Brooklyn-based author Hillary Jordan's debut novel, Mudbound (Algonquin, 2009), about racial tension in a family on a Mississippi farm in the post-World War II south, was greeted with both honors and sales, winning the 2006 Bellwether Prize as well as a 2009 Alex Award from the American Library Association and becoming a favorite among reading groups.
Two years later, Jordan returns with
Despite this science-fiction touch, the book hearkens back, quite consciously, to that 1850 classic of American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as the trajectory of Jordan's fallen woman protagonist, Hannah Payne, echoes that of Hester Prynne, both victims of a tortured “man of God” and overwhelming societal hypocrisy. Jordan’s echo of Hawthorne brings to light the Puritan narrative that still lies so close to the surface of an America that continues to struggle with sexuality, gender, crime, and punishment.
I caught up with Jordan, who graduated Wellesley with me years ago, at festivities surrounding the publication When She Woke, and she graciously gave us this interview.
BN: Like other dystopian novels (Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange), When She Woke has its own vocabulary: "melachroming," "fragging," "port," and so on. Can you talk about what the process of coming up with new words was like? Did they pop into your head? Did you experiment with a few before you found the right ones?
HJ: I used to name stuff for a living, when I was an ad copywriter, and it was always my favorite type of project, so I had a blast making up names for When She Woke. Some terms, like “melachroming” and “chromatized” (used to describe a neighborhood that has been taken over by Chromes), came instantly. With others, there were _________s in the manuscript for a loooong time. I struggled for years with the generic name for your portable everything device, the futuristic equivalent of an iPhone/iPad/credit card/bank card/insurance card. When “port” finally came to me, it was like a ding ding ding in my head, because it’s both your portable and your portal. The slang was fun too, like “grayed out,” which means lost in thought and comes from the frustrating online experience we’ve all had of being unable to click on a link because it’s gray; and “thrall,” a creepy rape drug that renders the victim not just powerless but eagerly obedient, and for which I then created a fake chemical name, “thralaxomine,” with the help of a scientist friend of my brother’s.
Hardest of all was naming the book itself. For years it was Red, but then there was the Bruce Willis movie, and the Broadway play, and some other books with “red” in the title. Red was suddenly ubiquitous, so we decided we had to call it something else. We considered Redemption (with the first syllable highlighted somehow), Scarlet (rejected because it made everyone think of Gone With the Wind), The Judgment of Hannah Payne and a slew of other titles, most of them bad. I wish I could take credit for When She Woke, but my editor came up with it. Like “port,” it was absolutely perfect, and seemed obvious in retrospect.
Q: Your first book, Mudbound, was clearly written as a novel for adults, yet it won a young adult book award and has been widely read by that age group. Much of the most popular young adult fiction in the past few years is very dark and dystopian. When you were writing When She Woke, did you think about its possible crossover into young adult audiences?
HJ: No, but I don’t write for any particular reader or think about what she/he may want to read. I spent 20 years doing that in advertising, and it was enough!
That Mudbound was thought worthy of being taught in universities and high schools was by far the most thrilling part of having the book published. The first time I got a letter from a teacher who was teaching the book to her tenth grade class, I burst into tears. I didn’t expect to have that experience with When She Woke, frankly, because it deals with such controversial issues: sexuality, faith, abortion, to name a few. And so when I started to see booksellers, teachers and librarians recommending the book for teens, I was dumbfounded. Certainly WSW would never have been taught in any high school in my day. But times have changed dramatically, and kids are growing up much faster than they used to, and what the adults suggesting WSW as a teen read are saying is that it explores the same thorny issues and questions kids are being confronted with on a daily basis in their own lives, and that it might help them work through some of this stuff and find answers that are right for them. I’d be gratified beyond words if that proved to be true.
Q: As a veteran author with two novels under your belt, you've seen a lot of copyediitng and marked-up manuscripts by now. Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to grammar corrections? Conversely, is there a grammar point you are grateful to have others watch for?
HJ: I am a grammar policewoman and fine-tooth editor myself—being the daughter of a high school English teacher, I could hardly avoid it—so I was amazed by all the mistakes my wonderfully punctilious copy editor, Janet Patterson Karns, caught in both Mudbound and When She Woke. There were a few things I didn’t agree to, e.g., the serial comma, which Algonquin prefers but I dislike because I feel it gunks up the page and slows down the narrative; and the use of numerals in dialogue, which is correct but just looks and feels unnatural to me when someone is speaking. But the vast majority of the changes Janet suggested, I made, and with gratitude. I have a horror of one day finding a typo or mistake in one of my printed books!
Are you a Hillary Jordan fan? What are some of your favorite dystopian worlds?
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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.
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