BOOK FESTIVAL – Writing Under The Influence

“You’ve just been curated!”

So says Margaret Atwood to Granta Best Young British Novelist Naomi Alderman and multi-award winning Valerie Martin, as host of Writing Under The Influence, one of several events she is chairing at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Focusing on topics and influences considered outwith the mainstream, the event proves to be a fascinating and entertaining discussion, presided over by Atwood’s razor-sharp wit.

“If Margaret Atwood asks you to pretend to be a zombie,” says Alderman, “you say yes,” sitting down again after demonstrating the undead monsters’ shambling gait. The impersonation is prompted by a discussion examining the fascination with ghosts and monsters, something both Alderman and Martin have dealt with extensively in their work.

“I thought they were real!” says Martin, when asked what monsters stand for metaphorically. As author of the alternative telling of Jekyll & Hyde Mary Reilly and short stories featuring centaurs and mermaids, she is well-versed in the otherworldly, citing her upbringing in New Orleans and early familiarity with the works of Poe as influences.

Alderman has stepped outside the novel platform as writer of the popular Zombies, Run! app (an episode of which features Margaret Atwood herself as one of the last surviving humans in Canada). Alderman then goes on to talk a little about how writing for games is different, and potentially more immersive for its audience than a novel.

Martin doesn’t necessarily agree. “The real virtual reality has always been the novel,” she says. “A pen and paper – that’s my platform.”

The three agree that the novel still stands as “the most unlimited access to the brain of another person”; and potentially the “greatest artform” in terms of the investment of time a reader spends with it.

A light-hearted discussion about quality longform TV drama ensues, dwelling particularly some of the historical inaccuracies in The Tudors. This in turn leads to the topic of historical research, something all three writers are intimately familiar with.

“I view the ‘fiction’ in historical fiction as both a license and a command,” says Martin, less concerned about accuracy than she is with telling a powerful story.

Alderman, whose most recent work The Liars’ Gospel seeks to unearth potentially hidden truths in the New Testament, is more meticulous in her approach — “My fiction is justified,” she says, “according to the available text.”

Returning to the topic of monsters in the question & answer session, the three ponder on the changing nature of today’s scary adversaries. After some discussion, they agree that the biggest monster today is not some undead foe, but the very real power of the corporation.

Martin puts it best, comparing this all too human threat to the shambling horde. “Zombies,” she says, “are looking good…”

Valerie Martin and Naomi Alderman were in conversation with Margaret Atwood at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Aug 25.

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