After the success of her critically acclaimed bestseller White Teeth, author Zadie Smith reflects on the singularity of writing, the morality of the novel, and her own future
BY CAMILLE DODERO
SOME PEOPLE are very successful in the world," said onetime wunderkind Zadie Smith last year in an interview for the New Yorkerís Web site. "They deliver a sort of necessary shorthand of who they are to everyone they come across." Although the 27-year-old author was providing context for her socially inept protagonist Finch, the title character from "The Trials of Finch," a short story published in the magazineís winter fiction issue, Smith couldíve just as easily been speaking about herself. Back in 2000, the Cambridge University gradís debut novel, White Teeth (Knopf) ó a hefty, deftly woven opus about interracial relationships, radical eugenics, and the oppressive rigidity of cultural and religious traditions ó became, by all accounts, a widespread triumph. Not only did White Teeth win the Whitbread First Novel award, along with a mantelís worth of other highbrow trophies, but its British authorís Jamaican heritage, curved cheekbones, and young age cast her fleetingly in the role of Next Big Thing, as well as made her the reluctant recipient of labels like "black, bookish babe."
But although Smith was the perfect publishing package, her arrival wasnít so much manufactured as anticipated: she started scribbling at a very young age for reasons she canít quite recall ("Who knows those things?"); idolized incandescent silver-screen icons like Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly ("I always wanted to be a tap dancer") throughout her childhood; and tailored her name from Sadie to Zadie at the age of 14 ó a modification that suggests she had a neon marquee or an embossed book spine in mind around the time her peers were fretting over pimples. And although Smith became increasingly elusive and sharp-tongued as her renown ballooned, she continued to present herself overtly as the kind of hip, literate lass who could rhapsodize about Eminemís talent as a "word technician" in a Vibe cover story, wryly liken the similarities of her professional lifestyle to that of a call girl ("The neighbours think Iím a whore," she writes on her UK publisherís Web site. "I stay in all day, I wear nothing but a night-slip, sometimes men come bearing brown envelopes. I donít do any work yet I seem to have money"), and effortlessly paraphrase classic literary giants like Nabokov and Kafka without seeming to show off. In transmitting that "shorthand" version of herself, Smith certainly appears successful.
She doesnít agree. Famously self-deprecating ó sheís openly panned White Teeth more than once ó Smith often talks about "saying the wrong thing." Sheís no longer willing to engage in banter about her image. "Although I do have a public persona, itís not my life," she snips. "I do my job and thatís the end of that." And even though the book sheíll be promoting in Newton next Friday night, The Autograph Man (Vintage), is a snarky parable about the subterfuge of celebrity, as well as the intrinsic disconnect between person and persona, Smith doesnít want to talk about that stuff at all. She wants to talk about writing. So when Smith, whoíll be back in Boston next fall for one last semester teaching at Radcliffe Collegeís Bunting Institute, spoke to the Phoenix over the phone from her London flat, she talked mostly about just that.
Q: You profiled Eminem last year for Vibe. Howíd your experience as an interview subject prepare you for the other side of the table?
A: I didnít spend much time with him. I didnít think I was a very good interviewer. I wasnít very good at pinning him down or trying to get anything out of him. I also didnít ask him anything remotely personal. I only really wanted to know how he wrote.... I was very shy with Mr. Mathers, and I never want to do another interview as long as I live. Itís not my bag.
Q: You donít you do interviews in Britain anymore. Why?
A: Because I donít understand the purpose, I donít get the idea. Why am I meant to talk to people I donít know about things which are none of their business? Itís beyond my understanding why anyone would want to do that.
Q: So why do you talk to the press in America?
A: Because Iím about to do a book tour, and they said you have to do this to get people to come and watch. And I donít live there permanently, so itís not ó it doesnít matter. Itís like a fairy-tale place that I donít have to deal with. In England and London, itís my home and you just want to live like everybody else. But Iím a complete interview whore in Sweden. I never have to go to Sweden, so it doesnít matter.
Q: The Autograph Manís protagonist, Alex-Li, reads like an archetype of our generationís selfishness. Yet heís also a celebrity worshipper, which seems like it would signify absence of self.
A: Where I am with [celebrity worship] at the moment is that I just donít care anymore. Even to think about it or to discuss it is to ennoble it in a way it doesnít even deserve.
Q: At some point you mustíve been fascinated by it.
A: Absolutely ó I wrote a book about it. And now people are constantly phoning me up and asking me this and that of celebrities, and I just really couldnít give a shit. But itís the same way when people phone me up to ask me about multiculturalism. I canít think of anything Iíd less like to talk about. The books are things that get rid of whatever you were interested in. I spent three years reading nothing but Judaism and Judaic culture. Now I donít read any of that stuff. Itís just disappeared from my life. It is like being a fair-weather friend ó I was a fair-weather Jew. The interest doesnít stay for me ... especially when the publication follows six or seven months after the interest has faded.
Q: Now youíre writing a collection of essays about the morality of the novel?
A: Yes, but itís totally illegal for me to talk about it. Anything I write now is like a legal proposition, which is immensely stressful. When youíre 15 and someone asks you what youíre writing, you just tell them. And now itís all a business of contracts and money and all the rest of it.
Q: After having written only two novels, one of which you publicly say needs reworking, what qualifies you to write a book about the morality of the novel?
A: Absolutely nothing.... Now that Iíve written novels, I am writing absolutely as a practitioner ó I canít help that. But there are many practitioners who wrote academically: [Virginia] Woolf wrote, [E.M.] Forster wrote. Itís an attempt to write partly from the other side, but hopefully without being sentimental about the process. Of course, the big danger once you start writing novels is that you think you know everything there is to know about what novels are. This isnít true.
Really, the principle of the book Iím writing is just the idea that writing is a total art which involves human beings, their own personal ethics, their consciousnesses, their sensibilities. Thatís a very old-fashioned idea, but I believe it to be true.
Q: Iíve heard you say that the novel is not inherently an intellectual form. What makes you say that?
A: One of the things Iíve realized in the past year or two, which is a bit ó itís not sad, but itís a part of getting a little bit older ó is knowing where your limits are. At a certain point, you know youíre not going to be quite what you wanted to be when you were a child. And one thing I know I can do, which I didnít know before, is that I know novelists very well. I think I would be a very good organizer of writers. I know what they want, I know how they think, and I know that theyíre not exactly what people think they are. Theyíre much more intuitive ó not always so bright ó but very talented. I know novelists who canít add simple figures ó you ask them 14 and 17, and they donít know.
Itís sort of a condition, being a writer. It really is a certain kind of make-up in a person ó a genuine writer. There are loads of phony writers. A genuine writer is a very particular type of person. Not particularly great, not particularly intellectually brilliant, but just particular.
Q: Is it a disappointment that writers are never in person who they are on the page?
A: No, but they are. I never thought that novelists were untouchable geniuses. I just had dinner recently with Charles Burns and Chris Ware, who are both comic-book artists. I love comic books. And in a very particular way they are their comic books. You can see their comic books in them. And I think thatís beautiful ó the connection between writer and text. Iím never disappointed that way. If the person is a genuine talent, theyíre exactly what you hope for.
Q: In an interview you did last year for the New Yorkerís Web site, you referenced Lionel Trillingís notion that the novel is a laboratory of ideas, which in turn makes the novelist a kind of scientist. Do you think, then, itís the novelistís responsibility to determine results and to articulate those findings? Or is it the readersí responsibility to examine the authorís raw data and reach their own conclusions?
A: I think the writerís responsibility is to tell the truth. The aim is to try and tell the truth ó any kind of truth. It can be a very tiny truth. Truth means not that you read the book and think, "Ah, yes, I make a cup of tea exactly that way." Itís not that. It has to be truth without generalization, without cliché, and without simplification ó which is almost impossible. But thatís the nice thing about the novel. The aim is way out of everybodyís reach, so you keep on writing them just in case.
Q: In that same dialogue, your interviewer asks what a feathered hat in your short story "The Trials of Finch" symbolizes. Your response was that it didnít mean anything.
A: My fiction is very symbolically packed. So I try and put gaps in it deliberately. Somebody will just ó in the middle of something which is quite thematically rigid ó someone will just pick up a glass or look at something, do something which is not relevant to the text. But with writers like me, you can smell it a mile off.
People who are genuinely anti-symbolic in the way they think are geniuses. Kafka was an example of that.... Itís a very unusual talent. Iíve been thinking about all this recently because Iím working on the book of essays concerning the novel as a form. But itís something to do with a love of gesture. In most writersí notebooks, youíd find notes on character, notes on theme, particularly any contemporary novelist. Youíd have pages on the Internet ó theyíd be thematically minded. This is not Kafka. Kafka is looking at the tiny, tiny things: how a glass fits somebodyís hand, how a light passes through a window. That kind of genius. Nabokov had it too. Itís something in the make-up of someone very, very young. Itís something I donít think can be learned. I also think that when you know youíre not that type of writer, you have to face that pretty early on in your career and deal with what you can do. Dickens is nowhere near that kind of genius, but isnít he a great pleasure to read? Isnít he a wonderful person to have around at night or to read to your children?
Q: Youíre always referencing authors like Nabokov, Kafka, and Dickens. Do you read any contemporary fiction?
A: You become an obsessive re-reader. That was something I remember Kingsley [Amis] saying in his diaries that almost all the reading he does is re-reading. [As you grow older] you become kind of terrified of anybody under 30. You know that there are more books coming and coming, but the thought of them fills you with such bottomless depression. But I do read a lot of contemporary fiction. Iíve written about a lot of contemporary fiction ó particularly Americans, though, other people my age and younger. [Dave] Eggers and [Jonathan] Franzen and [David] Foster Wallace.
Q: Youíre terrified of novelists under 30?
A: And I am still under 30, I know. Although the world seems to think that Iím permanently 21, which is not the case. Iím beetling, hurtling toward my middle age. But Martin Amis said to me once, "Youíre still 24 in the consciousnesses of your readers." Thatís fine. Iím happy to be 24.
Q: At this point in your career, do you ever have to write when youíre not feeling like it?
A: No, Iím free. The one thing White Teeth did was to free me for the rest of my life in terms of when and how I write. But thatís not always such a good thing. It helps to have deadlines and some kind of structure. Iím very prone to depression, first of all. It is a wonderful job, but itís not always a wonderful job to wake up every morning and face a computer, and thereís nobody to talk to, and thereís nobody around. Itís not always the cheeriest job in the world. Itís an odd job when the workís not going well, which happens to me quite a lot. Then, itís just a lot of sitting around and sadness.
And when it is going theoretically well and a lot of work is being done ó like a few days ago, I wrote an obituary for Katharine Hepburn [in the Guardian]. I think I got to my computer at 8:30 in the morning. It literally felt like I blinked and it was 10:30 at night. And those kinds of days ó itís not really living. Itís interesting in its way, but itís a very odd life. When Iím writing properly, thatís my life every day. You forget to eat, you forget to do anything. And it doesnít feel completely healthy.
Q: After those periods of isolation, do you find it hard to relate to people?
A: Yes. If Iím let out to go to a party, say, and I havenít been out for three or four weeks, I donít realize that most people have colleagues and they know how to smooth things over [in conversation]. You donít always have to tell the truth, for instance, about how youíre feeling every second of the day.
When I first finished White Teeth and had to start doing press, I would always say the wrong thing. I didnít know how to be a person with other people. And thereís all kinds of linguistic things, tics, to make a conversation smooth and natural, and I really didnít know what I was doing because I never saw anybody.... I think [writing] sometimes has a bad effect on your social skills.
Q: Most writers would be comforted hearing that.
A: Itís not just writers, though, itís everybody in my building. Iím the middle of six flats, and everybody works at home doing one thing or another. I donít know what the guy downstairs does ó music or something. And the guy upstairs is retired. Everybodyís a kind of home dweller. I think we all go a little crazy. Weíre all very awkward with each other because we never see anyone. Our house meetings are completely autistic.
Q: What about your time at Harvard? Youíre interacting with people there.
A: In the beginning, it was very hard. I was at Radcliffe with 50 women, and theyíre all incredibly intelligent. Theyíre astrophysicists, mathematicians, and they are 25 years older than me, most of them. And I just kept on saying the wrong thing.
Also, itís very hard to get used to the fact that if peopleíve heard of you, thereís an idea of yourself that precedes you. Itís so unnatural. Itís so fuckiní weird. Some thing I do ó which if I was somebody else, nobody would notice ó is an insult. Like if I donít go to a lunch date where thereís 50 people for lunch, itís, "Oh, she thinks sheís too good to come."
Q: If you werenít Zadie Smith it would be no big deal.
A: If it were anybody else, it would be, "Who gives a shit? So what if she doesnít come to lunch? Thereís 50 of us." But if I donít come, itís an issue. You have to be aware of it because you end up insulting a lot of people if you donít remember.
Q: Itís funny you feel so unable to communicate in conversation; I see dialogue as one of your strengths. How do you approach it?
A: You just read it to yourself ... and any word which would not be said, you just strike it out no matter how much it impresses you or pleases you. Thereís a certain amount of dialogue which you can allow if youíre a comic writer, to be humorous. Like an American sit-com, for an instance, nobody speaks that way. But we allow it to happen because we appreciate the laugh. Seinfeld is a good example of that. You let it pass in the fact that nobody speaks in such a constructive way with so many jokes.
More and more, I always speak it out loud to myself or think it out loud to myself. If it isnít something somebody would say, I strike it out. And that changes the way you write. You canít write to the joke so much because life isnít that funny. People arenít that funny.
Q: Writing ruins your social skills. And at its worst, you make it sound like a form of torture. So why do you continue to write?
A: I love it so much when itís going well. I canít think of anything more satisfying in a total way, for your body. If you write all day long, youíve got pain everywhere. Your body is almost shaking, the adrenaline of it. Itís just a total art form for me. I think itís an amazing thing to be able to do. It makes you very, very self-sufficient. I can think of a lot of writers who if you said to them, "Youíve got a jail sentence for 10 years," they wouldnít be so depressed. Itís funny that way. You donít need anything. All you need is access to a pen and paper and a few books, you would be just fine. Maybe thatís completely delusionary of a writer to think that. But I often think that.
Q: Do you feel like you spend more time talking about writing than actually writing?
A: Yes, but I donít mind. Thatís exactly what I mean about realizing the kind of writer Iím going to be. I know what Iím not going to be now. Thereís a sadness connected with that, and then thereís also a sense of, what am I going to do? And I think one of the things I would like to do is write and think and talk about writing. What it is and how it works. And be supportive of writers in general. Because I realize how much I like them.
Q: So if you know what kind of writer youíre not going to be, what kind of writer are you going to be?
A: I donít know. I donít have the physical and mental will to be a great one, which is a shame. But you have to make a choice. I like life. I want to be in love, and maybe have children, and exist in that proper way. I used to think that there wasnít a life I could have that would be worth as much as the books. Now I donít. And I think you really have to believe that your life canít be as [valuable] as the books to be the kind of writer whose books are immortal. And I donít feel that way anymore.
Zadie Smith reads from The Autograph Man as part of the Newtonville Books in the Attic series on Friday, July 25, at 7 p.m., at the Attic, 107 R Union Street, in Newton. Call (617) 964-6684. Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]phx.com