Naomi Alderman on the World That Yielded ‘The Power’


Ms. Alderman’s earlier works also found receptive audiences. Her 2006 novel, “Disobedience,” about the fallout when an Orthodox Jewish woman revives a romance with another woman, was adapted for the screen. The film version, released last fall, was produced by and stars Rachel Weisz.

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Ms. Alderman is, not surprisingly, given to pondering the alarms her works and others have raised. When she reviewed Leni Zumas’s “Red Clocks,” which posits a near future in which abortion is illegal again, Ms. Alderman warned: “This imagined dystopia is terrible, but the reality would be far worse.”

Speaking by telephone from her home in London, Ms. Alderman discussed the upside of power and its underbelly; the sources of her own energy; and her seemingly preternatural facility for seeing into the future. Our conversation has been edited.

Your book, which reads at the outset like a particularly satisfying revenge fantasy, seems prescient. Are the social and sexual upheavals that gave rise to the #MeToo movement something you could have seen coming?

I think I am probably part of that wave, rather than having known it was coming. Some of the news has sort of caught up to the book in this very strange way. Both have been part of a growing anger over the past decade, which, to me, related to the increasing visibility of certain kinds of misogyny.

When I was a teenager in the 1990s, it was a common thing among young women to say that feminism’s battles are won. Now I think it’s very horrifically obvious that that is not the case. I think the internet is a big part of that awareness. You can look at men’s forums, where men talk about how much they hate women, want to rape them, overpower them. You can read their rants. I was probably responding to the same thing that #MeToo is responding to. A lot of things have become visible now, things that we need to address.

Your tale overall is an invitation to explore the darker, more corrosive side of power, the rise of female dictators and thrill killers asserting their authority in an increasingly lawless universe. But there is no hint of that in earlier chapters, in which you portray the reversal of gender roles in a positive, even enviable, light.

I hoped at least at the outset it would be good for women to feel or imagine what it would be like to be in a position of control. It’s always nice to have a little peek and see how society would look from the other side.

But finally, you have to ask, are women better than men? They’re not. People are people. You don’t have to think that all men are horrible to know there are some men who abuse their strength. Why wouldn’t the same hold true for women? There is a small minority of sadists in the world who muck it up for the rest of us.

Some of your female characters are menaced, raped, forced into sexual slavery. Did you write to avenge them?

I don’t know if I would exactly say avenge. The book was a thought experiment. I was writing it in 2014 and 2015, and I really didn’t know at the start what the end would be. I just wanted to think it through for myself.

But I do think revenge is a perfectly reasonable feeling for some characters. Just look at the news; think of the Turpins, charged with abusing their children and holding them captive. My God — that teenage girl who managed to find a phone in that situation and call for help, she is my hero.

There are women today being trafficked as sex slaves. If I could give them the power to execute their captors at will, I probably would.

Still, much of the menace and violence perpetrated by women in “The Power” seems gratuitous. What are your readers supposed to take from that?

I’m Jewish. You can get stuck imagining yourself in a particular historical position that people like you have been in — in my case imagining myself as a Holocaust victim. But for me the larger question about the Holocaust is not, How do you avoid being a victim? It is, How do you avoid being a Nazi?

So potentially we all are oppressors?

Do you think that you are so exceptional that if you had been born a German in the 1930s, you would have understood immediately that Lebensraum was a lie? That you would have tried to assassinate Hitler? Do you believe that your ethics are so exceptional that you would immediately have rebelled?

If you and I lived in a world where women were dominant, would you be telling yourself: This is very unjust; I will fight for the rights of men?

If we lived in the world of the power, I don’t think I would be magically excluded from the way the world operates. I don’t think I can say I would have been the enlightened person. With or without the power, I behave the way the system teaches me to behave.

You tell your story through the eyes of four characters: Allie, who becomes a self-anointed prophet; Margot, who represents the state; Roxy, a London crime lord’s daughter gifted with preternatural strength; and Tunde, the only male character, who travels the world photographing and documenting the evolution of the power and learning eventually to fear its abuses. Who in your mind is the real protagonist, the one you most relate to?

I identify with Tunde. Tunde starts out as very confident, and the world slowly teaches him the reasons that perhaps he should not have been that confident. His story is the story about how a man in a world run by women learns how women have felt in a world run by men, living among wandering sadists, people who turn violent just because they can. Tunde is a writer, like me. He is also the nicest character in the book (laughs deprecatingly).

Your portrayal of the Moldovan dictator Tatiana Moskalev is strikingly familiar. You introduce her as an ex-gymnast who “almost competed in the Olympics”: a woman as gilded as her palace, “bronze highlights in her hair, glitter on the curve of her cheeks.” Did you have a role model in mind?

I asked myself, What is a female version of Putin? I was also thinking of Berlusconi, or a slightly ridiculous, hyper-macho dictator who really enjoys showing off his sexuality. All these slightly oily characters were somewhere in my mind.

An unsavory minor character called Weinstein makes a brief appearance. Was that pure chance?

Yes, people have reminded me that I wrote about Weinstein; he’s the odious, treacherous guy who betrays Roxy’s father. In hindsight, it was kind of eerie that I gave him that name. Am I psychic? Well, maybe.

Margaret Atwood, who I was lucky enough to have as a mentor while I was writing this book, has this psychic quality to her (laughs slyly). Maybe she taught me her slightly witchy ways.

What is the source of your own power?

My parents, God bless them, have given me an amazing education. And the support of other women has been absolutely vital to me.

I rely on the women’s movement over the past 150 years more than on any utility that may be in my home. I tell myself I can do better with the women’s movement and without running water, than with running water and electricity and no women’s movement.

There is this thing in the book where young women who have the power can wake it up in older women. This has been very central to me. We should have a certain humility in the face of the righteous anger of younger women who look at the world they grew up in and say, “No, we’re not going to accept that.”

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