According to Naomi Alderman, being a writer requires courage. Honesty is key.
Author Naomi Alderman, who wrote the popular book The Power, is recovering from Covid and feeling a bit drained. She jokingly mentions that she can still talk a lot, despite her illness, during our meeting at her home in north London to discuss her latest novel, The Future. She playfully comments on her bold book titles, saying she wanted to make it known that she is an ambitious writer. Our conversation covers various topics such as the Old Testament (with a preference for Genesis over Leviticus), QAnon (seen as a new religious belief), AI, personal struggles, and the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East.
A 49-year-old woman who initially wrote for games has now become a novelist. She co-created the popular Zombies, Run! app, which has a large following of 10 million users. The purpose of the app was to make exercising more interesting. Her writing style is fast-paced and imaginative, influenced by the world of gaming. Unlike Iris Murdoch who would write fiction in the mornings and philosophy in the afternoons, this author spends her mornings writing books and her afternoons creating games. On top of that, she is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in classical studies through the Open University. She admits to having a wide range of interests, which can sometimes be a challenge.
Hidden down a main road, her home, resembling a Tardis, is where she resides with her significant other, a pilot and software engineer (both self-proclaimed nerds). The house reflects her diverse interests, with a large forest photograph spanning two floors and an artificial grass carpet on the landing. She believes that fake grass belongs indoors, stating “The only appropriate spot for artificial grass is inside your house.” The toilet does not have a mirror, but instead features a framed quote from Kurt Vonnegut reminding you to “please notice when you feel happy.”
We start in the book-filled living room, where Alderman is seated on the daybed with her legs crossed, and then we move to her kitchen as she gets her makeup done. She has arranged for a professional makeup artist before the photoshoot. “One must know their weaknesses,” she says practically. On the bookcase hangs a black and white photo of Alderman and her mentor, Margaret Atwood, from 2012; Atwood is looking upwards in a playful prayer. “I think she was asking for me to be quiet,” Alderman jokes. “As a writer, is there any greater gift?” she says about the mentorship. “It transformed my life.”
One of the characters declares early on in The Future that the motto of Alderman may be “Go big or go home.” This new novel delves into nothing less than the collapse of civilization. Alderman does not focus on small-scale domestic fiction, where a woman may ponder the end of her marriage while holding a teacup. Instead, her female characters shatter all expectations and societal norms. While her previous works, Disobedience, The Lessons, and The Liars’ Gospel, were more introspective, they still tackled significant themes of religion and sexuality. In The Liar’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a mere preacher with no real impact.
However, her fourth novel, The Power, was the one that truly launched her career. Published when she was 42 and dedicated to Atwood, it is a remarkable piece of speculative fiction in which teenage girls gain the ability to electrocute others at their own will. It received critical acclaim, winning the Women’s prize in 2017 and being included on Barack Obama’s list of favorite books. It was also adapted into a TV series earlier this year, with Alderman serving as one of the screenwriters.
The Power was released during the rise of the #MeToo movement, coinciding with its themes of female empowerment and seeking retribution for sexual abuse. Alderman, the author, makes a joke about how spending time with Margaret Atwood can turn one into a witch, highlighting the timely relevance of her book. After a gap of seven years, Alderman returns with The Future, which explores the corrupting effects of power through a thrilling story set in an eco-techno world. The plot involves Silicon Valley billionaires, a retelling of Sodom and Gomorrah through chat boxes, a radical doomsday group called the Enochites, and a love story between two women.
After reading an article about the luxurious doomsday bunkers owned by the wealthy in 2017, the idea struck her. It immediately reminded her of the biblical story of Lot in his cave. She considers her knowledge of such stories to be a unique “superpower”. She thought about how this story is similar to the mindset of those who believe they can survive alone. This intense selfishness is what leads people to believe they will be safe in the face of a global environmental disaster. However, she emphasizes that there is no scenario in which destroying the planet can lead to personal safety. As a writer, she enjoys taking a broad perspective, exploring the distant past and future. This helps her find some comfort and perspective in the grand scale of time.
According to Atwood, all dystopias are a reflection of our current society. It is easy to see the similarities between the real-life figures of Lenk Sketlish and Zimri Nommick and the tech tycoons in Alderman’s novel. Like in her previous work, The Power, Alderman drew inspiration from current events and news for her writing. In some cases, reality surpassed her imagination, such as when Elon Musk challenged Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight. Alderman admits that she couldn’t have come up with something as absurd as that in her novel.
What is the main idea of The Power – What if women had greater physical strength than men? The Future poses the question – Is there a solution to the current omnicrisis? Alderman addresses issues such as the climate crisis, online harassment, growing inequality and wealth gap, national identity crises globally, technological advancements, and the potential danger of AI. “Did I miss anything?”
Initially, the author started writing in 2017 with a disaster scenario centered around a worldwide pandemic. However, she soon realized that this type of event had not occurred in some time. By 2020, she had a first draft of her novel but found that it was too superficial and not fitting for the seriousness of the subject. She then decided to scrap it. This is not the first time that the author has taken this approach, as she had previously discarded 200,000 words of her book The Power, as well as a significant portion of her second novel The Lessons. She now views each first draft as a potential starting point that may lead to something entirely different.
During her second attempt, she aimed to create a positive novel about the future. She expressed, “I didn’t want to write a negative novel because nobody wants that right now. Instead, I wanted to use my writing abilities for good and present solutions. I wanted to show that there are options and we have the means, including technology and economic resources, to improve our situation. We just need the determination to do so.”
Alderman was raised in the 80s and 90s in Hendon, a neighborhood in north London. She grew up as an Orthodox Jewish girl who was well-versed in Doctor Who knowledge and excelled in her studies of English, math, and Latin at the A-levels. She also took a correspondence course to learn Esperanto. She recalls facing challenges during her teenage years when societal expectations for girls were centered around looking like Kate Moss. Alderman admits that she was far from being “cool” during that time. Her father was a renowned expert in Anglo-Jewish history and her mother was an artist and graphic designer whose artwork adorns the hallway. Alderman’s upbringing was a complex mix of intellectual openness and fundamentalist beliefs.
When she was 14, her uncle committed suicide, causing a profound impact on her father. She also revealed in a previous interview that she was abused by a family friend. She insists on revealing his name, stating that it is not her responsibility to keep it a secret. The abuser, Sidney Greenbaum, was a respected academic who was charged with indecent assault of young boys in 1990. Her parents were shocked when they learned about it. She mentions the concept of grooming, where not only the child but also the parents are targeted, similar to how Jimmy Savile groomed the entire country.
She was grateful to leave for Oxford University, where she pursued studies in philosophy, politics, and economics with Liz Truss as her classmate. Despite being the same age, she jokes that this does not mean she knows nothing about economics. She also faced instances of minor bullying. “I was staying in a genuine medieval building and experiencing genuine medieval incidents of anti-Semitism.” These difficult experiences during her undergraduate years served as inspiration for her second novel, The Lessons.
After working as a personal assistant for a children’s publishing company, she was employed as an editor for a global law firm in New York. The events of 9/11 prompted her to resign and go back to the UK to pursue a spot in UEA’s highly esteemed creative writing MA program. It was during this time that she began writing her first novel, Disobedience, which tells the story of a rabbi’s daughter who returns to her hometown of Hendon from Manhattan and embarks on a romantic relationship with a female friend. Published in 2007, during a time when books like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane were showcasing London through diverse cultural lenses, Disobedience received acclaim for its portrayal of the Orthodox Jewish community. In 2017, it was adapted into a film starring Rachel Weisz.
Alderman was inspired by Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which portrays the author’s experience of coming to terms with her sexuality in a strict religious household. When asked about her own relationships, Alderman reveals that she has been with both men and women, but currently is in a relationship with a man. She enjoys writing about women and finds that exploring a lesbian relationship allows for a unique perspective. She also believes that there is already plenty of heterosexual romance present in literature.
However, “Disobedience” was not primarily a story of coming out, but rather a tale of a breakup. It marked the start of the author’s writing career and the end of her belief system. Upon completing the novel, she had a realization that it was finished, similar to how one might feel after ending a relationship. This realization was sudden, but the process of rebuilding oneself was not. She describes it as a major event in her thirties and it has taken two decades of therapy to reconstruct herself.
The Alderman remembers a dream where she resided in a tree house with a leafy roof, but the roots were decaying and death was spreading up the trunk. Her therapist proposed taking cuttings as a solution, which she has done. She believes her life is filled with these cuttings, as seen in the photo of trees in her hallway. She also mentions that the trees represent the Jewish symbol of “Etz Chaim” or “tree of life”. She reflects that she is now in a peaceful state about it.
However, the years following the release of The Power have been challenging. The most recent occasion she had her makeup professionally applied was for the premiere of The Power TV series in New York in March of this year. During this time, her mother was gravely ill in a London hospital and her funeral coincided with the show’s debut. “That’s been my experience this year.”
One of the challenges that caused the significant gap between her novels was the heartbreaking experience of losing several pregnancies. She believes that it is important for women to be able to openly discuss this type of grief. She wishes that society would be more understanding and supportive, similar to how they would respond to the loss of a mother. However, due to fear of hurtful comments, she often chooses not to share this pain with others as it leaves her feeling vulnerable and exposed.
She strongly believes that writers have a responsibility to speak up. “The job requires courage. It can also be entertaining, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, when writing about real issues, it’s crucial to be as honest as possible.” Years ago, she attended a performance of Noël Coward’s Design for Living and was inspired by a quote that she has since kept above every desk she has worked at. “As a writer, it is your duty to express your thoughts. Otherwise, you are being dishonest and hypocritical,” she recites from memory. She is frustrated by writers who claim they are being silenced and adds, “If you are fortunate enough to write in a country where people are not imprisoned, tortured, or killed for their writing, it’s insulting to those who are suffering. It’s also a waste of your ability to speak up and address difficult topics.”
One crisis Alderman didn’t expect to be talking about was a new war in the Middle East. Four of her cousins have been called up to join the Israeli army. “I’m obviously devastated,” she says of the conflict, and “repulsed” by the response of some on social media. “The number of people who seem to feel that they can tell the difference between children who shouldn’t be murdered and children who if they die, that’s legitimate. No children should be murdered. I didn’t know that was controversial.” She feels the international community needs to take more responsibility for past failures in the region. “I don’t think anybody in Palestine or Israel right now is in an emotional place to be able to work towards peace and solutions. If your children are dying in the rubble of bombs, or if your children have been kidnapped or murdered by violent incursion, you’re not in a place to come up with the way out.”
She has begun working on a new project, which focuses on her mother’s passing and also delves into a peculiar new animal, similar in size to a badger, that has been spotted all across the UK. “Ever since my mother’s death, I have been filled with an abundance of words that need to be written,” she explains. “I find it necessary to write every day in order to process the world around me.”
The writer desires change. While a dystopia may cause readers to appreciate the world we live in, Alderman aims for us to feel a slight sense of dissatisfaction, which can hopefully inspire us to take action or consider things in a new way.
Is she optimistic about our ability to implement these changes? She responds by quoting a well-known Jewish saying: “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to give up on it.” This means that we may not be able to solve all of these issues in our lifetime, or even for those reading this, but that doesn’t give us the excuse to give up and wallow in despair. We must continue to push forward. In other words, she adds, “I believe there is a moral obligation to maintain hope because otherwise, we are in serious trouble.” The makeup artist hands her a mirror and she flashes a bright smile.