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 four further collections since, most recently Public Library and Other Stories.
Her first novel, Like, was published in 1997. Her second, Hotel World, 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 the Booker Prize. Her third, The Accidental (2005), won the Whitbread Novel Award and was also shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and Booker Prize. There but for The was published in 2011, followed in 2014 by How to Be Both, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, was shortlisted for the Folio Prize and also won the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel of the Year award.
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 book Autumn, the first in a planned quartet, is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means; it's about time and who we are, what we are made of. Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer. Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. It is a beautiful meditation on ageing and time and love and stories themselves.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Ali talks about how the things that have been happening to us over the past half-year are ancient as well as brand new, following her nose and never losing hope.
Below the Autumn interview is an interview about an earlier novel, There but For The.
Author photo © Sarah Wood
Questions & Answers
Interview About Autumn
You deal with such timeless themes as life and death, love, parenting, nature, time, what it means to belong, but your book is also contemporaneous to a startling degree: you were writing about the outcome of the Brexit vote when the ink was barely dry on the voting slips and it reads as if there could have been no other outcome. How were you able to process, assimilate and write it all without any time to absorb the impact of events?
Short answer. Very little sleep.
Long answer. I began thinking about the book – well, twenty years ago, as I'll say below, but the specifics of *this* book, really, at the beginning of last year, and I began drafting it at the turn of the new year this year. What I was writing, I saw, turned out to be very much about the divisions happening all across the world, and the calls for fortification and even more division, and as the month of May turned into June I knew the book was asking of me very specifically, about the very contemporary things that were happening, not just day to day but eventually hour to hour – so I asked my publisher to give me a bit more time on what was already a fairly hair-raising tight deadline, and he did. After which I worked myself and the book very very hard (anathema to me, I am quite lazy really), and met the new deadline. It's a miracle Hamish Hamilton's been able not just to publish it so astonishingly speedily but so stunningly beautifully. I'm amazed.
Plus – the things that have been happening to us over the past half-year, they're ancient as well as brand new. And to some extent they're as cyclic, historically speaking, as the seasons themselves. What's new is the speed of information, the slippery surface of media attention and the fast, no, *instant* synapse reaction (and the attendant forgetfulness, the on-to-the-next-thing reaction) expected of all of us. I thought I ought to meet and question that speed. And the novel form in any case takes its name from the notion of news and newness; so I was also (and will be, with the other three books, if life allows and they get written) asking of the form, seeing what would happen if I did. The idea behind these four books was always to ask them to be utterly contemporary (and fast-produced so they'd still be contemporary when published) and about the consecutive and linear surface of time at the same time as about its stratification, its cyclic dimensionality. What I wasn't expecting was the time itself to be being suddenly quite so electrifying when I decided it was time to begin the cycle.
You’ve said you’ve been planning this cycle for 20 years and yet so much of the setting is so very much in the here and now. How did the two come together for you in the writing and why now rather than at any other point in the last 20 years?
Ah – see above. And I have a theory now, after this year especially, that the novels we write choose *their* time, rather than are produced by any real choice of ours.
You’ve also said that there’s no point in writing if you know what the end is going to be. How does that sit with writing a quartet of novels, in which connections and continuity must play their part?
I'll find out ! It means I've no idea what will come of it. But as I'm suggesting above, there's always a dialogue with what you're working on – if there isn't, it probably won't be alive, or any good – so it's a risk you've no choice but to take. The connections make themselves pretty clear as you go along, I've found, working with a few of the different shapes the novel can take. They can be surprising, but they'll be there. And there's always continuity. Along with time itself, and the shapes society takes, continuity is what the novel form's about.
Your book is in many ways a love letter to literature and a tribute to the power of storytelling – the presence of Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens and many others is palpable. Do you agree with Daniel when he says, ‘whoever makes up the story makes up the world’?
He also thinks that being able to read the world is one of the ways of staying vital, which is why reading itself is vital. 'No one who can read ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.' (Dickens)
Dialogue plays an important part in the novel, Elizabeth feels we have reached ‘the end of dialogue’. Are emails, texts, tweets and so on, eroding our power to properly converse, to exchange ideas rather than just inform or announce?
Elisabeth also knows Daniel – from whom she's picked up the notion of dialogue as a form of life. And we will always use our technologies in all the human ways, bad, good, indifferent, different. All they are is just more proof of who we ourselves are, how we conduct ourselves and what we make of our engagement with life while we're here, as Daniel might say.
Daniel is connected to the world and the elements in literal, linguistic and metaphorical ways even as he is also taking his leave of it, almost as if he is re-merging with nature. Is it this fundamental connection with the natural world that makes him special to you?
He's no more special to me than any other character. They come on their own terms each and all of them. But Autumn, as a book, and autumn, as a season, were and are always going to be about the shortness of life – even a long life, as well as the fruits of the life. He's a fine old tree of a man, and I'm very glad he came.
The lies that were told by the governing parties were among the most bitter aspects of the Brexit campaign, but not the first time the public have been misled by its leaders. What made you choose the Christine Keeler case as a counterpoint?
Ah. See next question just below.
Art has always been important to you and features in your earlier novels. How did Pauline Boty become part of the story, was she a happy by-product of your interest in Christine Keeler?
Autumn (the book, and the season) being about the shortness of life, I realised quite soon into thinking about it, that Boty would feature, somehow. She's a person whose fruifulness and whose spirit, up against the shortest of lives and saddest of goings (like Keats's but closer to us, more recognisable in contemporary terms) are vital and formidable up against the worst odds. And I'm interested, too, in the lives which get to be expressed and the lives which don't, depending on how history treats us.
As I worked on Boty and learned about the Keeler picture/s she'd done, I did what I always do when I'm writing and followed my nose. This meant I read a lot about the Profumo scandal, and the more I read the sicker I felt – there's nothing like hanging around a lot of foul power-mongering lies for making you feel ill, as Elisabeth says something like at one point in the book. And these were parliamentary lies. It reminded me of the time around our invasion of Iraq (and we're still – and rest of the world is too – dealing with the fallout from that). Then ... everything round us this spring began to ring with the same force of power and lies. The parallel was unavoidable.
And art? by which I mean all the arts? It's one of our best ways of reading, interpreting, the possibilities of life. It interprets us. It opens us. We see through it. It makes us think. It is, itself, incapable of lies.
Autumn asks fundamental questions about identity and belonging, about integration from within as well as without. Do you agree with the Remain spokesperson Elizabeth hears on the radio who says that the old notions of ‘society’ have gone forever?
The old notions of society are cyclic, they turn up again and again dressed as the 'new' notions of society – until those new notions give over to the 'new' new notions, and so on, old to new to old to new, and the cycle moves on. I never lose hope. I always think of something the great writer Grace Paley once said to me. 'The wheel is round. if you're at the bottom, it'll be an uphill push, but don't worry, keep pushing, the top comes around again. Have faith. The wheel never stops turning.'
Your love of language shines through every page. Daniel talks about language being ‘like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about…’ Are new technologies driving a wedge between us and our language?
No. They're just adding to the unending organic possibilities of more and different languages.
How do you feel about the commitment to complete the quartet and in short order? Is there any sense of burden, given what an exuberant and spontaneous writer you are?
Ask me next year, and the year after, and the year after that, and I'll tell you.
Interview About There But for The....
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.