I’ve apparently been given Zadie Smith’s personal number in New York, which I discover when she answers at this late hour with a simple, relaxed, “Hello?”, like she’s expecting a call from an old friend.
Discovering I’m not a friend, but in fact, the guy from The Rumpus, there’s a minor, charming kerfuffle as she confesses that she’s forgotten after all the rescheduling, not that it’s any excuse, I’m in her appointment book. I offer to call back at a different time but she insists I stay where I am, and leaves the phone somewhere I try to picture (a mahogany office? A sophisticated yet elegant living room?) while presumably herding her family elsewhere and gathering herself.
I think, in the muffled interim, about 2001: my sophomore year at Emerson College in Boston, spent half-drunk and reading, among other things, White Teeth, Smith’s glorious, Whitbread-winning debut about immigration and multiculturalism in modern-day Britain. Smith, herself then a recent graduate from Cambridge, had captured something profound and hilarious and exact about not just her native England, but assimilation and relationships and the way so much of life is pure chance, from every angle. Until I myself was twenty-five, her age when the novel was published, I don’t think I fully grasped the sweep of her achievement. In the stormy, egocentric heart of her youth, she created a world, much like the one we lived in, where we could all find ourselves.
That’s what I’m thinking when I hear a voice, maybe two, in the distance: the fractured culture and warring selves exposed in NW, her most recent novel, which focuses a hyper-close lens on four characters in a pocket neighborhood in London, and examines the messy intersection of their very different lives. It’s got a darker edge, it’s honest, and relentless and beautiful, too.
“I’m sorry.” She’s back. “Are you still there? One moment.”
This is Zadie Smith, our international literary darling, her slipperiness of location fitting since her work seems to mostly revolve around people pushing back against stereotype, expectation, reduction, even if she’s clearly a Brit at heart. Her professorship at New York University makes her an honorary New Yorker, at least, and to the delight of anyone who read her profile of Jay-Z in the New York Times, she’s turned her famous mirror on this country in the same way she has her own.
More muffled movement, and I can tell she’s finishing up her arrangements: there’s a gathering urgency, an uncovering and covering of a mouthpiece. I know I should be preparing but instead I think about Jung’s shadow: his theory that for each ideal we make conscious, there is a flip side that lives just beneath our surface. Smith’s characters live in a world where both sides are visible. So is it too much to note that, given Smith’s defining quality as a writer is her precise, darkly funny, deeply cerebral commitment to uncovering our multiplicities, the tension that keeps her removed intellectualism in place is the tenderness beneath it?
She’s back. “Go on,” she says, as if to pick up a conversation we haven’t yet started, her voice exactly as British as you imagine—a multitude in a moment, the whole interaction surely a scene Smith would have written herself.
The Rumpus: I just read your New York Review of Books piece that came out—I think today, right?
Zadie Smith: Oh, it did? Oh yeah. Christ, yeah.
Rumpus: I really like the way that you use the complication of joy to make it distinct from pleasure. You write a lot about your family in the piece. How do you find the process of writing about your own life publicly?
Smith: I mean, I don’t do very much of it, to be honest. When I do it’s quite circumspect. I never wrote anything personal at all for years and years. I’m about to have another child so I imagine I’ll be busy for awhile. I don’t think I’ll be doing any writing of any kind, personal or otherwise. I don’t know, I’m not very interested in memoir. It’s just a way of extending outwards, otherwise it doesn’t really interest me that much.
Rumpus: I think I actually read an interview with you where you’d said that, so I guess that’s why I was curious if there’d been a shift along those lines with this last piece.
Smith: No, not really. When you’re writing, you’re just curious if other people have had the same—part of it is that you’re just trying to work out if you’re alone in one sensation or another, so to do that sometimes you have to give a little bit. But I guess I’m not really a splurger on that front. A little goes a long way with me.
Rumpus: I was wondering, along those lines of fiction and nonfiction, about that idea of constructing yourself as a character—
Smith: There’s a kind of personal writing that argues for this kind of subjective experience that says, “I don’t have children and so it’s really important not to have children.” Or, “I do have children so it’s really important to have children.” Or, “I like cheese, so it’s really important to like cheese.” I never understand the point of that kind of writing. To me, you’re trying to find some objective position on your own experience, you know? Just because we felt it doesn’t mean that it matters at all. That’s my feeling.
Rumpus: I guess, in that way then, is fiction a more honest way, then, to write?
Smith: I’ve written a few of these more abstract pieces but that urge comes upon me very rarely, like once a decade, so I don’t think it’s going to happen again anytime soon. Fiction is just more complicated, you’ve got a lot more balls in the air.
Rumpus: I don’t know if you’ve ever read that Tim O’Brien story from The Things They Carried, “How to Tell a True—“
Smith: No, and I’ve heard so much about it! I will read it!
Rumpus: Well, it always struck me because I’ve written fiction and nonfiction, and that one story, “How to Tell a True War Story” is about using fiction to tell a truthier truth and is really interesting.
Smith: Yeah, I think that’s the case. The problem with nonfiction these days is that everybody wants—this idea of a personal vision is very important. “Where do you stand?” I find all that pretty tiresome. I’m not ever saying anything unusual, you know? I’m just trying to think about general things just a bit more specifically. I’m not claiming to any unusual emotions, tastes, opinions—I have a very average taste in most things. It’s not that. It’s just trying to express, as precisely as you can, these perfectly average things.
Rumpus: So do you imagine a reader who reacts to your work when you’re trying to get an exact expression?
Smith: Well, now you don’t have to imagine anymore because people e-mail you. It’s not in the realm of mystery anymore, you find out quite directly. That’s another thing which is healthy about fiction, you don’t have to listen to anybody for sometimes a decade at a time. I think constant feedback is not a very healthy thing for a writer, one way or another.
Rumpus: That’s probably true.
Smith: People become addicted to it. That’s why journalism is so popular, because you want to hear, every day, what people think of what you just wrote. I think a little patience on that front can be good, too.
Rumpus: Are you able to avoid reviews of your work?
Smith: No, I read reviews, I’m a critic myself. I’m always interested in reviews. Again, I’m helped by not writing that often, so I can go seven years without reading reviews because I haven’t written anything. If I was writing a book every two years I’d find it more stressful, I think.
Rumpus: I guess I was asking these identity questions because I read NW and I really enjoyed it—
Smith: Oh, thank you.
Rumpus: And I was thinking a lot about identity the whole time I was reading it, which I’m sure isn’t a surprise to you. I like about your work in general that there’s not a single reader who could just see herself alone in your work.
Rumpus: To me, I’m a trans man and I think a lot about the art of passing—
Smith: Oh yes, such an interesting state to be in.
Smith: I know a comic book artist who’s a trans man—anyway, go on.
Rumpus: I think that, actually, everybody passes. I was wondering how you feel about that, since it seems like something you explore a lot in your writing.
Smith: I write against things, I suppose, and the thing that doesn’t interest me is gathering a cabal of people exactly like yourself to read what you write. The thing which I like about my writing—I don’t know if it’s a symptom of its generalness or whatever—but I have old ladies e-mail me, or write to me, more likely, who are age eighty-five and then I have very young people: sixteen, seventeen. I like the idea that the writing has no precise identity. It doesn’t block people, it doesn’t force them to think, “Oh, this is me in a very precise way.”
I teach a course on the 20th century novel and I teach a Dennis Cooper novel, a great novel, called My Loose Thread. A lot of my class are against it, you know, or take it personally, or find it aggressive. Cooper is one of those people who writes very specifically for the people he wants to attract towards him. It’s an incredibly narrow group of people, and that is one way of writing. It’s just not natural to me. So I admire it when I see it, but I also like this idea that prose is open enough to let the cool and the uncool and the old and the young, whoever. I like people, so I like to be around them one way or another.
Rumpus: Do you hear really different readings of your work? Do people just sort of end up projecting themselves into your work?
Smith: Yes, tremendously... That’s one of the things which is odd. Or they end up aligning themselves really precisely with characters as if they were real people. So I have, I don’t know, black women who love the black female characters, boys who like the male characters. It’s always a bit disappointing, because the whole attempt was to try to cross those lines a little bit. But that is a natural instinct—as a reader I have it, too. I wake up especially if I see someone who’s my echo in some way. So I understand it, but also my intention is to disrupt it a little bit.
Rumpus: It seems like, especially in your last book, it seemed very much like you’re forced as a reader to not identify with one character, especially because of how interior it was.
Smith: You’re so used to this kind of smoothness in writing, this feeling that you, the reader, or you, the writer, are this great empathic, wondrous soul. I would love to be that, but of course when we see the way we behave in the world really to other people, we’re confronted with a different version of who we are. Not just this wonderful, tolerant, broad person who sees humanity and everything, but someone a little more narrow, self-defended, sometimes cruel, sometimes selfish. I wanted to try and show that. And also, someone who—people who live in a city, who are able to switch off these famous values of empathy and tolerance and love quite suddenly when you need to. Or if you need to. I wanted to be honest about that experience, but it’s not something you want reflected back at you perhaps, it’s not a pleasure. But reading can be many things: sometimes it can be a pleasure, sometimes it’s a bit tougher. It’s a broad church that way.
Rumpus: It sounds almost like your interest is around documenting what exists, rather than making any kind of statement about what it might mean.
Smith: I personally get a lot of pleasure just out of watching and seeing and having things be. I grew up in that way, I don’t know. We had, for instance, a Muslim family to the left and an Irish family to the right. This was a street of people I just found engaging. It never struck me as an innate conflict. I’m always interested in the way people live, and I try to keep that in the fiction.
Rumpus: You told NPR that you wanted the reader to ask themselves if we get what we deserve when reading the book. I think that extreme interior perspective of each character really gives us an insight into the extreme difference that can exist not just in one place, but even in interpretations in what’s going on.
Smith: Yeah. I mean—sorry, go on.
Rumpus: I want to hear whatever you’re about to say, but my question was, do you believe that creating these dissonant narratives can challenge dominant ideas? It’s a pretty loaded political question, if we get what we deserve, so I wondered if—
Smith: I think what interested me is when you ask yourself what makes a person innately conservative or innately liberal, it’s really interesting. It’s more than the political argument, it’s a personality trait, one way or another. I was just trying to think of the fundamental questions around which the poles revolve. What really is it? It seemed to me that one of the most fundamental answers to this question is whether people get what they deserve, whether all things come to people in the right order, and whether there’s an unfairness in the world. The different ways you feel about this very basic question stack up in a political way, one way or another. That’s what interested me. I kind of wanted to make a book in which you had to think about such things on a very basic level. Not, “How do I feel about 20,000 immigrants coming on one day into my country?” but “How do I feel about a girl at my door?” Fundamentally they’re the same questions, but they’re reduced to a very local form. That’s what interested me—and to try to write it honestly.
It’s very easy when you’re writing a book to have already decided the answers to all these questions, it’s a little more difficult to feel your way through. I try to recognize that people’s fears are real fears, they’re not just there for no reason. They also have a validity, and should be thought about and considered.
Rumpus: Do you think that the answer’s different if someone’s at your door versus if you’re thinking about something on a larger scale? Or did you decide, at least with your exploration, that the answers would be the same?
Smith: I think the anxiety is the same. The idea of what you owe this person who arrives at your door, or what they owe you, and how much they have to be like you in order for you to sympathize with them is, I think, a fundamental question. The idea—when I was in school, anyway—that the first principle was that they should learn your language. Right, that’s the idea, that whoever comes into your threshold or enters your world should at least learn your language. Which is a common sense view, I suppose, but when I was a kid it was never particularly clear to me. I always thought, well, it might be interesting for us to learn their language, seeing as I’m going into their shops or meeting their children. Some of these “common sense” views, when you think about them again, are complicated, you know, they’re interesting. A lot of that was in my mind, just thinking about the fundamental choices one has to make.
It’s easier to make general political principles and large statements, but day by day we’re always making these kind of choices: who we let in, who we don’t let in, who we approve, who we don’t approve within our little circles. What our community is. And also being incredibly hypocritical on the same principle. You know, I was really struck—there’s this argument recently about Lena Dunham, and there are lots of journalists who say that they’re aren’t enough black people in her show. I kept on wondering how many of those journalists—it’s a genuine question—have black people in their lives. I thought, Probably not very many. It’s like a strange accusation thrown from upper-middle-class white New Yorkers to an upper-middle-class white New Yorker. We can project our anxieties onto other people rather than looking at our own lives and saying, “Well, wait a minute. Is this a terribly prejudice show, or an accurate reflection of my own circle, of my own life?” That kind of thing interests me.
Rumpus: Well, I think especially, going back to what you said earlier about how artists, I guess, are people. I’ve been thinking about that a lot too, where we look to people to be transcendent human beings because they make something, rather than allowing that they’re just reflective of the rest of us.
Smith: Yeah, there’s absolutely nothing transcendent about making things, in my opinion… It’s the same old lives.
Rumpus: Do you find reading to be transcendent?
Smith: Yes, I do. That’s why I understand why they should feel that way, because reading is a magic thing. But writing, I actually feel, is considerably less magic. It’s a lot of work and a lot of daily grind, where reading is a true pleasure.
Rumpus: Do you think that your early success has made you especially aware of the work element?
Smith: Maybe that’s true. I was working when everybody else was getting drunk; I was writing. That might have something to do with it. I like the work, it’s beautiful work, I’m glad that I do it. I feel with my students that they feel there’s a magic trick, you know, like you go into the room and something magical happens, and that really isn’t my experience. It’s a very worthwhile and satisfying labor, but that is what it is.
Rumpus: Do you ever experience anything that less-experienced writers do around anxiety around your right to be a writer? Or did you get over that a long time ago?
Smith: You read my work and think I don’t have anxiety every day about being a writer? Incredible! Of course, yes, I don’t come from a background in which being a writer was even a conceivable fantasy. Of course. But the way I deal with things is to focus on the page I’m writing. Otherwise I’d find it impossible to work at all.
Rumpus: I actually have one more question around that, but it’s my last one so I have to ask you this one first. It’s a little bit of a non-sequitur, but it seems to me that you engage with style in your work in a deeply thoughtful way, and I used to edit a fashion blog and I promised the people I worked with that I would ask you about your actual fashion.
Smith: Yes, what about it?
Rumpus: Well, our whole thought process was that we were a really diverse mix, and we were writing about fashion in an intellectual way, and because people were coming from different backgrounds—we had people of color and trans people and queer people—and people were really thinking about the way we fashion, literally, ourselves, through what we wear.
Rumpus: So, I’m just wondering if, for you, there’s a connection between fashion and identity as a person who seems to care about her style?
Now I’m heavily pregnant and fashion is far from my mind, to be honest. When I was young, for all kinds of reasons, I didn’t engage in—I considered that world not to by my world. My world was books and I had a lot of contempt for visual things at all. I just wanted to live in the library and wear a sack. But as I got older—I tried to write about it a little bit—you know, I come from a Protestant culture, where things that are beautiful are always a bit suspect. To be in Italy, where beauty is taken seriously and enjoyed and it’s okay to enjoy it, was a big shock for me—all the way down from houses to shoes. Now, I think this also just happens with women, as you become old, that you appreciate the idea of a beautiful fabric or a nice dress. I never cared about those things when I was young.
I do think that I understand the Italian phrase, “The eye also has its part,” which I think is true. I hadn’t recognized it before. There’s a lot of pleasure in looking at beautiful things and considering beautiful things, and clothing is part of that. But in my youth, it was not—so it’s been a late revelation. I have a deep love for High Street clothes, that’s what I grew up on. My mother always said I make expensive clothes look cheap and cheap clothes look expensive. And that’s true…but there’s something about High Street clothes, I don’t know, I really like them.
Rumpus: Well, you just have a really specific style, and I think it’s always worth asking someone that because—I think people do think it’s frivolous but after a long time of thinking about it, as well, and obviously as a person who’s had to change physically, I think the way I wear my clothes is really important.
Smith: I think it is important. If you read Virginia Woolf’s diary, she was absolutely obsessed with what she wore. Obsessed! Everything about her mood, about what she was writing, depended on whether she bought a nice dress or hat. She thought about the money she earned for those wonderful essays in terms of how many hats and dresses she could buy. It mattered deeply to her. She wasn’t a frivolous woman, and she would’ve said she wasn’t a pretty woman, she was a handsome woman. She was very vain, and very concerned with what she wore. I think it’s always of interest.
Rumpus: And, either way, it’s true that you’re constructing yourself and how you are in the world.
Smith: Yes, you are. Everybody’s doing that, no matter who they are, whatever they’re wearing. It’s always happening.
Rumpus: Okay, I’m glad I got to ask that question. People will be happy.
Smith: I’m glad you asked it.
Rumpus: Okay, so the Guardian asked you to do these ten rules of writing. One of my favorite things you wrote was, “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” Has your perspective on your own nature as a writer shifted over time?
Smith: You know, I wrote those rules in about five minutes. I was trying to be as honest as possible so I thought, I’ll just write them quickly and I’ll get down ten things that need to be true. Regarding change, I don’t—I don’t say, in faking virtue, but that is my honest sensation. I don’t know why that is, but it seems to be my mind works. But I think that’s okay. Who are these artists who walk around thinking they’re awesome? I think it’s a pretty natural state to be in, fairly common.
Rumpus: Have you come to know why you write, or what compels you to do it?
Smith: No. No I don’t feel compelled. It was a job. In more recent years, I’ve seen that’s not quite true because if I don’t write—I do apparently need to write. Maybe it’s true. The way for me to deal with writing is to deal with it as a daily task I set myself and then I carry on. I don’t look at the big picture very often, I don’t know why that is, but it suits be better that way.
Rumpus: So you find joy in it, like you wrote about finding with your family in that NYRB essay?
Smith: I like making something, and finishing it when it’s short—I think that’s quite nice. A day when you finish a short piece is a great day, I guess. The novels—it’s not such pleasure to write, honestly. The end can be good—I think it changes as you get older. I talk to older novelists, and when they were young they remember writing with a great deal of fluidity and some pleasure. As you get older every part of the novel becomes a struggle, it never comes clear like it used to when you were young and suddenly you were spinning downhill. The whole thing is painful.
Rumpus: Oh, god.
Smith: Young people have a lot of confidence, and they’re free. As you get older you feel more anxious. I do, anyway. And less free, one way or another. So it’s always a bit slower. That’s okay, too. Sometimes it’s good to take your time.
Rumpus: Well, I appreciate your brutal honesty.
Smith: Is it brutal? I didn’t mean it to be brutal. It’s a great life. It’s just one where you have to think about what you’re doing so it can be a little anxiety-making. You can’t write thoughtlessly, that’s the problem with writing. You have to think about the damn thing all the time. I think that’s why it’s sometimes difficult. But rewarding, right? It’s rewarding.
First photograph © 2012 by Sebastian Kim. Second photograph © 2012 by Dominique Nabokov.