Naomi Alderman

Posted: October 16, 2014 in Writer
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Tracy-Ann Oberman passed me onto Naomi Alderman. They met after Tracy-Ann had played Ronit in the radio version of Naomi’s novel Disobedience. Naomi introduced herself at a party, explained the link and now they’re friends.

You can tell a lot about someone by the state of their living room. Naomi Alderman’s is dominated by a very sturdy looking desk. Books line the shelves and there is a slouchy looking bed/sofa thing where one could nap when the words won’t come, but it’s the desk that dominates. This seems only right. In an age where so much seems cheap and disposable, her desk sits centre stage, solid and serious. It’s a statement of the importance of writing to her life.naomi_alderman_portrait_2

Alderman established herself on the literary scene with her first novel Disobedience. The controversy that surrounded it helped. It’s about a woman, Ronit, returning to London and the Orthodox Jewish community she left behind to attend a funeral. She also returns to Esti, the woman who is her former lover and Esti is now married to a rabbi. Even from those couple of sentences, you can see why Ronit had to leave.

Similarly, Alderman took herself out of orthodoxy but it seemed it was less to do with the subjects she was addressing in Disobedience, it was the act of writing itself that took her away.

‘I had a very specific moment when working on my first novel at UEA when I realised that I could either be a good writer or a good Jew, but that I couldn’t be both. When you go and write a novel, you are the one who decides. Not a word falls in your novel but that you made it so. People are going to read it and respond to it and be within it and take things from it and learn things from it. But then you think, ‘How can i possibly decide what should happen in this book?’ Because that is as if to say ‘I can invent the world. Like God.’

Alderman compares taking up writing to discovering one’s sexuality. Not a choice; discovering something about yourself instead. It took away a lot of her structure. ‘There’s a Hebrew prayer. The Shemah, which you’re supposed to say three times a day. It talks about what God tells you to do to live a good life’. She recites it in Hebrew to me before translating. ‘Don’t go wandering after what your eyes see and your heart desires’. She emits a shiver of horror as she recounts the realisation that she wanted to be a writer. ‘Oh. But that’s exactly what I’ve done.’

She tells me that stepping outside of the framework of orthodox Judaism put her in a very unfamiliar place. ‘It was a bit like moving to Tokyo. You could still text your friends but it would be a bit of a challenge. There would be lots to do and some days you would have a cry!’ she says, laughing. The answer turned out to be therapy. She mentions it twice during our meeting and is an advocate. Being candid about it is part of her belief that the world would be a better place if people talked about the psychotherapy they’ve had. ‘I think it’s nice for people to know that you didn’t get to be as sane as you are without some work. In the same way that you don’t get to have one of those Hollywood buff bodies without going to the gym.’

She still tends to believe that she’s not successful even though she’s got quite a history of brilliance by now. She was good at school and that lead to Oxford, where she did Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). A job with an international law firmLiars'Gospel in New York followed before the writing took hold. After her first novel, Disobedience, appeared she won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award and her last novel, The Liars Gospel, was similarly loved by critics. She also happens to be a professor of creative writing at Bath. So: not doing too badly then.

PPE is a traditional route into politics – both Cameron and Miliband did it. Our meeting takes place the day before the vote on independence in Scotland and in discussing it, Alderman gets very animated (and hilarious) about Cameron’s attempts to convince the Scots to stay. ‘Does he not register what colour Scotland looks in the electoral register map? He would do better if he said he thought we’d be better off without the Scots and then just to spite him, they might stay in the union.’ Given her political background and Jewish heritage, there is a bigger political subject to discuss though, that of Israel and Palestine. Her third book is about Jesus and is set in the year after his death during the Roman occupation of Judea. ’It’s as if the land remembers and keeps doing the same thing over and over again.’ she sighs.

Choosing her words carefully, she believes the state of Israel has a right to exist and that ‘I would love the Palestinian people to be able to self govern; that would be a wonderful thing. The whole business is an unfolding tragedy. Both sides have been badly let down by their leadership. Israel should stop building settlements, it doesn’t look good. Do they have a real partner for working towards peace? Well, it’s not Hamas. Do I understand why the Palestinian people elected Hamas? Yes I do. They feel desperate and Hamas has been there on the ground like an organised crime family handing out medicine and food when there is no one else to do it.’ Her conclusion is sage. ‘Anyone that thinks one side are the good guys and the other side are the bad guys is deluded.’

Before we get too depressed about it, we agree that a ray of sunshine might be the next generation and Alderman has found some joy in discovering an organisation there that gets Israeli and Palestinian kids coding together. Ah yes. As well as being a best selling author Alderman loves games. Earlier she’d told me that she’d lost four months of her life playing Diablo II when she was living in New York, post 9/11. ‘But they were not months that I wanted. The thing was, you could smell it. The fires smouldered underneath the towers for five months afterwards. I would play for four hours and there was just no room for anything else in my head.’

Although she’s dabbled with writing games before, she hit pay dirt with ‘Zombies, Run!’, an app that tells you you’re being chased by zombies when you’re out running or walking with your smartphone plugged into your ears. Co-created with games company Six to Start, it’s an audio drama with 160 missions to choose from that interrupt your chosen soundtrack and act like interval training. You might have to speed up for a minute when the flesh eating undead are bearing down on you, for example. She came up with the idea with her friend Adrian, who is (you guessed it) a keen runner. ‘Not everyone wants to run’ she says ‘But almost everyone wants to want to run. And thats where we come in. There’s motivation – you can only hear the next bit of the story if you get off your bum.’ The project has been wildly successful: they’ve sold over a million copies. Logo

Her writing routine changes seasonally, but she aims for 800 words a day when she’s writing a novel. In the afternoon she’ll swap the isolation of that for the collaboration of working on games projects with a team. Given she writes in her living room, I wondered if the distraction of the internet was a problem. Zadie Smith saluted the discipline afforded her by using internet stopping software tool Freedom, coincidentally the title of the book that Jonathan Franzen was writing when he superglued his ethernet cable into the port before severing the wire. How gutted was he when wifi took over? Alderman is obviously better at exercising self control. When I ask her how she shuts out the web she tells me she doesn’t as she likes being able to look things up when she is writing.  ‘I can only really write for about two or three hours a day anyway at which point it’s quite nice to go and surf. If I’m looking on Wikipedia I don’t consider that a waste of time. Facebook and Twitter – well it’s never a waste of time to catch up with your mates.’

If she does end up spending too much time on the net, therapy has taught her that probably means something else is wrong. ‘Blaming the internet then’, she says ‘is like the alcoholic that blames the bottle.’ It’s common to look at successful people and think they’ve cracked life but Naomi admits to having some ‘food issues’ before explaining how she deals with problems.

‘You can’t stop it by being mean to yourself. You can’t stop it by saying to yourself ‘Why are you being such a twat? Just do your fucking work’. You have to ask yourself ‘What is the matter?’ and often that’s something really small. It might be that you saw an email that made you feel really judged or you saw some younger person on television who has achieved more than you and you started to think nasty thoughts about yourself. I think it’s the work of a lifetime to grapple with that but that’s ok: a lifetime is what we’ve got. It’s spiritual work to think ‘What’s going on here?’ When I compliment her on her self awareness, she swiftly answers ’12 years of therapy!’ before laughing heartily. ‘You don’t get this wise without putting in the hard yards.’ She’s being gently self mocking but the way she says it, I know she means it. To achieve the life she wanted outside of the framework she was raised within would have meant learning to exist in a different way. Her success is proof that the work was worth it.

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