Has it really been more than five years since White Teeth thrust Zadie Smith to the head of her literary class? As the century turned, advance copies of a British debut arrived in bookstore back rooms, adorned with a dazzling endorsement from Salman Rushdie. Now and then booksellers get to see the future—here was one of those instances. White Teeth charted a mongrel cast of London families and lovers in action, and the deeply resonant hilarity that ensued somehow captured the world as we knew it to be, pierced alternately by quiet desperation and fierce purpose, how stuck we seem in the present and yet how far we travel over time. And this from a writer who penned the book before finishing college.
Recently Smith interviewed Ian McEwan for the Believer magazine. "It's just very informative to talk to someone who has achieved the writing of a novel so many times," she explained, thinking back on the experience. "He really understands what a book is."
"As I get older," Smith reflected, "I think I'll be clearer about what it is I'm trying to do. At the moment, I just sort of stumble through."
And yet, three times now, she has published novels to wide and consistent acclaim. 2002's The Autograph Man, an effort utterly unlike her first, prompted critic Laura Miller (Salon.com) to ask, "What did we do to deserve a young novelist this brilliant, this generous, this alive?" Now On Beauty takes as its inspiration E.M. Forster's Howard's End. Smith cops in a postscript to the novel, "He gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could."
Michael Dirda (the Washington Post) was duly impressed. "While reading On Beauty it's easy to forget, and sometimes hard to believe, that Zadie Smith is scarcely out of her twenties. Her new novel is masterly on almost any level.... Forster would be proud."
Dave: Outside of an interview setting, what's the best question someone has asked you recently?
Zadie Smith: I met Spike Jonze a few days ago, and he asked me if I'd ever seen a possum. I'd just seen a raccoon for the first time, and he said, "So have you ever seen a possum?" I hadn't, but that was the best question I've been asked in a while. Definitely. It was funny.
Dave: Did you enjoy your raccoon experience?
Smith: It was amazing. They're very like cartoon characters. They have the black mask and a big butt. Three of them were walking past a window in San Francisco. I loved it. It was great.
Dave: As I was reading your books, I kept thinking about the literature of orphans, novels by Irving and Dickens, where a small child is thrown into the wilds of society. In your books, children are cast into society, but not so young, and only after they have the strong imprint of a family on them.
Smith: I've never thought of that, but as I'm being asked about my writing over the last few weeks families always seem to come up.
I do think of families as being somewhat pathological. That Douglas Coupland title [All Families Are Psychotic] is such a great one. They force you to be one way. You have to be part of a team. Then what usually happens is that someone in the family, sometimes a kid but sometimes a mother or a father, wants off the team.
In my family, each of the children is very different; we all grew up to be very different despite being in the same household. But then again my family is very like the Belseys in that they all think they're very funny, for example. And that's the kind of pathology families have, just like when families think they're sporty or intelligent. Any of that is fun for a while, but when you become a teenager and maybe don't fit into the general family aesthetic, it can get a bit problematic.
Dave: The Belseys, the Chalfens...
Smith: Mad families.
Dave: There's a sense that these children have emerged from a hothouse with shared characteristics and beliefs and experiences. And yet the Belseys know so little about each other. It's interesting to see people in a tight family unit keep themselves so far apart.
Smith: Absolutely. That's a quite common experience in families, but it doesn't prohibit fondness and affection.
I think when children get obsessed with one thing or another, music or a culture, parents often worry that they're drifting away. But it's natural in a person to want to make herself or himself. It's what people do. The best thing a family can do is to be relaxed about it. Certainly my mother has that gift. My little brother became a Muslim briefly. At the time I was preoccupied with early twentieth century musicals. She is very easy. She doesn't try to stop you or push you. And I think that helps you keep a connection with the family because you're not being forced into anything else. You have to be easy about tradition in that way, not be too strict.
Dave: And it takes quite an effort to keep up. As people get busier and more mobile, we have so many more impressions to digest in the course of a day—and we generally do it alone. You don't keep still long enough to spend much time with intimates, so most of what happens to you gets stuck in your mind and never gets out.
Smith: People are also more culturally mobile. We were basically a liberal family; we hated Thatcher and all the rest of it. And I did believe in those things—I came to believe in them, myself—but I was always preoccupied with the idea that if I had been born across the street with a Tory family, would I have felt that way? Probably not.
I guess I always find an absurdity in people's most strongly held cultural views. Take an extremely determined, Zionist Israeli who is certain about the state of Israel: what if they'd been born five miles around the corner? Would they have felt that way?
My own siblings have picked up cultures that weren't their own and become as preoccupied with them as if they were born in them. Particularly now, talking about On Beauty, I keep on being asked from state to state, "Where do you lie between these political positions?" And the truth is I'm almost entirely ambivalent most of the time.
Dave: It's a funny question, too, because if I took any political statement from On Beauty it's probably that, beneath the veneer of politics, people are more or less the same. Howard and Monty turn out to be pretty much the same people. And Carl is a witness to that.
Smith: They are the same people. And it's not that I don't believe in politics—politics do enact change—but there's something deeper in human life than politics. There's the fact that you have to get from your birth to your grave in whatever it is, seventy-five years, with some sense of yourself and your soul. What people profess publicly in party politics doesn't have much to do with that essential journey from birth to death.
In the case of Howard and Monty, there isn't much difference under the surface. Also, people's views are so much to do with their ambition, their need to make a place for themselves in the world. It's always possible to believe that someone like Ann Coulter really does believe everything she says. It's possible, but I find it hard to imagine. She's also in the business of being Ann Coulter. When any question comes up, she knows what position she's going to take—it's the Ann Coulter line, and she'll take it to the grave—but I can't believe that's her all the way down. Maybe that's too optimistic a belief, but I can't believe anyone is actually like that. It seems impossible.
Dave: There's a great bit in the book where Zora is throwing some of these questions around in her mind. Was anyone ever genuinely attached to anything?
Smith: I used to feel that as a teenager very much. And it is dangerous, that kind of total relativism, because it's clear that people are willing to die for what they believe, as absurd as it may seem at times. Ideas are often strong enough to take human lives or to save human lives; they do exist.
I read this great quote on the train today. It was a Longfellow quote. I'm going to paraphrase it badly, but he said that whenever you see your worst enemy or think of your worst enemy, you need only know his secret sufferings and pains for all animosity to disappear. It's completely true. There isn't anybody who, if you didn't dig hard enough, even Ann Coulter, you wouldn't find something sympathetic there. Not that she'd show it to you because she doesn't like to talk to liberals if she can help it.
Smith: No, in fact it was almost the last. I read A Room with a View first.
A Room with a View is an open book; for everyone it's such a pleasure. You have to really be a stick in the mud not to enjoy it on some level. But Howard's End is a bit trickier. Howard's End is an easy book to object to because it's got a lot of purple prose in it; it's very melodramatic; and the end is insane, where a guy gets killed by a bookcase. There's a lot of extremity in that book, but I like it for all of that.
It also has some of the best characters he ever wrote. They're really meaty. The Schlegel sisters are terrific. But, no, it was quite late in my reading. I think the only one I read after that was The Longest Journey.
Dave: So many people comment on your dialogue. I'm curious about your process. How is it different for you than writing narrative?
Smith: If a character is speaking, I just say the words to myself very quickly and almost always write them down with no corrections, which is completely the opposite of what I do when I'm narrating in third-person—I write and write and write. Actually, I'd like to get some of the looseness I have in the dialogue into the narrative. I'm very formal in the narrative... because I'm English, I think, and we have very formal ways of writing. But I like that looseness.
Dialogue shouldn't be writerly. I try to keep the natural rhythm of people's speech and not give it a literary texture, but it's not always easy. You're trying to force the plot forward, so you are going to give it a literary texture just to make the thing work. But I prefer natural dialogue if I can get it.
Dave: Did you collect anything as a child?
Smith: I was a nerd, if that's what you mean.
Dave: Your answer, not my question. Let it be noted.
Smith: Right. I collected old movie memorabilia. I cut out pictures of Fred Astaire. My whole room was decorated with old MGM paraphernalia from the thirties and forties. That's what I was into, basically.
Dave: What was your proudest possession?
Smith: I had a very beautiful MGM poster, which was part of a movie exhibition in London when I was about twelve. It had pictures of pretty much everybody. It was very big and very lovely.
I was always trying to get autographs, as well, which I guess came up in that second book [The Autograph Man]. From Jimmy Stewart and Fred Astaire. I never managed to get anybody's, but I loved all that stuff. I think that was my first love, even before books. I love all those movies.
Dave: The bar scenes in White Teeth are very well done. I wondered: At what restaurant or bar have you best earned the status of a regular?
Smith: Actually, I was just reading Vanity Fair, and there was an article about the Odeon in New York, and it made me feel exactly that: I wish I had a place like that, where people turned up, maybe other writers, and everybody hung out. That's never happened to me. Maybe it's more of an American thing. There was a café in Willesden Green library, which I spent a lot of time in, reading and writing White Teeth, but I've never been a regular. I'd like to be, actually. I need to find a place.
Dave: I counted, and from what I would call the climax of White Teeth to the end is just seven pages.
Smith: The honest truth about it is that I had just split up with my boyfriend, who I'd spent most of my time with while I was writing the book. I'd moved back home. I was living with my mother, finishing this book. Valentine's Day was about five days away, and I was exhausted. I thought, I want to finish this as quickly as possible. I was working in my mother's living room, which she'd very kindly given me. People walking in and out, my brothers... It was just a bad situation.
I think I'd been paid a bit, but I hadn't really been paid, so I was still a student, writing this book. The money hadn't yet come into my bank account. I started going as quickly as possible, a hundred miles an hour. I remember finishing it about midway through Valentine's Day, and I phoned my girlfriends and we all went out for a drink. That was it for me. I did work on the book afterwards, but my will had gone. And will is most of what you need to work on a novel. But I was done. I was so done. I almost never looked back on it.
I think it would pain me very much to read the end of White Teeth. I never have, but I know it's crazy because people tell me about it.
Dave: But I loved it. It was like listening to a tight band, when they come out of a jam and make the song suddenly end. It's not a radio single with a long, slow fade-out. It worked for me. As in...
Smith: "It's over. Leave the building!"
Smith: The one thing I do like about it... My husband and I used to joke that if you get a novel in the post you should always check the last page. There's always a looking-out-to-sea scene at the end of a novel. If we see that at the end, we know we're not going to read the book. I don't want to read a book that ends with someone looking out to sea in that kind of contemplative manner. So I was quite glad that White Teeth ends in that way, solidly.
I think On Beauty is the one I'm most pleased with as an ending. I had no idea how it was going to end, and then when I realized how it was going to end I was so happy. And I was very calm, approaching it. It wasn't a panic scenario. I knew fifty or sixty pages before what was going to happen, so I was able to move toward it in a slightly more stately fashion than freewheeling downhill.
Dave: After I bought the edition of the Believer that contains your interview with Ian McEwan, but before I read the interview, I wrote down a question:
In the days following your conversation with Ian McEwan, were you struck by any particular questions you should have asked? Whenever I talk to people that smart the interview leads to all sorts of topics I want to know more about but am too busy conducting the interview to ask. If that makes any sense.
I'd had the magazine since it came out, but I figured I'd save your interview until shortly before we talked. Then last night I finally read it and discovered that you'd already answered my question.
Smith: There were so many questions I wanted to ask; I talked about that in the introduction. I felt overwhelmed. Even though I know Ian, and I know him to be a lovely and easygoing man, suddenly he wasn't Ian. He was Ian McEwan, the author, and I was very nervous again.
It's just very informative to talk to someone who has achieved the writing of a novel so many times, who knows what it is to do it, and who has it down so well. He really understands what a book is.
Even if some books you don't like or some you like more than others, it would be very hard to say of Ian, "He can't write." That would be impossible. He can really write. From the first stories, which are brilliant in their own way, he's progressed every time, more and more. More work. More depth. He's an incredible writer at this point. And so much of it is work. I like that in a writer because I think that's the main thing. Talent is one thing, but commitment is another, and he's really committed.
Smith: It's crazy. They're all the same age. They've all been friends at one point or another, though they're not always friends all the time. It's a hell of a generation.
I grew up underneath them, but when I was in college we didn't read contemporary writing so I wasn't really aware of them. I knew Kingsley Amis; I'd read him because I was studying him. Martin I knew as a trendy young thing, but I didn't read him until I left. Then London Fields had an enormous effect on White Teeth. I read it just before I started writing White Teeth; the ending is very similar, I think. But it was an amazing literary generation, and you're reminded of it when you realize that London Fields did not make the Booker list. London Fields—if you write a book like that and you can't win the Booker, something is terribly wrong. That's an extraordinary book.
It was just a very competitive generation. And that's one of the best bits about writing: I've met all of them now. And they're all fun guys.
Dave: And now you're working on a book of essays about twentieth century writers?
I'm very nervous about it and I want it to be good, so I think I'm going to take a long time. I'm never going to make that deadline, whatever it's meant to be. Next year? I don't think that's going to happen. I'm going to take my time. I'm thinking of it as a second degree, going back to university but on my own time and reading the books I want to read. I'm very excited about it.
Dave: Is there a discovery or a particular obsession you're thinking about?
Smith: Basically, with all the writers, I'm trying to think about how their books discuss ethics, human behavior—how they work. And how each novelist gives you a completely different aspect of the human project. That's what I like about them.
There's been a lot of emphasis in the last few years that a writer should give you everything. Critics get very disappointed. For instance, if you read Foster Wallace and he's not giving you psychological realism then you dismiss him. To me, each writer gives you something completely different and absolutely themselves, very particular and usually very weird. It's one man or woman's consciousness thrust outward at you, and that's to be celebrated.
I like that about all the writers I'm talking about. They're all extremely good, but they have blind sides. Kafka is possibly the biggest freak in the collection, and he's a fantastic writer, but there are a lot of things you can't go to Kafka for. He's just not interested in them. Every writer I'm writing about has that in them: very extreme talents on one side and an absence on the other. I wanted to try to celebrate the strangeness of a lot of novelists. Because they are strange.
Dave: On a book tour, you're asked a lot of the same questions over and over again. Are people asking the right ones, do you think?
Smith: I don't feel very misunderstood. I think people pretty much have my number.
The only thing that I find unnerving is the idea that when you write you're pushing an agenda or an argument. I don't write as a petition or an argument. I write the kind of stuff I write because that's what I can do. I make no case for it. Sometimes when I'm in an interview I feel like someone's trying to uncover something, but there's no fight. There's nothing to fight over. I am conscious of what I'm doing, but I don't do it for any big reason. I just write the books.
You'll talk to a novelist like Jonathan Franzen, and he's very clear about what he's aiming for. I don't have that clarity. As I get older, I think I'll be clearer about what it is I'm trying to do. At the moment, I'm not quite sure all the time. I just sort of stumble through.
Zadie Smith visited on October 7, 2005. After we spoke, she threw a pretty good round of darts at the board I recently brought in from home. Though she claimed to have no idea what she was doing—"Have you ever got a bull's-eye?" she asked—she put together the highest overall score of any participating author to date, easily besting Rushdie and Hiaasen.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State