Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Author Interview: In Conversation with Naomi Alderman

Sam chats with Naomi Alderman about the underbelly of Oxford life and what lessons we can learn from her second novel, The Lessons.

SR: First up, can you tell us a little about The Lessons?
NA: The Lessons is a novel about Oxford. And about wealth. And about friendship and love and how far one person can sacrifice themselves for another. It follows a group of friends who meet at Oxford. One of them, Mark, is wealthy and self-destructive. The others, in their various ways, try to contain him, to help him… but can one person really ever help another? Save another?

SR: What was your inspiration for writing The Lessons?
NA: Hmm. It grew out of a scene, actually. The scene that is pretty much at the dead centre of the book – the last scene of Section 1. I wrote that scene while I was at UEA, and when I wrote it, it had a female narrator. Then I came back years later, re-read it and thought “hmm, no, the narrator is a man!” and then it all just fell into place. The story span out in my mind across a long weekend.

SR: Did you sit down to write it already knowing where it was going to go? How did the novel evolve during the writing process?
NA: I did know where it was going, but in fact that wasn’t a great thing! I wrote the first draft feeling like I knew every twist and turn in the story but when I came to read over it I felt that it was dead. Boring. Just lifeless. Because I hadn’t surprised myself, I couldn’t surprise the reader. So I chucked out the first 50,000 words and started again, bringing in the characters in a different order, surprising myself by throwing in new people and events. It worked much better, although it was a bit more ‘messy’, and the plot a bit less classical. It taught me something valuable about my own process, though – I have to surprise myself or else nothing good happens on the page.

SR: The Lessons might almost be described as a modern reworking of Evelyn Waugh’s classic Oxford novel, Brideshead Revisited. Did you intend there to be a direct parallel?
NA: I knew the parallels were there as I was writing. In fact, in an earlier draft, the characters sit down and discuss Brideshead. But I deleted that scene because I thought it was too postmodern and clever ;-) . I do think that Brideshead has seeped into our culture’s understanding of Oxford, into our understanding of what it means to be an Oxford student. Life has started imitating art: I have a friend who’s a tutor at Oxford who told me that every year some student turns up clutching a teddy bear, like Sebastian Flyte. I think also I was annoyed with Brideshead Revisited in the usual ways: it’s a Catholic novel, with a Catholic moral to it, a very traditional one of “God will look after his own, only come to him.” I mean, it’s beautiful, but if you don’t hold that worldview it makes the novel seem to be pointing its telescope slightly in the wrong direction. I don’t think that suffering is necessarily meaningful, that pain brings us closer to God. If all the suffering in Brideshead were meaningless, what then?

SR: The crumbling Georgian mansion in which the characters live, sequestered from the outside world, seems to echo Brideshead itself, yet now fallen into disrepair. Similarly the Flyte family around whom Brideshead orbits is replaced by the surrogate family Mark gathers around him. To what extent do you think that in these two differences The Lessons reflects the social and economic changes that have taken place in the last ninety years?
NA: Heh. Yes. Of course these days Sebastian would be an out gay man, as Mark is in my novel. However, interestingly I think it’s clear from the text of Brideshead that Charles and Sebastian do have a homosexual relationship at Oxford but there’s no sense that Charles is at all surprised afterwards to marry a woman. Times have changed, it’s alright to say you’re gay, but to say that human sexuality is more fluid than that and that certain sexualities may have their season in one’s life is rather more controversial. And yes, Waugh predicted in his novel that the great homes of England would be destroyed, and was rather surprised to find that they reinvented themselves as tourist attractions. But it’s true that the ‘old money’ was swallowed up by two world wars and some economic crashes. Aristocrats no longer necessarily have money; Mark’s family do actually have pots of it but, like many people in that situation, Mark doesn’t necessarily value it.

SR: What role does James’ accident, and the isolation that arises from it, play in the way the plot develops? Why was it necessary for him to be so vulnerable?
NA: Ah. Well, partly I think that I wanted to make James more like me. I invented this character who was, as I saw it, the kind of person Oxford was ‘intended’ for: white, Christian background, male. But then I wanted to demonstrate to myself I think (all novels start as thought experiments, as ‘what would happen if…?’) how easily a person like that could be tipped into feeling that Oxford wasn’t for them after all. Who *is* that place for? Heh, probably the academics actually, that’s why the students so frequently feel puzzled and marginalised.
It’s a symbolic injury, also, in all sorts of ways. It takes away his ability to run, both literally and perhaps metaphorically. It puts him behind the pack. It introduces him to physical pain. It confronts him with mortality, actually – with the sense that un-put-right-able damage can be done very easily. In that sense, it’s a presaging of all that happens afterwards.

SR: “What is Oxford? It is like a magician, dazzling viewers with bustle and glitter, misdirecting our attention. What was it for me? Indifferent tuition, uncomfortable accommodation, uninterested pastoral care. It has style: the gowns, cobbled streets, domed libraries and sixteenth-century portraits. It is old and it is beautiful and it is grand. And it is unfair and it is narrow and it is cold.”
The Lessons is pretty harsh on the mirage of Oxford life, in particular the ways in which its beauty and glamour can warp experiences there. Does James’s experience of Oxford reflect your own?
NA: Oh Oxford. If you had asked me while I was there if I was having a good time I would have said “absolutely yes, the best time of my life so far.” It is beautiful though, and its beauty is somewhat deceptive. It’s like spending three years living on a film set (in fact, the film set for Brideshead Revisited ;-) ) – that will inevitably have an effect on the experience you have while you’re there. It’s like walking into a storybook, but finding that, sadly, your life is just still a normal life. As if you turned up in Narnia but instead of having adventures you still had to do the washing up and find a job.
It’s not a terrible university by any means, there’s a lot of fine education to be had there. But, like any other institution, it has its share of indifferent tutors and uncomfortable accommodation. It’s the gulf between the image and the reality which interests me.

SR: Despite its focus on Oxford The Lessons presents a familiar depiction of university life in general, particularly the way that many students go off expecting it to be everything they want in life and find it difficult to reconcile this with reality. Do you think expectation that it will be ‘the best years of their lives’ distorts students’ university experiences?
NA: That’s always the way, I think. My vaguely meditative tendencies make me want to say: the moment that we pre-judge our experience and expect it to be something, we’ve lost the ability to enjoy it in the moment or see it for what it is. I remember while I was at university thinking “wow, if these are the best years of my life, that’s pretty depressing”, and indeed it has turned out not to be the case, there have been better years since! I think adults do a lot of silly harm looking back and reminiscing about childhood and adolescence, editing out the bad bits. Childhood is terrifying and frustrating: being so small and powerless in a world of strong, controlling adults. University can make you feel stupid.

SR: Mark’s self-destructive tendencies appear to find parallels in his Catholicism yet at the same time he struggles to reconcile his faith with being gay. Could any of the major faiths have played this role in the novel, or did it have to be Catholicism?

NA: Hmm. Interesting. I always knew he was Catholic, since I started working on the novel. Perhaps because I had a couple of good Catholic friends at Oxford and he seemed like the kind of person they might have known there. I think his life would have worked out differently if, for example, his parents had been Sikh or Muslim. He would have had a different set of guilts, a  different background, a different kind of consolation. ‘The Lessons’ is partly a novel about pain, and I think my reading about Catholicism informed that. Not being Christian myself, Christianity has always seemed strange to me in that the central figure, the image of the greatest holiness is, frankly, a man being tortured to death. Of all the faces of Christianity, Catholicism seemed to me most taken with that image of suffering, most committed to finding triumph in pain. That interested me. So, no, I think this would have been a very different novel without the Catholicism.

SR: The Lessons is an excellent example of a book which is intensely erotic without resorting to crude depictions or over-description. It is the breathless anticipation that makes it work so well!. Did you have the annual Literary Review prize for bad sex as a form of warning in your mind while writing these scenes?
NA: Hah! In a way yes. There’s a lot of bad sex-writing out there. But also, I think I’d be too damn embarrassed to write an elaborate scene using phrases like “engorged cock” or “moist labia” or whatever. I did grow up an Orthodox Jew after all! I did want to write something very erotic, especially in the scene at the end of the first section of the novel – it’s an actual plot point that it has to be convincingly, unbearably full of desire.  I’m glad if that works.

SR: What, in your mind, are the lessons of life James and his friends learn here?

NA: Oooh. Well. Towards the end of the novel James has a little soliloquy in which he implies, I think, that the only thing he’s learned about, finally, is himself. He had spent the past years trying to lose himself, and it’s not that he’s found himself but that he’s managed to understand what he is, and he’s not very impressed.  I think they learn about the limits of power, actually, in many different ways. Mark discovers to his cost what it is that money can’t quite get for him, Simon has learned that however ambitious he is he can’t stop other people from making their mistakes, Franny has learned that she can’t reason herself out of love. However powerful you are, there are certain human truths that we’re all subject to, annoyingly.

SR: There is often a tendency to dismiss the struggles of the financially fortunate as ‘trivial’ and their excesses as decadent. What are your feelings towards Mark here? Do the rich sometimes get an unfair deal in literature?
NA: They probably get a grossly over-fair deal, honestly. But what can you do? In a way it’s a fantasy: we all like to imagine what it might be like to be really, properly rich. It’s the same reason that immortality is a recurring theme in literature: all of us live with limits, and it’s nice to imagine what might happen if we didn’t have those limits. What I like about it is thinking about what’s left when money’s no longer a consideration. What *is* left? Virginia Woolf had her £500 a year annuity (£60,000 a year in today’s money, roughly), but she still killed herself. It’s a thought experiment. Most of us spend most of our days doing things to get us money. If we didn’t have to do that, what would we be?

SR: At first sight The Lessons is quite a dramatic shift from the subject matter of your debut novel, Disobedience. Yet there are recurring themes, particularly in the love triangles and concerns about sexuality and faith. Why do you think you are drawn to these themes?
NA: Oh if I knew that I probably wouldn’t have to write! Maybe having enough therapy will sort me out eventually and I won’t want to write about these things anymore. In the meantime, love triangles are interesting. Couples who are just in love in love in love are pleasant to be but very boring to read or write about. Romeo and Juliet are the most boring people in that play. I like to look for alternatives, to examine possibilities. Every time someone suggests a box, I like to see what happens if you break out of it.

SR: The Lessons begins with the aftermath of a wonderfully decadent scene of food floating and sinking in a swimming pool. What’s the best food fight you’ve ever had?
NA: I don’t think I’ve ever had a food fight! Now you make me want to have one… I picked the image because it seemed a peculiarly horrible desecration: perfectly good food and a perfectly good pool both ruined by throwing the one into the other. Maybe the lives of my characters are a bit like that too. But yes, I think I should hold a food fight. Hmmm…

SR: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
NA: Always is a long time, but probably since I was seven? A primary school teacher put a story of mine up on the wall and I thought “oh, this is something I enjoy, that I’m also good at”.

SR: You studied on the world renowned Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. How do you look back on that experience?
NA: I loved it. Absolutely loved it. A totally transformative year for me. I’d been working at a big law firm in Manhattan, so it was an amazing detox to come to Norwich  and be around people who cared about books.

SR: What do you think are the benefits of such courses to the writer?
NA: 1. Time to write, in the knowledge that whatever happens you won’t have wasted the year. “I spent a year doing an MA” sounds a lot better on a CV than “I spent a year in my bedroom trying to write a novel.”
2. The judgement and advice of your peers. Very important to show your work to people on a regular basis and get good feedback.
3. The ability to make good contacts. It won’t sell your novel for you, but you’ll meet agents and will be looked on with a little more interest when you submit.
4. Contact and time with ‘real writers’. The day Patricia Duncker sat me down and made me imagine my novel on the shelf, made me write a blurb for it – that was a transformative moment.
5. It sends a message to yourself that you’re taking your own writing seriously.
None of this is to say that I think anyone *should* do an MA. It worked for me, but it’s not for everyone, especially if you don’t enjoy academic environments.

SR: Thank you, Naomi Alderman. The Lessons is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin and is currently out in Trade Paperback at £12.99 (ISBN: 9780670916290)

This interview was conducted as part of Summer Reads.

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