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Naomi Alderman interview

by: Cara Wides - Last updated: 2006-03-24

Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman

"It was a golden day, the best day of my life" 31-year-old writer Naomi Alderman, says about the day she heard her first novel Disobedience was going to be published. She celebrated by going round to her friend’s house, drinking champagne in the garden and eating a Chinese takeaway.

It would have been a kosher takeaway, because Hendon-based Alderman is Jewish, and the religion is one of the main topics of her book. It tells the story of Ronit - the daughter of an Orthodox Rabbi - who breaks away from her community, and goes to live in New York. Ronit is gay, and leaving Hendon enables her to have female lovers, and behave in ways which would never be sanctioned by the Orthodox.

When her father dies, Ronit returns to Hendon, and gets in contact with Esti, who she had a relationship with when they were at school. Esti has taken a far more conventional path in life than Ronit, and the story looks at how the two interact after so much time has passed.

It is a gripping, incisive novel and one which has been well received, earning Alderman a place on this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction long list. It was also serialised on Radio Four’s Book at Bedtime.

But Alderman swears she is not in anyway a celebrity: "My life is not glamorous – I wake up, write three pages of longhand in bed, get dressed, work for a period of time, walk in the park…." She adds that she enjoys watching the TV programme "Masterchef goes Large" – a leisure pastime that is galaxies away from being drunk at the Groucho Club.

With a bit of encouragement, Alderman admits that she is enjoying some aspects of her fame: "I did get recognised in the street once, which was great.

"Also, since this has happened, I have had some offers of interesting writing projects I could be involved with, so I feel very lucky." She is working on a new book, about a group of friends who meet at Oxford University, where Alderman studied. "It’s quite a different book, there is a Jewish character but no strong Jewish theme." She stops in her tracks, in the belief that talking about the plot too much will "jinx it", meaning that she won’t be able to get it down on paper if she describes it out loud first.

Alderman would like to write a TV show, but reckons she has "three books queuing up in her mind, waiting to be written". This queuing process started many years ago, as she began writing a novel while at school. Sadly this was abandoned after three chapters.

"It was about a girl who had magical powers, but once I'd given her the powers, I didn’t manage to work  out what she would do with them," Alderman chuckles.

However, she would never let go of her dream of being a novelist, and was ecstatic after hearing about her publishing deal, because she’d "wanted to be a writer for 15 years."

The process of getting Disobedience into print was an unusually smooth one. Between 2003 and 2004 Alderman studied on the famous Creative Writing MA Course at the University of East Anglia (many ex-students have gone on to be successful), and began writing the book during her time there. While she was there she won a short story competition, and the agency running it offered to help her find a publisher. Viking snapped the book up almost immediately after it was finished.

Inside the dust jacket of Disobedience, readers are informed that it will expose a world rarely written about – the Orthodox Community. Alderman shies away from the idea that her novel is sensationalist: "This book is not about exposing the secret lives of lesbians in Hendon, it is
about love – different kinds of love. The love between two friends, between a husband and wife, and between children and their parents."

The story has been criticised by sections of the Jewish community, but Alderman thinks that some Jewish readers set out to find fault in the book, because they have a prejudice against seeing Jews portrayed in fiction. I was curious about the reaction of the Orthodox Jews of Hendon, but Alderman says that no one in this world would "go near the book with a barge  pole".

It is obvious she loves her "novelist’s lifestyle", and her afternoons are taken up with more recreational writing, as she plots stories for a computer games company. When I mention to her that I am interested in following in her footsteps, she couldn’t be more enthusiastic, recommending two books: The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brand.

She herself is a brilliant advert for becoming an author – warm, totally unpretentious, and happy to reveal in conversation glimpses of the world of imagination inside her head. Soon we will be lucky, when this world spills out onto paper, and then into bookshops in the form of her second novel.

Disobedience is published by Viking, £12.99