Naomi Alderman, A year of surprises

Naomi Alderman

A year of surprises

December 2014 - Naomi Alderman, 2012-2013 Literature Protégée

You just never know what’s coming, reflects Naomi Alderman a year after her mentorship with Margaret Atwood changed her life.

British writer Naomi Alderman’s star is on the ascent. And not only thanks to her three well-received novels. From religion journals to books pages in newspapers and on-line updates on the latest game applications, Alderman’s views are sought in a wide variety of publications. Her public profile reflects her refusal, shared with her Rolex mentor and leading Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, to place boundaries between high culture and popular culture. Alderman was literature protégée in the Rolex Arts Initiative in 2012–2013. She is known to the worldwide gaming community because of Zombies, Run!, a get-fit application that she co-created.

Rolex Arts Initiative: Your presence on the Internet and also in the print media has grown rapidly in the past two years. How did that happen – and so quickly?

Naomi Alderman:
Yes, I seem to have reached a good tipping point, which I can partly thank Rolex for. I think there’s that thing where you appear to be an “overnight success”, but it’s actually that you’ve put in a lot of work over the years and it gets slow recognition. Definitely the imprimatur of Margaret Atwood is part of people taking me more seriously.

You now write a gaming column for the (London) Observer newspaper. How often does that appear? Where do you get ideas from for that?

It’s a monthly column and it’s great fun. As part of making games I also really need to keep up to date on what’s going on with games, so it all feeds into my creative process. I like to write about games as philosophy and art – what they might mean, what they represent, how they affect our thought patterns. Games are the largest entertainment industry in the world now, and I think there’s a role for mainstream people to be thinking about what that means.

How successful has Zombies, Run! become?
I think we might be up to about 1.2 million sales now.This thing is a phenomenon, which has been a bit unexpected. It’s very affirming, though, that this number of people want to experience stories I’ve created while they’re running.

Margaret Atwood is part of one of the “missions” on your Zombies app. Was it hard to persuade her to take part?
It wasn’t hard at all! Margaret, I suspect, would always entertain the notion of doing something different. That might be something we have in common – an interest in the new and the unexpected. I just said: “Hey, would you ever be interested in guest-starring in my game?” and she said “sure”. Here’s a lesson for life: at the start of 2011, I was interested in neither running nor zombies, and had never met Margaret Atwood. By the end of 2012, Margaret Atwood had guest-starred in my zombie running app. Really, you never know what life has in store. Not to get too dark, but I think this is the greatest argument against suicide ever. When you’re miserable, you think life will have nothing good or new to show you ever again, but you Just Never Know What’s Coming.

Is there a danger that your work on Zombies, Run! will overshadow your novel-writing?
Yes, there is! It’s something I’m keenly aware of – but, on the other hand, one can’t help which particular projects spark the public imagination! I would love it if The Liars’ Gospel [her latest novel] were as popular as Zombies, Run!, but it’s not and one has to live with the reality of popular opinion on that. For a long time my novels were more successful than my games, and, now I’ve had a hit game, that balance has shifted. I do think that the work on Zombies, Run! has helped me learn what stories people go for, and where my strengths are, which I’m hoping to fold back into my new book.

One of your post-mentorship activities supported by Rolex was a trip to the Arctic with Margaret Atwood in June/July this year. Can you describe the trip?
Lord, it was incredible. It is still with me. We went on a two-week trip around the Canadian Arctic with Adventure Canada – I was sick as a dog pretty much the whole time, not with nausea but with a nine-day headache, which is apparently a form of seasickness. If you’d said to me in advance: “Hey, do you fancy a nine-day headache in a cabin on the ocean?” I would have said: “No, thanks”, but it was so worth it.

And it’s more than the actual experiences. There’s something about the absence of experience that is hard to describe. The best way I’ve found is: in a city, everything has been placed there by other human beings. Everything is intended. Everything therefore has a value in human terms. Is this good, is it bad, is it tasteful, is it cheap, does it work well, what ideology does it support? And so on and so on. In the wilderness, nothing expresses a human intentionality. It’s not good or bad, it just is. Slowly, that feeling seeps into your bones.

Are you in regular contact with Margaret Atwood?
We’re regularly in touch, and I hope to see her next year when she’s in the U.K.

It seems you’re also writing a television script. When is the result likely to be shown?

We’re still at the stage of writing and rewriting and rewriting what they call ‘treatments’ – that is, descriptions of what will happen in the script so that producers can see what you’re planning to make. And, of course, most scripts that are commissioned never actually get made. But I have my fingers crossed, and working through the process is incredibly valuable.

Your latest published novel, The Liars’ Gospel, gives some unconventional views of Jesus. Did that create any controversy? Were you surprised by the reaction to this sensitive subject?
Hmmm. Not as much controversy as I’d like, to be honest. I always overestimate people’s appetite for new thoughts. But I think I’ll be appearing on a TV documentary about Jesus in the U.K. at the start of next year, so I seem to be some kind of expert on him now.

So you’re currently working on another novel?
I’m rewriting my new novel, The Power. I wrote a full draft which was more than 600 pages long. This is too long. It is baggy and a mess. I am restructuring the plot now, with the help of a couple of smart people, and my plan is to rewrite the whole thing right from the start in the first few months of next year. This is how the sausage is made, hey?

This week you’re in Israel to work further on Zombies, Run! with your writing partner. Why Israel?
Yes, we’re here right now working together on the project – it involves a lot of walking around talking about story, getting annoyed with each other, going a bit crazy, but in the end coming up with something that works. We’ve come to Israel this time, but we’ve done the process previously in Rhodes and in Venice – the reason is that we both hate the British winter, so we try to be kind to ourselves by coming away.