The Mind of a Different Era: Naomi Alderman

Every decade Granta magazine names its choices for the Best Young British Novelists, and the English-speaking literary world takes note. The most recent list, out last month, justly includes Naomi Alderman, whose literary output has ranged from her 2005 novel, Disobedience — which garnered her the Orange Award for New Writers — to her co-created collaborative “alternate reality game,” Perplex City. Her new novel continues to push into unexpected territory: The Liars’ Gospel is a gimlet-eyed retelling of Jesus’ life and death from the perspective of his mother, Mary, the disciple Judas, a priest, and a revolutionary, none of whom are convinced he is the Son of God. The resulting story is visceral and sharp, full of food and drink, of compromise and rebellion, and of belief and doubt. The Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, its bloodbaths and its compromises, emerges in astounding detail.

Alderman grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and remains interested in Judaism and in fundamentalism of various kinds. I’ve followed her work since Disobedience, which centers on a young woman who seeks to reconcile her belief in God and desire for community with her desire for other women. As a writer who grapples with the evangelical Christianity of my upbringing, I, like Alderman, am fascinated by — and sometimes wary of — the church’s borrowings from Judaism. (You can read my piece on the advent of the “Christian bar mitzvah” online at The New York Times Magazine.)

She and I met recently at the Jerusalem Book Fair and were amazed to learn, despite our very different backgrounds, how much we have in common. We conducted the following interview by Skype and email.  —Maud Newton

Maud Newton: So we’re here to talk about The Liars’ Gospel, which is a great, great book, but first, if I understand this correctly: you were just in Cuba with Margaret Atwood?

Naomi Alderman: We climbed up into the mountains where Che Guevara hid during the Cuban Missile Crisis to see the Cuban Solitaire (a bird); we took boats through the Zapata Swamp; and our bus broke down on the way from the Zapata Swamp at a police checkpoint where Margaret Atwood and I sat on the steps and talked about God.

MN: Oh, to be a gecko on the wall! What else did you talk about?

NA: My new novel is…well, I have bitten the bullet and admitted that it is a feminist science fiction novel of the 1970s and ’80s, of the kind people wrote a lot then, but don’t seem to anymore.

MN: So it owes something to Atwood?

NA: It’s influenced by Le Guin, Zimmer Bradley, Piercy, Butler, and indeed, yes, Margaret Atwood! She picked me for the mentorship based partly on my synopsis for this novel. so it’s sort of…”we’re working together because she’s the perfect person to talk to about this.”

MN: You two have a lot in common. You’re both feminists, both literary writers interested in SF and technology, both concerned with religion and its effects on the culture.

NA: It’s just really a wonderful thing — a gift. Also, everything I say about it sounds like a strange dream I’m relating to a therapist. “I went to Cuba with Margaret Atwood to watch birds but one day I got a migraine and then Margaret and I went swimming in the sea and a brown pelican came down and took a fish from the ocean. What does it mean, Dr. Newton?”

MN: Ha! Did working with her influence The Liars’ Gospel at all?

NA: Well, in fact, The Liars’ Gospel was all done before I applied for the mentorship — she did read the manuscript, though. She said she thought I was a little bit too easy on religion in the opening section, which is probably a fair comment. Maybe I’ll get tougher as I get older…and become less of a people-pleaser!

MN: You grew up with religion, right — in an Orthodox household?

NA: I was raised in what they call a Modern-Orthodox household, so our practice was very Orthodox. My mother covered her hair, there was no tearing of toilet paper on the Sabbath. But my family were also intellectual, and we had many interesting books in the house. They were determined for me to have a proper education. Eventually, if you educate your girls and also tell them they have to live an Orthodox Jewish life…something may have to give.

MN: So true. I can relate, a little bit, though my background was evangelical. How did your family’s attitude toward women and education go over in the community?

NA: It has to be said, we were a bit…unusual in our community. My father’s an outspoken historian who believes in telling the truth — not a thing that goes down well in general. He got into trouble in the late ’80s for publishing a book which revealed that during the war prominent Jewish people in the UK pressed the government not to allow boatloads of refugees from Nazi Germany into Britain. It was the truth, but people don’t like the truth, so we were always…. I don’t want to use the word pariah. I think the word is weird.

MN: Was the grandfather who made the notes on the same passage you did, the who put the same question mark alongside it, your dad’s father?

NA: He was my mum’s father — maybe she married my dad because he reminded her a little bit of her dad? My mum’s father, Eliezer Freed, was a self-taught polymath, educated himself in Hebrew and ancient languages, wrote music, sang, was an illustrator, even an inventor! His design for a gas-proof pram was purchased by the British government during the war. He also wrote books, especially children’s books. We have an unpublished manuscript of his about Josephus. It’s a history of the Jewish people as told by Josephus, who, in the story, has himself sealed in a lead-lined coffin during the Roman occupation, takes a special draught which will make him sleep for 100 years, and awakens again and again at different points in Jewish history. So I guess that deep engagement with history is something that my mum’s dad and my dad had in common.

MN: And you have this in common with both of them!

NA: I do! It’s been a topic of conversation in my family for a long time: how can you understand the present without understanding the past? Like therapy! We always live in a house built by an earlier version of ourselves, either our own selves or an earlier version of the human race. We can’t be building the house fresh every day.

MN: And so, the story of Jesus. Did you always know you wanted to tell it? Retell it?

NA: I’ve been thinking about this book for a long time, maybe twenty years. I started thinking about it when I was sixteen or so, and was studying Latin and Hebrew at the same time, Rome and Jerusalem, and I was struck by how neither set of writings really had anything to say about Jesus, and the little bits there were very uncomplimentary.

MN: Ha!

NA: I said to my Hebrew teacher: “Someone should write a book about the Jewish Jesus.” And she went, “No no! No one should write that book.” Which is a perfect way to make me want to do it. And the idea kept coming back to me, pretty much every Easter. I would hear the Gospel story on the radio or something and seethe internally and go, “But I am a Pharisee! We’re alright, Pharisees.”

MN: Which part made you seethe the most?

NA: For me it was the focus on the salvation through the suffering on the cross. I knew from my Josephus that the Romans on occasion crucified 2,000 people in a single day and lined the roads to Jerusalem with them. At which point, dude, nothing so very special happened to Jesus, nothing that would, like, redeem the whole human race through suffering. I mean if Jesus can redeem all those who believe in him by those few hours on the cross, how incredibly redeemed must the Jews be, given that tens of thousands of us went to the cross?

MN: Did your granddad’s Josephus manuscript emphasize this, too?

NA: Nah, my grandfather’s Josephus is kind and loving and not angry like me — although there is this one great bit in that book where he talks about seeing a Christian turn the other cheek and how the gesture puzzles and sickens him. The idea of asking for punishment is sickening and that stayed with me. A reversal. Another way to look at it.

MN: I’m interested in your current thoughts on religion in general. Or rather, your beliefs.

NA: Hmmm. Well, I do not believe that the Torah was written by an infinite and omniscient and all-loving God. I think it’s a book of much stuff that was very useful in its time, some of which is still useful today, written by men. Do I believe in God? I don’t really. Not really. I’m quite happy, I think, to accept that God is my imaginary friend and that I’ve made him up. And yet I still occasionally have a chat with that imaginary friend. I mean, I’m a novelist, I spend as much time with imaginary people as real ones.

MN: Are you drawn to many historical novels or novels that reimagine history or myth?

NA: I have read quite a bit of historical fiction, everything from Ellis Peters to Umberto Eco, Hilary Mantel to Rosemary Sutcliffe. I am impressed by all those four — what I’m unimpressed by is writers who fail to imagine how minds were different in different eras. I think one sees it more in film than novels — in novels you have to put yourself inside the mind of the characters, perhaps in movies you can get away without doing it. So you get horrors like the moment in Gladiator (which is in general a very good, very Roman-feeling movie) where Commodus berates Marcus Aurelius for not having loved him as a boy. What nonsense. No Roman man would have asked for this from his father, nor would a Roman father have apologized for it. A Roman man might have been justly condemned for not teaching his son the manly virtues, but love…? Irrelevant. One has to understand that people really did think differently in the past.

MN: As you can probably tell, since I’ve already mentioned it twice, I’m fascinated that you and your granddad both underlined and drew a question mark alongside the same passage, and that you discovered this not so very long ago. Which passage was it?

NA:  It was this bit, from Josephus: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” Highly unlikely that Josephus actually wrote this. It’s far more likely that the passage was inserted by monks copying the text to make it more Christian-friendly.

MN: What do you think of the idea that the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful God, and the God of the New Testament is all about forgiveness?

NA: It took me reading a great book called The Misunderstood Jew to start to think that that way of thinking about the Old Testament versus the New Testament is part of an anti-Semitic way of thinking about the Bible. Jesus gets angry, is viciously unpleasant to people, says “I come not to bring peace but the sword.” The God of the Old Testament is the one who says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” who talks about beating swords into plowshares. Not to say that it’s a total reversal of what you say, just that there’s been cherry-picking. For Christians, it’s important to say: the Old Testament is vengeful, the New Testament is forgiving because their whole thing is about God forgiving mankind through Jesus.

MN: The forgiveness offered in the New Testament is pretty conditional.

NA: Yeah, honestly, Jesus is totally obnoxious to the man whose father has died, and you can quote me on that if you like. The guy wants to bury him, which means, according to Jewish custom, that his father had died that day, and Jesus goes, “Let the dead bury their dead, come now and follow me,” as if to say, “WTF do you want to bother with the dead for?” This is the controlling, insensitive behavior of a personality-cult leader.

MN: I was really struck by that in your telling. And by his treatment of Mary and his brothers, which had always troubled me, even when I was a kid who was trying to convince myself that I believed what I was told about it all.

NA: Haha! Don’t you love that, the sense of relief when you realize you don’t have to force yourself to believe something anymore?

MN: Yes — I never believed it, really, in my heart of hearts, although I was filled with anxiety about not believing! And you know what? If there is a hell and I have to believe that sex between people of the same gender is an abomination to avoid going there, then I am happy to go to hell. I view it as my obligation, in fact. It would be wrong to go to a heaven that would require me to believe this.

NA: We all have our bottom-line positions. For me, I don’t believe that an all-knowing, all-loving God would say that the right thing, if a woman has been raped, is that if at all possible she should marry her rapist. Which is in the Torah. I start from that as a solid axiom on which I can build. When I was giving up Orthodoxy and freaking out periodically, I would go back to that to calm myself.

MN: Tell me about that, if you would, about leaving Orthodoxy. What that was like for you. How your parents reacted.

NA: Sometimes I would have to go and sit in the bathroom for a few minutes, and just go “Naomi. Do you believe that God wants women to marry their rapists? No. Then is the Torah divine? No. OK. So then let’s work from there.” My parents…they’re not happy but they’re OK. I’m a grown-up, they respect that I have to make my own choices.

MN: Do you miss it ever?

NA: Ah, man, I had panic attacks for the first time ever. I didn’t realize that religion is an anxiety-control mechanism. And when you give it up…. Woo, there comes the anxiety.

MN: Yes! I see this so much in my mother, who is an incredibly smart, sensitive woman, who…started her own church in a warehouse. Jesus gave her certainty. And being an anxious person myself, I see the appeal.

NA: Yeah, and it’s woven tight into my early brain.

MN: It’s very difficult for people who haven’t experienced religion in that way to understand why people who have but who leave it continue to have a conversation with it.

NA: Ah, yes. It’s lonely, right? We leavers have to stick together, because the people who are still in think we’re evil, and the people who were never in don’t understand us, not in that place. In other places of course.

MN: The people who stay think leavers are evil, and the people who never were in don’t get it and often to portray all believers (and I use that term broadly) as ignorant and stupid. Which is wrong.

NA: It feels lonely when you’re asked or expected to mock your former self. I’m not that person anymore, but it doesn’t mean I think that person was an idiot.

MN: I see the appeal of religion, and used to be so afraid I would one day have a religious conversion.

NA:  I used to be afraid of going into churches lest I suddenly be struck by Jesus. In fact, The Liars’ Gospel helped me get over this fear. I used to find Jesus really threatening, and now, having spent some time really coolly appraising him, I find that I really admire some of the things he said, really disagree with others…but have brought him back to an ordinary size for myself.

MN: Have you heard from a lot of readers of The Liars’ Gospel?

NA: Yes, some lovely anti-Semitic email about Jews controlling the media. And some very kind and loving email from Christians and Jews praising the book and saying it had helped them with some difficulties. So the whole gamut!

MN: I haven’t read Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, but I saw the stage adaptation in previews on Broadway, and it was…overwrought. Have you read his book?

NA: I have read it, in fact I reviewed it! It’s hard to look clearly at a book that covers similar territory to your own. For me he stuck a little too closely to the Gospel stories, but then I’d just decided to do the complete opposite. I think his is the book of someone brought up Christian, and mine is not.

MN: I loved the way you humanized Judas in particular. Mary, too, but especially Judas.

NA: Ah, I love Judas. I above all know what it’s like to lose your faith.

MN: And the revolutionary character: Bar Avo.

NA: I love Bar Avo. So much so that I’m doing a bit of an organized crime section in the next book because I didn’t quite want to leave that world. Well, I say I love him. I loved writing him but I do disagree with him. I came down, for myself, on the side of Caiaphas, but hopefully the reader can’t tell. I think the “just keep the peace” argument is pretty good.

MN: There is a deep understanding of Bar Avo’s motivations, but also you showed where that leads.

NA: Obviously there are modern-day parallels…. I am a dove, not a hawk, but I’m well aware how much sacrifice is involved in being a dove.

MN: Were you motivated by modern-day parallels as you set out to write? Or did you just think more about them as you wrote?

NA: I think I wasn’t motivated by them, so much as that I found them in the writing. I didn’t really want to! Because I don’t know enough about Israel really to comment on the current situation. But there they were in the history — from, essentially, the invention of terrorism (the daggers in the cloaks) to the politics of occupation, the inevitable escalations as time goes on, even the thing about building a wall around Jerusalem and then the Jews digging tunnels under the Roman wall! There it was in the texts. So I put it in and decided I wouldn’t press it a moment harder than just relating it as it was, and readers can draw their own conclusions.

MN: It felt uncannily timely to me, especially because I read it after you and I were in Jerusalem together for the Jerusalem Book Fair recently. It was my first time in Israel, but not yours. How many times have you been? How much time have you spent there?

NA: Hmm, I’ve probably been about fifteen times. My first visit was when I was four! My family lived there for a few months when my dad was on sabbatical to write a book. I went back a lot as a child, a teen, a young woman, and then when I stopped being Orthodox I stopped going. Israel for me was part of my Orthodoxy, and it took a long time for me to feel like I could experience it afresh. So when I saw you there, that was my first visit in more than ten years!

MN: Wow. So how does being in Jerusalem make you feel, and has that changed over time?

NA: It’s overladen with symbols for me. It’s full of my mother, who lived in Israel when she was in her twenties, and full of the things I learned from Orthodoxy about it and my childhood learning Hebrew and thinking that maybe one day I would move there. The Talmud calls it the navel of the world. The first place that was created in God’s creating the world. A frum Jew is supposed to experience it like that, as full of holiness, and it lends itself to that. but that kind of belief is also an assertion of ownership.

MN: How do you feel about the fact that so many different people, of so many different religions, have also asserted ownership, mapped their own religious and cultural beliefs onto it, over thousands of years?

NA: Oh, God, this is really beautiful — now, seeing it without that harsh sense of “I have to be angry about the fact that it’s not all Jewish” is just so calm and wonderful. I went up to the Temple Mount for the very first time, the Muslim section. That place is serene. Like a clear eye looking at the sky. And I thought, no wonder the frum people teach their children not to come here, because if they let us come here, we’d see how beautiful it is and then we couldn’t any longer hold onto this dream that the Dome of the Rock should be destroyed and the old Temple rebuilt. You and I too have a complicated legacy, like Israel. Things that have claimed ownership of me, which still have a kind of uneasy tenancy, stuff I might never have wanted to go through, but which has nonetheless left its mark — one can read Jerusalem that way. I understand a place that cannot cut off parts of itself or its history.

MN: Yes. My main thought, coming away, was just amazement that so many different people, especially the people who aren’t Jewish, had gone there over the millennia and seen it as a validation of whatever weird religious convictions they have. I saw it as the opposite!

NA: Well, you know what they say: a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. (Written by a couple of Jews.)