Questions & Answers
The Power includes illustrations, two of which are based on actual archaeological finds from the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley. Were these the starting point for your book or were they serendipitous finds when the project was already underway?
They were serendipitous, but I like to put myself in the way of serendipity. I took an Open University course in World Archaeology, which was really very fascinating and enriching - I didn't expect it to have anything to do with the novel. But everything touches everything else, if you let it. And there in my book were the so-called 'Priest King' and 'Dancing Girl' of Mohenjo-Daro. And I started to think about the implicit expectations and assumptions that always underlie what we think we're looking at when we look at history.
In your acknowledgments you thank various people, including Margaret Atwood for encouraging you when you faltered and thought the book might be dead. Was that the usual doubts that writers experience or were there particular unexpected difficulties with the writing of this book?
This one was harder than normal. I actually wrote a full draft of 200,000 words, and then threw it out at the end of 2014 and started again, wrote a new full draft of 110,000 words with almost nothing from the original version. I think now that I was 'clearing the brush', exploring the land, seeing what possibilities existed in this idea so that I could build fresh on clear earth. This book had to be ambitious and very wide in scope or it wouldn't work; but I needed to know the world before I could really see what characters would help me explore it. So it had to be this way.
The book is called The Power. Is it inevitable that power leads to violence? Did you know that was going to be the outcome from the beginning?
I hope it's not inevitable. It's one possible outcome. And I didn't know it was going to happen in this novel from the beginning, but the more I wrote the more I couldn't find any way out of it. There were enough women who'd want to take violent, justified revenge that I couldn't stop violence from escalating in my imaginary world. And revenge begets revenge begets revenge. Fear begets fear. Violence causes more violence. But I also think that there are intellectual, thoughtful drives in humanity that can lead us back to justice, to equality and understanding. It's cyclical. You can see it now in the US: after decades of mostly peace and prosperity, there are tens of millions of people spoiling to vote for a man who'd apparently be happy using nuclear weapons or trying to build a wall between them and their neighbours. Violent, angry, racist rhetoric is never far from coming back into fashion.
Allie seeks to justify her actions and interpret women’s new-found power as a sign from God that there is to be a new order. What made her cling to the idea of religion when so many of the old ways were being swept away before her eyes?
Well of course Allie is American, the United States is a very religious country, and that religion is constantly being reinvented for the new realities. The US has produced Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology, and many other new religious sects to address new events and technologies in the world. I think it's easy to underestimate the religiosity of US society from the perspective of mostly secular-agnostic Europe. I think it's also easy to underestimate the instinct towards religious thought in the human mind - to say it's an instinct isn't the same as saying it's good, to be clear, but I do think it's a very automatic way for human brains to work, especially in times of crisis. Religion can feel very real, and it's been used for millennia by people who want to justify what they're doing, even to themselves. So in a time of world upheaval... I don't think Allie had to look very far for something that would comfort her and others.
Have you had a chance to discover yet the different ways men and women react to your book? If not, what do you expect the responses to be?
Men are more horrified by it than women. Which is as it should be, and is part of the point I think. Men look at me like a monster for writing these things and I have to point out that I wasn't the one who invented the ideas of rape, of sexual slavery, of imprisoning the physically weaker gender, of genital mutilation to stop the physically weaker gender from enjoying sex, of selective abortions of one gender. I didn't invent any of those things, I just picked them up and turned them over like an hourglass, to see how they looked upside down. And the answer is: it just feels different when the gun is pointed between your eyes than it does to watch it being pointed at someone else. It just does feel more real and more horrifying when you're the one at risk.
When I describe the premise of the novel to women, they start smiling and laughing. Always, these great wide eager smiles. Because we've had that gun pointed at our heads all our lives, so why wouldn't we enjoy the thought of grabbing it for ourselves? And of course that's the point and the problem. But most women are less shocked (as it were) by the novel than men. It's not the first time women have ever thought about what it'd be like to be afraid of rape.
Was it their earlier lack of power that made women become so extreme in their responses to acquiring it without dependence on any external agency? Or do you believe men would behave in the same way given the opportunity?
I find this question so fascinating because of course we know that some men certainly would behave in this same way... nothing happens in this book to men that isn't happening to women somewhere on the planet right now. I promise: nothing.
When I was researching the book I read about, for example, what the Taliban did to women. I had to leave out some of the more extreme things because no one would have believed it. Under the Taliban, women were forbidden to wear shoes with clicky heels so men shouldn't be excited by hearing a woman's footsteps, they had to paint over ground floor windows so women couldn't be seen from the street, women were forbidden to be heard *laughing loudly*. In fact, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister called for a ban on women laughing in public two years ago.
That's Turkey, an allegedly modern country where many British people go on holiday. Not two hundred years ago, two years ago. So do I think some men 'would' behave in this same way? They already do.
It seems that despite their power the women are still somehow afraid of men ‘we know that men have their tricks and we cannot allow them to band together.’ It seems that no amount of power is ever enough to feel safe…?
Yes, very true. Imagine: men are physically stronger than women on average. Men are taller than women on average, have broader shoulders and more upper body strength than women on average. And yet the way we're taught we should look and dress is designed not to mitigate but to underline that inequality. In our current' 'beauty ideal' women are supposed to be as skinny as possible and men as muscular as possible: what is that for if not to make sure that on average even more men can throw a woman across the room? Women are supposed to be 'beautiful' if we're wearing teetering high heels and tight, hobbling skirts. Men are attractive in rather practical trousers and flat shoes. What is that for? How much physical power is enough to feel safe?
You obviously had lots of fun writing the book, from the hapless newscasters, to the vision of male secretaries routinely booking restaurants for their female bosses. What was the most enjoyable aspect of the transference of power?
When I would walk down the street thinking about the book, imagining that I had the power myself. I could feel it crackling in my fingertips. It made me brave. Most of the world we live in is fictional anyway; why not imagine for a few minutes that you could electrocute people with a touch of your fingers? Then see how you feel.
Interview About The Liars' Gospel
You tackle some very weighty issues in your fiction. How does this sit with writing online computer games and iPhone apps. That's quite an unusual combination isn't it?
Heh, it is an unusual combination but it works well in my life. I find that the two sides complement each other in some ways. The novels are my personal terrain: I have full control, but novel-writing is famously isolating. The games are more collaborative, I have less control but more human contact! And although the games are often more lighthearted, I guess I also don't think that genre writing has to be less serious than a traditional serious literary novel. Shakespeare wrote historical drama and romance and fantasies about magic potions and fairies and wizards - the idea that a writer can't do all these things is very modern.
Your first two novels have contemporary settings. What was it like writing a historical novel?
I was expecting it to be hard and a slog to do all the research and so on. And in a way it was - it's a lot of reading before you can sit down to write. But in another way, it's such a delight finding those unexpected nuggets of truth in the research. I think a lot of the most surprising parts of the book are the parts that are actually true, and which I'd never have been able to make up. There's also something paradoxically freeing about writing about a time that's so far away - you take your best guess about what it felt like, tasted like, smelled like, and that's what you write, and no one can come and say 'no no, the air smelled different to that.'
The earlier books drew to an extent on personal experience - orthodox Jewry in northwest London and the privileged environment of Oxford University. What were the challenges of the biblical setting, not to mention taking on the Western world's most famous story?
In terms of the symbolic power of the story, I think you have to try as much as possible not to think about that stuff while you're writing - it's so easy to choke. You just tell a good story and try not to worry about the mountain of import sitting about your head. Easier said than done. Some days writing this book felt very frightening.
I found the biblical setting quite friendly really - benefits of a fundamentalist religious upbringing, I'd grown up being taught that I ought to imagine myself back in Ancient Judea, because that was the most perfect time to live and be. The hardest things were remembering that certain modern turns of thought hadn't happened yet; trying to work out how to talk about time in the day, for example, for agricultural people who had no clocks.
You wrote from the perspective of four people who all had a major impact on Jesus' life. Did you find yourself drawn to one character, one version of events more than any other?
I love them all for different reasons, but the one who really showed me something new was Caiaphas, the High Priest. Everyone is reasonable to themselves, and looking out through his eyes fully convinced me that handing over some troublesome preacher to the Romans was the best possible option - there wasn't another option, that's what it means to be occupied. Writing him taught me something about the compromises and sadnesses and limits of power.
Josephus provides important source material but your family has a long association with that historian. Can you tell us about how you came to him?
In fact, my grandfather, my mum's father, who died when I was two, was a great admirer of Josephus. Eliezer Freed was, by all accounts an amazing man, a self-taught polymath, a writer, an artist, a composer, an inventor. He wrote an (unpublished) novel for children about Josephus in which he travels in time from Rome through various eras of Jewish history to the modern day. We have the manuscript which I read as a child, so I suppose that was my first introduction!
Strangely, as I was coming to the end of work on the book, my mother found her father's old Victorian copies of Josephus, and I took a quick look through. I found, to my surprise, that he'd marked exactly the passages I'd been looking at: the ones about Jesus. So it looks like we've been quietly interested in this topic for a while in my family.
Your first novel in particular was bound to cause a stir and ruffle some feathers, this one even more so. Is controversy something you relish, even court?
Sigh. I don't really go out there to irritate or offend. I hate the idea of upsetting people. But I believe in telling the truth and writing what you believe. I have a quote from Noel Coward's most explosive play, Design for Living up on the wall above my desk: 'if you're a writer, you have to write what you think, otherwise you're a liar and a hypocrite'. Of course Coward himself doesn't always manage that. But still, I believe it's true. I have to write what I think.
So, I don't think there's anything wrong with people being gay, and I don't believe Jesus rose from the dead. Put like that, I suspect not many people would find those opinions especially controversial?
But maybe people don't like to look at the implications of their beliefs, really think it through. If it's alright to be gay, then what do we think about religious and other systems that say you have to hide it? If Jesus didn't rise from the dead then what really happened, and what do we make of him? And why did people say he did?
It's less a courting of controversy than it is a desire to really think through all the realities of something. If x then y and z must follow and it's pointless and dishonest to pretend they don't. Other people are better at this pretending; I think it probably makes for an easier life, but I just can't do it.
You say that the impartial observer doesn't exist, and yet you appear to take great pains to provide balance in your retelling, carefully giving each character their own voice. Was your starting position one of neutrality and did it change in the course of your writing?
I mean, I guess my starting point was that I'm not a Christian but have lived all my life in a Christian society. So the starting point is that "the normal way I've heard this story simply cannot be true according to my secular beliefs. So what is the story?"
Other than that, I was pleased to let the characters take me through their worlds. When you start to really imagine yourself into a character, you start to see that point of view and understand why they could have acted as they did. I tried to be impartial between them, and I really hope that both, for example, Caiaphas the peacekeeper and Bar-Avo the violent revolutionary come across as convincing according to their own lights.
For myself, I find I think Caiaphas is more right than Bar-Avo. But that freedom-fighter viewpoint deserves a good hearing.
You show how faith can bring about cataclysmic events, but also how its loss, whether in God or in a loved one, can utterly destroy on an individual level. Is there such a thing as the middle ground?
I suppose when it comes to 'moderate religious faith', I'm in two minds. Some people seem to manage it - although not people with my particular kind of burrowing, questioning mind! Do they do it by just not thinking everything through? Or by finding something that they can believe in and essentially creating their own internal religion (which I think is great)? It's the part where you claim to be a 'moderate' supporter of an organized religion that I find hard to accept:basically every major organized religion has some subset of beliefs which are grossly offensive to modern thought and morality. And I, at least, ended up finding it impossible to justify giving even my tacit support to, for example, the racism, homophobia and misogyny of my childhood religion.
Is there a middle ground when it comes to religious faith? A religious faith that is helpful, loving and good without any of the forces of oppression, domination and hatred that so often accompany it? Maybe only in the 'religion of one' which we come to in our own hearts. Once you start needing other people to believe it too, you're lost.
It is impossible not to draw comparisons between the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and the current situation there; how much was that on your mind while writing, or was it even the contemporary situation that provided the impetus for looking back to the city's earliest days?
Strangely, I only found most of those resonances as I went on! I started a long time ago with a rather tricksy short story about Mary, where you're supposed to start off thinking she's a mother mourning a suicide bomber and obviously it turns out she's mourning a son who died with God's name on his lips in a different way. It was a bit cheap, but I'm interested in how history really does repeat itself, and I'm glad I've found better ways to talk about it.
I don't think we should be surprised about that repetition. The British Empire modelled itself on the Roman Empire. It promised Palestine to the Jews under the Balfour Declaration with one hand, while allowing Lawrence of Arabia to let the Sharif of Mecca believe he was promising it to him with the other - a typical Roman 'divide and conquer' manoeuvre. When you have Empires employing the same
tactics: shipping populations around the world, imposing their own rulers, encouraging one indigenous group to attack another, you'll get the same outcomes. In fact, we see those same outcomes across the world. When empires behave like this, they have to keep on enforcing the peace more and more violently, and when they withdraw the countries collapse into violence too. Nihil sub sole novum.
But even knowing that, I was surprised by a lot of the resonances: I didn't expect to find the Romans building a big wall, or the Jews digging tunnels underneath it.
Will your next novel show just as radical a departure from the last as this one does? What can we expect next?
Hah, yes! I'm working on something... a bit weird. About violence, and the ways that society attempts to hem in and control violence. And about electric eels.