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Interview: October 2011

After the enormous success of her first novel, MUDBOUND, Hillary Jordan’s second book, WHEN SHE WOKE, takes us years into a startling future. Now a ruthless theocracy, America is governed by a repressive system in which criminals of all varieties are forced to have their skin permanently dyed according to the severity of their crime. After an adulterous affair followed by an abortion, protagonist Hannah Payne must face the lifelong shame of becoming a Chrome. In this interview, conducted by’s Donna Volkenannt, Jordan discusses her various sources of inspiration for the imaginative plot, as well as why she loves setting her stories in the South. She also recommends some of her favorite upcoming books and shares a charming anecdote about her first reaction to the cover design for WHEN SHE WOKE. Hannah Payne falls in love and has an adulterous affair. After she has an abortion, she is convicted of murdering her unborn child. For her crime, Hannah’s sentence is to be chromed. What was your inspiration for WHEN SHE WOKE? Did you have Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER in mind as you wrote?

Hillary Jordan: The original idea was sparked by a conversation I had with my uncle about the drug problem in America. 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, go get as high as you want, but other people will be able to see you coming and stay the hell away from you. And this conversation, and the idea of what it would be like to be stigmatized in such a way, stuck in my mind and eventually bore the strange red fruit that became WHEN SHE WOKE.

I wrote the original story fragment of WHEN SHE WOKE, which was then called “Red,” in 2000, when I was in grad school. I had four or five pages about a woman in a mirrored prison cell who’d been turned red for killing her abusive brother-in-law (who actually did end up in the book, but alive), and I didn’t know where to go with the story, so I wrote MUDBOUND instead. It wasn’t until seven years later, when I was casting about for my second novel, that I returned to “Red.” Hester Prynne and her scarlet A popped into my mind, and I thought, Huh, I should reread that book. And I did, that very afternoon, for the first time since high school, and I was amazed by how relevant this novel about America in the late 1600s was to the America of today. It sparked all sorts of interesting connections and ideas. Hester is made to stand on a scaffold in front of the whole community and exhibit the mark of her shame. So what, I asked myself, would the futuristic equivalent of a scaffold be? Reality TV, of course, only in a more sinister form. Hester is impregnated by a charismatic clergyman, the modern analogue of which would be…a megachurch preacher. 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.

But while the beginning of WHEN SHE WOKE owes a lot to Hawthorne, the two story lines diverge sharply after that. I didn’t adhere to THE SCARLET LETTER as much as riff on it. Which was a lot of fun, because it’s a book I truly love.

BRC: WHEN SHE WOKE has been described in vastly different ways: a dystopian, futuristic novel; a feminist, pro-choice novel; a fast-paced thriller; a psychological suspense novel. How would you describe or classify it?

HJ: I wouldn’t! Like my character Hannah, I don’t like being put into boxes. I set out to write a compelling piece of literature, period. It’s up to the reader to decide whether I succeeded and where to shelve the book.

BRC: In addition to being a compelling and creative story, WHEN SHE WOKE is thought-provoking and chilling. What message do you hope readers will take away from it?

HJ: On one level WHEN SHE WOKE is a cautionary tale about what could happen if we forget who we are as Americans and follow the path of fear and paranoia that some of our leaders would take us down. We’ve seen a lot of profound and disturbing changes in the years after 9/11: a rise in religious fundamentalism, the muddying of the line between church and state, attacks on women’s reproductive freedom, infringements on civil rights in the name of patriotism and national security. And I wanted to say, do we like where this is leading and what the country could look like if we go there?

On another level, the book is a deep delving into of some of the issues that divide us. We’ve become so entrenched and polarized, and the dialogue so vitriolic, that people of different views have stopped listening to each other. I wanted to explore divisive issues like abortion and faith and sexuality from different sides and portray them with some nuance, some gray. I think that’s the job of literature: to tackle the really big stuff and to say to people, Hey, you may believe x, but have you ever considered y, did you know there was a z? Certainly inhabiting a character whose views were completely unlike mine forced me to reexamine some of my own entrenched ideas. My hope for the book is that it 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.

BRC: WHEN SHE WOKE encompasses several provocative topics, including abortion, radical Christianity, radical feminism, lesbianism, human slave trafficking, spousal abuse and the death penalty. What has been the reaction from readers?

HJ: Polarized, of course! Which is pretty much what I expected. But so far, I’m relieved to report, I seem to be getting a lot more love than hate.

BRC: While your beautifully written debut novel, MUDBOUND, is a work of historical fiction, WHEN SHE WOKE is set in the future. How did you make the transition from writing about the past to writing about the future?

HJ: Eagerly. After seven years of being in the past, in the first person and in the Deep South, I was ready to tackle new challenges and go somewhere completely different. Of course I did end up back in Mississippi for part of WHEN SHE WOKE, which leads me to your next question…

BRC: WHEN SHE WOKE is set primarily in Texas and other Southern states, while MUDBOUND takes place in Mississippi. What can you tell us about your southern roots? What is the attraction for setting your novels in the South?

HJ: The South has always been fertile ground for me, probably because of all the contradictions it holds; the deeply buried fault lines that make it such rich territory for authors. And then, I’m Southern. My mother’s people hailed from places like Oxford, MS and Talledega, AL and Charleston, SC, and I’ve always felt a strong connection to that part of my ancestry. It was my family’s stories about their year on a farm in the Delta that led me to write MUDBOUND, but the fact that I’d never spent time there made it very challenging. I spent a week in Mississippi at one point, but for the most part I had to rely on research. So for WHEN SHE WOKE, I wanted to write about a place I knew intimately, and Dallas (where I spent half of my childhood) was a logical choice --- especially given its politics of late! And Hannah goes to Columbus, MS because when I was driving around the South researching the route she might take north, I stayed there one night, at a B&B in an old Victorian mansion --- which ended up becoming Stanton’s house.

BRC: The book’s cover is stark yet stunning. What can you tell us about how this design came about?

HJ: It was a collaboration between two designers, Anne Winslow and Keith Hayes, and the first time I saw it --- on the tiny screen of my iPhone, sitting by a pool in Ojai of all places --- I shrieked so loudly people stared. I’ve thought all along that this cover would be a dream project for a designer, but what they gave me was beyond my wildest hopes.

BRC: MUDBOUND won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, as well as other awards. How has this enormous success affected your writing career?

HJ: It has enabled me to write full time, which is an amazing gift from the universe.

BRC: Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

HJ: I’ve been making up stuff and putting it onto paper since I was a little girl. Partly I think that’s because my mother (a retired high school English teacher) encouraged me to read everything I could get my hands on. The other part --- the part that makes me good at it, that compels me to sit in a room by myself for years and do it, that makes me crazy and miserable when I’m not doing it --- is a mystery known only to the Writing God.

BRC: What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend to our readers?

HJ: A HUNDRED AND ONE NIGHTS by Benjamin Buchhold, an astonishing and devastating debut coming this December about the war in Afghanistan, and a middle-aged doctor and a young girl caught up in it. And the manuscripts of two phenomenal novels by friends, both forthcoming from Norton in 2012: Michael Dahlie’s as-yet-untitled second novel, which has his trademark blend of humor and tenderness. And Jennifer Cody Epstein’s THE GODS OF HEAVENLY PUNISHMENT, which explores the fire bombing of Tokyo from the points of view of characters on both sides of the war.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

HJ: I’ll likely start novel #3 in early 2012, after the book tour is over. I’m pretty sure I know what it will be, but until I’m certain I’d better not say, in case I change my mind! In the meantime, I’m working on three short stories: one about a comedian who’s lost his sense of humor, one about a naked woman walking into a library, and one about the Second Coming of Christ. Just trying to keep my fans as confused as possible.