About The Author
Zadie Smith was born in Brent and, at various points in her upbringing, explored her passions for tap dancing, musical theatre and jazz singing, before focussing on literature. She went on to study English at King's College, Cambridge. She is married to the writer Nick Laird and is a Professor of Fiction at New York University.
Her first published fiction appeared in 1995 edition of The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge Short Stories. Subsequent stories in the 1996 and 1997 editions resulted in her being approached by Simon Prosser, publishing director at Hamish Hamilton, to write a novel.
White Teeth was published in 2000. A bravura story of three families, one Indian, one white, one mixed, in north London and Oxford from World War II to the present day, it was to win the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award, James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, amongst many other prizes. It was adapted for television in 2002.
After editing and contributing to a collection of erotic short stories, Piece of Flesh, she struggled with writer's block before publishing The Autograph Man in 2002. This followed the exploits of a celebrity-obsessed buyer and seller of autographs as he hopes to engineer a meeting with a star from the Golden Age of Hollywood. She was then included in Granta magazine's decennial list of Best Young British Novelists, announced in 2003.
On Beauty (2005) was conceived in part as an homage to Howard's End by E M Forster, one of Smith's favourite writers. The liberal atheist Belsey family finds itself at odds with the the conservative Christian Kipps family, with the wives developing common cause despite their husbands' mutual enmity. The book won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the previous year's Man Booker Prize.
She edited a collection of character sketches entitled The Book of the Other People (2008), featuring contributions from authors including Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, Miranda July, Nick Hornby and Chris Ware. This was followed in 2009 by Changing My Mind, a collection of essays and reviews written for publications including the Observer, the New Yorker and the Believer.
In 2012 she published NW, which has just been adapted for television. It is set in the area of London where she grew up and to which she regularly returns and follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan - as they try to build their adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. A dazzling portrait of contemporary London, it depicts a fragmented city in which the ability to transcend one's roots comes with the penalty of a loss of identity and community.
Her new novel Swing Time, now out in paperback and on the longlist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, moves between Northwest London and West Africa as it charts the lives of two mixed race girls who dream of becoming dancers, but only one of them has talent. It is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Zadie about writing in the first person for the first time, why she no longer has a phone and what challenges still exist for her as a novelist.
Below that you'll find an earlier interview by Jonathan Ruppin about NW in which Zadie talks about James Joyce as the ultimate realist, how Dickens' portrait of London was the first she recognised as her own city and the advantage of being one writer amongst thousands in New York.
She also shares some of her books she has most enjoyed, both recent reads and all-time favourites.
Author photo © Dominique Nabokov
Questions & Answers
On Swing Time
This is the first novel you’ve written in the first person, was that a function of the story or something you set out in advance to do? Would you do it again?!
It was the whole purpose of the novel for me. It was my motivation: to try something I’d never tried before. But I also knew I wanted a first-person emptied of ‘performance.’ I didn’t want to create the kind of first person we make in social media, or in our social lives, or even in our private diaries. I wanted a first person with no sense of presentation. The kind of first person you are when you have no one to direct yourself towards, and when you don’t have your phone in your hand – that person. The person deep inside of all of us whom we experience as a kind of absence. Someone who acts, who does things, rather than some kind of charming personality we project towards others.
Why did you choose to leave some key characters in the novel unnamed?
For the same reason. A person speaking to themselves does not name themselves or those they’re closest to. It’s ‘I’ ‘mother’ ‘father’. I wanted the reader not to relate to a particular person but to climb inside the voice and live alongside it, without obstruction. It’s an existentialist first person! I knew it would annoy many people but I hope I am not the only person who understands the feeling I am trying to create in a reader.
A large part of the novel is set in northwest London, as your others have been, but you’ve said you won’t use this area again, why is that?
If I said that it was in some exhausted interview context. I never know what’s coming.
The novel is dedicated to your mother Yvonne and the narrator’s mother plays an important role in the book. Do you share the fiercely intellectual mother’s frustration with her less focussed, less politicized daughter?
My mother is a far, far wilder and more joyful woman than the mother here. The mother in Swing Time is a creation and certainly a sort of projection, but of my own future rather than my past. I approach characters like hypotheticals. So in this case it was: what if I took the most rigid aspects of my personality and raised my children that way? What would that look like?
The two girls have a complicated and often fraught relationship. How much were their difficulties circumstantial, or is this simply the nature of young female friendship?
It’s not a general case. I don’t write about ‘female friendship’ but rather about Tracey and her friend. And the reasons for the tension between them I guess are about closeness and comparison. I know plenty of girls who have lovely friendships. But not in this novel!
How far do the motivations of the kind of philanthropic tourist Aimee becomes in West Africa undermine for you the work she does there?
I think each reader will see it differently. Personally I admire Aimee: I admire her will and ability to get things done. I think she makes errors, certainly, but no more than anyone else in the novel. She just has a larger arena in which to make her errors. But the narrator would take a baby just as swiftly as Aimee! She only doesn’t because she can’t.
Technology and how it impacts on communication and our perception of time is an important theme in the novel. Are you conscious of having to resist the power of technology in your own life?
I don’t have the phone. That’s it. It’s not a big deal any more , it’s just my life, and it allows me to read and concentrate and work as I always have done. For me, the phone meant the end of all that. It’s not a judgment on others it’s just my reality.
Your earlier novel NW has just been adapted for tv. Were you more anxious or excited? What involvement did you have in the production, if any?
I had no involvement at all – I didn’t even check the script, because I was so busy with my novel. But I saw it last month and I admire it so so much. I think both the director and scriptwriter did an incredible job and I couldn’t have adapted it any better. In many ways they improved the plot and I’m thankful to both of them.
You’ve said this novel is the closest to what you’ve tried to do. In what way? What challenges do you feel still exist for you as a novelist?
It‘s the closest in terms of it looks like what I wanted when I started (except for the length.) I have so many challenges left. I have straight up funny books to write and books in different genres and stories set in completely other worlds. But the largest remaining challenge is to do it all in 180 pages instead of the usual 400.
The London you portray is less of a cultural melting pot and more of an agglomeration of largely discrete communities. Why do you think so many districts are becoming insular and isolated now?
Belief in the state - and in the very idea of communal responsibilities - has evaporated. Partly this is an ideological shift and partly a necessary post-rationalization after the recent near-collapse of the financial system. Simply put, the rich have got richer and the poor, poorer. But you really didn't need to ask a novelist to get the answer to that, did you? Even the dogs in the street know that....
NW features some ingenious sleights of typography and structure. Do these more experimental aspects come from your admiration of writers like David Foster Wallace and George Saunders?
Not really - neither of them do much with typography, or structure actually; their innovations are more about tone. Anyway, I think we should be a bit wary of labelling certain techniques 'experimental' as if it's just a set of tools one picks up to lend whatever you're writing a trace of hipster cool... it's like those superstores of 'alternative' hipster taste; American Outfitters and so on... I hate that idea. Everything I do is an attempt to get close to the real, as I experience it, and the closer you get to the reality of experience the more bizarre it SHOULD look on the page and sound in the mouth because our real experience doesn't come packaged in a neat three act structure. For me, Joyce is the ultimate realist because he is trying to convey how experience really feels. And he found it to be so idiosyncratic he needed to invent a new language for it. All I was trying to do in NW was tell fewer lies then last time, and it came out the way it came out.
In 'Speaking in Tongues' an essay included in Changing My Mind, you wrote about the way that your working-class voice has gradually been supplanted by that of your life at Cambridge and as part of the literary milieu. Did the writing of NW allow you to rediscover some part of you that had been suppressed?
In that essay I was trying to describe some of the alienating side effects a 'good' education can bring to a working class child. But going to Cambridge didn't make my very large family disappear, or all my friends, or the twenty years of my past. It's all still here and I'm still a part of it, even if I get the piss taken out of me sometimes for my round vowels. It was obviously a pleasure to return to the old neighbourhood, writing-wise, but in another sense it was purely strategic: I knew I wanted to push the envelope style-wise and I thought, 'This is going to be hard enough without having to set the action in, say, New York, a place I barely know.' This book was so hard to write I felt the least I could give myself was a nest of streets I didn't have to Google or visit to describe. And I cheered myself with the thought of Joyce in Trieste writing to relatives back home in Dublin, asking after the name of this or that Dublin butcher's shop or side alley. You can be adventurous and deeply parochial at the same time!
Early on, Leah hands over money to a local alcoholic on the false premise of needing it for an emergency. Is her simmering frustration at being duped more about feeling angry with herself for no longer understanding a community she was raised in?
This is a question for the reader. What does a host owe a desperate guest? These are very old ethical questions - they run all the way back to ancient Greece - but I think they're for each reader to decide for themselves.
There are several episodes, varying from the absurd to the fatal, where the disenfranchised young clash with those around them. Has London become a place where only the children of the middle classes can feel at home?
The opposite. The middle classes seem fantastically fearful and awkward in London, the very opposite of 'feeling at home.' They live in this constant state of anxiety that someone is trying to take something from them. It's the disenfranchised who are truly at home in the streets. But feeling at home in the streets is poor compensation for a bad education, no career prospects and no future.
You said in a recent interview: 'When you have London in a novel, you don't need much else'. Do you have a favourite fictional portrayal of the city?
The Waste Land is obviously wonderful. Actually, my husband recently had a poem in an anthology of five hundred years of London poetry and looking through that I thought it might be in poetry that London is best described. But when I was a kid I guess Dickens was the first writer I read who seemed to be a true citizen of my city.
You've been based in the United States for some time now. Have you found the literary culture there to be very different from that of Britain?
Only in the sense that I seem to get more work done in America, no-one bothers me, and I'm just another writer amongst hundreds of thousands. There's about thirty thousand scribblers in New York alone. I work with about 30 of them. In England I suppose I feel more scrutinized, and in an uncomfortable way. In America it's easier for me to just keep my head down, go to the library and get the words done.
You were very active in the campaign to try to save Kensal Rise Library from closure. What part did libraries play in the development of your own love of reading?
They were essential. They're still essential. I am in a library for the greater part of most of my days. They've been my home since childhood. And they are probably the real reason I stay close to university campuses.