SAndra Newman’s fiction is characterised by audacious conceits, utopian thinking and apocalyptic fantasies. In her latest novel, The Men, every single human being born with a Y chromosome suddenly disappears one late August day, leaving a world inhabited exclusively by women. The American author imagines the feminist utopia that emerges – and is then threatened when online footage emerges of the vanished men marching through a barren landscape alongside freakish elephants and cats.
Newman’s five novels include The Country of Ice Cream Star and The Heavens, a daring time-travel fantasy that moves between Shakespeare’s England and 21st-century New York. She has also written four nonfiction books, including the memoir Changeling. She lives in New York.
How did you come up with this idea of mass male disappearance?
It was inspired by a genre of science fiction mostly written in the 1970s and 80s, most famously Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. These are novels where all the men died at some point in the distant past, which allows us to have a feminist utopia where women are completely free. There’s no sexism, and none of the oppression and sexual violence that we have now. But my novel is seen through the lens of our current obsession with apocalypse – so we actually see the moment the men disappear and the women deal with that as a reality.
When did this strike you as an idea you could flesh out into a novel?
I was trying to write a book about sexual violence and I ended up torn about it because it’s difficult to address without talking about putting more men in prison. This book is about this particular dilemma. The second-wave feminists who wrote these feminist utopias dreamed of a world without men but in reality, they are saying that we solve our problems by incarcerating, killing or excluding a certain kind of person – and then everything will be great?
In the book, you repeatedly return to the idea that men brought problems. Would the world be better without men?
Once you start writing such a book, you notice funny little things like everyone who creates a noise nuisance is a man! It’s something I never noticed before. It’s a petty grievance but it’s constant. In New York, there’s a scourge of people riding electric bikes on the sidewalk and they are all men! But do I want men to go away? No. Even if there were less crime tomorrow, do I think that would persist for very long? Probably not.
Some people will argue this is gender essentialism. What would you say to that?
I think the trope of the male plague, which is related to this book, comes with a lot of complaints about gender essentialism. I personally don’t think my book is gender essentialist and I’m not at all in my views. If all men disappeared tomorrow, the social conditioning of the female role would not disappear.
Why are you so interested in utopias and dystopias?
The real answer? I find the contemporary world insufferable! It’s morally unacceptable in every way so I’m always imagining utopias… and then I come up with the reasons for why they wouldn’t work. Before you know it, I’m writing a utopian novel.
What aspects of the contemporary world do you find insufferable?
Oh, well, where to start? The rise of fascism in all its manifestations is particularly bad. It makes it seem inevitable that I would write angry, political fiction. I find it hard to think about anything else.
What inspired you to include weird animals in the videos of the men?
I’m always thinking of a more popular novel I might write for money and then I end up writing a literary novel. This was part of an idea I had where the men were being lured away by these supernatural beings who were mostly mysterious animals. But I never came up with a solution to this. Then when I came to writing [The Men] the ending kept changing and the rationale [for the men’s disappearance] resisted explanation completely. I always come up with these concepts that are almost impossible to execute!
Both The Men and The Heavens are about how history could have turned out very differently. What is it that interests you about these “what if” scenarios?
I feel strongly that we are so close to living in a better world and we overestimate how hard it is to have the things we need. In the United States, rightwingers are the ones who work on getting their people into office at the state level. Because they are passionate about doing that boring work, they have managed to seize power, even if they lose at the national level. I guess my “what ifs” are aimed at people on the left, to say that the steps that are needed to get power are small. We just have to get on with it.
Your next novel reimagines George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from the perspective of Winston Smith’s lover, Julia. How is that going?
I’m still working on it. I know everything that’s going to happen but I still need to make some of it happen! One of the many interesting things about Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Orwell really doesn’t explain everything that’s going on so there’s room for coming up with alternate versions. There are mysteries: is Julia really working for the thought police? Why is she with Winston in the first place when he’s described as such an unappetising character? My book answers a lot of those questions.
Do you have issues with Orwell’s representation of women?
He doesn’t do a terrible job. But you can see [Julia] has been described in the way a very limited man [Winston] sees a woman, so you can give her a whole life. Orwell didn’t tell us what Julia’s hostel might be like or what it would be like to be in the dormitory at night with all of these girls who can’t have a normal conversation. Or what the prole district is really like to live in. Or how the black market functions. He left all of these things for me to have fun with.
What’s the last great book you read?
The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. It manages to suffuse the quotidian with the real passion that people feel for their everyday lives.
What kind of a reader were you as a child?
I exclusively read books about animals. People were not interesting to me. Then in my early teens, I went straight from reading books about dogs to Nabokov. I didn’t really understand what I was reading!