Introducing Mentor & Protégé, presented by Rolex
A curiosity about almost everything and a shared sense of humour shaped young British author Naomi Alderman’s mentorship with Canadian writer Margaret Atwood in 2012–2013. She recounts how their literary excursions have turned into an enduring friendship.
I was a young writer in the 1950s and 1960s in Canada, where being an artist of any kind was considered strange. Nobody told me I couldn’t do it because I was a girl: they were baffled by the thought of anybody trying to do it at all. In some ways this was an advantage, since the field was not cluttered up by giants with huge reputations blocking the light. Not in Canada.
This relative absence — and the absence of what we might now call “cultural infrastructure” — meant that writers of my generation helped other writers. We started publishing companies, we edited one another, we launched magazines and reading series, we created institutions such as the Writers’ Union. In turn, we were helped by older people who’d been on the word-road longer: writers, but also publishers and reviewers and anthologists.
So the idea of “mentoring” wasn’t new to me, though back in the dark ages we didn’t use that word. However, by the second decade of the 21st century I felt the hot potato could now be passed to a younger generation. For them the panicked midnight phone call from desperate first-time novelists; for me the cozy full night’s sleep. But then, while attending the American Booksellers Association, I was accosted in a bar by two secret operatives from the Rolex Arts Initiative. Zeroing in on my inner Puritan, for whom no amount of worthy drudgery is ever enough, they convinced me that I owed the world one more turn at the wheel of the Good Ship Mentoring, so as to pass along my kindly wisdom and my hints about how to jazz up one’s lacklustre prose to a worthy younger practitioner.
I woke up the next morning wondering what sinister contract I’d signed in blood the night before. Had it all been a dream? No, for several excellent candidates were soon presented to me by Team Rolex. It was hard to choose. Too young, and my gorgonish presence might overwhelm the neophyte; too advanced, and why bother? Too humourless, and they would be alarmed by me. A blend of accomplishment and seriousness, balanced by a lighter touch — I hesitate to call it “silliness” — was called for. And perhaps a person from whom I myself might learn something, even at my advanced age?
In the end I selected Naomi Alderman: not only a thrice-published novelist, but a writer of video games and the co-creator of an exercise app called Zombies, Run! –in its infancy then, but now a certified success. In addition to our novelizing habits, we shared an interest in the wilder shores of Internet technology and pop-culture weirdness, and a curiosity about almost everything.
Over our Rolex year, we expanded each other’s horizons. I suddenly had more zombies in my life than I’d had before, and Naomi had, literally, more horizons. She came birdwatching in Cuba, and then — a longer stretch, on a boat — up the Labrador coast and into Arctic Canada, where she proudly acquired some red moosehide mittens. Not every girl from London has a set of those. In transit, we talked over the intricacies of the novel she was writing, and that I was reading in instalments. My lips are sealed, as she isn’t quite done yet, but be prepared for a surprise.
Exchanges between writers are notoriously hard to visualize. It’s words, words, words, to quote Hamlet, and they’re hard to photograph, unlike — for instance — dancers. But such exchanges are very real nonetheless. Think of them as benevolent microbes: invisible, but powerful. Will I always know Naomi? Yes, unless she can conquer her habit of referring to me as “the flower of Canadian literature”. (English people think the idea of Canadian literature having a flower is inherently funny. But which flower, I ask? Skunk cabbage? Viper’s bugloss? Have my lessons in the precision of the natural world been for nothing?) Will Naomi always know me? Not in the natural order of things. But after I have become a name, for always roaming with a hungry heart, like Tennyson’s Ulysses or else a zombie in Zombies, Run!, those red moosehide mittens will, I hope, remain.
About the series, Mentor & Protégé
What happens when 14 of the world’s most artistic people spend time together in one-to-one mentoring relationships? Find out in a remarkable series of articles about seven globally acclaimed artists and their protégés who spent 2014–2015 inspiring each other, collaborating and roaming a vast, creative universe.