Interview with Zadie Smith

24 Jun 2011

Photo Credit: Roderick Field

Zadie Smith, now firmly established as one of our leading contemporary novelists, burst onto the literary scene in 2000 with White Teeth, a sprawling epic novel that chronicles the lives of three North London families and their community. It won numerous awards including the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. She amply repaid the high expectations raised by this debut with The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005), a story of the rivalry between two academics at a New England liberal arts college and their families, which won the Orange Prize the following year. Her most recent work is an essay collection entitled Changing My Mind (2009). She lives in New York and London.

Interviewed by Louis Leslie

Your three novels take on quite broad themes – science and religion in White Teeth, celebrity culture in The Autograph Man, and politics in On Beauty –and your characters tend to epitomize different factions of thinking. One can list countless examples – such as the Kipps and Belsey’s opposing political ideas in On Beauty, and Magid’s scientific atheism paired with his twin brother’s eventual Islamic fundamentalism. When you first conceive of a ‘book of ideas’, as you have referred to White Teeth, do you find it easier to shape the ideas or the characters that embody them?

To be honest, I hope those ‘books of ideas’ as you put them are in my past. A novel shouldn’t be an essay. Its ideas, if it has them, should be a bit more diffusely spread. I don’t care about staging debates anymore. I don’t think I ever really did – it was just easier than writing properly. It’s much harder to write truthfully, chaotically, without a neat plan, without always manipulating your reader in one way or another. The small bits I still like now of those three books aren’t the Ideas with a capital I – it’s the small, human moments. Samad at work as a waiter, Alex Li-Tandem getting drunk, or the three siblings in On Beauty meeting by accident in the street. For me, those things last and the rest just fades, like a certain kind of journalism.

I think I’m a control freak by nature, but one of the things I look for in other people’s writing is the ability to confer freedom. That’s what I want to be able to do myself. I like a writer who doesn’t have to be in total control of how their readers react. More mystery, less explanation. All I can say is I’m working on it. But it’s so hard! I really feel I’m just at the base of a huge mountain called ‘learning how to write’. I’m still only 35. Learning to write is a task that takes up your whole life.

You are generous towards your characters – whilst one might dislike their views and what they might represent, you still take the time to be empathetic towards them. One might think of Monty Kipps as a cold cartoon of a man whose ideas override his humanity, yet towards the end of On Beauty it is revealed that he’s having an affair. Have you ever struggled to empathise with a character’s point of view, and has this impacted on how you portray them?

Sometimes my prejudices overwhelm me. I don’t think I am especially good at rendering young women, for example – perhaps for the reason that I suffered at the hands of young women when I was a young woman. I was an awkward kid, and I felt envious and scared of these girls for whom being a teenage girl didn’t seem at all problematic. As a result I think teenage girls have never quite passed into my sympathies – in On Beauty especially I think it shows. Meanwhile older women are always very sympathetic in my books, because when I became an adult and spent time with women in their fifties and sixties, I found those women impressive – also they weren’t teasing me in a playground….I think all writers have these – what shall we call them – “blind spots”? I’m much too hard on Victoria in On Beauty. What crime has she committed really? But I was writing from my teenage brain, back when girls like Victoria made me feel terrible.

‘Only Connect’ is the motto of Forster’s Howards End, the novel that you use as ‘scaffolding’ in On Beauty. You deliberately recreate entire scenes from the novel, from the opening series of letters, to the concert scene, and certain characters are recognizable as being from Howards End. What made you decide to make these references so clear, and are there any other novels that you would like to pay homage to in a similar way?

I’d never do it again. At the time I couldn’t really explain why I had done it. Now, in retrospect, I can see it was an act of tribute, and also a goodbye: a way of laying to rest the influences that dominated me as a child, which were quite conservative literary influences. The thing is, it’s contextual. When I was a fourteen year old all I wanted to prove was that I was English, that I could read the ‘classics’ as well as anyone, that if I passed my exams I had a right to go to this posh university just like any of these posh kids who considered it their birthright. I was outside of everything and I wanted to be inside. That’s the opposite position of a lot of young British writers, who took their Britishness as an undeniable fact and wanted to break out – to French shores, for example, or beyond. I just wanted to prove I had a right to write, to add to the literature of the country in which I found myself. Hence the Forster, hence the Eliot, hence the Woolf, hence all of that. It was personal and political. I was absolutely determined that no-one was going to say to me “Oh, they only let you into Cambridge out of some kind of working-class/race affirmative action.” I wanted it to be clear that I could do the work as well as the next Etonian. So my childhood was all about being this good student, because I had no money, and without the grades I knew I wasn’t going to get out of Willesden. To me ‘wanting to be a writer’ meant first passing these A levels. I knew I was fucked without them.

It was only when I got to college that I realized I had concerned myself with a lot of stuff my peers weren’t concerned with. A friend said to me at the time that I was ‘fatally out of step with my generation’ – but in a way I think that embedded Nerdism, being more familiar, at that time, with Milton than Bukowski or whatever, helped me. It gave me a very solid foundation.

Anyway, the Forster thing was part of that out-of-stepness. So then it was so strange to find myself published and hear some people saying ‘you only got published because you’re trendy and black.’ I felt black, but not trendy. But of course, if people want to see you that way, you can’t win with them – trying to ‘prove yourself’ to people like that, I see now that it’s a hiding to nothing. I try and write the best books I can and people are of course free to like or dislike them, but there will always be people who say ‘she got published because she’s black’. Consider for a moment how it would be possible to win this argument? You can’t win it. The only objective test I can think of is if ten young white writers and I submit anonymous essays or stories to a board of readers convinced that blackness is an enormous secret advantage in the publishing industry. Would they be able to spot my affirmative-action prose? Is it really so poor next to my white peers? Maybe. We should set up that test somehow.

No, the real, unquestionable advantage was Cambridge. A publisher wrote to me in my final year because he’d read something of mine in a Cambridge publication. That was the absurd luck and privilege of the institution. All I can say is that I worked my arse off to get into that institution. And I felt guilty, because I had so much luck. The only way I could justify my luck to myself was to try and write as well as the next guy. What else can you do?

This is a long way of saying that On Beauty was the end of all that for me – of trying to get people’s approval by writing myself IN to this English tradition. I just don’t care any more. All I can do is continue to work very hard on my little projects, taking in any influence I feel like, and not fearing subjects that interest me. 19th century Jamaica interests me. The 70’s Black Power movement in London interests me. The feminist lesbian movements of the 60’s and 70’s interest me. At the moment, sci fi, speculative fiction, interests me enormously. I’m so excited now about the next decade. I feel free!

Part of the reason your use of this framework doesn’t feel unnatural is that you use quite a traditional approach to writing in terms of plot and characterization – it is quite common to refer to White Teeth as Dickensian. Yet you express admiration for more experimental writers such as David Foster Wallace. Do you think you will write more experimental fiction in the future?

It’s not a genre: ‘experimental fiction.’ The kind of experimental writer I care about is not the kind who sits down intending to write ‘experimentally’ so he can be part of some hipster crowd. DFW wrote the only way he knew how to, which was irreducibly strange. There are as many fraudulent ‘experimental’ writers as there are fraudulent ‘literary writers’. DFW was not a fraud. Kafka wasn’t intending ‘experiment’ as a kind of brand, nor was Beckett. Nor was Djuna Barnes. They were intending to be truthful to their own conceptions of the world, and it happened that their truths were rigorous, painful and difficult.

Then again, if anyone were to write with complete honesty about their experience of the world it would be so ‘experimental’ as to be unreadable – our consciousness is not perfectly translatable to others. So I guess experimental writers are those who are inching towards a more honest representation of experience, and that’s what I love about them, that’s what’s exciting. In the pursuit of honesty they approach incomprehensibility.

But the reader in me and the writer in me are two different people – it’s much easier to read than to write. I adore Perec – but I can’t write like Perec! You can’t just “decide” to write like the people you admire. If you could, God, life would be simple. But that part of “experimental” writing (I really hate speaking of it this way. Better to speak of individual writers) that is more rigorously honest, and that tests out unusual perspectives (say, Perec writing from the point of view of physical space. Why shouldn’t a piece of writing be narrated with the emphasis on physical space instead of consciousness? They’re both equally real) – I do aspire to that. I hope to get more honest, yes! To me, being more honest would mean abandoning certain conventions and expressing experience the way I actually experience it (which of course is nothing like a Forsterian novel.)

BUT I also care about the tradition of the British novel – it has tools I can use and that I don’t want to entirely abandon. Up till now my little form of experiment has been to bring to the traditional British novel characters that have not appeared in it till now. That might strike some people as a pointless experiment but for a lot of my readers – for me! – it was a thing worth doing. You get bored of reading of only white middle-class people all of the time. Perhaps in the future my form of experiment will take on a different shape, but in my twenties, forcing your average literary reader to read about kids like Levi or Zora or Alex-Li – that’s what I wanted to do.

A lot of the contemporary writers you refer to in interviews are American writers, such as David Foster Wallace, Dennis Cooper, and George Saunders. This is at a time when some people, such as Horace Engdhal, say that American fiction is too ‘insular’ and doesn’t ‘participate in the big dialogue of world literature.’ Do you think this is the case?

I don’t care about insularity. Writing tends to be intensely local. Somalian writers write of Somalia. Parisian writers very often write of Paris. My question is: can this person write? All three men you mention write wonderfully.

In the author’s note to your contribution of “Martha and Hanwell” to the Pocket Penguins of 2005, you say that a contrast between English and American writers is that ‘English writers are not rewarded for writing short stories’. You also split your time between New York and London. Would you say there is a divide between the way American and British readers receive your work and do you find yourself becoming conscious of it when you write, even with non-fiction?

I know I can publish a 6000 word essay in New York, or an equally long story. I can’t really do that in England, there simply isn’t the magazine culture. But in terms of my affections, England is a country I love, love to live in, and love to write about. New York is just a practical place to be a writer. You can work there without distraction. If you’re very lucky you can teach just for 16 weeks a year, as I do, and teach great novels. I get to spend 16 weeks re-reading Nabokov, Kafka, Muriel Spark, and so many other favourites, and then the rest of the year doing my own thing. Impossible in England. People get this overheated idea of an evil MFA [Master of Fine Arts] culture in NY, as if it’s a cult. I’ve only been in it for a year properly, so I know I’m no expert, but what I see is people teaching novels from a writer’s perspective. In my opinion kids who get to read Dostoevsky with Donald Antrim or Chekov with George Saunders – well, that’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Personally I love to read and I love to read in a room with 12 bright kids – and New York makes that possible.

I always find so many things in a writer’s life that people tend to develop baroque theories about have actually perfectly practical explanations. I’m in New York because I have a baby and I have exactly three years before I have to live in London for the rest of my life (or until she’s 18) so in my three years I’d like to have a little adventure. New York allows me to teach one semester and spend the rest of the time in new places. I’m hoping to spend most of next year in Istanbul. But when my kid turns five, I’ll be a fully British writer again. A writer’s life is like that: they take university jobs, they leave them, they live in one country or another – it all depends on where they can get work done, and also on the other people in their lives.

In the same note, you write that you are ‘not a natural short story writer’. What is it about the expanse of the novel that attracts you to it as a medium?

It doesn’t attract me, I just can’t be brief. (See also: this interview) I wish I could. I can’t stand long novels. It’s my dream to write a 200 pager – which is what I’m trying to do now. I find short stories so difficult. I didn’t do an MFA so I was never taught how to write them, and to be honest I rarely read them until I came to America. I mostly leave them to people with more talent for them. Mine are always like novels squished into 3000 words. Not very balanced.

In your New Yorker Lecture ‘How To Fail Better’, you talk of Alain de Botton saying it would be interesting to ask living writers ‘what do you yourself think is wrong with your writing?’ Do you think this is a useful question in the sense that it helps readers understand your writing better, or that it helps other writers understand the craft better?

I doubt it’s useful for readers – it’s just literary masturbation as far as they’re concerned. But for me to understand my failures is to improve, a little.

You also talk of the many unfinished books that writers leave abandoned. Do you think the posthumous publication of fragments of novels such as Forster’s Arctic Summer and Nabokov’s Laura are worth publishing in their own right outside of the interest in them in light of the writers’ oeuvre?

Honestly, I have a horror of it. Especially with a perfectionist like Nabokov. I just don’t understand what his estate were thinking. It seemed like an act of sabotage. By all means, show it to a few academics whose business it is to pick over bones – but publish it as a novel? It’s strange. Personally, it was painful for me to read Laura. I was meant to review it but gave it up. I dislike writing bad reviews unless the book is bad in some interesting way, or so interestingly done (even if it isn’t to my taste) that it can take interrogation without too much pain. I am not motivated by dislike – I need to love something really to want to write about it. But Laura just wasn’t worthy of the genius whose name was on the cover, and I felt he would have thought so, too. I couldn’t see any way to approach it fairly.

Do you have any abandoned novels, or ‘disappointed bridges’ of your own lurking on your hard-drive, and if so, what led you to abandon them?

The novel I’m writing has been serially abandoned. We last broke up about three months ago. Now we’re having a few tentative dates.

Jaron Lanier has written on the potential impact of the digitization of books, and the danger that this will lead to ‘mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment’. What do you think the impact of the Internet as it stands now is having on the way people approach and discuss literature?

It’s easy to fall into Luddism answering questions like this, especially at my age (35) which in Internet terms is about 110. The only thing I will say comes from personal experience: when one of my essays is published on the Internet, sometimes responses will be written and I’m often quite struck by how people sometimes take from what I’ve written the exact opposite of what I meant. For example, a journalist did an interview with the director David Fincher recently and asked him what he thought of me hating The Social Network! I thought I’d written a long essay about how much I loved The Social Network. That kind of stuff happens fairly regularly. You spend days on these sentences – months, in the end – and then you realize that most of the people who will read them will read them at internet speed – and skip paragraphs, and miss nuances, or whole arguments. Or only read the commentary on a piece rather than the piece itself. So you have this slightly absurdist position of writing with care for a community who reads with little care. I completely understand it – when I read off a screen I read very casually. If I want to understand something I print it off and take it to bed.

You have recently been campaigning against the closure of libraries in Brent, most notably Kensal Rise. Local libraries are obviously a vital part of a community – what do you think the impact of these closures will be on local life and aspiring writers who will no longer have the ease of access these places afford them?

The question sort of answers itself, doesn’t it? I don’t think I would have passed my exams without my local library. Without the exams I wouldn’t have gone to college. Without college I doubt I would have written. It’s all so obvious. But no-one seems to care. It’s not just libraries – it’s a whole avenue of escape that’s been closed down. I was born in 1975. I was schooled for free, educated for free, when I broke my leg it was fixed for free, when I passed my exams I got to Cambridge for free. With a maintenance grant from Brent council that I did not have to pay back and without which I couldn’t have survived. That is what made my life possible – the availability of services that were free at the point of access. I should think I’ve paid the state back in taxes many times over by now. From the vantage point of 2011, 1945-1975 looks like a golden period in British history. It was a period where you at least had a chance of realizing the opportunities of a meritocracy. That time is over.

Your recent collection of essays included a piece, “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov”, in which you identify two types of reader, those for whom the ‘impersonality’ of Barthes’ approach works, ‘boldly’ walking into the house of fiction, and those who revere the writer as a figure. Do you find your own readership to consist of one type more than the other?

My audience is very mixed. I wouldn’t like to generalize.

You also include a series of essays on films, in which you venerate Katherine Hepburn, and damn more recent, derivative films such as Date Movie and Casanova. How do you view the film industry’s recent realization since the writer’s strikes that re-makes are very lucrative, and are there any plans for an adaptation of On Beauty?

I think there are plans to change the remake culture – I know Fox are hiring writing talent to make original movies again. And there’s the mumblecore kids and all that. I think there’s always about the same proportion of shit and shinola in Hollywood. For every Hepburn movie of the 30’s there was a sea of awful nonsense. There’s an On Beauty plan. There’s been a plan for years. I don’t have very much to do with it.

Finally – you have recently spent some time living in Rome; particularly interesting since Italy has been a haven for many Anglo-American writers over the years. Could we expect to see an A Room with a View / Portrait of a Lady inspired novel from you sometime in the future?

I guess that’s not the aspect of Italy that interests me. The piazzas and the romance. That’s not Italy – that’s an Englishman’s vision of Italy. I sort of see it more as a speculative fiction place – like, what would happen to England if media regulation disappeared, the BBC went, Murdoch had the terrestrial channels and the fourth estate collapsed? People wrongly believe Italy to be a backward country. Actually Italy is a vision of what’s coming.

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