October 2012

Margaret Howie


An Interview with Naomi Alderman

Since her 2006 debut Disobedience won the Orange Award for New Writers, Naomi Alderman has written about technology and human lives. It's a career that has gone from delving into the secret business of partying at Oxford University in The Lessons, to working on video games like the new running app Zombies, Run!

She wrote about her experience of living through 9/11 for the Observer in 2010, the event which led her to return to England to complete the a creative writing program. Last year she joined the select company of established novelists who have written Doctor Who novels. Borrowed Time landed the doctor in the middle of the credit crunch. Her extensive journalism includes writing about gaming for the Guardian's The Player blog.

Alderman's newest work is set in a decidedly pre-Atari era. It's an ambitious novel about a man who, as she points out, was initially considered neither "divine nor even interesting" by many of his contemporaries. The Liars' Gospel takes four different views of the work of Jesus Christ, his trial and death, and the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. She talked to Bookslut about where writing about spirituality goes after atheism, how the London riots found themselves featuring in two-thousand-year-old stories, and storytelling from consoles to books.

Do you see any connection between The Liars' Gospel and your previous two books, Disobedience and The Lessons?

It is an interesting question. I suppose from the outside there probably doesn't seem to be much to link, but internally I know each one is the evolution of a thought process. So I wrote Disobedience, about the community that I came from, because I had to do that before everything else, to deal with that legacy. And having done that, I started thinking about how actually Oxford was a very similar closed, strange world with its own rules and conviction of its total superiority, so I wrote a novel about that. And then in The Lessons, I started to write about Christianity and how strange it looks from the outside, and so The Liars' Gospel started to become insistent in my head. Now I find I'm pondering violence as a human driver, partly because of writing The Liars' Gospel, so I think that's where I'm going next. I'm always interested in finding a new way to look at stories we think we know already, I find that really compelling. So I suppose if my books have a unifying theme it's "let's look at this another way."

After such a large amount of research and, I imagine, a lot of time considering the idea, what surprised you about the finished work -- compared to how you initially conceived of it?

Good question! I was surprised by how many modern resonances there were -- I didn't put most of them in on purpose, it's just that history really does repeat itself. I was also surprised to find the family of Caiaphas the High Priest and his political history so fascinating. I originally imagined that the book would be much more Jesus-centered, but when I looked at the world through Caiaphas's eyes, I saw it couldn't be that. Jesus is just totally irrelevant to him. And so I looked at what he did find relevant: keeping the peace, negotiating with Rome, trying to achieve "regime change," and this stuff was so gripping I couldn't step away from it.

How long did it take, and how long did you expect to spend on it?

Well. The answer to this could be "twenty years" or "nine months" depending on how you define your terms! I first thought of writing the book when I was doing my A-levels, twenty years ago. It was doing Latin and Hebrew at the same time, seeing those two sides to the story of Rome, realizing that the most famous man in the world lived at the junction of those two places and that neither side thought him divine or even interesting. So I've been thinking about the book for a long time: I wrote some short stories about these characters ten years ago! But in terms of "now I shall begin to write," it was ridiculously fast. I wrote the scene that starts the book in summer 2010, knew that I'd found the right register, took the rest of 2010 and the start of 2011 to do a lot of very focused reading, and wrote most of the book between February and October 2011. I expected it to be much more of a slog! I feel quite surprised that it happened like that, but maybe that's what happens when you write the book you've been thinking about for more than half your life.

I particularly liked your characterization of Miryam, the second most famous person in the book. Did these characters grow and develop as you did the research, or did you start the book with a feel for how they were?

They did change as I wrote them, and Miryam most of all, I think! A lot of the work of the book was putting out of my head the preconceptions I had about these characters and seeing them fresh. Miryam was hardest because she was first: I made her too nothing-but-sad in the first version, distracted by "our lady of the perpetual sorrows." She didn't feel real. A comment by one of the members of my writing group made me start thinking about Middle Eastern women, about women I've known who have raised large families, about my own grandmother, and I realized that a woman in this time, in this place, with this life, simply couldn't wetly sit around feeling sad; she had to have anger as well, and strength, and boldness.

There is so much happening in the book, structured around the crucifixion but in different directions and viewpoints, from rioting and massacres to small, sharp domestic dramas. What was the hardest aspect to write about, with such extreme subject matter?

I found Bar-Avo's skin hard to get under. He's a freedom fighter, a revolutionary, and I fundamentally disagree with his point of view that innocent life can be sacrificed in a just cause. To get to a point where he was convincing, where his motives felt legitimate, was difficult.

Historical fiction is a genre currently going through a great surge of both critical and popular interest. Do you read much of it yourself? Any ideas about why we, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, are so attracted to certain narratives of the past?

Of course, people have been writing historical fiction for as long as there's been fiction. The Aeneid is historical fiction about the founding of Rome. Many legends are historical fiction about the roots of tribes -- cough -- the Bible -- cough. I think the question of "how did we get here?" is perennially interesting, and probably more so when we feel ourselves to be in a time of rapid social change. Stories are good for making sense of change, and for reminding us that nothing is really that new after all. The astonishing thing about the history of Roman occupied Judea is how many similarities there are with conflicts and occupations today.

The novel really brought home to me the relevance of the issues of the era -- how the interpretation of God's will fueled political resistance, the spiritual and physical violence of colonization, and the contrast between peaceful and violent protest. We still live in extreme times for religion and war -- did you ever look at the news and have a sense of dj vu? And do you have any techniques to separate your 21st century viewpoint from those of Jesus' era?

Oh, all the time. Especially when I was writing about riots just as there were riots only a few miles away! I have even rather cheekily folded in a few of a modern politician's words about the riots...

I was very lucky to have the help of two wonderful scholars of the period, Martin Goodman and Amy-Jill Levine, who helped me understand the politics and culture of the time -- and picked up loads of mistakes I'd made. I also found focusing on the language very helpful. Making sure that all the metaphors and similes were appropriate for the time focused the tone helpfully. No one has an electric relationship, or measures time in minutes in first century Judea. Getting that stuff right makes a clear distinction between the past and the present.

It's such a big story -- the biggest -- in a time where it feels like novels often avoid big stories. With Philip Pullman, Colm Tibn, and you -- three very different novelists -- all approaching this story in novels recently, do you see something about this cultural moment we're in that attracts novelists to such a daunting task?

It's very interesting. A few things are going on, I suspect. First, we've had a long period of feeling far less blindly respectful of religion: so writers feel free to write these books. I also think there's increasing interest in where we go after atheism. Most people in Britain at least aren't what you'd call traditional believers, not regular attendees at worship services or people who pray every day. The shopping mall doesn't cut it as a replacement for synagogue, the beach holiday is no hajj, the TV doesn't give us the guidance of an inspiring sermon. So I think that there's an interest now in going back to look at those old faith systems in a more mature way. Not treating them as untouchable eternal truths, but as tools, things we can remix and reevaluate. Which is where novelists come in, saying, "you've always thought about the story this way, but how about taking it that way? You thought this was a story about misogyny or repression and found it useless and offensive, but if we just rewrite it a little bit, we can turn it into something really inspiring and spiritual." I love this. It's a blow against the kind of blinkered fundamentalism I grew up with, as well as a genuinely spiritual journey in text.

As a gamer who writes about and has created games, have you noticed any overlap in between the thinking, writing, and structuring of a book and game play?

In some ways it's always the same; a good, interesting, well-conceived character is the same in games and in novels. A great, richly textured fictional world is the same. Themes are the same. You'll never come to the end of stories about love, loss, growing up, taking revenge, exploring, betrayal, greed, or long-kept secrets. This applies to all forms. The structure is interesting. Games need to leave space for the audience, so you have to have your eventual story-reader players in your mind all the time. In a way, this is a great discipline for novelists, a measure against self-indulgence and toward generosity to their readers. Making the book enjoyable for them to read, not just hard work!

In the acknowledgments, you mention a surprising connection between your work on this novel and one of your grandfather's books. Could you explain that?

My grandfather was very interested in Josephus, so much so, in fact, that he wrote a children's novel about him. It was not published (unlike many of his other books; he was a well-published author) but I read and loved it when I was a child. When I was coming to the end of working on The Liars' Gospel, my mother happened to find her father's Victorian copies of Josephus, and gave them to me. I found to my surprise that he'd marked up just the same passages that I'd been looking at: the passages about Jesus. So it seems it's a family interest, passed down the generations, in making sense of this story in a Jewish way. I feel proud to have gotten it out on paper.