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Book Fest: Scarlet Letter 2.0
Hillary Jordan's When She Woke chronicles dystopian future
Hillary Jordan

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, of course, deals with the consequences of adultery for a woman named Hester Prynne, who has an affair with a preacher.

Hillary Jordan's best-selling novel When She Woke deals with much the same storyline, updated for a new - or not so new? - age.

In the Texas of the near future, in an America dominated by a hyper-religious right wing movement called the Trinity Party, Jordan's heroine, Hannah Payne, also has an affair with a high-profile pastor.

Only in this story, the heroine aborts her baby, for which she is convicted of murder.

The scarlet "A" for adultery is replaced by crimefighting technology which literally changes, or "chromes," the skin color of the accused so that others will instantly identify and shun them (also, in a subplot, to relieve drastic prison overcrowding).

Hannah Payne's scarlet "A" is literally her entire body.

Jordan appears at the Savannah Book Festival on Feb. 18. We spoke to her a couple of weeks ago.

In most science fiction, technology creates opportunities for a better world. In your novel, however, advanced technology serves almost medieval ends.

Hillary Jordan: I see the book more as dystopian literature than science fiction. It's more in the vein of 1984, or A Clockwork Orange. In dystopian fiction - and I'm thinking here of Aldous Huxley and A Brave New World - technology is misused or has run amok. I've read a lot of science fiction and I like it very much, but that's always a much more idealized version.

It's unfortunate that some reviewers have chosen to focus on the political aspects of your narrative, since it's about much more.

Hillary Jordan: Some of the comments have missed the point and have been sort of reductive. I've tried really hard to look at all these complex polarizing issues from many points of view, because I'm not a polemicist, I'm a storyteller. I wanted to explore the gray.

One of the things I was looking at was how fundamentalist religion tends to reduce women and see them as inferior, and restrict women's abilities to self-realize. That's definitely a theme. And feminism is linked to choice.

People who are against abortion are against it for moral reasons, but it's also an issue of controlling women's bodies, which we've been seeing for millennia.

Why the parallel with The Scarlet Letter specifically?

Hillary Jordan: I'm struck by the parallels between the late 17th century Boston of Hawthorne and our current America. We're still grappling with some of these same issues: the dividing line between church and state, the dichotomy of individual freedom versus governmental control. Three hundred and fifty years after our founding we're still grappling with this stuff.

Like other dystopian writers, I'm taking trends from the present that I find worrisome and extrapolating on them, maybe to an extreme degree, in order to say, OK, this is where we're going to go if we stay on this path, and do we really want to go there?

Women's issues are a part of that, but our criminal justice system is heavily weighted towards punishment and away from rehabilitation. Environmental degradation is a concern. The book is about a lot of different things, but mostly it's about this one woman and her search for agency in her life.

But your novel isn't an exact simile.

Hillary Jordan: Hester Prynne wears her scarlet A and stays in Boston wearing her badge of shame. My heroine, Hannah, goes on a much larger and more expansive journey. The books begin in similar fashion - the scaffold in The Scarlet Letter, in my book it's reality television being observed by the whole community.

Did you make any attempt to match The Scarlet Letter in actual construction and form while writing your novel?

Hillary Jordan: I don't outline at all. I write from paragraph to paragraph. In most of this book I literally didn't know what was going to happen in the next chapter. That's my process, crazy as it is.

There's a great quote by E.L. Doctorow that very much describes my process: "Writing a novel is like taking a long car trip at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, and you can make the whole journey that way." cs

Hillary Jordan

When & Where: 4 p.m. Feb. 18, Telfair Academy Rotunda

Cost: Free and open to the public