How We Met: Naomi Alderman & Margaret Atwood

'We ended up talking about whether zombies are able to love people'

Margaret Atwood, 73

The award-winning Canadian novelist (right in picture) is best known for her works of speculative fiction, including the Booker Prize-winning 'The Blind Assassin', and most recently her 'Oryx and Crake' series of novels. She lives in Toronto.

I met Naomi in Toronto early last year. She'd been flown over by the Rolex folk as part of its mentoring scheme that I'd been asked to take part in. So we met for lunch to talk and see what we could get out of working together.

We both found pretty early on that we're prone to digression. So rather than talking about the main challenges of writing, we ended up talking about the latest in digital weirdness – and whether zombies are able to love people.

Naomi's pretty self-starting, having hauled herself into writing with no grants – and like me she had to develop a way of making a living in the meantime. Though looking at her life as a video-game author, I would never have guessed she'd grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family.

A number of people have redone the story of Christ as a novel. Someone even did one in which Jesus was a magic mushroom. But Naomi's book The Liars' Gospel is pretty cunning as it's charting the events of Christ's life but reported from four different points of view – and it indicates that this is a mature writer.

We've hung out in New York, working on alternating chapters of a character novel, Happy Zombies Sunrise Home, which we did on [the online writing community] Wattpad. Naomi would mischievously end her chapter with a life-or-death situation that I would then have to get that character out of. And I've been over to London to see her, eating fish and chips with a pint of beer while writing a script [for a zombie-themed fitness app co-created by Alderman].

We come from very different backgrounds. Her's was suburban, while I grew up in the wilds of Northern Canada. And she's had this fascinating point of view growing up Orthodox Jewish, with the restrictions that caused.

Our pairing could have been a disaster but we spend all our time laughing our heads off. She's coming to Toronto next month to stay at my house and work on her new novel. I'm not trying to do any major shaping, though; we're just going to bounce ideas off each other.

Naomi Alderman, 39

Following her award-winning debut, 'Disobedience', about a young woman rebelling against her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, Alderman has written two further novels. She is also an accomplished video-games writer. She lives in London.

I'd read The Handmaid's Tale at school, when I was 15. At the time I was an Orthodox Jew and I'd felt that there were parts of it that were relevant to my life, and I think it made me more rounded. It never occurred to me, though, that I'd be able to meet her – a lot of young novelists would give a limb for that.

At the end of 2011, I was put forward for this mentoring scheme and I became one of four finalists who got to meet Margaret. I was so stressed at meeting her that I got a migraine. We met in a coffee shop in Toronto as a previous candidate was about to leave, and I could tell by the tenor of their conversation it was one where Margaret had done most of the talking. I thought, this won't be the sort of conversation where she tells me some stuff and I say, "Thanks Margaret." I wanted a genuine chat.

And it was hilarious. We talked about men having sex with chickens in 1960s rural America, weird cults and other interesting religions. I told her about weird things in the Bible, such as when Moses's wife has a strop about circumcising their son, does it herself and throws the foreskin at his feet.

The word mentor has some strange connotations. You have to get round the names you are called to get to the kind of relationship that you want to have. She wants to be an editor, a cheerleader and an encouraging aunt. What I'm trying to do is make it fun for us both.

We've hung out together in Toronto and we've talked about things we could do together. Her suggestion was we write a two-handed zombie novella story using Wattpad. So she wrote a chapter and I wrote one in response. If you ever want to feel shit about your work, you only have to put it up next to that of a genius.

I'm now working on a new novel. I'll send her bits and we'll get together again next month to talk about it. I'm happy to discuss it all with her – she's already given me excellent ideas – but I see the process as an adjustment; she's not trying to make me into a writer like her.

My goal when I'm older is to be like Margaret. She's in her seventies but she's not given up on anything in the world and the whole future of technology for her is very interesting, which is wonderful.

Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman are taking part in the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative ( 'The Liars' Gospel' is published by Viking, priced £12.99

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