novelist, a dystopian novelist and even a science fiction novelist.
And how do you see yourself?
As a storyteller. I set out to write compelling literature, period. People can shelve it wherever they like.
So you didn’t have a political agenda in writing this book?
I think it’s the job of literature to tackle the big stuff: racism, war, faith, sexuality. And I think the best literature asks questions rather than providing answers. I wanted to posit where some of the policies currently being advocated and enacted by the far right might lead us and to ask, Do we really want to go there? The outcome I show in WSW—an America where church and state have merged, our constitutional right to privacy has been all but eliminated, abortion is illegal in most states and criminals are punished by being hideously stigmatized—is an extreme one, obviously. But that’s what a dystopia is: an extreme, dark vision of the future designed to provoke people into asking questions.
And do you think your vision will come to pass?
WSW is a cautionary tale of what might happen, sparked in part by some worrisome things that are currently happening. But despite the book’s grimness, I don’t think we’ll go there. We’ve struggled with this stuff since our country’s founding; struggled to establish the right balance between individual freedom and societal and governmental control. We’ve gone through many waves where the latter have been in ascendance, and fear and paranoia have led us to lose sight of our ideals. Jim Crow, McCarthyism and the interning of Japanese-Americans are a few recent examples. I think we entered another such phase after 9/11, and we’re still in it. And yet, during this same period of time, we’ve elected an African-American president, repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and legalized same-sex marriages in many states—just like we abolished slavery and overturned “separate but equal” and gave blacks and women the vote and legalized a woman’s right to choose. We struggled with all of it, but we eventually found our way to doing the right thing, the fair thing. Which is why I believe the fundamentalist and extreme right-wing agenda we’re seeing so much of now will eventually fail: because their agenda is fundamentally un-American. It’s just not who we are as a people.
Did you start with the idea of using The Scarlet Letter as a springboard to explore these issues?
No, originally I was almost completely focused on this idea of punishing and stigmatizing criminals by turning them a different color. I wrote four pages about a woman in a prison cell who’d been turned red for killing someone. That was in the spring of 2000, during my second semester of grad school—the same semester I started Mudbound. And I didn’t know what to do with my red woman, so I wrote Mudbound instead. I came back to WSW six years later, and that’s when it occurred to me that I ought to reread The Scarlet Letter, which I’d last read as a surly and unappreciative 15-year-old. And I was struck by the many parallels between the world that Hawthorne described, the Puritan society of the late 1600s and post-9/11 America. The book grew out of my exploration of those parallels. The scarlet letter that Hester Prynne wears became, in my book, scarlet skin. The scaffold that Hester stood on in front of the entire community became a sinister form of reality TV where prisoners are televised. The popular minister Hester falls in love with became a mega-church preacher, and so on.
Could a man have written this book?
Yes, although he might have found it more difficult than I did. As fiction writers, it’s our job to leap into the minds of people totally unlike ourselves and make them convincing. I could name many great protagonists created by writers of the opposite sex: Emma Bovary and John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead come to mind. But gender is just one of many lines a fiction writer may be called upon to cross. There’s also race, class, nationality, faith and age, to name just a few. Obviously, the further a character gets from yourself, the more challenging he or she is to create. In Mudbound I inhabited mothers, fathers, farmers, soldiers, bigots, a midwife, an alcoholic and a preacher; in WSW, a sheltered evangelical Christian seamstress. I’m none of those things, but that’s what makes it interesting.
One last question: Where do you get your ideas?
From you, of course.