Interview: Naomi Alderman, author

NAOMI Alderman's first novel, Disobedience, was about a young Jewish lesbian returning to her Orthodox community of Hendon. It caused a splash, winning the Orange New Writer's Award as well as generating a fair whack of controversy back home in Hendon, where Alderman, also an Orthodox Jew, though not a lesbian, grew up.

The Jewish Chronicle gave Disobedience a vitriolic review, people wouldn't leave her alone in the street, and while Alderman was being feted as the new Zadie Smith, she feared she would never be able to write again.

"It was really hard," she tells me, though she obviously got past it as her second book, The Lessons, a campus thriller set at Oxford, is about to be published. It's the last day of Passover and Alderman, who is bright, charismatic and very candid, is at home in "holy Hendon", as she calls it, packing away all the special cutlery and crockery that has to be used over the festival.

"I had a year of panic attacks," she goes on. "I was feeling really pressured, like I could never do it again. With a first novel you put things on hold because it takes so much mental energy and self-belief to keep on writing. So there were things I wasn't dealing with because I was trying to get that blasted book finished." Things like what? She laughs nervously. "Oh, like not wanting to be an Orthodox Jew anymore."

Beyond the accolades and awards, writing Disobedience had a profound effect on Alderman's life. "I kept myself very religious while I was writing it because I thought it would be bad faith not to," she explains. "For a long time I had known morally that I was not in agreement with Orthodoxy but I was still doing all the practices. After the novel was published I came to feel that I couldn't call myself Orthodox anymore. It's so patriarchal, anti-women, anti-gay. There was something about writing Disobedience… it felt like I had put it all in the book. I had done my best by it, recorded what it meant for me. I felt I was done."

Now Alderman refers to herself as "used to be Orthodox", which she tells me is an officially recognised religious category in Israel. She observes practices that still have meaning for her, such as Passover, and jettisons the rest. "I realise that one can just chuck it all out," she notes. "But I've never been one for that. Better to find a new use for an old practice."

No wonder it takes us a while to get to The Lessons. At first sight, Alderman's second novel is a departure, a dark and compulsive read that has more in common with Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited than Disobedience. In this louche campus novel about a young man's obsession with a magnetic, obscenely wealthy gay fellow student, there are clear antecedents. The Lessons abounds in bright young things making lofty pronouncements over expensive wine and wheels of ripe cheese. It has the glamour, the wealth, and the classic fall from grace.

And Oxford, where Alderman also studied, isn't so far from Hendon after all, both ancient university and Orthodox Judaism being hothouse communities where rules and rituals must be observed in order to preserve identity. Both are worlds where the self can be swallowed.

"I felt like Oxford wasn't really intended for me," Alderman confesses, though her father is a renowned Oxford don who first took her to Lincoln College when she was eight, telling her that "one day you'll come here". "It was an institution for monks, wealthy Christian men. Two hundred years ago I wouldn't have been able to go because it didn't admit Jews. Something of that spirit has remained. It seems to me that Oxford would like you to pretend that you're a toff."

When Alderman, who also works as a games writer, finished The Lessons she felt she had "gone and written the same bloody book again". Exploring sexuality, the demands made by family and community, the gay love triangle – the themes of Disobedience resurfaced. "Do you know what my therapist says?" Alderman says. "That my first book was about what it is to be a woman and my second is about what it is to be a man."

Why is she so interested in writing about homosexuality? Alderman seems puzzled by this herself and admits that The Lessons only began to make sense when she made her protagonist male. Like so much in her life, she puts it down to her Orthodox upbringing. "Judaism doesn't have a lot to say about straight women's sexuality," she explains. "The message I got growing up was to keep my legs crossed until I got married. The basic attitude to female sexuality is that it doesn't exist. So I have an empathy with people who are told that their sexuality, their desire, is not something that can be spoken about."

Alderman's next novel is set in Roman occupied Judea and she is determined it won't have such a cataclysmic impact on her life. "Not that I'll be renouncing my Oxford degree after writing The Lessons," she jokes. "I got that fair and square. But I am hoping my next novel won't be so explosive."

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, April 11, 2010