Zadie Smith was just twenty-four years old when she published White Teeth (2000), her best-selling, widely-acclaimed debut novel. Now thirty-six, she has written four novels and a collection of essays, was a columnist for Harper’s Magazine, is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and The Guardian, and is a professor of creative writing. Oh yeah: and she’s a mother. I spoke to Smith on the phone early one recent morning about NW, her tragicomic new book about a northwest London neighborhood and its people; its corners and projects, friends and lovers, mothers and children. The novel took Smith seven years to write, and of course, she's already on to something new.
Bookforum: You divide your time between New York and London, is that right?
Zadie Smith: Pretty much, at the moment.
Bookforum: How important has the distance to London been while writing NW?
Zadie Smith: I wrote the book in the last few years at the library at NYU, so I was quite far away from home. I suppose writers always say that the place gets more intense if you’re far away from it, and that seemed to be the case. I certainly find it easier to write about the area when I’m not in it. I wrote most of White Teeth when I was in Cambridge, so that was a similar situation.
Bookforum: What about the contrasts between London and New York? In NW you’re certainly attuned to the social and economic realities of London; what was it like writing the novel while also witnessing the Occupy Wall Street protests?
Zadie Smith: It was great. It’s a radical time and it was interesting writing a book that looks back on radical movements like The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381—you could see all this stuff happening again around you. But I think that’s true of all writers writing at the moment; it’s a surprisingly exciting time to be working in. It’s challenging, but exciting. Though maybe when you’re writing a novel the world always seems to be aligning with what you’re writing. That’s part of the psychosis of writing.
Bookforum: It’s interesting to see so much fiction being written about London. You’ve got NW, John Lanchester’s Capital, Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo.
Zadie Smith: Its wild isn’t it?
Bookforum: And I just read Mark Ford’s anthology London: A History in Verse.
Zadie Smith: My husband [Nick Laird] is in it. He’s one of the last poets in there. It’s a great anthology. It made me think that the capital is best expressed in poetry and not in novels. London novels tend not to be very great; it’s the poetry that’s really wonderful.
Bookforum: You think the poetry about London is better than the novels set in the city?
Zadie Smith: I just think it’s hard to get London in a novel. Perhaps because it’s a city of voices, poetry renders it more accurately. Obviously there are good London novels. Bleak House, for instance, is good, but it’s also massive and unwieldy and insanely plotted. So maybe a poem is the best place for London.
Bookforum: And yet all your novels are to some extent very much about London. Did you ever feel that you were entering a kind of English Literature tradition of writing about the city?
Zadie Smith: I don’t want to lean too heavily on tradition. I suppose you add to it, but you also want to subvert it and change it. I’d be a bit depressed to be writing heritage novels to hand to tourists when they get off the Heathrow Express. But part of it is just practical; NW was quite a difficult book to write, and setting it in another city would have just made it more difficult. I think a writer should give herself a break every now and then. It’s useful with familiar streets: it means I don’t have to go to Google every time I want to describe something. I can just reach into my memory.
Bookforum: In your recent essay in the New York Review of Books you said that all novelists are essentially naïve. It made me think about your 2008 essay about Barack Obama, and I wondered what you felt about him now, and about his presidency?
Zadie Smith: As I remember it the essay wasn’t really about him as a politician at all, it was about a certain type of personality. And actually—I don’t often say this—I think I was quite right: he’s the man who is constantly of two minds. I did wonder at the end of the essay if that was going to be helpful politically, because for me he always seemed to be a writer rather than a politician. And that’s a difficult person to be in a hard time.
Bookforum: Did you read that excerpt from his letter to his college girlfriend about T. S. Eliot?
Zadie Smith: Yes, that was absolutely fascinating. I recognized the mindset: trying to rescue Eliot from this conservative hole. And he was quite right to make that argument—though he made it so pretentiously—because Eliot is not just a depressing, Anti-Semitic fascist; he really sees that there is bad behavior and evil action in the world, and he’s trying to truly comprehend that fact – which is something, as Obama said in that letter, that liberals often find it difficult to comprehend. I thought it was amazing— the consistency . . . He’s the same man at 48 that he was at 20!
Bookforum: And for him to put that in a casual letter to a girlfriend is almost unfair.
Zadie Smith: Self-conscious, slightly ambitious, bit of a show-off. It made me think of when Gore Vidal—god bless his soul—said that anyone who wants to be in politics probably shouldn’t be. It’s a fundamental truth. You can never be too fond of a president because you have to remember that he’s a man who was willing to do this violent thing to his family and friends, to his personal life. It’s not a normal ambition.
Bookforum: I read that you mentioned Virginia Woolf as an inspiration for NW. Was she in any way a stylistic influence?
Zadie Smith: It’s funny, it was actually an explanation after the fact. I had to go to BEA and they kind of force you to have some idea of what your novel is about and as I was reading I thought: well, I’ve always loved Woolf—though, to be honest, I suppose I’ve never really loved her fiction and like many other people I much prefer the essays. But I do think she was a model of someone who was willing to push the form in interesting ways without resorting to this fundamentally macho-contest of ‘who can be the most experimental.’ She was genuinely trying to capture the way she experienced things. And that interests me, though she was perhaps less an inspiration to me than a kind of cheerleader. Someone to help you keep your chin up when you’re working.
Bookforum: On that note I wanted to ask you about the architecture of NW and especially the contrasts between the novel’s different sections—
Zadie Smith: Oh, I always find it fantastically tedious to listen to writers explain the purpose of their novels. All I would say explicitly—and which is probably perfectly obvious—is that I was thinking about time: about how different people experience the time of their lives, how they tell it to themselves and how they fail to tell it to themselves. From the very dynamic, faux-Rational, forward-momentum of someone like Natalie, to the feeling that Leah has that she’s just right in the middle of something and has to react to whatever comes to her. I just thought that each character needed a different style because they do genuinely experience the world so differently that it would be false to express them all in the same prose style. And I also did it just to interest myself. You can never underestimate how boring writing is and how much you need to find new ways to do it—otherwise, what’s the point?
Bookforum: You stirred things up a few years ago with your essay, “Two Paths for the Novel.” Did you feel any extra pressure as you were writing NW to be more explicitly experimental or radical in your aesthetics?
Zadie Smith: I’m not interested in clubbing together behind some flag of the avant-garde. Every writer’s book is their own and you have to do it on your own. You can do it a bit in a gang for a laugh, but in the end your individual work is your individual work. I was very aware of having grown up in a way where I felt the need to prove that I could do this very mechanical thing which is writing. And having proven that now, I wanted to move on and do more of my own thing. I’m only 36, which for many writers is when they publish their first book. The only difference is I’ve just had a lot of my young work published. I can’t do anything about it, that’s what happens. It’s an unusual experience, but for me it’s all been useful.
Bookforum: You’re one of those writers who seem equally comfortable writing essays and book reviews as you do writing novels. Have you ever struggled with the demands of fiction versus non-fiction or is it more intuitive?
Zadie Smith: Non-fiction is so much easier, so of course it’s more enjoyable to do. No personal agony goes in to non-fiction—or at least it doesn’t for me. Fiction is a much more messy and personal and embarrassing thing to do, and a much more difficult thing to present to someone else. I never feel any shame showing someone an essay, but I feel great shame showing someone a novel. It’s just a different exercise. But I’ve been blessed: I can’t exaggerate how it is being British in America and having all these outlets for what are incredibly long and minority interest essays. It’s amazing. So really, my non-fiction is a product of being in New York and realizing someone would actually want to publish these things, whereas in England it’s honestly quite hard to place something like that.
Bookforum: You were writing the New Books column for Harper’s until last year. I imagine that was a lot of work.
Zadie Smith: It was so much fun, but the reality is I have a family and I simply can’t do it. Maybe later I'll go back to it, but at the moment it's too much.
Bookforum: It seemed like you were reading several new books a week.
Zadie Smith: I had a small baby so it was really a ludicrous thing to try and do. Though I guess that’s typical of people with small children: they always try to prove that they can still do whatever.
Bookforum: You mentioned all the literary and cultural publications in New York. How does the state of literary criticism strike you?
Zadie Smith: I prefer it—and I know I probably haven’t helped in this case—when literary criticism is tied very precisely to the books in question. To be honest, I prefer book reviewing to the rather over-blown criticism that I have sometimes myself been guilty of writing. I much preferred writing the articles for Harper’s than “Two Paths for the Novel.” You can get lost and forget what an actual book looks like when you disappear into theory and don’t deal with the text in front of you. So I think book-reviewing is a very healthy art, and I found it incredibly helpful to be writing it for Harper’s simply because it’s a joy to realize—after all these theories have been set aside—that in the end you’re faced with an individual mind that is always so odd and particular, and which you’re forced to deal with on it’s own terms. Not as an example or symptom of one thing or another, but as a novel. I do think there a lot of great book-reviewers in America, and the more they think of themselves as book reviewers as opposed to Trilling-like CRITICS, the better they tend to be.
Bookforum: Apropos Virginia Woolf: What a great book reviewer she was!
Zadie Smith: Yes, she was an absolute everyday book reviewer. She especially loved to read anonymous novels by women of the nineteenth-century; she loved to read what we would now call chick-lit or whatever—she was fascinated by all that stuff. That material told her how women lived at the time it was written, and how women lived was a topic of infinite fascination to her. She wrote brilliantly about it. Whereas Eliot— though I admire him very much—when he got on his high-critical hobbyhorse, well . . . he was a bit of a programmatic bore, really. He’s a case of a man whose art was far superior to his criticism.
Bookforum: What’s next for you? It seems like you could do just about anything.
Zadie Smith: If you’d asked me five years ago I would have said I was exhausted by trying to write this book and by trying to do anything. But now I feel freed by writing it, I suppose. It’s a great pleasure if you manage to write something that you wanted to write and it comes out more or less as you’d hoped. That’s never really happened to me, so I’ve been enjoying the happiness of that. I have an idea for something I want to write which will be quite different, but at the moment I’m just enjoying reading. It’s a good time. It’s a good time generally in your thirties; you’re not quite the fool you were in your twenties, and—god-willing—you’re not yet ill. All your abilities are working together, they’re not yet eroded. So it’s a good time for me.
Read Parul Sehgal on Zadie Smtih's NW in the fall issue of Bookforum.