Meet the writer of the award-winning novel that inspired Disobedience
The Many Worlds of Naomi Alderman
Written by Peter Bowen
After reading Naomi's Alderman's award-winning novel Disobedience, Rachel Weisz recognized immediately why this book would make a compelling film. "If you find a story of transgression within an ordered society, you have a great universal drama that anyone can relate to," explains Weisz. When Ronit (Weisz), the estranged daughter of a Rabbi, returns to her London Orthodox community for her father's funeral, she reconnects with her childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and his wife Esti (Rachel McAdams). Despite the different paths that Esti and Ronit have travelled since being teenagers, they quickly discover a long-buried passion for each other. Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, understood that Alderman had written a tale that spoke to everyone, regardless of nationality. "This is a love story that explores how their relationships evolve over time, and how their lives are affected by grief," explains Lelio, adding, "At the heart of Disobedience is something very universal."
After four novels and many other projects, Alderman has demonstrated a unique talent for making foreign worlds and media immediate and emotional. Growing up in an academic family—her father Geoffrey Alderman is an acclaimed professor of British Jewish history—Alderman flourished in a world of ideas and words. "My parents are both intellectuals and readers," she told The Independent, adding, "My mother would take me to the library every few days from before I was one year old." At age seven, her father brought home a computer that connected her first two passions—storytelling and technology. After graduating from Oxford University, where she majored in their interdisciplinary program "Philosophy, Politics and Economics," Alderman worked in publishing briefly, spending a period in New York City. There she first met lesbian and gay Orthodox Jews, people whom, she told The Guardian, had been told by their faith "if you didn't marry and have children you were completing Hitler's work." The next year, when she started a master's program in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, those stories along with her own background growing up in an Orthodox neighborhood inspired her first novel.
Published in 2006, Disobedience was an immediate success. While its tale of two women falling in love within the confines of an Orthodox community might appear sensational, Alderman's empathetic imagination turned the story into something entirely original and relatable. "It is a wonderful novel," The Times proclaimed, adding, "The real wonder is in Alderman's capacity for original thinking. Nothing is quite as the lazy-minded might expect it to be: forbidden desire is not unequivocally good, deterministic religion is not unequivocally bad." Alderman went on to win the 2006 Orange Award for New Writers and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, as well as become a finalist for the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Part of the novel's strength comes from its intimate knowledge of her characters' world. Alderman tells London Fictions about her own connection: "Although not quite as Orthodox as the characters in the book I certainly knew lots of people who were when I was growing up."
If Disobedience captured the world she grew up in, her second novel, The Lessons, reflected her coming of age at Oxford. Following a young physics student whose life is turned inside out when he's invited to join a group of fun-loving, trust-fund students at Oxford, The Lessons captures the antsy excitement of constantly teetering on the edge of adulthood. The distance between her two novels in many ways maps out Alderman's own journey as a writer. "I wrote Disobedience, about the community that I came from, because I had to do that before everything else, to deal with that legacy," explains Alderman to Bookslut. "Having done that, I started thinking about how actually Oxford was a very similar closed, strange world with its own rules and conviction of its total superiority, so I wrote a novel about that," she adds. For many critics, The Lessons also confirmed the literary promise of Disobedience. "This is a second novel from a young writer of huge talent, ambition and energy," wrote The Independent, adding, "It is a pleasure to read."
In her recent books, Alderman has spread her literary wings to take on historical and science fiction, all with the single aesthetic perspective, which is, as she puts it, "let's look at this another way." In The Liars' Gospel, she retells the story of Christ's life from the perspective of four people, each whose lives merely touch that of the figure who would soon become the focal point of Western Civilization. For The Guardian, "The dark wit that characterized her previous novels… runs through this book as an undercurrent, but The Liars' Gospel shows the hand of a mature novelist, a daring and accomplished work on a broad canvas." Her next book would project an even larger canvas, a world that does not actually exist. In The Power, Alderman looks at the dynamic between men and women in "another way," this time with women being the stronger, more aggressive sex. "What might a world look like in which women are the ones to be feared?" asks Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic about the book's governing question. The answer for Gilbert is "a stunning new speculative-fiction book [which] couldn't be more timely." The Power went on to win the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction as well as make it onto President Obama's list of favorite books of 2017.
If Alderman's literary imagination can populate many worlds, her talent can also be expressed in various media. While writing Disobedience, Alderman would spend her mornings on her novel, switching over in the afternoon to work as the head writer for Perplex City, an alternate reality game that, as its site proclaims, "blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality." In 2006, Alderman confessed to The Guardian, "I am a geek, and proud of it." Over the years, she has let her geek flag fly freely. In 2011, she worked with the CEO of Six to Start Adrian Hon to create an iPhone fitness game/adventure called Zombies, Run!, an app that, as Pocket Gamer explains, "provides joggers with all the inspiration they need by sending hordes of ravenous zombies out to eat them." Alderman has also lent her narrative talent to "La Mappa Misteriosa," an Italian-learning video adventure that keeps its language lessons alive by locking them inside a mystery story.
As a self-confessed geek, Alderman consistently cheers on the writers and works she loves. A longtime fan of the sci-fi show Doctor Who, Alderman showed her enthusiasm by authoring the 2011 Doctor Who: Borrowed Time, an original novel based on the series' characters. From 2016 – 2017, she hosted with Philip Ball the BBC Radio show Science Stories, a program that explored and exalted the amazing real-life adventures of inventors and scientists. Since 2014, Alderman has penned The Guardian's "Gaming Column," a monthly gig in which she riffs on all aspects of the online world, from hot new games to simply hot "ethical porn"—all with the same enthusiasm, wit, and empathy she displays in her novels.