Answers to questions

This is where I post answers to questions I’ve previously answered from students, journalists and so on. Because one does get the same questions a lot. 

If you are a student or a reader with a burning question, this is how I answer questions (on public Twitter usually, not via DM): 

1. You send me one question at a time

2. I keep on answering UNTIL you send me a question that you could have found the answer to by googling

3. Then I send you a LMGTFY link and the game is over (asking what LMGTFY is will receive a LMGTFY link)

4. I will post the answers on this website (but not with your name on, unless you’d like me to!) for future contestants

Many women (and men too) think that if women ruled the world, the world would be a better place. In this regard, your book is  extremely subversive. What is your personal opinion about women and power these days?

Well. Of course I remember Mrs Thatcher, whose term in office was not characterised by eg compassion, kindness and an open warmth toward suffering humanity. I guess the question I would like to know the answer to is: why do they think the world would be better? Is it because: in order for women to achieve parity in office the world would have had to change so that we no longer even subconsciously value the ability to cause pain and do violence? That a powerful body is now meaningless compared with a powerful mind and spirit? Then maybe yes. Is it because – having suffered – women are likely to have more understanding of suffering? Hmm, maybe, although how will that last more than a generation of a matriarchy? Is it because they think women are naturally kinder and nicer than men? Do me a favour.

The protagonists of the novel are teenagers. Regarding power and leadership, in your opinion which new values can young women bring to the society?

I am very inspired by young feminist women. Every generation of women is allowing a new generation to rise who are a little more free than we were. We pass a little less down to them, we look at the blooms whose earth we cleared. We are stunned by their grace and strength. I think this is why Wonder Woman made so many women cry – it is the dream that we would be able to witness a woman who had not grown up with any of this bullshit, not a single moment of it. Who would be surprised and amused by the idea that men are better or more important than women. We have never seen a single woman like this. When we even imagine seeing her, we cry. Young women bring hope. Each generation has brought a little more hope. We work in the light of that hope.

As a woman, what did you feel while you were writing about discrimination, cynicism, violence that the teenagers impose to the men?

I felt sad, angry and disgusted with the nature of humanity. As I do almost every day when I read the news.

Thinking about the future, are you confident that women and men will overcome any gender discrimination from each side?

I’m not confident but I’m hopeful. The feminist revolution is the greatest and most successful bloodless revolution in human history – at least that I can think of. We have achieved what has been achieved by thinking, talking, persuading, considering. This makes me hopeful that we can make yet more change. I want to see that free woman – she will not exist in my lifetime, but I can imagine her and the imagining brings her closer day by day.

How did you come to write this book? What was your inspiration for it?

I was on a Tube train a few years ago, in the middle of a terrible breakup. And as the train pulled into the station, I saw a poster on the platform advertising some thriller with the face of a beautiful, terrified woman weeping. And something just broke inside me because it felt like the world was saying to me “hey, this thing that you’re doing right now, this terror and crying, we like that. Do more of that. We’re turned on by it. Good girl.” And I thought in that moment: what would the world have to be like so I could walk onto the Tube and see a photo of a beautiful man weeping in terror, as if that was normal and desireable? What is the smallest thing that would have to change? And the whole idea turned up in my head, just like that.

What is your message you want to sent?

Well, there are quite a few questions I’d like the novel to raise. Why is the power structure between men and women the way it is? Do we think that women are actually nicer than men, or do they just have less physical strength to enact violence? What do we think of a world where men are the victims and women the aggressors – if we are shocked by violence against men in this world, why aren’t we shocked by the violence against women in the world we live in?

What would you do if you had the same power as the women in your book? Do women ever tell you the wish they’d have this power?

Women tell me they wish they had it all the time! I’d probably take it if it were on offer, just for the change of scene. When you’re the one who’s had to be frightened all your life, even knowing the consequences, it’d be nice to see the world from the other perspective.

We know women with superpowers from a few TV series like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Women with these forces were often arrested. Are women with superpowers scary for men?

Well of course. But I think the thing that’s most scary for men is the idea that women aren’t any nicer than men. This is a lie that the victors often tell about the defeated. People in North America might say that Native Americans are “gentle, kind, more in touch with the natural world”. That’s a very nice thing to believe about the people you’ve defeated and oppressed – it is the belief “they would never do to us what we’ve done to them”. It makes them feel safe. I don’t think men should feel safe in this way – I think some women would certainly do to men what some men have done to women, if given the opportunity.

Is power only for men?

Certainly not – the book is about the ways that different kinds of power are fungible. Political power can become financial power. Financial power can become religious power. Media power can become political power. And so on. It’s just that men have access – on average – to more of one source of power (physical violence) than women do.

Thanks to #MeToo, your book is popular again. How do you experience this movement?

I’m extremely glad that women are at last feeling that they can talk about some of the things that have happened to them. I hope that it affects more than famous women, glamorous women, Hollywood women. I hope that it means that a woman who works in a bar is more likely to be believed when she says that her boss groped her. I hope it means that men like Dominique Strauss-Kahn are less likely to get away with sexually assaulting cleaning staff in hotels.

When it comes to the accusations that are more along the lines of “you did not get enthusiastic consent, I tried to communicate by going stiff/saying nothing/becoming non-responsive that I wasn’t enjoying what you were doing and yet you carried on”… I think we should probably treat that like drink-driving. Once, this was acceptable and everyone did it. Now, it is no longer acceptable. I don’t think there’s much point in prosecuting or persecuting people for non-enthusiastic-consent-sex from 1982. I think men should now know that this is no longer acceptable.

I read that you were working on a documentary about eels for the BBC while writing this novel, but did you toy a little with different concepts other than the electricity to give the power to the women?

Yes, for a while I thought of making it something more esoteric: maybe a nerve-damage power, or a pheromone power. But someone has pointed out that in my first novel, Disobedience, the heroine Ronit imagines electrocuting the worst man in the novel with her hand. So probably that’s been an image in the back of my mind for a while now!

How did you end up being the protégée of Margaret Atwood ? What did she represent to you ? In what ways did she help you ? What concrete advice did she gave you ?

We were paired together by an arts mentoring programme run by Rolex! The programme was a wonderful starting point, and we have become friends. One of the things she represents, of course, is the idea that a writing hero, a brilliant novelist, thought that there was merit in my idea for this book. That was a huge thing to keep me moving and writing. We talked a lot about the book, but some of the best advice was about how to make and manage a writing life. She’s very firm about the importance of saying no to things. Perhaps women tend to say “yes” a bit more than is good for us – Margaret advised me to turn down a lot of those little things people ask you to do, so that I could focus on the major work I want to accomplish.

Is “The Power” your take (or maybe, your ode ?) to the Handmaid’s Tale ?

I wouldn’t exactly say “my take”, but The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly among the things it’s responding to.

I have the feeling that, like Margaret Atwood did in the Handmaid’s Tale, you only included events that already happened in real life. Is that correct ?

That’s correct ! Obviously those things haven’t involved electric shocks in real life. But yes. In fact, there are things men have done to women in the world that would have seemed ridiculous and unbelieveable if I’d put them into this novel. Eg: under the Taliban, women were forbidden to be heard laughing in public.

When it comes to the accusations that are more along the lines of “you did not get enthusiastic consent, I tried to communicate by going stiff/saying nothing/becoming non-responsive that I wasn’t enjoying what you were doing and yet you carried on”… I think we should probably treat that like drink-driving. Once, this was acceptable and everyone did it. Now, it is no longer acceptable. I don’t think there’s much point in prosecuting or persecuting people for non-enthusiastic-consent-sex from 1982. I think men should now know that this is no longer acceptable.

Still, reading about men being tortured was horrifying and feels weirdly wrong. Are we kind of used to it when it happens to women ?

Of course. The novel in some ways is like an exercise given to artists – my mother is an art teacher – where you copy an ‘old master’ upside down. That is a technique that draws you to really look at what is actually there, not what you imagine to be present in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or a Bourgeois sculpture. When it’s upside down, your preconceptions go away and you can see very clearly what is really present.

If it feels horrifying to watch men being tortured in this novel – and I hope it does – this is an indication of how horrified we should be about these stories when they occur to women. If I may – when writing this novel one thing that was constantly in my mind was the start of the first series of the French TV series Engrenages. The cops find a woman dead in a dumpster with her breasts cut off. The male cop says: “they killed her because she was beautiful”. The offhandedness of that haunted and disgusted me. It would be impossible, in our world, to make a show where a man was found with his penis horrifically mutilated and for one cop to say to another “ah, they killed him because he was beautiful”. Why is that? Why is violence against women such an easy way to start a Saturday-night drama? Why is it obvious that women’s “beauty” results in violence? Why do we consider this ‘entertaining’?

I think one of the aim of the book is to show to male readers what it is like to be afraid all the time ? Am I right ?

That’s certainly part of it – part of the idea is to hold up a mirror for each gender to look into and see what the other sees. For women to see what it’s like to know that you are part of the physically dominant class. For men to see what it’s like to know that you do always have to be a little wary all the time.

What was the most difficult part to write ?

The interviews 😉

Why did you choose a dystopia over an utopia ? Aren’t you afraid that the message could be misunderstood and make the feminist fight appear vain, although a demand for equal rights does not necessarily lead to a hard matriarchy…

I was a bit afraid of that. But I decided I had to trust my readers to be smart enough to understand it. I don’t think my novel is a dystopia, in the sense that it’s really just an inversion. The things that happen in it aren’t worse than the things that happen in our world today. So if the novel is a dystopia, our world is a dystopia.

The question I think I’d like an answer to is: if you think women would do better with this power, why? What is your justification for thinking that? Do you believe that women are just “naturally kinder and more gentle”? Really? Have you ever seen how girls behave with each other? Do you think women would remember what it was like to be abused and therefore hold back? Don’t you think it’s just as likely that they’d remember what it was like to be abused and therefore some would want revenge?

Readers will have to come to their own conclusions. But for me, I could not find a reason to think women would be better than men. I looked for one, but I could not find it.

The Power is mostly a thinkpiece about the abuse of power. At what time of the writing did you feel that the power itself was the real subject ? Do you really think that men oppress women… just because they can ?

I think power has been the subject of all my novels, to be honest. The forms of power, how it is used and how it corrupts. My father is a political historian – there was a lot of conversation in my house growing up about how systems affect the individuals within them. I am extremely interested in systems of power and control – who gains, who loses, what power do you have and how do you wield it? (Almost everyone has some form of power, not everyone wants to use the form they have, and of course a few people have a grotesque amount.)

I think in any system, some of the people with power abuse some of the people without, because they can. Because some people are sadists and derive satisfaction purely from cruelty in their exercise of power. And because sadists don’t have tattoos on their foreheads to tell us which ones they are, those of us who are less powerful in any given axis end up afraid all the time. You don’t need everyone in the powerful class to abuse power for everyone in the less-powerful class to feel legitimately afraid.

Put it this way: thirty thousand people in a stadium enjoying a soccer game. It only takes one sadist with a sniper rifle to wreck everything for everyone. Some people will always do it just because they can.

Why did you decide to include those letters at the beginning and at the end of the novel ?

Firstly because they made me laugh. And I felt that at the end of quite a brutal book the reader might enjoy a laugh. Secondly because I wanted to reflect on how I also am part of this system – this novel is not written by someone who has managed to extract herself from the systems of sexism and control, those forces apply also to the publishing world, to the media world, to publicity and even to this interview. So the letters are about the ways that publishing itself is part of the system which insists on “men are x and women are y” narratives. About how that system will reinforce itself. And finally, they are clearly a tip of the hat to The Handmaid’s Tale ;-).

The book is also about the making of a religion. Is it a theme that strikes a nerve for you?

Certainly! I grew up a very Orthodox Jew and I’ve always been interested in religion – I think we in Europe can be very complacent about the power that religion still has in many people’s lives. Most people around the world are religious – including most people in the USA. Almost everyone who has ever lived has had a religious faith or practice of some sort – I think it’s probably “natural” to the human mind to think that way, which is a very different thing to saying that it’s “good” or “desireable”! But I think one must understand how religions work and what their appeal is in order to be able to identify that kind of thinking even in secular life.

The discover of electricity in each of this girls recalls to the discover of sexuality. Was it important that the “skein” had a sensual feel to it ?

Sexuality emerges at puberty. The changes in the body at puberty are various. We grow hair in our armpits and crotches, girls bud breasts, boys develop facial hair, girls start periods, boys become taller and more muscular. These things happen all at once, that is simply how our species is. At the point that we start to develop an interest in sex, at that exact moment, is the precise moment when boys become taller and physically stronger than girls. The things are closely twined together in our subconscious. If you’re a heterosexual woman then you will be attracted to men’s bodies, and that attraction will have developed at the same time that men started to be more physically powerful than you. If you’re a heterosexual man, then your interest in having sex with women will have sprouted at precisely the moment that you became capable of physically dominating women. That is a complex position to be in. Again, not everything “natural” is good or desirable. Birth pain and death in childbirth is “natural” but we don’t simply accept it and think it’s wonderful. The situation of the human species is that we are likely to experience the power differential between the sexes as sexually charged. Once we can understand why, we can begin to ask whether we think the way it stands is good.

A female friend texted me while she was reading The Power and said: “why is this book making me feel so sexy?” I replied: “because you are imagining what it would be like not to have to be afraid to stare at a man openly on the subway, to flirt, to wear the clothes you want, to experience your desire as something you could enforce if you wanted albeit perhaps with consequences. You are imagining being free.” That freedom allows us to experience our sexuality as something untinged with fear. I think it’s a new feeling for a lot of women.

None of your female characters seem particularly likable. Why is that ?

You’ll have to tell me ;-). I like them all.

I have to say that my male bosses were not too thrilled about me writing yet another article about a feminist book, and neither was my boyfriend (he said “one day you are going to kill me in my sleep”). So I’m curious about your male readers’ reactions to the book ? Do the women “get” it better ?

Some men look at me as if I’m a terrible monster for “inventing” all of the bad things that happen in the book. But the smart ones do get that I didn’t actually invent them. There was a great review by a British journalist who said that he read about “penis curbing” in The Power and thought “oh come on now, this is ridiculous”. And then he remembered about female genital mutilation. And thought: oh, right, I get it. The smart guys get it.

You sold the book’s rights for a TV show. What is you role in that adaptation ? How is this going so far ? Do you think it could also be adapted in a video game ?

I’m working on the pilot of the TV show right now with Sister Pictures, the production company – I’m writing the pilot, so I’m very involved! There’s been a lot of interest in producing it, but we haven’t decided on a broadcasting partner yet. I expect it could be a game! But I haven’t worked out how yet.

What do game writing teach you about book writing ? Is there another medium you wish to try ? What does fan fiction mean to you ?

For me, games writing has taught me how to leave space for the audience (the player, the reader) in the work. I have a tendency to want to lean over the reader’s shoulder and say “hey, this is what this part means”, and games writing has been very good for me in that your game is a failure if you haven’t left space for the audience to co-create the work with you !

I’d love to write a graphic novel. I have an idea for a series where Wendy Darling teams up with Anthea from Five Children and It, Jane Banks from Mary Poppins and Susan Pevensey from Narnia and they fight crime. So if anyone wants that to exist… give me a call ;-).

I think all writing is in some sense fan fiction – all writing draws on previous writing, has resonances and draws out moments from older stories to see them in a new light. Homer is multi-authored fan retellings of Greek myths and legends. The New Testament is fan fiction of the Old Testament. The Old Testament was fan fiction of the Phoenician creation myths. Shakespeare is fan fiction of Ovid. Virgil is fan fiction of Homer. Why would you want to write stories if you weren’t already a fan of stories that exist ?

Do you think, now that we learned about the Weinstein case, that you would have written the same book today ?

Sure. I mean, the actual fact about actual Weinstein was new news. But the fact that powerful men abuse their power, harass, sexually assault and rape women was not news, was it? I think we all knew that.

Do you think there’s a sex war ahead ?

A literal war? No. A realignment of thinking on some issues? I hope so; that’s what’s been happening over the past three centuries or so. Will there continue to be violence against women? Probably yes. Will men continue to be the main victims of male violence? Probably also yes. You’re not going to get mass violence by women unless we somehow manage to get the ability to electrocute people at will!

I really loved your reference to a “male litterature” in the last pages. Do you feel frustrated in edition because you’re a woman ? Do you feel some kind of a change in that field, with more feminist-themed books ? Would you call yourself a feminist writer?

I certainly am a feminist writer. I think there are certain frustrations that come along with writing as a woman – it’s very easy for publishers to turn “a woman, writing fiction” into “a writer of women’s fiction”. These things are very different, but they slip from one to the other easily.

The situation in fiction today is that – in general – women buy books written by both men and women, while men only buy books written by men. This is very important to understand as a woman writer. Publishers will try to push you to make your books appeal to women. But if you want to break out of that, you need to make sure that each jacket, each blurb, each poster describes a book that you could see a man picking up and buying. Women will buy women’s books anyway and “masculine-looking” books anyway; it’s men we need to specifically convince to buy them.

I hope things are changing – I suspect it’s going to be slow. But I’m proud of being part of that process of change.

What happens to the boy and girl in the oil drum?

I am afraid I leave this to the reader’s imagination. There was supposed to be a final line to the acknowledgements that talked about them after talking about the “Priest King” and “Dancing Girl” of Mohenjo Daro. After saying that we decide what people are and are allowed to be before we find out anything about them, I said… “So we do to every girl and every boy on the day we pull them from an oil drum, curled and unknowing.” You’ll have to decide whether the book is better with or without that.

OK so The Voice that Allie hears. Is it God, or has she had a psychotic break or what?

Answer 1) That is a very good question.

Answer 2) Have you ever read about Third Man Syndrome? It is not for me to tell you whether you think Third Man Syndrome is the voice of the One who cares for us all or is a useful psychological tactic the brain does in trauma.

A literal war? No. A realignment of thinking on some issues? I hope so; that’s what’s been happening over the past three centuries or so. Will there continue to be violence against women? Probably yes. Will men continue to be the main victims of male violence? Probably also yes. You’re not going to get mass violence by women unless we somehow manage to get the ability to electrocute people at will!