About The Author
Naomi Alderman grew up in London and attended Oxford University and UEA. Her first novel, Disobedience, set in the orthodox Jewish suburb of Hendon, north London, was published in ten languages; like her second novel, The Lessons, about a group of students in Oxford, it was read on BBC radio's Book at Bedtime. In 2006 she won the Orange Award for New Writers. In 2007, she was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and one of Waterstones' 25 Writers for the Future.
Her prize-winning short fiction has appeared in Prospect, on BBC Radio 4 and in a number of anthologies. In 2009 she was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award.
From 2004 to 2007 Naomi was lead writer on the BAFTA-shortlisted alternate reality game Perplex City. She has written online games for Penguin, the BBC and other clients. In 2011 she wrote the Doctor Who tie-in novel Borrowed Time. In 2012, she co-created the top-selling fitness game and audio adventure Zombies, Run!
Naomi broadcasts regularly, has guest-presented Front Row on BBC Radio 4 and writes for Prospect and the Guardian.
Her third novel, The Liars' Gospel, is a retelling a year after his death of the story of Yehoshuah/Jesus through the eyes of four people close to him: his mother flashes between grief and rage while trouble brews between her village and the occupying soldiers. Iehuda, who was once Yehoshuah's friend, recalls how he came to lose his faith and find a place among the Romans. Caiaphas, the High Priest at the great Temple in Jerusalem, tries to hold the peace between Rome and Judea, while Bar-Avo, a rebel, strives to bring that peace tumbling down.
We talk to Naomi about the challenges involved in tackling the western world's most famous story, about courting controversy and how she juggles writing fiction with online computer games and iPhone apps.
Questions & Answers
You tackle some very weighty issues in your fiction. How does this sit with writing online computer games and iPhone apps. That's quite an unusual combination isn't it?
Heh, it is an unusual combination but it works well in my life. I find that the two sides complement each other in some ways. The novels are my personal terrain: I have full control, but novel-writing is famously isolating. The games are more collaborative, I have less control but more human contact! And although the games are often more lighthearted, I guess I also don't think that genre writing has to be less serious than a traditional serious literary novel. Shakespeare wrote historical drama and romance and fantasies about magic potions and fairies and wizards - the idea that a writer can't do all these things is very modern.
Your first two novels have contemporary settings. What was it like writing a historical novel?
I was expecting it to be hard and a slog to do all the research and so on. And in a way it was - it's a lot of reading before you can sit down to write. But in another way, it's such a delight finding those unexpected nuggets of truth in the research. I think a lot of the most surprising parts of the book are the parts that are actually true, and which I'd never have been able to make up. There's also something paradoxically freeing about writing about a time that's so far away - you take your best guess about what it felt like, tasted like, smelled like, and that's what you write, and no one can come and say 'no no, the air smelled different to that.'
The earlier books drew to an extent on personal experience - orthodox Jewry in northwest London and the privileged environment of Oxford University. What were the challenges of the biblical setting, not to mention taking on the Western world's most famous story?
In terms of the symbolic power of the story, I think you have to try as much as possible not to think about that stuff while you're writing - it's so easy to choke. You just tell a good story and try not to worry about the mountain of import sitting about your head. Easier said than done. Some days writing this book felt very frightening.
I found the biblical setting quite friendly really - benefits of a fundamentalist religious upbringing, I'd grown up being taught that I ought to imagine myself back in Ancient Judea, because that was the most perfect time to live and be. The hardest things were remembering that certain modern turns of thought hadn't happened yet; trying to work out how to talk about time in the day, for example, for agricultural people who had no clocks.
You wrote from the perspective of four people who all had a major impact on Jesus' life. Did you find yourself drawn to one character, one version of events more than any other?
I love them all for different reasons, but the one who really showed me something new was Caiaphas, the High Priest. Everyone is reasonable to themselves, and looking out through his eyes fully convinced me that handing over some troublesome preacher to the Romans was the best possible option - there wasn't another option, that's what it means to be occupied. Writing him taught me something about the compromises and sadnesses and limits of power.
Josephus provides important source material but your family has a long association with that historian. Can you tell us about how you came to him?
In fact, my grandfather, my mum's father, who died when I was two, was a great admirer of Josephus. Eliezer Freed was, by all accounts an amazing man, a self-taught polymath, a writer, an artist, a composer, an inventor. He wrote an (unpublished) novel for children about Josephus in which he travels in time from Rome through various eras of Jewish history to the modern day. We have the manuscript which I read as a child, so I suppose that was my first introduction!
Strangely, as I was coming to the end of work on the book, my mother found her father's old Victorian copies of Josephus, and I took a quick look through. I found, to my surprise, that he'd marked exactly the passages I'd been looking at: the ones about Jesus. So it looks like we've been quietly interested in this topic for a while in my family.
Your first novel in particular was bound to cause a stir and ruffle some feathers, this one even more so. Is controversy something you relish, even court?
Sigh. I don't really go out there to irritate or offend. I hate the idea of upsetting people. But I believe in telling the truth and writing what you believe. I have a quote from Noel Coward's most explosive play, Design for Living up on the wall above my desk: 'if you're a writer, you have to write what you think, otherwise you're a liar and a hypocrite'. Of course Coward himself doesn't always manage that. But still, I believe it's true. I have to write what I think.
So, I don't think there's anything wrong with people being gay, and I don't believe Jesus rose from the dead. Put like that, I suspect not many people would find those opinions especially controversial?
But maybe people don't like to look at the implications of their beliefs, really think it through. If it's alright to be gay, then what do we think about religious and other systems that say you have to hide it? If Jesus didn't rise from the dead then what really happened, and what do we make of him? And why did people say he did?
It's less a courting of controversy than it is a desire to really think through all the realities of something. If x then y and z must follow and it's pointless and dishonest to pretend they don't. Other people are better at this pretending; I think it probably makes for an easier life, but I just can't do it.
You say that the impartial observer doesn't exist, and yet you appear to take great pains to provide balance in your retelling, carefully giving each character their own voice. Was your starting position one of neutrality and did it change in the course of your writing?
I mean, I guess my starting point was that I'm not a Christian but have lived all my life in a Christian society. So the starting point is that "the normal way I've heard this story simply cannot be true according to my secular beliefs. So what is the story?"
Other than that, I was pleased to let the characters take me through their worlds. When you start to really imagine yourself into a character, you start to see that point of view and understand why they could have acted as they did. I tried to be impartial between them, and I really hope that both, for example, Caiaphas the peacekeeper and Bar-Avo the violent revolutionary come across as convincing according to their own lights.
For myself, I find I think Caiaphas is more right than Bar-Avo. But that freedom-fighter viewpoint deserves a good hearing.
You show how faith can bring about cataclysmic events, but also how its loss, whether in God or in a loved one, can utterly destroy on an individual level. Is there such a thing as the middle ground?
I suppose when it comes to 'moderate religious faith', I'm in two minds. Some people seem to manage it - although not people with my particular kind of burrowing, questioning mind! Do they do it by just not thinking everything through? Or by finding something that they can believe in and essentially creating their own internal religion (which I think is great)? It's the part where you claim to be a 'moderate' supporter of an organized religion that I find hard to accept:basically every major organized religion has some subset of beliefs which are grossly offensive to modern thought and morality. And I, at least, ended up finding it impossible to justify giving even my tacit support to, for example, the racism, homophobia and misogyny of my childhood religion.
Is there a middle ground when it comes to religious faith? A religious faith that is helpful, loving and good without any of the forces of oppression, domination and hatred that so often accompany it? Maybe only in the 'religion of one' which we come to in our own hearts. Once you start needing other people to believe it too, you're lost.
It is impossible not to draw comparisons between the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and the current situation there; how much was that on your mind while writing, or was it even the contemporary situation that provided the impetus for looking back to the city's earliest days?
Strangely, I only found most of those resonances as I went on! I started a long time ago with a rather tricksy short story about Mary, where you're supposed to start off thinking she's a mother mourning a suicide bomber and obviously it turns out she's mourning a son who died with God's name on his lips in a different way. It was a bit cheap, but I'm interested in how history really does repeat itself, and I'm glad I've found better ways to talk about it.
I don't think we should be surprised about that repetition. The British Empire modelled itself on the Roman Empire. It promised Palestine to the Jews under the Balfour Declaration with one hand, while allowing Lawrence of Arabia to let the Sharif of Mecca believe he was promising it to him with the other - a typical Roman 'divide and conquer' manoeuvre. When you have Empires employing the same
tactics: shipping populations around the world, imposing their own rulers, encouraging one indigenous group to attack another, you'll get the same outcomes. In fact, we see those same outcomes across the world. When empires behave like this, they have to keep on enforcing the peace more and more violently, and when they withdraw the countries collapse into violence too. Nihil sub sole novum.
But even knowing that, I was surprised by a lot of the resonances: I didn't expect to find the Romans building a big wall, or the Jews digging tunnels underneath it.
Will your next novel show just as radical a departure from the last as this one does? What can we expect next?
Hah, yes! I'm working on something... a bit weird. About violence, and the ways that society attempts to hem in and control violence. And about electric eels.