Friday, November 4, 2011

My evening with Hillary Jordan, or sometimes it's worth making a little effort

Last night did not go the way that I expected.  I took a break from the science festival because after reading her novel, When She Woke, I was really interested in hearing author Hillary Jordan speak.  It’s a meaty, substantive book worthy of discussion.  So, not only was I looking forward to hearing from the author, but also to hearing the responses of other readers.

Anyway, my thought was, This is going to be a popular reading; I better get over to Books, Inc. as fast as I can!  I arrived almost half an hour early for the event, and was somewhat surprised to see that I was the very first person there.  Fine by me.  I browsed for a few minutes, but I really wanted to keep my excellent seat, so I plopped myself down with my Kindle and read my book.  I saw Hillary escorted to the backroom by the bookseller, Bob, and I could hear the two of them chatting quietly back there.  came and went, but still I was the only person sitting in the seats.  There were plenty of browsers in the store.  I wondered if perhaps they were there to hear Hillary, and were waiting for the event to start.  They gave no indication if that were the case.  Eventually Bob came and told me that they’d wait just a bit longer and see who showed. 

Well, by , it was still just me.  I felt kind of bad.  I mean, I was really happy to be there, but that’s tough for an author on tour.  Clearly, you can’t put on the whole dog and pony show for one person.  So, Hillary pulled up a chair and sat down across from me.  Bookseller Bob and his associate (whose name I failed to catch) also pulled up chairs.  And Hillary and I just began chatting, like real people.  It was lovely!  I didn’t tape or record our conversation in any way.  It wasn’t an interview.  It’s hard to be present in a conversation with a person if you’re trying to take notes, but I’ll share what I remember.

(NOTE: I don’t believe there are any plot spoilers for the novel below, but we do talk some about the world she has created.  If you’d prefer not to know anything going into the book, you’ll probably want to save this until after you’ve read it.)

I told Hillary all the things I’ve told you guys: how much the book scared me, how it really pushed the buttons of my personal fears.  Then I got to ask her the question that I’ve been wondering ever since I read When She Woke.  I said, “I only remember one reference to any religion other than Christianity.  It was a fleeting reference to a Mormon spree killer.  What happened to the rest of America?  Where are all the Jews?  The Hindus?  The rest of the melting pot?”

Well, first, she quite rightly reminded me that Mormons are Christians, too.  D’uh.  I forget.  I’m just a Jewish girl, what do I know?  But then she also clarified that while the boundary between church and state had been broken in her novel, the entire US hadn’t become fundamentalists.  Her character Kayla was a good illustration of that.  And she reminded me that abortion was not illegal in all the states in her novel, a fact that I had noted when reading it.  So, when I jokingly asked again where all the Jews were, she smiled and said, “New York and California.”  And that really is it.  In her fictional future, things are just that much more polarized than they are today.  It’s the same gulf between San Francisco and Amarillo, but multiplied many times over. 

Hillary spoke of how this country is always swinging back and forth on the issues brought up in her book.  Right now, things are pretty conservative, but there is reason for optimism.  Marriage equality is gaining ground.  Don't Ask, Don't Tell was defeated.  Hillary reminded me that despite McCarthyism, Jim Crow laws, and other episodes in our past, the country always seems to do the right thing eventually.  It was nice to see that despite her dark subject matter, she's an optimist at heart.

At one point, I said something about the comparisons her novel is getting to The Handmaid’s Tale and she rolled her eyes.  I called her on it and asked what that’s about.  Clearly, it wasn’t disrespect for Margaret Atwood.  So, Hillary listed a few similarities between the two books (which you can discover for yourself), but then she noted several significant thematic differences.  She had a point, and I can certainly see how hearing the same comments over and over again—which is exactly what happens on book tours—can get pretty old.

Around this time, another woman showed up.  She was a former colleague and friend of Hillary’s from 20-some years ago.  Apparently the parking situation was brutal that night.  Hillary’s friend hadn’t finished the book yet, but she joined in the conversation, and shortly thereafter Hillary’s cousin Robert arrived, followed later by her media escort and two more cousins.  Each person had the same issue, parking.  Made my modest bus ride feel downright brilliant.  Anyway, as each new arrival joined in, our circle discussion became a little bigger, but still very casual.  I was the only person there without a personal tie to her, and I didn’t want to drag things out too long to keep her from her social time.  I’ll mention only a few more things we wound up discussing.

I commented on the fact of criminality being depicted by skin color, and the racial overtones inherent in the idea.  “You think?” said Hillary, with a hint of snark in her voice.  I asked if there had been much discussion of this among the readers as she toured.  Some, but not too much.  She told us that she’d actually had conversations with doctors and geneticists about whether you could dye a person’s skin like she’d proposed.  Apparently, it wouldn’t be that hard, and you could probably do it, if not today, then in the very near future.  This didn’t surprise me at all, and I commented that if you could transfer the bioluminescent qualities of a jellyfish to a pussycat to make it glow in the dark (It’s been done.), then dyeing a human red shouldn’t be a problem.

Hillary reminded me that her first novel, Mudbound, was all about race.  I said, “Yes, I haven’t read it, but my online friends have been raving about it.  (You know who you are, PBTers.)  I asked Hillary to sell it to me. (‘Cause clearly given the circumstances, I wasn’t going to walk out of there without purchasing a book.  Why?  Because we love our independent booksellers, right?  And we also like nice lady authors who take the time to chat with you one-on-one.) 

So, Hillary gives me a nice description of Mudbound, during which, oddly, she highlights that it features a dead mule.  Perhaps I or others looked perplexed, because she then told us that she had read an article, years ago, in The New Yorker or some other publication, about all Southern literature featuring a dead mule.  She said that she’d love to read it again, but she’s never been able to find it.  Someone asked if she’s Googled it, and people started suggesting search parameters.  Hillary said, “Am I an idiot?  Of course, I Googled.  It wasn’t there.”  And this will segue to a whole follow-up post, because this one is already far too long.  Suffice it to say, Hillary told me if I could find the article, please drop her a note.  So, of course, I was going to look into it.

Someone asked if a film of When She Woke had been optioned.  Not yet.  Producers can be skittish about financing films about abortion--The Cider House Rules, excepted.  What she did share was an idea of creating a television series set in the world she'd created.  It wouldn't have to feature Hannah, it could be about all sorts of different people in her dystopia.  She suggested calling it "Chromeville."  You know, it's a pretty awesome idea.  How amazing would a series like that from HBO or AMC be? 

I don’t even know how long we’d been chatting, but by this time, there were nine people in the circle.  Hillary’s girlfriend said, “Hey, are you going to read?” and so at that point, Hillary read the first chapter of When She Woke, and with her permission I recorded her.  Once the camera was off, she recited from memory something very funny.  She’d referenced earlier a very successful speech she’d made to a large crowd in Austin.  (We’d been discussing how the book had been received in Texas.  Fine, apparently.)  She said there’d been one part that brought the house down, and after she read her opening chapter, she performed a self-parodying version in which Hannah doesn’t find her hands covered in blood, but in bloody Mary, and then the horror of discovering that it’s virgin Mary.  In the nature of nightmares, this one segued into a scene in Hooters involving Rick Perry and several other Republican leaders.  You’ll thank me for not describing it further, but I can assure you that it was as big a hit in San Francisco as it was in Texas.  It was the perfect note to end our evening on.

I asked Hillary to sign my galley of When She Woke and my new copy of Mudbound, which I’m looking forward to reading.  She nicely inscribed both copies, and I left her to her friends and family.  Hillary and I had exchanged cards earlier in the evening, so our follow-up contact will involve me seeing a lady about a mule…

A final note, if you have not yet read When She Woke, I highly recommend the novel.  And guess what?  They have signed copies at Books, Inc!  You should totally order a copy from them, right now.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Susan! How odd that so few people showed up. Maybe us book bloggers and book people didn't do a good job: by now everyone should be aware of the book!

    I enjoyed the book a lot, but not quite as much as The Handmaid's Tale (had to say that). I've got a copy of Mudbound, and I think it's totally different.

    So nice you had a good evening after all!