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'Julia' is a retelling of George Orwell's 1984 through a different perspective


The new novel "Julia" is doubleplusgood, as you might say in Newspeak, the language developed more than seven decades ago by George Orwell for his classic novel "1984." American writer Sandra Newman, with approval from the Orwell estate, has retold and extended the original dystopian society of Big Brother, telescreens, Room 101 and the Ministries of Peace, Plenty and of Truth - which is anything but. For her story, Sandra Newman presents "1984" through the eyes of Julia Worthing, the love of Orwell's main character, Winston Smith. Sandra Newman joins us now from London. Thank you so much for being with us.

SANDRA NEWMAN: Oh, thank you, Scott.

SIMON: I'd like you to read from the book, if we could, and bring us back into that original nightmare society in Oceania, Airstrip One - used to be London - for a Two-Minute Hate break in the workday.

NEWMAN: (Reading) In the final seconds, Big Brother's face faded and was replaced by the three core party slogans written in thick black letters on red. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Then the telescreen blanked out and left the watchers facing their own dim reflections. They began the chant, B-B, B-B, B-B. It started out uncoordinated and messy, but soon settled into a slow, sure beat. Those who are still sitting rose to their feet. Some stamped along or drummed on the backs of chairs. This part of the ritual was always a release. Everyone relaxed and beamed. Another thought had been correctly thought, another feeling rightly felt. One saw how little the party asked after all. You needn't know all the latest Newspeak words or struggle to believe contradictory things. If you hated the enemy, you could be loved. People smiled dopily at each other, and some eyes welled with tears. They had had a good hate.

SIMON: BB, of course, Big Brother. And it's hard not to read that section these days and not think of social media platforms today. I wonder if that was on your mind.

NEWMAN: Yeah. It was very much on my mind. But when I began the book, I was very much addicted to Twitter. It's strange. You're very much affected by it, I think. I think anybody who was addicted to Twitter would say that there was nothing good about the experience by the end, and yet you would keep going back and find it hard to stop. And part of the writing of this book was trying to understand that and investigate it and talking about what actually happens when you become addicted to something which is an experience of group hate.

SIMON: Julia, of course, is at the center of the novel. She's a mechanic, but her first job at the Ministry of Truth is helping to produce porn. Some striking titles you came up with.

NEWMAN: There was one review where they gave me credit for coming up with that, but it's actually in the Orwell. He has her working at Pornosec as her first job. But he doesn't say anything about the pornographic novels that she's working on. So the titles I came up with, the - one of them is "Spanking Stories," which is Winston's favorite. And the other one, which she likes, is "Inner Party Sinners: 'My Telescreen Is Broken, Comrade.'" So that was really fun. Actually, Orwell has so many things that he mentions which feel really fun, but because he's not writing a book that can in any way be fun, he doesn't pursue them. And I gave myself permission to be a little more fun, and I did pursue - I went down all of those little alleyways and down the rabbit holes.

SIMON: When you take on a project like this, what do you appreciate about the original all over again?

NEWMAN: Oh, so much the - his understanding of the psychology of totalitarianism was so astonishing, both the psychology of the totalitarians and the psychology of their victims, and the psychology of the people who - the ordinary, like, members of the party who are one day denouncers and the next day the denounced, who are forced to play the game of denouncing in order to put off the day when they will be denounced - the fear of that and the anger that comes from the fear, the feeling of saying things that you don't believe, inspired by fear, but having to look anything but frightened in order to not bring down the hammer on yourself. Like, everything about it. He described it so beautifully and so intelligently and with such real passion. It moved me every time.

SIMON: You bring us into Julia's living situation, which sounds pretty grim.

NEWMAN: Yeah. It's interesting that she lives in a women's hostel with 30 other women, and in some ways, it is grim, and in some ways, it's a community. She finds comfort from being with the other women and talking to them. But it's also inevitably a treacherous situation because any of them could denounce her. In the dormitory, there are telescreens everywhere, and the telescreens are always on. So you hear Big Brother's voice droning at you as you sleep. But she's so used to that that she can't sleep without it. So it's interesting. I think one of the things I was trying to get at in my book, which Orwell either didn't want to talk about or didn't have time for in his book, was how totalitarianism can also be your home if it's all you've ever known.

SIMON: What's Oceania's ArtSem program?

NEWMAN: The ArtSem program, which also is something Orwell came up with but then didn't really pursue very far, is artificial insemination. So the party in "1984" is very much against sex and generally human relationships.

SIMON: Because they subvert the relationship with the party. Is that the whole idea?

NEWMAN: Yes. Every ounce of emotion that you have should be devoted to the party, to hating the party's enemies, to loving Big Brother and to working for the good of the party. So if you love your wife or your husband, that interferes with that. They want to stamp that out, but they still need new comrades to be born. So the answer is artificial insemination. And this is a way for party women to serve the party fully. It seemed obvious to me that if you are a person like Julia, who in both of the books has a lot of affairs with men, but you don't have any access to birth control, which couldn't really exist in this world, artificial insemination would also be a way to cover up for an unwanted pregnancy.

SIMON: What was it like for you to spend all this time in that society?

NEWMAN: It was not the easiest couple - two years of my life. I would be working on this book and immersing myself in the society, and then I would pause and go and look at the news. And there was always a new totalitarian either taking power or consolidating power or doing something with that power that was terrifying. And my husband - I would be talking to him, and I would see a certain look across his face, and I would realize that, yet again, I was talking about Stalin or totalitarianism. And I would have to check myself and think, how do I lighten up in this situation? How do I remember that there is hope? Like, a lot of the process of this book for me was trying to find sources of hope.

SIMON: And where are they? Where are those sources of hope? Not a bad question these days.

NEWMAN: If you ask Orwell or the Orwell of "1984," the key source of hope is in human relationships, that very thing that the party is trying to stamp out. Winston finds hope by loving Julia, by trusting Julia even if it doesn't make sense to trust her. And even though they betray each other, that's a kind of a triumph. And you feel that in "1984." Even though it ends in absolute hopelessness for Winston, it doesn't end in absolute hopelessness for the human race.

SIMON: Sandra Newman's new novel, derived from George Orwell's "1984," "Julia." Thank you so much for being with us.

NEWMAN: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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