I’m hoping this will become a series on this blog – that depends how willing the authors are to speak about their work. To that end I’m going to limit myself to just four questions – the main discussion points at the book groups or those that intrigued me the most.
The first of these author interviews is going to be with Naomi Alderman. She grew up in London and attended Oxford University and UEA. Her first novel, Disobedience, published in 2006, is set in the orthodox Jewish community in Hendon, London. The novel won the Orange Award for New Writers.
Naomi Alderman’s second book, The Lessons deals with a very different kind of community, that of the rich and privileged students at Oxford. It is a subject that is well covered in English literature. But to condemn The Lessons to ‘just another Brideshead’ -category would do the book, an its author, a great injustice.
James Steiff comes from a family with comparatively modest means to study Physics at Oxford. He struggles to fit into the heated cauldron of its snobbish academia, and is instead sucked into the luxurious life of Mark Winters, who according to the author herself, ‘has had a trust-fund upbringing which left him as troubled and as unpredictable as he is promiscuous’. As well as James, Mark gathers around him a group of adoring, beautiful friends: the darkly exotic Emmanuella who has a weakness for blonde, Nordic boyfriends, Franny and Simon, the on-and-off couple, and Jess, a talented musician whose calming influence brings new happiness to James.
The group of friends become isolated from the rest of university life. James finds himself completely dependent on Mark’s money, as well as entangled in his erratic and increasingly dangerous lifestyle. The sense of menace is never far away when Mark is around; he seems to invite it. But when their time at university comes to an end, none of the group of friends wish to let go of their Oxford time and their post-university lives become even more complicated.
I found the book compelling, and very much enjoyed reading it. Some of us in the book group found the characters a little unbelievable, although particularly James induced a heated debate – a sign that the characterisation worked. Mark intrigued everyone, and as you will see from the interview below, this is no wonder. As a mother of an Oxford graduate, I recognised the academic challenges that studying at the university brings, although I, as well as many in the book group, craved some signs of the outside world to ground the book more firmly to a particular era.
Here’s the interview:
Is there anything in the characters, plot or setting of The Lessons that you found easy or difficult, or that you were compelled to write about?
I started writing the novel with the sex scene, in fact! The one right in the centre of the book in the kitchen with the bacon. It just came into my head one day in about 2003, and I jotted it down, except that the narrator was a woman! Then a few years later I was going through my notebooks and found this scene and suddenly went… “ohhhh, the narrator is a *man*”. And then over the course of a weekend the whole story spun out in my head.
The first half of the book was very difficult. I wrote it once, quite fast, but when I came to read it, it was just all really boring. I think I’d understood the book too well, hadn’t surprised myself in the writing. I threw out the first 50,000 words and started again. That was pretty traumatic, but I learned something about my process – I have to surprise myself on the page or it becomes boring for the reader.
How did you decide on the main character of James? Was he very clear in your head before you started the book, or did he develop during the writing process?
Hmmm. It was very obvious to me, one of the first things I knew about him was that he was lame. I felt he was a wounded soul. The process of creating a character is quite strange – you don’t exactly *decide* on a character, it’s more that you feel it out. Finding out what you seem, somehow, instinctively to know about them, and what’s unclear. His voice was hard to get and I’m not convinced I got it completely right! But I had the sense from the start that he was damaged, and that further damage would be done to him, that he was in love with someone who it was a bad idea to be in love with – I’ve been in that position myself, so it was attractive to be able to write about him!
What about Mark?
Oh, he turned up the first day, in that first scene that I wrote in 2003. There he was, being a fucked-up bastard. A sexy bastard, though. It’s interesting, I still don’t feel I’ve fully understood him. He remains mysterious to me – why on earth is he like that?
Is it true that you wrote the book as a homage to Brideshead Revisited?
I wouldn’t say a homage, probably precisely the reverse! An argument with Brideshead, I think. A complaint against it. As if I were able to say to Evelyn Waugh “you ghastly snob, do you realise that by using your genius to write this extraordinary novel, you’ve sentenced generations of young people to arrive at Oxford expecting a transformational fairy tale, when it’s just a university?” To shine some light on the things that Waugh totally ignores – like the academic work! I think Brideshead continues to have something of a malign influence, and I wanted to dissect that a bit.
As always when I hear a beloved author speak, I was left wanting more. I could have spent a whole day and night discussing this complex novel with Naomi. Perhaps in another life?