Sharlene Teo, the current David TK Wong Writing Fellow at UEA, interviews Naomi Alderman, a UEA Masters in Creative Writing graduate and author of Disobedience, The Lessons and The Liars’ Gospel.
Sharlene Teo: Tell us about your writing process. How does it differ, if at all, in the writing of novels, short stories, and writing for video games?
Naomi Alderman: My writing process changes quite often. It’s been different for each novel. Some common elements are: I do better when I write every day, even a tiny bit; I like to leave the house to write fairly often; it’s good to have a wordcount I’m aiming for and to get it done early in the day. The major difference for videogames is that other people are also involved; so early discussions happen with other people and not just in my own head.
ST: What has it been like to have Margaret Atwood as your mentor and are you planning any future collaborations in addition to The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home? What was the most valuable advice you gained from the mentorship experience?
NA: I’m not sure ‘advice’ is exactly the right word. I’m very wary of the culture of ‘tips’ we seem to have now, with those Buzzfeed-esque ‘ten tips to make your fiction more compelling’ articles and so on. Working with Margaret has been a wonderful series of conversations with an extraordinary mind. She’s recommended me books and suggested new thoughts. I think differently now, especially about the natural world. We’re planning a trip to the Arctic in the summer.
ST: Your latest novel, The Liars’ Gospel, is a daring and controversial retelling of the New Testament. How did you feel about embarking on sacred territory and what were the main challenges and satisfactions of doing so?
NA: How did I feel? The same as I tend to feel when starting a novel: full of anticipation and worried about whether I could tell the story well enough. The greatest challenge was to hold at bay what we think we already know about this story; to repeatedly turn my mind from its ingrained path of ideas about Jesus or Judas or Mary and find them anew. The greatest satisfaction: to find myself fully convinced by some of my own thoughts and interpretations.
ST: Your books are full of rich evocative detail and insight into community structures (the orthodox Jewish community, Oxford). Do you spend time doing anthropological research into specific people’s lives or is much of your research informed by experience- or a little of both?
NA: I’m not a trained anthropologist :-). I talk to people. I read. I go for visits. I imagine. The imagination is the anthropological tool of the novelist.
ST: What are the three best books that you have read in the last decade and why?
NA: That’s an impossible question! Here are three great books I’ve read recently: The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey, The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor, Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks.
ST: What elements do you think most characterise your voice as a writer of fiction?
NA: Courage. Curiosity. An interest in the ways that systems of power work.
ST: What is the best advice you have for new writers?
NA: See above re: wariness about ‘advice for writers’. There are no generic ‘tips’. You have to find your own process, the way to create your own book. The only thing is: keep writing. ‘Writing advice’ is mostly ‘tricks to keep yourself writing’. If you keep writing, you’ll get better. And no one else can ever tell you how much better. You have to do it yourself.