In my new novel, Time Zero, my heroine Mina lives in a future Manhattan that is ruled by extremists. The religion that governs the city is fictional, yet I’ve taken its rules from various religions around the world, including those that originate in the United States.
Girls aren’t allowed to get an education, but Mina’s grandmother has secretly been teaching her to read. I knew when I started the book that I wanted Mina and her grandmother to have only one piece of reading material, a primer, and I knew it would be a magazine from the current decade. I considered many different titles, but very quickly it became apparent that it had to be a Time Out New York.
I wanted something that could mark a very specific period in time and give glimpses into all sorts of different subcultures. With Time Out, Mina could have a real taste of life one hundred years before she was born: the music, the art, the film, the food, the fashion.
Using Time Out also lent a bit of lightness to a story that is very dark at times:
Nana began to turn the pages, slowly, allowing me to look at each one. Some of them had squares cut out of them. Nana just kept flipping the pages, showing me word after indecipherable word, until she got to a page in the middle, and I gasped. It showed a New York of the distant past, when electricity flowed abundantly to everyone who wanted or needed it. The city was lit up like its own galaxy.
I couldn’t contain my questions for one more second.
“Hush,” she said. “Today is a very special day, Chickpea. It is THE day. You are finally old enough, and I can begin what I was put on this earth to do.” And then Nana turned to the next page and did something that shocked me down to my toenails. She began to read!
“This wiener dive offers the best Jersey-style dogs this side of the Hudson: handmade smoked-pork tube steaks, deep-fried until they’re bursting out of their skins. While you can order them wrapped in bacon and drowning in chili ($4.75), we’re partial to the classic ($2.75) with mustard and kraut.”
When she finished the passage, she looked so proud—smug, even. I wasn’t quite sure I believed her, because the words made no sense to me. “Smoked-pork tube,” “Jersey-style dogs,” and “dive”? Was this English?
“Nana, what is this? Are people eating dogs?” I asked, worried not only that we were performing a forbidden activity but also that she was making me hear about barbaric people.
She grinned. “No, no, dear. Don’t worry about what it means yet.” She turned to another page.
The breadth of what Time Out covers plus Mina’s total ignorance of our era gave me a lot of room to play.
The cover of their “primer” is torn, so that it only says “Time O.” They guess at what it stands for: Time Over, Time Off, Time Odd? Time O, or “Time Zero,” becomes what they call the past, the time before extremists ruled the city.
We learn that the grandmother wants more for Mina than an education in reading. She uses the Time Out to teach other lessons about the city, without Mina realizing it. This instruction is the key that can lead Mina out of the walled city. I can’t tell you any more about her secret guidance, because that would spoil the surprise.
I set the story in Manhattan to make the story and the rules Mina must obey seem more immediate and real for American teens, most of whom don’t realize that these restrictions are in place for real girls. 62 million girls around the world are not in school and every year over 15 million girls are married as children.
A piece of reading material is one example of something that we take for granted in our daily lives. In Mina’s case, she is willing to risk prison to hold onto it.
I hope that by the end of the book, if nothing else, readers will feel grateful for their own educations and the simple ability to buy the book in their hands. I also suspect they will never look at a Time Out in the same way again. The real question: will they try to save it for the next one hundred years?
Carolyn Cohagan is the author of The Lost Children (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Time Zero (She Writes Press, 2016) and the founder of the creative writing organization Girls With Pens. Find her at timezerobook.com.