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'The Power' author Naomi Alderman answers your questions


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Judy Woodruff: Next: Jeffrey Brown's Now Read This book club conversation with our March author.

It's part of our regular series on the arts and culture, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Around the world, women have developed a special superpower, the ability to generate electric shocks and hurt men.

Our march book club pick, "The Power," is dark, funny, and unsettling, imagining a future in which the gender balance and world order are upset, but not quite as you might think.

Author Naomi Alderman joins me now to answer some of the questions our readers sent in.

And thank you for being part of this.

Naomi Alderman: Well, it's great to be here.

Jeffrey Brown: So, tell us a little bit about what you were after. Superpowers, everything flips, right?

Naomi Alderman: What if women and not men were the sex who could do more physical harm, who could cause more pain? Do we think that, in those circumstances, women would remain peaceful and loving and kind and lovely, or do we not?

And let's have a think about how those situations would play out. And I really went into the book thinking, I want to know, too. I want to know what would happen in these circumstances, and then just following the logic of the characters and the plot through to work out what I thought the answer was.

Jeffrey Brown: OK, so then you created this world.

Our readers have read, and let's go to some of their questions, OK?

Naomi Alderman: Great.

David Brusie: Why did you decide to write the novel entirely in the present tense?

Naomi Alderman: The book would only work if it seemed like it was right now. So, people say to me, when is it set? And I say day after tomorrow, basically. It's going on.

You know, I started out thinking, oh, maybe I will set it in the '70s. But,actually, no, you need to be able to go, would my life be different today if this happened today?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes.

Naomi Alderman: And, you know, that remains a very pointed question.

Jeffrey Brown: And in the book, things sort of evolve. You give us a kind of countdown and then count-up.


Jeffrey Brown: So we're sort of in time.

Naomi Alderman: I do. Something is going to happen at the end of the book, but you're not going to find out what it is for a while.

Jeffrey Brown: OK.

Let's go to the second question.

Lesley Conzelman: What influence did Margaret Atwood or "The Handmaid's Tale" have as you wrote this book?

Jeffrey Brown: So, you can see people thinking about the famous example, "The Handmaid's Tale."

What are you writing? And what was her influence?

Naomi Alderman: I say I am writing science fiction.

I come, as far as I'm concerned, in the grand tradition of feminist science fiction, which also includes Octavia Butler, and Ursula Le Guin, and Marge Piercy.

And these are books that I loved reading when I was a young woman, and they seemed exciting to me. They were envisaging alien worlds where there were five different genders or a future where there was no such thing as gender.

And they seemed -- in a way, feminism is a science fictional enterprise.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

And Margaret Atwood herself, you were telling me before we started, became a kind of mentor.

Naomi Alderman: So I was very fortunate. I was paired up with Margaret Atwood in a mentoring program. Sometimes these things take and sometimes they don't, but we became good friends.

And we talked a lot about the ideas in the book. There isn't a single point where I would go, oh, yes, that's what Margaret told me. But we had a long conversation over a couple of years about what we thought might happen and where the pressure points might be in that sort of world.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Mary Reed: Were you inspired to write "The Power" by events in your own life? If you were, did you find the writing process to be a sort of catharsis?

Jeffrey Brown: Oh, I bet you hear that a lot, right? I mean, all writers hear that, but yes.

Naomi Alderman: Yes.

I mean, there was never a point at which I actually electrocuted somebody at will.


Naomi Alderman: But I think, like a lot of women, I have experienced, you know, catcalling, or whatever the reverse is of catcalling, when people say horrible things to you.

And I think probably every woman -- this is what the MeToo movement was all about, is that everyone's experienced something. And I think for me, in a funny way, the more significant thing was that I had experienced the world of stories as a woman, where women are quite passive, and men get to be active.

And I wanted to write something where that would turn over and see what happened. And, in that sense, it wasn't a really like, ooh, I long to be able to electrocute a man.


Naomi Alderman: And I should say, women in the novel can also electrocute women.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Naomi Alderman: So, they can electrocute anybody.

I really wanted to write a story where women in a very natural way would be able to get those tremendous fight scenes. From that perspective, I think it was very enjoyable to write.

Jeffrey Brown: OK, we had a number of readers send in a version of the same question. We paired a couple of them together that I want to address.

Rashmi Jain: Does reversing the situation in favor of women solve the problem? Is it not just an act of revenge? And can we not look beyond?

Jackie Fleischmann: How do you see your book as a catalyst for female advancement vis-a-vis the violence you project through women in power?

Jeffrey Brown: This requires us telling the people who haven't read it that things do not end up really rosy once women have this power.

Naomi Alderman: My view is, women are not any better than men, not any worse either.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Naomi Alderman: I think men and women morally tend to be about the same.

For me, female advancement comes from recognizing equality. That is all I'm talking about, is to say, let's not treat women as if they are some special category of, like, morally good human who have to be kind of tended to and cherished and looked after because they can't really look after themselves, and the hard jobs of the world really have to go to the men because the women so tender.

I stand for the irreducible complexity of the human spirit, where each of us contains vulnerability and toughness. Each of us contains love for children and the desire to do violence or to be selfish. All of these things exist in all of us.

And if we insist that only one gender gets one of those, we are cutting off one of our limbs.

Jeffrey Brown: So let's finish there for now.

We're going to continue our conversation. And all of it will be online on our Now Read This Facebook page.

And for now, let me say, thank you, Naomi Alderman, for joining us.

Naomi Alderman: Well, thank you so much for having me.

Jeffrey Brown: And before we go right now, our pick for April, we're back in the real world, I think, but there are still plenty of gender politics.

"Brotopia" is an expose of one of the dark sides of Silicon Valley's tech industry. It's by journalist Emily Chang.

We hope you will read along, check out our Facebook page for insights from our authors and other readers. And do join our book club, Now Read This, a partnership with The New York Times.

Judy Woodruff: So much good to read.

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