Margaret Atwood & Naomi AldermanEncounters on the digital frontier

Published in October 2013icon-clockTime to read: 4m55s
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A shared interest in history, technology and religion created an immediate rapport between mentor Margaret Atwood and her protégée Naomi Alderman. Their mentoring year proved intellectually exciting as their conversation, both in person and online, ranged from observations on the existential dread that zombies represent in the Western psyche to the validity of popular culture as an art form. Fully engaged in writing for the digital world, they even co-wrote a zombie novella for Canadian digital platform Wattpad.

by Lynn Coady October 2013
  • Margaret Atwood
    The Mentor
  • Naomi Alderman
    The Protégé

A mutual fascination for science and technology has allowed iconic writer Margaret Atwood and her protégée Naomi Alderman to roam a vast intellectual universe, unbounded by the limits of the page. For this pair, there is no divide between high and low culture – just the importance of telling engaging stories well.

“The mentorship, for me, is about sharing my lifetime of experience. I’d also say that the optimum factor is time – a big block of time for the protégée to focus on her work. So Naomi and I have not just been talking about a single project, but about a larger picture: Being a Writer. We’ve talked about book tours, book covers, agents, and those associated things which come under the heading: Helpful Professional Information. I’m a writer who has always written in a full range of just about everything – from school bulletins to market research questionnaires, all the way to novels and poetry. As far as I’m concerned it’s all writing – different kinds of writing with different aims in view. If there had been video games, I probably would have done that. That’s why we’re a good fit. Naomi is somebody who has actually gone out and got herself other jobs, and I understand that. It shows that she’s willing to do whatever it takes in order to create time for the writing.”
Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman can’t stop making each other laugh. The internationally acclaimed, Booker Prize-winning author and her novelist/game-developer protégée are describing the serious fun they’ve been having writing a zombie novella in tandem. That is, they’re trying to describe it, but the jokes keep getting in the way.

“It’s a caper, really,” says Atwood. “I write the first chapter and send it to Naomi and then she writes the second chapter, and we don’t confer about what’s going to happen.” The story is being published by Wattpad, a Toronto-based digital publishing platform. It’s structured, she explains, as a rollicking, picaresque narrative that moves between a grandmother and a granddaughter’s perspectives on an unfolding zombie apocalypse. “I play the grandmother,” says Atwood. There’s a pause. She arches an eyebrow. “Ahem. Expression of surprise? You’re a bit slow on that.”

More laughter. It took a while for Alderman to realize that her most satisfying achievements in life would be attained, not by a common-sense regimen of determined study and joyless toil, but by the unabashed pursuit of a good time. Alderman’s tales of what she now considers her misspent youth don’t involve the kind of responsibility-free carousing the term usually implies. She was no party girl – she was the dutiful daughter of Orthodox Jews who grew up nurturing geeky passions for science fiction and Doctor Who. Yet, as a young woman of obvious intellectual gifts, she did everything by the book, starting with a lonely tenure at Oxford University and continuing on, philosophy degree in hand, to a “sensible” job at a law firm in New York.

“I had achieved a degree that my tutors encouraged me to achieve,” she recalls. “I went and got a sensible, boring job in something that I didn’t care about, that I didn’t think was doing good in the world.”

And then 9/11 happened. Suddenly the concept of “sensible” as her life’s guiding principle no longer made sense.

“When buildings collapse in your city,” says Alderman, “you realize that nothing is sensible that isn’t something you’d be happy to die doing. If I had died then, I would have felt my life was totally wasted.”

The stark question therefore loomed: What would Alderman be happy “for death to find me doing”, as she puts it? She thought back to the novel she’d written during her Oxford summer holidays. “And I knew that was what I wanted to be doing with my life.”

Existential dread

And so it happens that 11 years later Alderman finds herself the chosen literary protégée of Margaret Atwood, being interviewed in the very city where the scales of sensibility first fell from her eyes. The two-hour conversation veers from one eclectic topic to the next. Talk of their digital novella, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, kicks off a discussion of the metaphorical significance of zombies in the context of the horror genre, and the particular flavour of existential dread that zombies represent in the Western psyche. Alderman notes that the average bogeyman a society fixes upon tends to represent an aspect of life people are most obsessed with, yet least able to discuss in “respectable company”. It’s no accident, for example, that Bram Stoker’s vampiric Count Dracula, representing sexual corruption, should be incarnated during the Victorian era. These days, muses Atwood, zombies are the opposite of that – representing unrelenting, inevitable decay – death without redemption. In short, zombies, unlike vampires, are not sexy. “They represent the body, but also Alzheimer’s… the drooling, shambling person you used to know and love.” Suddenly there’s not quite as much laughter going on. But it’s characteristic of the conversation so far. What is becoming apparent is the striking bond these authors have formed. Both embrace culture in the broadest sense of the word. There’s no high and no low – or, if there is, one form is no less respectable than the other. Any form can be done badly or well – with craft and art, or not. Alderman credits Atwood – prodigiously curious and wholly engaged with new frontiers of science, technology and storytelling – with having validated her gut instincts in this regard.

Alderman elaborates on this notion of genre and popular culture as being artistically downmarket. “I suppose I feel these distinctions are arbitrary and ridiculous. And that as a creative person one cannot afford to feel that one’s work must answer to them.”

Working with Atwood and encountering film mentor Walter Murch have confirmed this for Alderman. “This is the thing about all these incredible Rolex people. They just do not allow themselves to be narrow. They are as broad as they can possibly be. So I feel like not only is it OK for me to want to do both novels and computer games, but I should do that and more – actually the challenge is to do much, much more.”

Alderman describes her morning session with Atwood and the topics they discussed, consulting her notebook to provide a sense of how widely the discussion ranged. “She taught me some Inuit,” says Alderman, flipping pages. “She told me about Orkney and Inuit fiddle playing. We talked about Genghis Khan. How the Battle of Agincourt was won. We talked about books like She, the Bradbury tribute book, Shadow Show, Saramago’s Blindness. The music of Cynthia Gooding. And she got me to follow Citizen Lab on Twitter.”

Finally, the conversation wound down to plotting their zombie novella. At one point, Atwood reportedly laughed, “People will think I’m not a serious person!” The joke validated Alderman even further – her mentor had dismissed, with one remark, what had long been her secret fear. In fact, Atwood’s enthusiasm for her protégée’s putative “unserious” pursuits could not be more apparent. It was Atwood, after all, who suggested they write a zombie novel together after learning about the mobile app Alderman had co-created, Zombies, Run! “I feel like Margaret half chose me [as her protégée] for the games,” Alderman says. “And the things that I could show her that she couldn’t find anywhere else.”

Narrative gifts

Months later, Atwood confirms this in her own words, expressing admiration for Alderman’s ability to leverage her considerable narrative gifts in such a way as to make a living that supports her fiction, yet doesn’t require she suppress the part of herself that loves a good story. Of all the day-jobs a writer might have, says Atwood, game development might just be the most complementary. “Games are good for that because they’re in the narrative space, but not close to prose,” she observes.

In fact, Alderman’s mentor turned out to be so interested in games, she ended up participating in Zombies, Run! marketed to runners, the game acts as an ingenious meld of storyteller with personal trainer – the zombies close in and the player is encouraged to sprint for his or her life. Alderman sets each episode of the game in the U.K., but in Atwood’s honour a Canadian episode of Zombies, Run! has been produced, which will be released this year.

“We wrote the script together,” says Atwood, “But I’m not a zombie – I’m someone who has survived said zombies. I’m in the Canadian National Tower because zombies aren’t very good at climbing stairs. The entire Canadian government has unfortunately been zombified,” Atwood says, warming to the tale.

But amid all the zombie fleeing, sight is not lost of Alderman’s impressive work as a writer of prose fiction. Her third and latest novel, The Liars’ Gospel, is about Roman-occupied Judea during the period when a philosopher called Yeshua was put to death. It was released to wide acclaim in the U.K. at the beginning of the mentorship – September 2012 – and came out in Canada in April 2013. Atwood introduced her protégée to the Canadian public during an onstage interview at Indigo Books in Toronto – a conversation that featured, characteristically, plenty of laughter. But things quietened down once Alderman started to read from her work and the skill and erudition of The Liars’ Gospel became apparent.

It’s difficult to reconcile the mesmerizing novelist on the stage with the woman who, back in New York, described her childlike excitement at once having being asked to write a Doctor Who novel for the BBC. “I think I’m glad you wouldn’t read The Liars’ Gospel and think, oh, this person is clearly a Doctor Who fan,” she laughed at the time. But Alderman made no bones about what writers of so-called “serious fiction” can learn from genre conventions. She described writing a riot scene in The Liars’ Gospel and credited her time in the Tardis with Doctor Who for imparting the crucial lessons about action and suspense the scene required: “I learnt how to make it gripping and exciting and put the reader right in the centre of the action,” she recalled. “You can’t just write a book about people musing about stuff.”

Or, as her mentor had put it the previous day, “You have to write the kind of books that people like to read. Or some people!”

Feminist science fiction

Alderman’s next novel will be in the tradition of the feminist science fiction of the 1970s and ’80s that she adored as a young reader – the work of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler and, indeed, Margaret Atwood. She and Atwood have been discussing the shape of this new story, and now that the mentorship is reaching its end, the two are, as Atwood says, “boring down” into fundamentals of structure.

“I mean Margaret can’t tell me how to write, obviously – that would be terrible. But we talk about my book.” She describes an occasion when her mentor asked a simple question that nonetheless struck Alderman like a lightning bolt. She suddenly grasped a crucial component of the story she wanted to tell. “It was as if that thought had been waiting somehow for that very moment of conversation,” she recalls. Later, reflecting on the lessons she may have gleaned from Atwood, the issue of “respectability” comes up again, this time regarding The Liars’ Gospel, and a comment Atwood made that Alderman may have been “a bit too nice” in her depiction of some of the novel’s religious aspects.

“I think she was right,” reflects Alderman. “There’s no use soft-soaping, you have to wade in with both feet, be willing to try thoughts out that might turn out to be wrong and not care whether people are going to get annoyed. If you write anything good, you’ll probably annoy someone. If you try not to annoy anyone, I’m sure you won’t write anything good.”

And so, with the ideals of “respectability” and “niceness” now thoroughly discredited as approaches to creative life, one might well ask what Alderman has discovered to be their inverse. What sort of outlook has Atwood demonstrated to be crucial – a non-negotiable for an artist in the world?

The answer comes via an exhilarated email from Cuba where she and her mentor have been bird watching.

“Just having that wide interest in the world, seeing that everything is relevant and important,” she says. “I’d never before seen that you can read a landscape like a symphony – first experiencing the whole, beautiful sweep of it and then, looking closer, examining more intently, tracing each individual element and what it contributes to the whole. We looked at birds, but we could just as easily have been looking at insects, or plants, or the clouds, or the geological qualities of the soil, or a million other things.”

And Atwood has inspired her protégée with an intellect that reflects this same “beautiful sweep”, according to Alderman – one that is “somehow both wide and deep”.

Lynn Coady is a Canadian author and journalist. Her most recent book is “The Antagonist”.

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