Naomi Alderman Taps Into the Deeper Powers of Women
The Author of The Power Discusses the Greatest Bloodless Revolution in History
In the middle of my Skype interview with Naomi Alderman she disappears momentarily to answer her doorbell and returns into view, beaming. “That’s a backpack for me!” she says. “Tomorrow morning, I’m off to the Highlands of Scotland to teach a writing course, and then I go to Italy for a week!” Parsing out her time for new adventures is nothing new for Alderman, a multidextrous British writer who easily turns her hand to everything from novels (Disobedience, The Lessons, The Liars’ Gospel), alternative-reality and video games (Perplex City), episodic fitness games (Zombies, Run!), Dr. Who novels (Borrowed Time), radio programs (BBC4’s Science Stories) and more. At the moment, peripatetic backpacking aside, she’s splitting her days between novel-writing, Science Stories, season 7 of Zombies, Run! and—her latest adventure—writing for television: The Power, her 2016 novel published this month in the US—and the recently-minted winner of the prestigious Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction—is being adapted for television, with Alderman along for the series-writing ride.
“It’s really, really fun,” she says. “I love it! I’ve been writing video games for a long time so I am enjoying feeling out the qualities of a new medium—that’s always really fascinating. And I love good TV—I’m a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan—and there’s some wonderful writing on TV: it’s a medium which I think tends to respect its writers a bit more than film. Movies are great, but the big movie’s a spectacle whereas you can actually make something big in TV that’s also quite intimate. Also, movies are like a short story; you consume one in a single sitting. TV is like a novel: there are chapters and you expect people to go away and come back, go away and comeback, and it becomes part of the fabric of your life for a few days or weeks or even months.”
The Power is the kind of book that plays on your mind well beyond its reading-time. Written as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative through which Alderman spent a year talking, writing, working, traveling and playing with mentor Margaret Atwood, The Power is a canny ode to Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, while firmly establishing its own fierce, literary footprint as well. As the book begins, a teenage girl realizes she has an unusual power: she can generate electricity from her hands—much to the distress of the man on the receiving end. And she is not the only one: part of the premise of the book is, if all women possess this deadly power, how would that transform our world? To Alderman’s infinite credit, she makes her imaginative effort complete by introducing the idea of women having physical power over men while following it through to its most logical conclusion: if only the balance of power shifts, but the overall system stays the same, won’t we reach the same ends? Those in power, after all, are just as likely to abuse it.
Told through the eyes of several characters, including a male reporter from Nigeria, the daughter of a British gangster, a mother running for political office and a quasi-religious leader, Alderman’s book is all the more chilling for planting itself firmly in our current reality, making it contemporarily plausible. She keeps the frights going with scrupulous details like the perfectly produced patter between two news anchors, Tom and Kristen, as they observe and discuss the global permutations of the women’s newly discovered power, while the power balance between them shifts. Are such carefully wrought specifics drawn from Alderman’s experience of world-building as a video-games writer?
“It is partly drawn from that,” she says. “But it’s also being part of fan culture, and being really interested in fan culture and fanfiction; I feel like there’s a lot of things you can do as an author to give fanfiction writers little hooks to hold onto, like one-line throwaways. Working on the TV version of The Power, I super hope that at some point I can do an episode just with Kristen and Tom because I love them. Writing them, I felt I had to make sure that if there was a man or a woman in the frame, wherever I pointed the lens, that things would not stay the same, things would be somehow different.”
There’s also a fascinating level of symbiosis at play. As Alderman points out, her novel-writing and game-writing have been pretty much contemporaneous: “I started working on my first novel, Disobedience, when I was doing my Master’s in 2002, and started working on my first game, Perplex City, in 2004; the game started in 2005, and my novel was published in 2006. It’s sort of like they learned from each other and continue to do so: my games are quite novelistic, and world-building is a key part of games-writing. Also, with games, you have to think about allowing room for your audience: there is a character who is the player and you don’t know what they’re going to do, so you have to work out lots of ways to make space for them. For me, that’s been a really good discipline as a novelist because my tendency is to want to lean over people’s shoulders and tell them what I meant. But I know that, instead, I have to be clear without being didactic or annoying. That’s been a hard-won skill for me, and I think the games-writing has really helped.”
The Power’s multiple characters, Alderman says, developed organically as part of her writing process. “When I started thinking about the book,” she notes, “I thought I could do a small, intimate story about a relationship in the midst of all of this change. But the more I wrote, the more it felt like it needed to be big, it needed to feel like it had really taken you on a voyage through the whole of this landscape, not just leave you in a corner. And, God, gender touches everything! And it’s so different in everyone’s lives. The thing about a regime change or a natural disaster is that it’s more homogenous: so you read The Handmaid’s Tale, and the whole point about it is that there are a lot of women having a very similar experience. Whereas I felt like the crucial thing about this story was the very different ways that it would play out in women’s lives: I wanted to give a representative sample of the many different ways it would play out for different people. I feel like my job is done if the reader is saying to themselves, ‘Wow, what would this be like in my life? How would this change things for me? How would it change things for my daughter? How would my work be different? How would my trip back home from the office late at night be different? How would my schooling have been different? How would that encounter I had this morning have been different?’ That was the way to do it, to just invite the reader in, to say, ‘Come and play with me. I’m going to play with a few characters and you can come and play too.’ All those little details, it’s really a way of saying, ‘Come on, come in!’”
The origin of the book is as wide-ranging and rich as her body of literary work so far which includes the story of a young lady’s rebellion within a religious community, the tale of a wayward group of friends at Oxford and an alternative version of the life of Jesus Christ.
“The more I answer the question about the original inspiration for this book,” she says, “the more complicated I realize it is. Because I could say to you, for example, ‘Well, I grew up an Orthodox Jew, and in my primary school every morning all the boys and girls said, ‘Thank you, God, for not making me a slave.’ And then the boys said, ‘Thank you, God, for not making me a woman,’ and the girls said, ‘Thank you, God, for making me according to your will.’ I suppose it starts there. But also, a few years ago I read an interview with a male writer whose work I really respect, where someone asked him, ‘Where do you think this thing comes from, that in most societies men have ruled over women?’ And he said, ‘Well, I think men are jealous of women’s ability to have babies.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Oh honey, that’s really sweet. But don’t you know that men rule over women because they can?!’ We don’t have to posit that there’s a sort of horrible British colonial hormone in your brain that washes over you to make you a British colonialist and that’s why British colonialists destroyed native peoples in America and in Australia. Like, the answer is because they had guns. And because they could. And that’s the evidence of most societies around the world. And it doesn’t have to be everybody, you know: there were probably some really nice people who came over on the Mayflower who did not want to harm Native American people. Probably there were some really great people in Botany Bay, who just wanted to live peacefully and would have been really interested in learning about Aboriginal folk-art and medicine. But the logic of the matter is that if you have the capacity to enforce your will with violence, somebody will do it. So it starts philosophically from that.”
Then, she recalls, there was a particular moment of whiz-bang realization on a London’s Underground train: “I was in the midst of a really terrible breakup, like a breakdown-breakup. You know those ones where you just wake up every morning, have a cry and then get on with your day? That. I had been in a relationship with a man where I felt like the relationship had ended because I was too strong for him. I was insufficiently girly and vulnerable: I just had my shit together, and apparently that’s not that sexy. Anyways, in the middle of this breakdown-breakup, I was on the Tube and there was a poster advertising a movie with a picture of a beautiful woman crying. And in that moment, it felt like the whole of my culture was saying to me, ‘Hey, we think it’s sexy when women cry, we find that attractive. This thing that’s going on with you right now, where you’re crying all the time, keep that up, that makes you more attractive.’ And I just broke. I remember thinking, ‘What the fuck would have to change in the world for me to even sometimes to get on the Tube and see a photo of a sexy man crying?’ I thought about it, and this was the answer by the time I got off the Tube: Maybe if women had something that they could do, that was as powerful and horrifying as the fact that a man can, on average, throw a woman across the room more than a woman can throw a man across the room…”
There’s a different book to be written, she continues, about what happens on the day that we all decide that we’re no longer going to respond to violence. “I’m not a pacifist,” she says, “but writing this book got me much closer to being a pacifist. I am incredibly proud to be part of the feminist movement, the women’s movement, which has been the most successful bloodless revolution, certainly of modern times, and maybe of all time. It’s been done by talking, by persuading, by writing, by thinking, by refusing to accept the status quo, by deciding to live differently, by having conversations where you just say, ‘You know, this is not working for me anymore.’ It has been the most profound gift I have ever been given. The existence of it has made my life possible, and I feel like we are in the middle of something really important: we try to pass something a bit better on to the women who come up after us, and also—and this is also what The Power is about—we can learn from and be inspired by younger women and that is wonderful. It’s like we allow something to come into being that can then teach us something. We created a world in which these amazing young women could thrive, and now we get to enjoy the world that they’re going to make for us.”
There’s something just as invigorating about the joyful way that Alderman embraces her various writing, playing and learning projects, a perpetual inquisitive hunt to create and imagine new worlds, as well as new ways to make this one better. She has no formal plan, she says, she just follows her instincts. “I take something on if some part of me goes, ‘Oh, yes!’ And what I learn from it will turn up in something else that I do. Also,” she adds, “I do tend to be the kind of person who, if confronted with a buffet of options, I pick the one I’ve never tried before.”
So is there anything Naomi Alderman won’t try? “I think the only thing I’m never going to be is a poet,” she says, pretty firmly. “I’m just not a poet. I like reading poetry, but I have no idea how they do it. But everything else, I don’t know, why would I not want to give it a go? I just feel like, if you are a novelist, your job is thinking really—because only part of it is writing; the other part of it is thinking—so you want to make sure that you’re putting new, unusual stuff in your brain, and you don’t want to be looking in the same direction as everybody else. God forbid you should just always be reading that New Yorker article that everyone else is reading, or attending that conference that everyone else is attending. Not that they’re not fine things, too, but god forbid that that should be all you’re doing.” And the actively-curious writer barely pauses for breath. “You have to,” she says, “keep seeking out the cobwebby corners.”