Envisioning a color-coded future
We’ve heard of suffering for your art, but writer Hillary Jordan took things to a new level while researching her latest novel—she almost got herself arrested by suspicious border guards.
In an interview from her home in Brooklyn, the author says she likes to “get a feel for the landscape, how people speak, how things smell,” as she did for her first book, the bestseller Mudbound, and again for her provocative new novel, When She Woke.
That’s where the almost-arrested part came in. Jordan had been “in the throes” of finishing When She Woke during a five-week -writers’ retreat, and “by the end, I was literally almost out of my mind. But I needed to go to the Canadian border, because that’s [one of the places] Hannah goes in the book.”
When the border guard asked why Jordan was there, “I said I was researching my book, looking at how to get my heroine across illegally.” An on-the-spot investigation ensued: “They went through my entire car, my papers, and found evidence that I’m not a drug trafficker—just a complete idiot,” she recalls.
Jordan’s provocative new novel is a politically charged re-imagining of 'The Scarlet Letter.'
Of course, Jordan has clearly proven that she’s no dummy: Mudbound, a novel set in the tense racial landscape of post-World War II Mississippi, garnered critical acclaim and won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for fiction dealing with social justice issues. Her new novel, When She Woke, is another thought-provoking story—one that will have readers thrilling to its suspenseful plot even as they re-examine their stance on everything from religion to social stigma to our prison system.
The aforementioned heroine, Hannah, is at the heart of this engrossing dystopian story—which is, Jordan says, a “re-imagining or riff” on The Scarlet Letter. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s heroine, Hester Prynne, Hannah finds her personal business made painfully public. When the novel opens, she awakens to discover her skin glowing red as punishment for having an abortion—a crime in the near-future society Jordan has created.
Through Hannah, Jordan paints a vivid, disturbing picture of a time and place where church has melded with state and privacy is only for the privileged. Like Hannah, offenders must wear their actions via a damning color-coded system implanted in the skin—and the condemned aren’t imprisoned, but released to fend for themselves among hostile, often violent, fellow citizens.
This frightening state of affairs took shape in Jordan’s mind in 2007, when she found herself “concerned about what was happening in our country: the muddying of the line between church and state, attempts by many states to limit women’s reproductive freedom, governmental intrusion on people’s civil rights.”
Although both of her novels address controversial social issues, Jordan doesn’t see herself as a political writer. “I feel I’m first and foremost a storyteller,” she says.
She emphasizes that, in When She Woke, “I’m not condemning faith in any way. In fact, the presentation of the abortion issue is not black and white at all, although it’s less black and white than I feel: I’m pro-choice, and feel abortion should be legal and rare. But I tried to portray the difficulty and agony of it for people, and I think it’s a subject about which people can disagree.”
As she wrote about characters who question the belief system in which they’ve been raised, Jordan found herself rethinking things, too. “It was an exploration of faith for me as well, which was interesting,” she says. “I’ve written two books about people of faith, but I’ve always been an agnostic, pretty much. I’m still figuring things out.”
The importance of taking time to figure things out—and staying open to the possibility of being wrong about something—are central themes in When She Woke.
Jordan says it’s unlikely she would have written this book without having gone through her own awakening, during which she left behind her life as an unhappily married, unfulfilled advertising copywriter.
“I didn’t want to wake up at 60 and not have done this thing,” she says. “I didn’t want an ordinary life, I wanted the crazy, insane life of a writer.”
And so, over the course of a year, she got a divorce, quit her job and moved from Texas to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia, where she wrote Mudbound and the first pages of When She Woke.
Jordan has certainly been embracing the writerly life: She has completed 10 writer’s residencies and is about to embark on an “epic” tour to promote her latest novel (following on the 80-event tour she did for Mudbound).
After that, she’ll work on her third book. “I have something in mind for it, but I’m still deciding. I’m so upset about so many things right now,” she says with a laugh.