About The Author
Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962 and lives in Cambridge. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, she was a lecturer at the University of Stratchclyde.
Her first collection of short fiction, Free Love and Other Stories, won the Saltire First Book Award in 1995 and she has written three further collections since: Other Stories and Other Stories (1999), The Whole Story and Other Stories (2003) and The First Person and Other Stories (2008).
Her first novel, Like, was published in 1997. Her second, Hotel World (2001), won the Encore Award, the East England Arts Award of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and Booker Prize. Her third, The Accidental (2005), won the Whitbread Novel Award and was also shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and Booker Prize.
In 2007, she published her contribution to Canongate's Myths series, Girl Meets Boy, a retelling of the transformation of Iphis from Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Her new novel, There But For The, has the intriguing starting point of Miles, a dinner party guest, locking himself in his hosts' spare room: hours, days, weeks later, he is still there, a bizarre celebrity, reported on by camera crews camped outside the house. The novel ranges back and forth throughout Miles' life and some of those who have come into contact with him.
As her readers have come to expect, Smith combines strikingly original ideas and observations with playful variations in style. This thoughtful and absorbing novel confirms Smith as one of the most entertaining and distinctive of contemporary British writers.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Ali Smith discusses a debt to Franz Kafka, the nature of celebrity culture and the importance of outsiders.
Below the interview is a list of titles by Ali Smith currently in print in the UK. You may find othereditions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page andselecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
Questions & Answers
The first question has to be, where did the amazing starting point of a dinner-party guest locking himself in his host's spare room come from?
I started the book first with just a title, then just an image of a man by himself in a room who's unsure as to why he's in there and has no way out.
Then the shadow of Kafka began to interplay with the image. Was he there against his will? Why? What outside forces were holding him there, or were they psychological, or both, and how are these related? Anyway, at this stage I was envisaging a classic, first person narrative. Ha ... when I came to write it, of course, it refused first person, would only be seen from the outside, and from a multiple point of view since the question, the conundrum, is the impetus rather than any answer. It became a book about living with the strangeness and the knownness of others, and the strangeness and the knownness of ourselves.
Despite the ascetic nature of his seclusion, Miles becomes - very plausibly - a celebrity. Were you making a comment on the superficial nature of celebrity culture?
I think it's exactly that - plausible, in terms of this story. That's what would happen. I also sense that celebrity culture is a kind of huge cavernous racketing edifice, a huge wish-fulfilment need and vacuum, so if it's a comment on anything it's on our human facility and desire to make things, and ourselves, meaningful. Plus, it's also maybe a reflection of the original Greenwich Fair, which Dickens recognised both the healthiness of and the feveredness of, in terms of what it's like, to live in a city.
The only character to establish communication with Miles, in the novel's present, is the delightfully precocious nine-year-old Brooke. Why does she manage to do so when he is unresponsive to the others?
She's the only one to try a door which most people believe is locked, and finds it's open, finds it's been unlocked for months. In other words, she's the only one to respond in a spontaneous way to an ostensible status quo.
For much of the book, Miles is seen through other people's eyes and through their memories of him. Do you think this makes for a more realistic portrait of someone new to the reader, given that generally our impression of the people we know of but haven't met is formed in much the same way?
I like this reading very much. I think reader engagement is pretty much the whole point. I tend myself, too, to prefer the sort of fiction which asks me to be there, to be present, take part in the act of putting it together.
In a way this book asks its readers to be communal too, to take part in it.
The two elderly characters in your book, May and the grandfather in Miles' story, are perhaps the most subversive. Do you think they contrast with the liberal middle-class characters who think of themselves as free-thinking but are perhaps more conventional than they realise?
I think both those characters have their subversions and their actually really terrible conservatisms much as all the other formed adult characters have. But age, like youth, confers certain freedoms and particular wisdoms, and can come in at an unexpected (because often unheard or overlooked or ignored) angle on things, as people find themselves confined to category and fight back against it with all their/our human individuality and originality.
It is the outsiders in your book who are the most original and open-minded thinkers. Do you feel that contemporary society is becoming more unwelcoming to alternative points of view?
Hmm. I think everybody in this book is in some way an outsider, to be honest. And I think as the world grows informationally both larger and smaller there'll be new widening of the mainstream, what you might call a global mainstream. But humans are erratic and original and gifted and different, and always have been, and always will be, and that's a fruitful source of life, dimension, fertility and survival regardless of the pressures of any streaming, main or otherwise.
This is by no means the first time in which you've written about the manners and mores of the middle class. Why do you feel you're drawn to this sector of society?
It's where I live.
The futures of many of the characters are left quite open. Do you think writers are often under pressure from the readers' expectations to tie things up neatly?
The satisfactions of tied up neatnesses are huge, and comforting, and a real pleasure. There are lots and lots of writers who do it beautifully. I think my impetus is probably to offer other satisfactions, other neatnesses, other comforts. Fiction is fantastically elastic, as shapeshifting as human imagination itself. I like very much the notion of an open book, a book that's still open even after you've closed it.
Much of your published writing is short stories and even this book and Hotel World are multi-stranded narratives which belie this. Do you have a preference for writing them or has it been more about suiting the form to the stories you've wanted to tell?
I don't really get a choice. And, at the heart of things, I think I believe that there's never just one version or story, and that stories exist multifacetedly, multivocally, plurally, and that their wholeness is the revelation of a coming-together, a necessarily communal act.
You've established yourself as an author with a very devoted fanbase. Why do you think readers have developed such enthusiasm for your writing?
I'm bloody lucky to have such readers. Here's to them.