“I felt pretty bloody powerful writing this book, let me tell you. Some days I felt like I could punch a hole through reality and turn it inside out.”
In Naomi Alderman’s The Power, girls all over the world develop the power to transmit electricity from their fingertips. What starts out as a trick soon becomes a means of self-defense and then a way to inflict pain, maim and even kill. Already the winner of the U.K.’s prestigious Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Power is an inventive, destabilizing work of fiction that has the pace of a thriller and the depth of social commentary.
This is a novel about the progression of one singular idea: What would happen if women developed a physical strength that could easily overpower men? Where did the initial idea for this premise come from?
Novels have lots of different starting points, so there are many different answers to this question. One is: A few years ago I heard a man I very much admire answer the interview question, “Why does the patriarchy exist?” He answered that he thinks that men are jealous of women’s ability to give birth. I heard this and thought: Oh honey, no, it’s because they can. Men are physically more powerful than women, on average, stronger and taller and more muscular. So more men can physically overpower women than the other way around. And you don’t need all men—or even most men, or even more than one in 100 men—to ever, ever do that for all women to be afraid all the time.
That was my thought, anyway. But a novel for me can be a series of explorations and thought experiments. I worked out a power I could give women—based on what electric eels do—that would tip the playing field in the other direction. And then I didn’t really know what would happen. I wanted to see how far I could convince myself that things would change.
The novel begins and ends with an exchange of letters between two writers, a man and a woman. What do you think the frame adds to the story?
It’s hard to say too much without revealing a little twist in there. But I did want to have a little bit of conversation about the kinds of things one hears these days—as in the recent Google memo—sexist stories dressed up as evolutionary psychology “science,” history altered and erased to make it fit with our sexist ideas today. And they made me laugh, those letters. I felt like maybe my readers could do with a laugh after some of the book.
Gender violence, restrictive regimes, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump—what was it like to write this novel during this particular time, and how do you think current politics have shaped the critical reaction to the novel?
The novel was all finished by the start of 2016. That is, before Brexit, before Donald Trump was elected. It was published in the U.K. a couple of weeks before U.S. election day last year. So it’s been a slow unfolding horror of, “Oh shit, I didn’t actually want to be this right.” The critical response has been lovely from the start, which is great, and the U.K. reviews were in before Trump was elected, although I’m sure these events have given the book a new feeling of urgency for readers.
But you know. I’m a woman who works in video games. We’ve been the canary in the coal mine for years. In 2012 Anita Sarkeesian started receiving rape and death threats because she wanted to make a series of videos exploring a feminist perspective on video games. So it’s horrible that the violent, misogynist forces that have always existed in the world are currently so much in the ascendancy—but it’s not a tremendous shocker if one has been paying attention, I think.
You worked with Margaret Atwood through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. What was that experience like, and how to you think it impacted your work as a novelist?
It’s been a huge and unexpected blessing. Margaret has been tremendously kind to me. I’ve travelled with her to Cuba, to Panama, to the Arctic. We’ve talked about the natural world, about religion and history, science and the inner workings of people. She has made me braver about taking a big idea and running with it. She’s also given me a good schooling in the vital importance of saying “no.” That is: The world will always have more demands than one can meet. To make mental space for one’s writing, one must learn how to say no to a million wonderful good-natured worthwhile projects in order to meet the blank page every morning.
Clearly, role-reversal is not the way to achieve gender equality. Any ideas about how to move in that direction?
I’m hoping that thinking, talking, debating, writing, persuading will do it. They’re what’s done it so far. People sometimes say to me after reading the novel, “So do you think violence is the only answer?” And I say, “Well no, otherwise I wouldn't have written a novel.” I believe in the power of reasoned debate to—eventually, in the long run—change hearts and minds. I hope my book is part of that long conversation and process, revealing where some of the roots of the gender divide come from, and asking how we feel about allowing the potential for violence to determine our life trajectories. Let’s never forget that women were given the vote all over the world by democratic votes by houses of representatives entirely composed of men. The feminist revolution has been the most successful bloodless revolution of modern times. I am proud to be part of it. We have to not lose hope in the power of rational argument and conversation.
What makes you feel powerful?
I felt pretty bloody powerful writing this book, let me tell you. Some days I felt like I could punch a hole through reality and turn it inside out. I hope it gives women who read it that same taste of feeling powerful.
Your first novel (Disobedience) is being made into a movie with Rachel Weisz and Rachel MacAdams. Has there been similar interest in The Power?
Even more! We had more than a dozen TV and movie offers for The Power before it was published in the U.K.—and more keep coming! We’ve sold the option to Sister Pictures, whose CEO Jane Featherstone is incredibly experienced, talented and skillful in making great TV. I’m on as lead writer, and we’re working on the pilot now. I really want it to be one of those high-production-value transatlantic shows: Ten episodes a season, several seasons, is what I’m hoping for. There’s so much more world to explore and so many more stories to tell than I had room for in the book.
You co-created a smartphone fitness app called Zombies, Run!, as well as other online games. How did that come about, and how (if at all) does that work influence your novels?
I’ve been working in video games for about as long as I’ve been seriously writing novels. My first game, Perplex City, began to be released in 2005, and my first novel was published in 2006. I’d always been a games-player—although sometimes an isolated one, without a gaming community I felt comfortable in. Zombies, Run! came about from a conversation with my friend Adrian Hon, who runs a small London games company, Six to Start. He’s a very keen runner, and wanted to make a game that would make running more fun. I am a reluctant exerciser—I know I need to exercise but I never do have that feeling that I want to. So we came up with the idea of a game where you’d be the hero in a zombie apocalypse story—and you have to keep running to collect supplies, spy on your enemies and of course get away from the zombies. I don’t think I knew on the afternoon that we had the idea that it’d be a hit—but here we are, about to embark on season seven of this game!
For one thing, it’s taught me is how to leave room for your reader and your player in your work. Room for them to co-create meaning in the story with you, room for their interpretations and ideas. I’ve a little tendency to want to stand over the reader’s shoulder and tell them what they should be thinking at every point in the story. So I think the explicit “there must be a space for the player in this story” discipline of games writing has been good for me.
What other speculative or science-fiction writers do you like?
Ah, so many. Iain M. Banks, Zen Cho, Samuel Delaney, Marge Piercy, Ted Chiang, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Douglas Adams, John Wyndham. And the writers of children’s books who never get listed as speculative fiction writers but they really are: Lucy Boston, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken, Margaret Storey, Elizabeth Goudge, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne-Jones.
But if you want one thing to start with that you can read in the next hour and it might change your life, read the short story “The Matter of Seggri” by Ursula Le Guin. You can thank me later.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Power.