A shared interest in history, technology and religion has created an immediate rapport between Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman, who already have plans to collaborate on a project together. They expect to meet several times during the mentoring year but in the meantime Atwood hopes to be a sounding board for her protégée.
From her novels – her third, to be published soon, is an unusual take on the life of Jesus – to the computer and smartphone games she writes (the latest is called Zombies, Run!), British novelist Naomi Alderman is a natural iconoclast. As she begins her year with eminent Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, Alderman describes her hopes of the mentorship and why she creates games as well as fiction.
I remember when I was seven, we were all set a writing task in my Orthodox Jewish primary school: the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. Everybody else did about a page and mine went on for about 10 pages.
I lived in Manhattan and was there during the World Trade Center bombing, working for a big international law firm. I was on 53rd and Madison in my office on the 34th floor when the planes hit the buildings. I remember standing in the office that day going: “People died today, in their jobs, probably thinking what I think about this job, which is: ‘Oh, I’ll do it for a few more years and then I’ll go and write that novel I’ve always meant to write.’ Then they died.” And so I thought: “Okay then, it’s time for me to actually do that.”
It was wonderful to meet Margaret Atwood when she was interviewing candidates to choose her protégé. Her incredible intelligence was immediately obvious from the first sentences. I love to meet people who are lot cleverer than me. It made me feel I had to up my game in the conversation. I thought: “If we end up doing this, it will be a relationship where I’m going to have to be constantly thinking.” It’s exciting.
I don't think I would have embraced a mentorship if the Mentor hadn’t been Margaret Atwood. I’ve admired her work for so long, particularly her essays, which have been such a source of inspiration and courage for me. Courage is really important for a writer.
If you’ve written just one novel, you wonder if you'll be able to write another one. I’m past that point. But what to do next, now I’ve written three, how to shape the next 20 years, those are conversations I'd love to have with Margaret Atwood.
The future is a subject of interest for both Margaret Atwood and me. I have another life outside literary novels: I write computer games. I think games are going to be an important art form in the next 100 years. They’re only just beginning to approach what they'll be. Margaret’s work is grounded in the present, but also the same desire to look forward. I won’t be alive in 100 years, I regret that, so I have to imagine it. And, hopefully, by imagining it, we can have some influence on it.
The link between all the things I write is a refusal to accept established views, orthodoxy. There is always a different way to look at things. I find it deeply suspicious if everyone thinks the same way about something.
I don’t have a favourite book, but I have a favourite TV series, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. It would be funny to have a favourite book – I could name 20 beloved favourites that I can see on my shelves right now.
Novels and drama in the west take their origin from Greek tragedy. The essential narrative of Greek tragedy is inevitability: Oedipus is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Now with games we have the means to tell stories that don't deal in that same inevitability: a game can show multiple paths, and make real the sense one tries to convey in a novel of a person hovering between two options. Games are a way of exploring the possibility space of a human life. The space is interestingly larger than the one outcome we see, but it's not infinite. I would never have become an Olympic athlete, no matter what choices I had made!
So far, no one has treated me as less than a serious novelist because I write computer games. I hope that people with vision can see that there could be something interesting there, even if they don't understand it. People with narrow minds will always have narrow minds. It’s another kind of orthodoxy.
Why would you be slumped in front of TV in the evening when you could be working? I used to work in the City [of London] which was sometimes 12 hours a day for weeks on end, doing a job I felt was meaningless. Compared to that, every single thing I do is a privilege, and working hard is a way of respecting that. But, of course, I do make time for friends and a boyfriend!
Five years from now, I hope I'll still be writing novels and making games, but I'm ambitious too and curious about other forms – I'd love to make TV drama, for example!
Mentorship fosters zombies collaboration
Young British novelist Naomi Alderman and distinguished Canadian writer Margaret Atwood have put the Internet and electronic games at the heart of their literature mentorship. Naomi Alderman was interviewed in Geneva for the Rolex Arts Initiative.
Rolex Arts Initiative: What is happening in your mentorship with Margaret Atwood?
Naomi Alderman: We’re working together on a collaborative on-line novella about zombies for a Canadian site called Wattpad. It’s a huge community of readers and writers online. Margaret and I are both very interested in the future of writing and what’s going to happen in the on-line world. I had produced a smartphone game about zombies, so this inspired us to embark on a zombies story. We’ve written coming up for 15,000 words. It’s an epic overland journey during a zombie apocalypse. There are two voices and we’re writing one each.
You’ve both already written so much of it?
Margaret is an amazingly fast writer. I always feared that being a fast writer meant that I wouldn’t be such a good writer. But seeing how she works – I send her a chapter and she sends me back a new chapter the next day – makes me feel very confident that it’s okay to write fast and that it doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means you get to a stage where you can do that.
What about your own separate fiction?
I’ve been sending her some of my work on my fourth novel and short stories that I’m working on. I’m going to be writing her into my [smartphone] game Zombies, Run! – she’s going to have a guest-starring role, which I hope she will enjoy.
Also, she has launched a funding drive for her online product fanado [fanado.com]. One of the prizes, if you help fund the product, is to have an online conversation with me and Adrian Hon, the co-creator of the zombies game. So we’re supporting each other’s on-line endeavours.
So the mentoring year had a very busy start?
I am a terrible perfectionist or at least terribly driven. So I’m constantly thinking: ‘Oh, it’s already been a few months and we’ve only done this. We should have done so much more.’ But maybe I should just get over myself.
How does Margaret Atwood respond when she receives your manuscripts?
She’s incredibly positive. Vastly encouraging with occasional thoughts about different elements which might work better if I did them a different way. I cannot tell you the feeling of sending your writing to Margaret Atwood! I don’t know how you can communicate that in print. And then Margaret Atwood sends it back and says: ‘This is great.’ It’s a benediction, it’s like a fairy godmother with a wand going: ‘Yes, carry on, carry on.’ Apparently I’m okay at this writing thing.
How often do you communicate?
Probably a couple of times a week. We go through flurries. We have a flurry of communicating every day and then go quiet for a while. We don’t talk on the phone, we email a lot.
You’re getting on well with your mentor.
Yes, I feel a lot of love for her.
From the first time you met, your friendship developed quickly?
We clicked. We made each other laugh. I thought that was a very good sign. Obviously I was meeting her for the very first time and thinking to myself: ‘Do you know what, it’s a great privilege to meet Margaret Atwood and spend an hour with her. I decided to present myself as exactly who I am. If I had presented a false self and she didn’t choose me, then I would have thought: ‘Oh, she didn’t pick that false thing.’
I did not want to be someone who was going to nod and say: ‘Yes, tell me more,’ but wanted to be able to show her some interesting things and have a conversation, rather than just be receiving. So we really had fun the first time we met, a big laugh. We talked about weird things in the Bible and strange sexual practices. We talked a little bit about the problems of the new novel, but also about religious cults. We’re very interested in weirdness, strange things that one’s not supposed to talk about.
I came away thinking it was a good sign I had told her about a book she had never read.
Can you predict what will be the most important benefit of the mentoring year for you?
I would not like to predict because I think, as with writing a novel and probably all artistic work, the reason it’s worth doing is because you don’t know what the outcome will be. And if you knew what the outcome would be, you could do it now. If I said to you: ‘Well, I think I’m going to gain in confidence over the year,’ well I could say to myself: ‘Naomi, why don’t you just be more confident now?’ Though that will probably happen. I’m looking forward to the unexpected and the strange conversational turn that will give me a clue in the right direction.
Did Margaret Atwood have a chance to look at your new book, The Liars’ Gospel, a novel about the life of Christ?
She did, she enjoyed it a lot. But she made a criticism, she said a very interesting thing. She said that she thought I had portrayed some elements of the religious practice a bit too kindly. I was making them seem a bit too nice. I like this thought, that I can challenge myself to be even less nice, a little more clear-eyed than I have been. That seems like a good trajectory. I think that book is everything I could have made it, I’m really proud of it. But I think she’s right, I could go further. It’s true, I still have a little bit of a people-pleaser inside me, and you can’t afford that as a novelist. It’s not a nice feeling when you upset people. Some people might like it, but I don’t. But, at the same time, when you approach the truth, if the truth is upsetting, then you have to take it.
If Margaret Atwood makes a constructive criticism of your writing, how do you react?
I welcome it. What would be the point of having a mentor-protégé relationship where they just told you that you were brilliant all the time? I suppose there are some people for whom that would be really valuable. At a particular point in a work or a career you might need that unqualified support. But I’m not at that stage, I would like to be pushed further. I hope that I have better writing in me still.
* The Liars’ Gospel was published in the U.K. by Viking on 30 August 2012.