Twin towers attack drove executive to a new life - and hope of the Orange Prize

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The Independent Culture

Naomi Alderman was working in a New York law firm a mile from the World Trade Centre when she gazed out of the window to witness the collapse of the twin towers on 11 September.

The terrorist attack led her to re-examine her life, and, less than six months later, she left her well-paid job as a marketing executive, returned home to England and enrolled on a creative writing course at the University of East Anglia.

Less than four years on, after completing her debut novel, Disobedience, in a local library in Hendon, north London, her work has been shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers, announced yesterday.

The book tells the story of 33-year-old Ronit, a rabbi's daughter and a lesbian, who returns to the Orthodox Jewish community of north London after 15 years to find that she is not entirely welcome.

Ms Alderman, 31, who was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Hendon, said that for three years running she sent off for a university prospectus to study creative writing but had not dared to apply for it until after 11 September.

"I looked out of the window just as the second plane hit the tower. I remember thinking that day, 'I could just die'. The feeling crept over me over the next few weeks. Everyone I know who witnessed the attack had something of a 'near-death' experience. It caused me to think very seriously about my life. I thought, 'If I die working, I'd like to be doing something more meaningful to me.' I couldn't put it off any more," she said.

The Oxford University graduate, who was also longlisted this year for the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction, said that the attacks left many of her friends re-evaluating their lives too, and many "came out as gay", which inspired the storyline of her novel, which was completed last November.

She said: "I know a lot of people who came out as being gay in the aftermath of 9/11. A lot of people thought 'I cannot live a lie any more'. I also knew a lot of people who got married. There was a spate of engagements and a spate of break-ups. I think it triggered a lot of people to re-evaluate their lives. There was a whole maelstrom of events happening after 11 September."

Diana Evans, the author of 26a and winner of the Orange Award for New Writers last year, reviewed Disobedience as "a bold and fiery debut, brimming with grace as well as attitude".

Ms Alderman said that although reaction had not been universally favourable, the authenticity of her character's experience had not been questioned. She said: "I have already had some censure, not everyone in the Orthodox Jewish community has liked it. I did have some trepidation about writing it, and thought, are people going to ignore me on the street?

"That hasn't happened; everyone is lovely, at least to my face. Some have criticised the plot as being unbelievable and the character as being paper thin, but no one has said that the woman's experience is not accurate."

Two other writers were shortlisted for the £10,000 prize for women writers publishing their first works of fiction.

Olga Grushin, who was born in Moscow but now lives in the United States, was selected for The Dream Life Of Sukhanov, which tells the story of a high-ranking Soviet apparatchik ruminating over his decision to choose a safe, comfortable and glittering career rather than follow his real calling as an underground artist.

Yiyun Li, who grew up in Beijing and has lived in the US since 1996, is in the running for A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers, a collection of 10 short stories which are set in China and among the Chinese-American communities in the US.

Louise Doughty, the author who is chair of the judges, said that it had been a "fantastically strong year" for debut novels.

"It was incredibly hard to get the shortlist for this year's award down to just three books," she said.

The winner will be announced on 6 June at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London.