The NS Q&A: Naomi Alderman on Oprah, Ovid, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer

“The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20.”

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What’s your earliest memory?
Sitting on a striped blue-and-white deckchair with a migraine. My mother gave me orange squash. We’ve worked out (from the deckchair) that I was 18 months old.

Who was your childhood hero?
I was incredibly inspired by Oprah Winfrey as a young woman. Her childhood (sexual and physical abuse, teenage pregnancy, the death of her baby) was traumatic, and her subsequent life has been defined by hard work, talent and one glorious victory after another. People in the UK can sneer about her because we are terrified of emotions and she’s not perfect (who is?), but she introduced me to the possibility of improving one’s internal life. A miracle.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. It’s as if he managed to voyage back a few hundred years and just take notes.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?
Florence Nightingale, who was a terrible nurse but a brilliant statistician and wielded her public image to influence politicians to improve health care. I wish that she were still around, skewering ministers misusing statistics on Question Time.

When were you happiest?
Now. The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20. It has been slow, hard-won improvement since then.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Ovid. Both are intensely serious, as well as funny. Both wield myths to talk about their modern world. Both are subjects I’d like to revise.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
The future. As far as possible. Not to live, though – just to visit.

Who would paint your portrait?
I’d like [the 16th-century Dutch painter] Jan van Scorel, please, with the same affection and knowingness as his portrait of Agatha van Schoonhoven. They lived together and had six children, even though he was a canon and couldn’t marry.

What’s your theme tune?
A Jewish song that goes: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor . . .” It translates as: “It’s not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And have you followed it?
I know how this sounds, but my deceased grandmother appeared to me in a dream once and told me something I can’t share. But I did follow her advice and it was excellent. (Thanks, Booba and/or my subconscious.)

What’s currently bugging you?
Brexit. I want to start a campaign called “Back in 30” – to get us back into the EU by 2030, when Remainers (or Rejoiners) will almost certainly be a convincing majority.

What single thing would make your life better?
I wish that Gordon Brown had called a snap election in 2007.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I think I would have enjoyed running a business (and I sort of do run one now, with the video games). I’ve got the brain for systems and a head for figures. But all these daydreams end with: “And I could carve out time to write.”

Are we all doomed?
No. The species will continue, whatever apocalypse we manage to unleash. It just won’t be much fun to live through.

Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power” (Penguin) has won the 2017 Baileys Prize

This article appears in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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