Naomi Alderman's novel, The Lessons, draws on mixed experiences of university life.
Why did you apply to Oxford?
This is terrible: my teachers at South Hampstead High School in London, an all-girls school - said that I ought to be an Oxbridge candidate. My father had been at Lincoln College in the 1960s, so I thought, I might as well apply there.
What were your first impressions?
I remember going for interview in the depths of winter, worrying about what I was going to be asked. But the interview was the most enjoyable part - talking to bright, interested teachers who wanted you to be clever. I remember being offered a cup of tea in this glorious old building and thinking, this is just charming.
You read PPE ...
Actually, I wanted to read English, but my English teacher said she didn't think I would pass the entrance exam. So I thought: OK, I'll try PPE.
What kind of a student were you?
I liked philosophy, didn't like politics, didn't really like economics. I think - another thing, I'm remembering it now - I was not very capable of accepting that I was fairly average. That was really hard, and I think I'm not alone in that. A lot of students may have been the best in their class at school, but may not have developed the greatest social skills. They hang their social self-esteem on their academic work, and then they arrive at Oxford and that's taken away, because almost everyone at Oxford is going to be strong academically.
What about your tutors?
Lucy Allwood was amazing. She taught me more, I think, than I learned at any other point about what philosophy was, and why we were studying it. When the tutorial system works, it is a conversation with an adult who takes your brain seriously. At that time, that was a big deal.
But there were less happy times?
It wasn't all wonderful. At the end of one of my first terms one tutor said, 'Well, I think we've really wasted this term's work.' At the time, I felt guilty. Now I think I would storm into the college offices and say, surely it is his job to make sure we don't waste a term? But rather like James, the narrator in The Lessons, I became convinced that I was a bit thick. Perhaps I was also distracted by social life.
What was social life like?
I was the treasurer of my college Ball, I was an editor of a college newspaper, I wrote for Cherwell, I worked on a production of The Prisoner. I was heavily involved in the Jewish Society, which - certainly in my first year - was my home. They provided kosher food, and at that time I was very Orthodox, so that was the only place I could get a hot meal! If you'd asked me then what I thought of Oxford, I'd have said, I absolutely love it. It is only subsequently I've come to think that maybe not all elements were brilliant.
What were they?
After primary school, Oxford was the first place where I made male friends. I remember a weird sexual culture - weird to me, anyway. There were lists of 'who'd snogged who', that would get put up in the loos ... I don't know whether I would say it was sexist, but it was odd ... And, at a time when some colleges had only recently started to admit women, there was some resentment. In my second year, the Jewish Society even decided to revive an all-male dining society. I felt that was a betrayal.
Oxford stimulated your feminism ...
Absolutely. A friend bought me a copy of Backlash by Susan Faludi, and we had great conversations about it. In The Lessons, another character says: 'Oxford is hell, but the people make it heaven', and this is the thing - I met people with whom I could discuss my concerns, my worries.
Did Oxford shape you as a writer?
I met a girl in my first week who said: I want to write novels. So I told her I wanted to be a novelist too; I wrote a novel over the summer after my first year. My friend thought it was rubbish! But it was important to dream that widely.
In The Lessons, I found echoes of Brideshead Revisited ...
I didn't set out to write that, but that's how it's been described. It seems to me that Brideshead informs students' relationships with Oxford, so that it is very hard now to write about Oxford without having Brideshead in it. But at the same time, I suppose partly it was written as a response to Brideshead.
How do you think of Oxford now?
I left with a 2:2: I felt I had failed. It's funny: I got a distinction for my Masters at [the University of] East Anglia, and that was like, alright, you're not completely thick. It shouldn't still trouble me any more, but it does. It's sad, for years I couldn't go back to Oxford; I thought I had let it down. And then I won a couple of literary prizes and I found I was able to go back ... . It might be a little bit about my relationship with my father. Yeah, you go to your father's old college - that is about your relationship with your dad!
Naomi Alderman's novel Disobedience won the Orange Award for New Writers in 2006. In 2007 she was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. The Lessons is published by Penguin Viking.