Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

A shared interest in history, technology and religion created an immediate rapport between mentor Margaret Atwood and her protégée Naomi Alderman. Their mentoring year proved intellectually exciting as their conversation, both in person and online, ranged from observations on the existential dread that zombies represent in the Western psyche to the validity of popular culture as an art form. Fully engaged in writing for the digital world, they even co-wrote a zombie novella for Canadian digital platform Wattpad.

Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman

A year of mentoring

Choosing a protégée (Chapter 2 of 6)

July 2012

Margaret Atwood, 2012-2013 Literature mentor

What qualities made you choose Naomi Alderman as your protégée?
Several things, apart from Naomi’s brightness and curiosity, our shared interests – history, technology, religions – and her already considerable achievements as a novelist. Most of all, it was Naomi’s desire (as expressed in her application) to “never settle into a comfortable groove”. I responded to that. Naomi challenges herself.

What do you hope to contribute to her career?
Naomi is at a hinge moment in her career. She is published and accomplished, and knows her own voice and technique. Perhaps I can provide a few rungs on the ladder (to mix metaphors). In any case, we are having a lot of fun.

How do you envisage working with Naomi over the next year?
Naomi is at work on a new project. I hope to be a sounding board as she works towards its embodiment. We also have a project we are working on together.

Has someone acted as your mentor during your career? How did that person – or people – help you to establish yourself?
I began writing in a different time. Poets of my generation published their own work when they were beginning: I did too. There were many literary influences, of course, but a lot of my work was done alone. Jay Macpherson was a personal friend. She influenced me in that she was there; she became an early reader of my work. Many friends have since acted as early readers. Then there were the editors who took a chance. All have contributed.

Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 3 of 6)

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!

Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 4 of 6)

December 2012

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 []. 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.

Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

The laughing novelists

From their very first meeting, young British novelist Naomi Alderman and Canada’s mistress of the written word, Margaret Atwood, established a firm friendship – based on sharp, clear-eyed discussion of life and literature – and buoyed on a cloud of hilarious laughter and the joy of utter creativity.

Rolex Arts Initiative: You’ve reported that the first time you and Margaret Atwood met you immediately “had a big laugh”. At the end of the mentorship, Margaret Atwood said, “We’ve been having a scream.” Were you expecting her to be quite this much fun?

Naomi Alderman: Can’t say I was! But it’s wonderful to have connected on that level. Although I have to say that Margaret teases me more than I tease her and has convinced me of a couple of ridiculous things because I treat everything she says with such respect that I slightly turn off my critical faculties. Which is definitely no way for me to behave and I fully understand that I shall have to anticipate the teasing much more and be more willing to say, “You made that up, Margaret.”

You’ve mentioned that Atwood loved your novel The Liars’ Gospel, but thought you may have been “too nice” regarding some of its religious aspects. Can you elaborate on why it might be important for a novelist to check her inner “people pleaser”?
Yes, Margaret is very sharp-eyed, very clear – and also extremely charming. How she manages that combination is a minor miracle. I think she’s right – there’s no use soft-soaping, you have to wade in with both feet, being willing to try thoughts out that might turn out to be wrong and not care whether people are going to get annoyed. If you write anything good you’ll probably annoy someone. If you try not to annoy anyone, I’m sure you won’t write anything good.

Another level on which you clicked seemed to be your fascination with the storytelling potential of technology and digital culture, and you brought Atwood in on the making of your game Zombies, Run! What was it like having her on “your turf”?
Oh, it was wonderful having her there! If I can be useful by showing her some stuff she hasn’t seen before, then I won’t have wasted her time mentoring me! At least there’ll be some quid pro quo. She’s also introduced me to the people at Wattpad [a global, story-sharing site] and we’ve spent a lot of time discussing new technology, the changing nature of writing and reading, what the future might hold for the arts – and indeed for the world. One thing that’s stuck with me – she’s a great supporter of anything that encourages young people to get the reading habit. The big threat to writers isn’t any new technology – it’s people stopping reading altogether.

Is there any particular thing you can pinpoint, over the course of your mentorship, as “the most important thing I learned”?
Being around someone who has that wide interest in the world, seeing that everything is relevant and important. We went bird-watching together in Cuba. I’d never before seen that you can read a landscape like a symphony – first experiencing the whole beautiful sweep of it and, then, looking closer, examining more intently, tracing each individual element and what it contributes to the whole. We looked at birds, but we could just as easily have been looking at insects or plants or the clouds or the geological qualities of the soil or a million other things. Margaret has an intellect like that: somehow both wide and deep. The world is the thing. There is too much in it to ever know in a single lifetime. Better to start on examining that now, wherever we are, with whatever binoculars or magnifying glass is to hand, rather than sitting around worrying about whether I got on some list of important writers or got shortlisted for a prize. The world. There it is, out there.

Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman

A year of mentoring

After a year of mentoring (Chapter 6 of 6)

October 2013

Encounters on the digital frontier

A mutual fascination for science and technology has allowed iconic writer Margaret Atwood and her protégée Naomi Alderman to roam a vast intellectual universe, unbounded by the limits of the page. For this pair, there is no divide between high and low culture – just the importance of telling engaging stories well.

By Lynn Coady

"The mentorship, for me, is about sharing my lifetime of experience. I’d also say that the optimum factor is time – a big block of time for the protégée to focus on her work. So Naomi and I have not just been talking about a single project, but about a larger picture: Being a Writer. We’ve talked about book tours, book covers, agents, and those associated things which come under the heading: Helpful Professional Information. I’m a writer who has always written in a full range of just about everything – from school bulletins to market research questionnaires, all the way to novels and poetry. As far as I’m concerned it’s all writing – different kinds of writing with different aims in view. If there had been video games, I probably would have done that. That’s why we’re a good fit. Naomi is somebody who has actually gone out and got herself other jobs, and I understand that. It shows that she’s willing to do whatever it takes in order to create time for the writing."

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman can’t stop making each other laugh. The internationally acclaimed, Booker Prize-winning author and her novelist/game-developer protégée are describing the serious fun they’ve been having writing a zombie novella in tandem. That is, they’re trying to describe it, but the jokes keep getting in the way.

“It’s a caper, really,” says Atwood. “I write the first chapter and send it to Naomi and then she writes the second chapter, and we don’t confer about what’s going to happen.” The story is being published by Wattpad, a Toronto-based digital publishing platform. It’s structured, she explains, as a rollicking, picaresque narrative that moves between a grandmother and a granddaughter’s perspectives on an unfolding zombie apocalypse. “I play the grandmother,” says Atwood. There’s a pause. She arches an eyebrow. “Ahem. Expression of surprise? You’re a bit slow on that."

More laughter. It took a while for Alderman to realize that her most satisfying achievements in life would be attained, not by a common-sense regimen of determined study and joyless toil, but by the unabashed pursuit of a good time. Alderman’s tales of what she now considers her misspent youth don’t involve the kind of responsibility-free carousing the term usually implies. She was no party girl – she was the dutiful daughter of Orthodox Jews who grew up nurturing geeky passions for science fiction and Doctor Who. Yet, as a young woman of obvious intellectual gifts, she did everything by the book, starting with a lonely tenure at Oxford University and continuing on, philosophy degree in hand, to a “sensible” job at a law firm in New York.

“I had achieved a degree that my tutors encouraged me to achieve,” she recalls. “I went and got a sensible, boring job in something that I didn’t care about, that I didn’t think was doing good in the world.”

And then 9/11 happened. Suddenly the concept of “sensible” as her life’s guiding principle no longer made sense.

“When buildings collapse in your city,” says Alderman, “you realize that nothing is sensible that isn’t something you’d be happy to die doing. If I had died then, I would have felt my life was totally wasted.”

The stark question therefore loomed: What would Alderman be happy “for death to find me doing”, as she puts it? She thought back to the novel she’d written during her Oxford summer holidays. “And I knew that was what I wanted to be doing with my life.”

Existential dread
And so it happens that 11 years later Alderman finds herself the chosen literary protégée of Margaret Atwood, being interviewed in the very city where the scales of sensibility first fell from her eyes. The two-hour conversation veers from one eclectic topic to the next. Talk of their digital novella, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, kicks off a discussion of the metaphorical significance of zombies in the context of the horror genre, and the particular flavour of existential dread that zombies represent in the Western psyche. Alderman notes that the average bogeyman a society fixes upon tends to represent an aspect of life people are most obsessed with, yet least able to discuss in “respectable company”. It’s no accident, for example, that Bram Stoker’s vampiric Count Dracula, representing sexual corruption, should be incarnated during the Victorian era. These days, muses Atwood, zombies are the opposite of that – representing unrelenting, inevitable decay – death without redemption. In short, zombies, unlike vampires, are not sexy. “They represent the body, but also Alzheimer’s… the drooling, shambling person you used to know and love.” Suddenly there’s not quite as much laughter going on. But it’s characteristic of the conversation so far. What is becoming apparent is the striking bond these authors have formed. Both embrace culture in the broadest sense of the word. There’s no high and no low – or, if there is, one form is no less respectable than the other. Any form can be done badly or well – with craft and art, or not. Alderman credits Atwood – prodigiously curious and wholly engaged with new frontiers of science, technology and storytelling – with having validated her gut instincts in this regard.

Alderman elaborates on this notion of genre and popular culture as being artistically downmarket. “I suppose I feel these distinctions are arbitrary and ridiculous. And that as a creative person one cannot afford to feel that one’s work must answer to them.”

Working with Atwood and encountering film mentor Walter Murch have confirmed this for Alderman. “This is the thing about all these incredible Rolex people. They just do not allow themselves to be narrow. They are as broad as they can possibly be. So I feel like not only is it OK for me to want to do both novels and computer games, but I should do that and more – actually the challenge is to do much, much more.”

Alderman describes her morning session with Atwood and the topics they discussed, consulting her notebook to provide a sense of how widely the discussion ranged. “She taught me some Inuit,” says Alderman, flipping pages. “She told me about Orkney and Inuit fiddle playing. We talked about Genghis Khan. How the Battle of Agincourt was won. We talked about books like She, the Bradbury tribute book, Shadow Show, Saramago’s Blindness. The music of Cynthia Gooding. And she got me to follow Citizen Lab on Twitter.”

Finally, the conversation wound down to plotting their zombie novella. At one point, Atwood reportedly laughed, “People will think I’m not a serious person!” The joke validated Alderman even further – her mentor had dismissed, with one remark, what had long been her secret fear. In fact, Atwood’s enthusiasm for her protégée’s putative “unserious” pursuits could not be more apparent. It was Atwood, after all, who suggested they write a zombie novel together after learning about the mobile app Alderman had co-created, Zombies, Run! “I feel like Margaret half chose me [as her protégée] for the games,” Alderman says. “And the things that I could show her that she couldn’t find anywhere else.”

Narrative gifts
Months later, Atwood confirms this in her own words, expressing admiration for Alderman’s ability to leverage her considerable narrative gifts in such a way as to make a living that supports her fiction, yet doesn’t require she suppress the part of herself that loves a good story. Of all the day-jobs a writer might have, says Atwood, game development might just be the most complementary. “Games are good for that because they’re in the narrative space, but not close to prose,” she observes.

In fact, Alderman’s mentor turned out to be so interested in games, she ended up participating in Zombies, Run! Marketed to runners, the game acts as an ingenious meld of storyteller with personal trainer – the zombies close in and the player is encouraged to sprint for his or her life. Alderman sets each episode of the game in the U.K., but in Atwood’s honour a Canadian episode of Zombies, Run! has been produced, which will be released this year.

“We wrote the script together,” says Atwood, “But I’m not a zombie – I’m someone who has survived said zombies. I’m in the Canadian National Tower because zombies aren’t very good at climbing stairs. The entire Canadian government has unfortunately been zombified,” Atwood says, warming to the tale.

But amid all the zombie fleeing, sight is not lost of Alderman’s impressive work as a writer of prose fiction. Her third and latest novel, The Liars’ Gospel, is about Roman-occupied Judea during the period when a philosopher called Yeshua was put to death. It was released to wide acclaim in the U.K. at the beginning of the mentorship – September 2012 – and came out in Canada in April 2013. Atwood introduced her protégée to the Canadian public during an onstage interview at Indigo Books in Toronto – a conversation that featured, characteristically, plenty of laughter. But things quietened down once Alderman started to read from her work and the skill and erudition of The Liars’ Gospel became apparent.

It’s difficult to reconcile the mesmerizing novelist on the stage with the woman who, back in New York, described her childlike excitement at once having being asked to write a Doctor Who novel for the BBC. “I think I’m glad you wouldn’t read The Liars’ Gospel and think, oh, this person is clearly a Doctor Who fan,” she laughed at the time. But Alderman made no bones about what writers of so-called “serious fiction” can learn from genre conventions. She described writing a riot scene in The Liars’ Gospel and credited her time in the Tardis with Doctor Who for imparting the crucial lessons about action and suspense the scene required: “I learnt how to make it gripping and exciting and put the reader right in the centre of the action,” she recalled. “You can’t just write a book about people musing about stuff.”

Or, as her mentor had put it the previous day, “You have to write the kind of books that people like to read. Or some people!”

Feminist science fiction
Alderman’s next novel will be in the tradition of the feminist science fiction of the 1970s and ’80s that she adored as a young reader – the work of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler and, indeed, Margaret Atwood. She and Atwood have been discussing the shape of this new story, and now that the mentorship is reaching its end, the two are, as Atwood says, “boring down” into fundamentals of structure.

“I mean Margaret can’t tell me how to write, obviously – that would be terrible. But we talk about my book.” She describes an occasion when her mentor asked a simple question that nonetheless struck Alderman like a lightning bolt. She suddenly grasped a crucial component of the story she wanted to tell. “It was as if that thought had been waiting somehow for that very moment of conversation,” she recalls. Later, reflecting on the lessons she may have gleaned from Atwood, the issue of “respectability” comes up again, this time regarding The Liars’ Gospel, and a comment Atwood made that Alderman may have been “a bit too nice” in her depiction of some of the novel’s religious aspects.

“I think she was right,” reflects Alderman. “There’s no use soft-soaping, you have to wade in with both feet, be willing to try thoughts out that might turn out to be wrong and not care whether people are going to get annoyed. If you write anything good, you’ll probably annoy someone. If you try not to annoy anyone, I’m sure you won’t write anything good.”

And so, with the ideals of “respectability” and “niceness” now thoroughly discredited as approaches to creative life, one might well ask what Alderman has discovered to be their inverse. What sort of outlook has Atwood demonstrated to be crucial – a non-negotiable for an artist in the world?

The answer comes via an exhilarated email from Cuba where she and her mentor have been bird watching.

“Just having that wide interest in the world, seeing that everything is relevant and important,” she says. “I’d never before seen that you can read a landscape like a symphony – first experiencing the whole, beautiful sweep of it and then, looking closer, examining more intently, tracing each individual element and what it contributes to the whole. We looked at birds, but we could just as easily have been looking at insects, or plants, or the clouds, or the geological qualities of the soil, or a million other things.”

And Atwood has inspired her protégée with an intellect that reflects this same “beautiful sweep”, according to Alderman – one that is “somehow both wide and deep”.

Lynn Coady is a Canadian author and journalist. Her most recent book is “The Antagonist”.