For Books’ Sake Talks To: Naomi Alderman

14th Jan 2013


As the daughter of a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle, Naomi Alderman started to establish herself as a controversial figure in the Orthodox Jewish community at only ten years old.

When she read through her brother’s Cub Scout badge book and saw that his was full of ‘scientist’ and ‘photographer’ when her own Brownie book only offered ‘seamstress’ and ‘homemaker’, she complained to her father, who encouraged her to write a letter to the papers.

His friend Dorothy Wedderburn of the Fawcett Society picked up the campaign, and eighteen months later the Brownies added a ‘scientist’ badge for girls.

Alderman has been outspoken about the difficulty of growing up with Judaism on one side – where boys in school would thank God in their morning prayer for not making them a woman – and feminism and equal rights on the other. I ask if she has found anything over the years which enabled these two things to coexist in her life.

“The thing that’s most helped me to do that is giving up Orthodox Judaism,” she laughs.

She goes on to explain that trying to accommodate both feminism and Judaism created “intolerable pressure” and one side had to give. “I went for the feminism and, rather painfully and full of fear at times, I stopped being an Orthodox Jew. It was harder than you’d believe, but worth it in the end,” she says.

Alderman’s first novel, Disobedience, caused quite a stir in the Jewish community where she grew up, but Alderman insists that for the most part, the controversy has blown over.

I think I’m just in a box labelled ‘feminist stirrer’ now, which makes everyone feel very comfortable,” she explains. “The only thing that makes people really afraid (and therefore angry) is if they see you as ‘one of them’ and so they feel like the criticism comes from inside.”

“I’d say in general that Disobedience won me more friends than it lost me, even in the Jewish community. I was never really very much in trouble,” she adds.

If Disobedience was controversial then Alderman’s third novel The Liars’ Gospel must have been scandalous to some, covering every taboo topic from religion to political occupation to sex. Was she ever worried about how it was going to be received?

I think I'm just in a box labelled 'feminist stirrer' now, which makes everyone feel very comfortable...“I don’t feel like I was worried about the reception when I was writing The Liars’ Gospel,” she replies. “One thing is that once you’ve dealt with your own childhood religious taboos, other people’s religions seem much less daunting. I didn’t have much internal respect for Jesus to get over in order to write it, unlike many of my feelings about Orthodox Judaism.”

“I hope people aren’t offended or upset by the novel. I do hope that, because I never want to offend or upset people. But I do want to speak the truth, as it seems to me. And if you’re going to do that you have to accept that some people will get angry,” she adds.

Alderman’s talents are not confined to literary fiction, she has also spent time as a writer in the gaming industry, including writing for Perplex. She is also the co-creator of Zombies! Run, an iPhone game which simulates a zombie apocalypse in the player’s headphones as they go for a run in real life.

Recently, many women having been speaking out about their experiences of sexism in the gaming industry, and I ask Alderman what her take is on this.

“Yes, it is a sexist industry. Publishing is also a sexist industry. We live in a sexist society,” she replies.

“To be honest – probably because of years of arguing with overtly sexist Rabbis and so on – I feel much better equipped to handle the out-and-out sexism of the games industry than the insidious sexism of publishing.”

She explains that although many gaming panels and events feature solely male speakers, they are aware of the problem and accept this when they are called out on it.

“Which is better than many a Jewish event I’ve been to where the fact that only men are speaking is seen as ‘right and proper’,” adds Alderman.

“By contrast, in publishing women writers are subtly placed into the ‘women’s fiction’ box – given girly covers, encouraged to write pieces about their books for women’s magazines and not broadsheets… There’s a subtle, consistent feeling that most women’s writing just isn’t quite as serious as men’s writing. And isn’t presented as seriously. I have no idea how to handle or combat it.”

But it’s pretty clear that Alderman isn’t the type of person to give up without a fight. It’s well documented that Alderman applied to study Creative Writing at UEA after watching the World Trade Centre collapse from a nearby conference room window. I ask whether she still maintains that desire to embrace the present, or if she sometimes finds herself getting complacent?

I think it’s hard to keep hold of it from day to day, but I do return to that thought very often – would I be happy to die doing what I’m doing? Living the life I’m living? It’s hard to make sure that the answer is always yes, but if it’s repeatedly ‘no’, I have to change something,” she replies.

This proactive outlook has paid off for Alderman, and last year she was named as Margaret Atwood’s protégé as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Initiative.

Their collaboration has culminated in a serialized zombie novel, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, which is being released chapter-by-chapter via Wattpad.

It was Atwood who suggested zombies – probably because of Alderman’s previous work on Zombies! Run – and the pair chose Wattpad as their platform due to a mutual interest in the future of storytelling, and how the Internet fits in to that.

“I’m delighted to be able to be part of the Wattpad experiment. They’ve got a lot of readers, and that’s always intriguing! I don’t know if Wattpad is ‘the answer’ as far as the future of reading and writing goes, but it’s definitely interesting,” she says.

Atwood has likened her role in the partnership to “editor-cum-cheerleader” and “elderly aunt,” and Alderman radiates enthusiasm at working with such a prolific mentor.

It’s been absolutely wonderful so far. I think I’ve learned a lot – both from working with her and from talking to her… I’ve learned that she works very hard, and also isn’t afraid to write quickly.”

Alderman also notes that she has received lots of advice about the novel she is currently working on – “about a cataclysmic change to the world” – as well as countless book and movie recommendations.

“I think the most important thing I’ve really had driven home to me is that one can never coast, never feel like you know enough. You’ve never read enough or thought enough – there’s always more, and that’s the way you keep moving,” she adds.

Questioned on whether she thinks future collaboration could be on the cards after the year’s mentorship is over, Alderman coolly replies: “it’s up to her I think.”

All of Alderman’s novels can be purchased at Waterstones, or you can read the current installment of Happy Zombie Sunrise Home here.

Cariad Martin

(Photograph by David Levene)