When She Woke cover
When She Woke
by Hillary Jordan

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Hillary Jordan,
Author of When She Woke

By Diane Slocum

February 2012

Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne had it easy just wearing a scarlet “A” compared to Hillary Jordan’s Hannah Payne who is scarlet following her conviction for murdering her unborn child – the product of her adulterous affair with superstar pastor Aidan Dale in a not-too distant future when the line between church and state has faded. Raised to unquestionably follow the church’s teachings, Hannah’s life as an outcast brings her new understanding of the world and of her own strengths.

“The scarlet letter that Hester Prynne wears became, in WSW, scarlet skin. ”

AUTHORLINK: There are obvious parallels to The Scarlet Letter – characters’ initials, their sins, the repressive society, the color of the punishment. Why did you decide to tie in with Hawthorne?

JORDAN: I wrote the original fragment of WSW, which was then called “Red,” in early 2000, in grad school. I had four pages about a woman in a prison cell who’d been turned red for killing someone. I didn’t know where to go with the story, so I wrote Mudbound instead. Six years later, when I was casting about for my second novel, I returned to my red woman. Hester Prynne and her scarlet A popped into my mind, and I thought, huh, I should reread The Scarlet Letter, which I’d read as an unappreciative 15-year-old. 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, where we’d seen a climate of fear that led to the erosion of civil rights, the muddying of the line between church and state and attacks on women’s reproductive freedom by the religious right. The book grew out of my exploration of those parallels. The scarlet letter that Hester Prynne wears became, in WSW, 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. And because of The Scarlet Letter, my future America ended up being not just cruel and repressive but also essentially a theocracy, as 17th century Boston was.

“The original idea was sparked by a conversation I had with my uncle about the drug problem.”

AUTHORLINK: How did you get the idea to use chroming as a form of punishment?

JORDAN: The original idea was sparked by a conversation I had with my uncle about the drug problem. He said something to the effect of, “I think all drugs ought to be legal and provided by the government; they just ought to turn you bright blue.” Meaning, get as high as you want, but other people will see you coming and stay the hell away from you. The idea of what it would be like to be stigmatized in such a way stuck and eventually bore the strange red fruit that became When She Woke.

AUTHORLINK: In most areas, society has come a long way from the repression of Puritan times. Do you think we might be regressing?

JORDAN: I think there’s a small, loud group of extremists in America who would have us regress, but I don’t think they’ll succeed. We’ve struggled with this since our country’s founding; struggled to find the balance between individual freedom and societal and governmental control. We’ve gone through many waves where the voices of extremists have drowned out reason, 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, 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 eventually found our way to doing the right thing, the fair thing. Which is why I believe the fundamentalist and far-right-wing agenda we’re seeing so much of now will fail: because their agenda is fundamentally un-American. It’s just not who we are as a people.

AUTHORLINK: Both of your novels address issues of social justice. What do you hope readers will gain from them?

“. . . it’s the job of literature to tackle the big issues—war, faith racism, sexuality—because that’s where the fault lines are.”

JORDAN: I think it’s the job of literature to tackle the big issues—war, faith racism, sexuality—because that’s where the fault lines are. I also think the best literature asks questions rather than providing answers. It says, “Hey, you may believe x, but have you ever considered y, did you know there was a z?” Certainly, inhabiting characters whose views were so completely unlike mine forced me to reexamine some of my own entrenched ideas. My hope for both books is that they will make readers do the same: stop and ask questions of themselves and find respect for other points of view, even those they disagree with. And in the case of WSW, to show where the policies being advocated by the far right might lead us and to ask, Do we really want to go there?

AUTHORLINK: How did your experience in writing and publishing your second novel differ from your first?

JORDAN: For me they were two very different kinds of ecstasy and agony: With Mudbound, I experienced the joy of discovering my voice and learning that I was capable of writing a novel and getting it published, and the torment of spending five years wondering whether it was any good and would ever be finished and read and liked by anyone not related to me by blood. With WSW I had the thrill and terror of being under contract ("Wow, I'm actually being paid to write!" and "Uh oh, this means I owe them a book") and the sporadic reassurance that came from having written a pretty successful first novel, which of course gave rise to anxiety over whether WSW would rise to the standards of MB or fall prey to the dreaded "sophomore slump."

About Hillary Jordan: Mudbound, Jordan’s first novel, won multiple awards including the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction and the American Library Association Alex Award. She is currently working on short stories while planning her third novel.
Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.