Recently, I reviewed The Power by Naomi Alderman, a story about a world in which women start to display a power — a power that turns society upside down. The story follows how society changes, and how it still says the same in some ways.
It’s a story that gets under you skin, and will leave you astonished at the creativity and originality of this work.
… which is pretty much why I took a risk and asked Naomi Alderman for an interview, to which she agreed.
Here, she talks about writing The Power, and the characters the book follows as well as how being a game designer influenced her writing style.
What are you reading right now?
I’m re-reading The Vinland Sagas, the (apparently at least somewhat true) story of how Vikings landed in North America. It might turn up in a novel at some point.
How would you sum up The Power in a sentence?
Hahah, do I have to sum up my 110,000-word novel in a sentence? I can sum up the premise, which is: it’s about what happens when all of a sudden almost all the women in the world develop the power to electrocute people at will. Where that goes is another matter, and would take more than one sentence.
Is the response to the book everything you hoped? How have your female/male fans responded?
It’s early days to gauge the full response really — people don’t always read books in the week they’re published! But I do notice that men are more shocked by the book than women are — of course that’s to be expected. Men have never had to think before about what it’d be like to be frightened of rape, of sexual assault, of having their capacity to enjoy sex taken away by genital mutilation, being discriminated against because of their gender.
I thought The Power was one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time as it highlights exactly what women go through, while neatly flipping our society on its head. While you were writing, was there anything that concerned you about getting the details of its themes right?
Thank you! I spent a lot of time thinking about how exactly to get at the problems and power of violence without introducing anything extraneous. Of course I could have just given women enormous muscles, but that’d have been a bit too comic an image, and also people say oh well, men are in power because muscles are so useful in ancient societies for carrying rocks and hunting bison or whatever. So I wanted to find something that wasn’t useful in that way, something that was mostly about causing physical pain. And to see what happened if I focused just on giving women a greater capacity to cause physical pain.
Tell us why you chose this particular cast of characters to follow through the book?
I picked them for different reasons. I wanted to talk about how the capacity for violence can turn into financial and other power — so having a character in organised crime seemed like a good idea. I realised it was important to have a man in the novel at the start… otherwise you wouldn’t get, essentially, the female perspective by the end. And Margot and Allie just sort of turned up, in early pieces I was writing and I felt they had ‘legs’, as it were.
What were the unexpected difficulties you faced in writing these different characters?
I think the major challenge of writing a book with an ensemble cast like this is to make sure that each of the characters feels as interesting as all the others, that the reader isn’t tempted to skip over to find the one they’re interested in! It’s hard to know whether I managed that or not — readers will have to tell me!
How does your experience in game design influence your writing, specifically in The Power?
I definitely think that writing the particular kind of game I write — a fitness game where every scene ends with some sort of mini-cliffhanger to keep you running to hear the next scene — has taught me how to keep a story tense, to turn it into a pageturner. I’m more naturally a thinky writer who’d just have her characters sitting down and chatting to each other about philosophy for hours, so from that point of view getting a bit of pulpy thriller-sensibility has been good for my writing!
Are our views on gender changing? Or is it a matter of one step forward, two steps back?
I think we’re getting there. In the end, I think the letters that frame the novel are hopeful. There will always be regressive, retrograde forces and sometimes the process will seem to go in reverse. But I think we’re moving slowly towards a world where the capacity to cause pain matters less than the capacity for reason and ideas, which is shared equally between genders. And, I think, we always will; the arc of the universe bends towards equality.
What do you think of Naomi Alderman and The Power? I know keep saying this, but The Power is one of those books everyone should read. Naomi Alderman will turn your world view upside down, and you’ll be better for it.