'To say I was horrified by this book would be an understatement. The thing that upset me most was that the pigs were so unjust'
The whole experience was deeply disturbing, but I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I've tried to watch out for since. As Orwell taught, it isn't the labels – Christianity, socialism, Islam, democracy, two legs bad, four legs good, the works – that are definitive, but the acts done in their names.
Animal Farm is one of the most spectacular emperor-has-no-clothes books of the 20th century, and it got Orwell into trouble accordingly. People who run counter to the current popular wisdom, who point out the uncomfortably obvious, are likely to be strenuously baa-ed at by herds of angry sheep. I didn't have all that figured out at the age of nine, of course – not in any conscious way. But we learn the patterns of stories before we learn their meanings, and Animal Farm has a very clear pattern.
Then along came Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. I read it in paperback (the copy of which is pictured here) a couple of years later, when I was in high school. Then I read it again, and again. It struck me as more realistic, probably because Winston Smith was more like me, a skinny person who got tired a lot and was subjected to physical education under chilly conditions – a feature of my school – and who was silently at odds with the ideas and the manner of life proposed for him. (This may be one of the reasons Nineteen Eighty-Four is best read when you are an adolescent; most adolescents feel like that.) I sympathised particularly with his desire to write his forbidden thoughts down in a secret blank book. I had not yet started to write, but I could see the attractions of it. I could also see the dangers, because it's this scribbling of his – along with illicit sex, another item with considerable allure for a teenager of the 1950s – that gets Winston into such a mess.
Orwell became a direct model for me much later in my life – in the real 1984, the year in which I began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid's Tale. By that time I was 44, and I'd learned enough about real despotisms that I didn't need to rely on Orwell alone. The majority of dystopias – Orwell's included – have been written by men and the point of view has been male. When women have appeared in them, they have been either sexless automatons or rebels who've defied the sex rules of the regime. I wanted to try a dystopia from the female point of view – the world according to Julia, as it were.