Rolex Arts Initiative: Your first novel, Disobedience, is being made into a Hollywood movie. The Guardian reported that your new novel, The Power, has already – almost as soon as it was published – drawn a “bidding frenzy” for the TV serialization rights, with 11 offers on the table. With success on this scale, are you tempted to give up writing Zombies, Run! and concentrate purely on writing fiction? How important is the gaming side of your work to you?
Naomi Alderman: I think different kinds of work reach different audiences, and I’m very happy ─ and very lucky ─ to be able to reach a lot of different audiences with my work. The nice thing about Zombies, Run! is that the story belongs to me: I get to make all the decisions about it. We are the most diversity-friendly zombie running game in the world, and it pleases me enormously to be able to get a lot of my liberal social values into a game people buy because they want to get a bit more exercise. So, in short, I don’t think I’ll be ceasing to make Zombies, Run! (Also, believe it or not, I make more money from that game in a year than I’ll be making from having my first novel turned into a Hollywood movie, or from having my most recent novel optioned for TV. Not having a private income, money is still a consideration!) But, I am going to be advertising for some “writing apprentices” for Zombies, Run! I’m hoping to train up some young people to work on the game to keep it fresh and moving forward even if I’m on other projects.
With every passing year, your profile grows. Is it easy for the world of publishing to eat up your time? For example, how many days this year have you spent at events such as book launches, literary festivals and other public events related to your fiction?
Ah yes, actually Margaret [Margaret Atwood, her mentor in the 2012–2013 Rolex Arts Initiative] has given me some good advice about turning down more of this sort of work. Speaking at festivals and so on is good fun, but it’s not my core work. I have a list of things to automatically turn down pinned up next to my desk now!
Do you see an evolution in your own writing? One reviewer of The Power mentioned that alongside the highly imaginative and powerful plot, the novel was very nuanced. Do you think The Power is more nuanced than your previous work? Where do most of your narrative ideas come from? Your own life? Literary sources?
I suppose one of the things that’s happening is that I’m getting older ─ and this tends to come along with more of an appreciation of “shades of grey”. But I think I’ve always wanted to see the world from more than one perspective, that’s a very important value for me. I’d be delighted if The Power is more nuanced, if I’m getting more nuanced! It’s not really for me to say though.
As for narrative ideas: I usually start with theme rather than character or plot or sentence or scene. For years I thought this made me not a real writer ─ because the voice of self-loathing will always try to find a reason to pull you down. Now I think: well, that’s just how I write. I have a theme I want to investigate, and I find the story and characters to help me do that.
How many languages have your novels been translated into?
Hmm, not sure! I think it’s between 12 and 15.
You recently told a newspaper, speaking about your first novel, Disobedience, that “I went into the novel religious and by the end I wasn’t. I wrote myself out of it.” Is writing fiction a way of discovering yourself or evolving your own character?
Yes. There’s no interest for me in writing a novel if I already know how it's going to come out and what I’ll find at the end. A novel is a journey: I like to set off and see what I find along the way.
Whatever your personal beliefs, religion fascinates you – you’ve said as much and there are religious themes throughout your work. Do you think it will continue to be a focus of your fiction and why?
I grew up very intensely religious and I think that the whorls and patterns of the mind in early childhood are very hard to erase! I find the impulse towards religion to have some similarities to the impulse towards fiction also: these things are tied together in my mind. The need for a narrative that explains finds its outlet in human life in different ways at different times, and religion and fiction are very close in that way, I think.
In an interview with a UK newspaper you were very open about your own life story, your childhood and many of the things, good and not so good, that have happened to you. You obviously choose to be very open. As you become better known, does this openness make life more simple? Or more complicated? Or doesn’t that matter?
At a certain point I have begun to feel “let it ride, let it all ride”. What have I got to conceal? I don’t think I’ve done anything too shameful with my life, might as well talk about it. My papers are being archived for the nation by the University of East Anglia at the moment ─ I feel this way about that too. Let it ride. One day, I’ll be gone and the people who come after are welcome to enjoy and examine my life if they like.
You will be the lead writer on the television adaptation of your new novel, The Power. [This is the case, yes?] Is it unusual to control the script of an adaptation of your work? When you are not the lead writer on a cinema or television adaptation of your work, do you retain the right to comment on or change the new script? Or do you simply release it and see what happens?
It is pretty unusual I think, but I was very lucky that Jane Featherstone, the CEO of Sister Pictures, convinced me that I’d be the right person to write the TV script of The Power. I think we can do something really exceptional with it. On the movie of Disobedience, I didn’t write the script and they have a fantastic scriptwriter and director on the project. I comment ─ but I’m very thrilled to see what wonderful creators will do with my work without my intervention!
The Power, about a genetic mutation that gives young women the ability to electrocute people, has been described as a superhero novel. It sounds as though elements of your gaming work are entering your fiction?
Hah. I wouldn't describe this as “gaming”. It’s science fiction, which is an interest I’ve had for many years, and indeed shared with Margaret. Not all games are science fiction, and not all science fiction is games! But I’m very unconvinced by the distinction between high culture and low culture, it’s true, and the fact that I want to both work in games and write novels is part of that.
What impact, if any, did your mentoring year with Margaret Atwood have on this book?
It’s hard to quantify ─ this is the novel that came out of that mentoring process, we talked about it a lot but, of course, I was the one who wrote it! It was definitely Margaret who suggested convents to me in the context of this novel. And let’s say that working with Margaret gave me the confidence to pull the biggest canvas I could find out for this book. Why stay small? Why not write big?
Would you be willing to describe your friendship with Margaret Atwood?
Is it enough to say that I love Margaret and her family, and that I have felt incredibly welcomed by them all? It has worked very well. This relationship has “clicked” into something real, beyond the bounds of what can be arranged by a mentorship programme or process. It is real and in that sense it is intensely personal, as all real friendships are.
What are your plans for 2017?
I’ll be working on the TV show of The Power. I’m travelling to Panama with Margaret. I’m making season six of Zombies, Run! and training some new writers on the game. And I have a new novel in a shapeless, soupy consistency in my mind. We’ll see what happens with it. There’s something about game theory and something about Vikings.