Zadie Smith

This piece appeared in the Sunday Independent on March 21, 2005

She is young, talented, beautiful and one half of Britain’s golden literary couple but, perhaps sensing it would be all be unbearably perfect if she were happy too, Zadie Smith graciously comes across as agitated and uncomfortable with her lot. As we discuss her gilded passage to becoming a famous novelist or her marriage to dashing Northern lawyer-turned acclaimed poet, Nick Laird, Zadie looks less like the triumphant girl who has it all (she has in the meantime she has been nominated for the Booker Prize for her latest novel, ‘On Beauty’) and more like a naughty school kid who has just been summoned to the principle’s office. She sulkily mutters something about not liking talking to strangers, avoids eye contact and fidgets nervously with her self-rolled cigarette. ‘Don’t worry’ she says as if bracing herself for schoolmasterly admonishment, ‘I know the rules here, I’m not going to light it.’
It’s a deceptive, (if clever) posture though, because once Smith has gotten a little charmingly half-hearted attempt to cut the interview short out of her system (‘went to college, wrote a book. That’s my life’, complete with a pleading (italics) is that it? (Close italics) look), she’s actually surprising articulate and engaging on the subject of herself. For instance, surveying from a distance of five years the publishing supernova that was her universally well-received debut novel, ‘White Teeth’, she sounds a little rueful. ‘I signed the (publishing) deal when I was still at Cambridge and it was great because it allowed me to write for a living, which I’d always wanted to do. I never really had to have a proper job. But the success all happened so quickly. It was a freak. I won’t be able to repeat it and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to.’
In a literary landscape of mostly white, middle aged authors, Zadie (who when she was fourteen changed her name from Sadie because she wanted to sound more exotic) seemed like a multicultural breath of fresh air. Unlike most Cambridge graduates she came from a grammar school in mainly working class area – the North London suburb of Brent (where she still lives). Her mother had emigrated from Jamaica as a teenager and when she divorced from Zadie’s father, the young writer continued to live with her. I wouldn’t like to use the term ‘lower class’, but yeah my parents didn’t go to university. But we don’t think of ourselves as peasants.
The press couldn’t resist the fact that the author of this darkly funny book was also young black, beautiful and effortlessly shattering the glass ceiling of social-class. This in turn soon caused some sniping that she was just a triumph of shrewd marketing, the right person at the right time. ‘Well maybe people can say those things’, she laughs ‘but the good thing is you have to put up less with those accusations of being young and beautiful less and less because they gradually become less and less true!’
She is too modest to point to her relative longevity but indicates that she relishes outliving the style-over-substance criticisms. ‘I remember when similar things were said about Martin Amis. (to whom she was compared after her second novel) Now he just publishes his books and gets on with it. Everything normalises in the end. I’m just plugging away now and that suits me better.’
Plugging away means something different for Zadie than it does for many other writers. ‘I think the phrase ‘only write what you know’ is highly unhelpful. That’s not what I do. We need the freedom to go outside ourselves, to make mistakes. I think the key to learning to write well is just to read a lot. I owe a lot to the authors I’ve read. That’s where I got my best advice.’
She abhors the commercialism of publishing. ‘Writing is a lifetime’s work. And even the greatest writers I can think of can write a lot of bad books. I abhor a culture that dismisses someone after one book as if you weren’t the right type of Coca-Cola. I cant tell you how many of my friends haven’t been given second book deal because their first ones didn’t sell. They struggle day-to-day.’
Because her novels all feature characters that are first generation immigrants, many attempts have been made to draw their creator into the current debate about how England should react to the threat of Islamic extremism. It’s not a subject that particularly engages her. ‘I’m not interested. I can’t read endless op-ed pieces about Muslim children in London. I can’t bear the endless commentary. I’m a novelist not a commentator. I’m interested in how people live – their little day-to-day stuff.’
In the days after we speak Smith is savaged by Janet Street Porter, amongst others, for apparently imagining that she is more famous than she is and for sharply criticising the ‘stupidity, madness and vulgarity’ of England. Zadie tearfully claimed she was misquoted on the latter point and her comments to me would seem to bear that out. She tells me ‘I’m so born and bred English that I don’t even think of myself as immigrant in any way. There is no divided loyalty. I love being English but I also love being black. But I want to make a distinction: I never understand these statements people make about being proud to be English. One’s nationality is an accident of birth, nothing to be proud of. It’s great, for instance, that Shakespeare wrote those plays, but they were nothing to do with me so I can’t be proud of them.’
Of her supposed vanity there is little trace. ‘The fame of a writer is pretty low grade,’ she tells me. ‘If I walk down Kilburn high road nobody stops me unless they know my mum. Or you walk down Hampstead high street and you cant move because it’s full of guardian reading liberals who read every word you write. I can go clubbing and I’m completely and utterly anonymous.’
She talks in fast, bashful run-on sentences, only raising her huge, expressive eyes to meet mine when she wants to make a point or when the conversation turn around to Nick Laird, her husband and fellow literary sensation. ‘I met him at Cambridge. We were in different colleges and would only have got to know him at lectures, which I didn’t go to very much. But we met at a party for a story I wrote which he was publishing. Of course I fancied him. Everyone in my family has a thing for Irishmen. My mother’s boyfriend is from Dublin. My aunt’s boyfriend is from Lisburn. All the women have one (an Irishman) but its mostly southerners.’
While they were at Cambridge Nick won the prize in a competition that Zadie had also entered. Three weeks later she signed the deal for White Teeth. ‘It didn’t change our relationship as friend or as writer –friends,’ she tells me. ‘He continued to edit my stuff or make suggestions, he’s always done that.’
Nick went on to work as a solicitor in London and write poetry in his spare time. ‘He thought this was noble – Wallace Stephens did it, Eliot did it. But it’s hard to make money at it. Nick was proud of being a lawyer. He’s not your ideal of a temperamental wishy-washy poet. He’s quite a practical, hardworking, Cookstown man. I think he quite misses being a lawyer because when he’s out and about he has to say ‘I’m a poet’. It doesn’t have quite the same ring about it as ‘I’m a lawyer.’
At Cambridge novelists are thought of as vulgarians in comparison to poets and Smith seems to have inherited some of this snobbishness. ‘Poets are purer. They have intensity, such a breath of knowledge. Nick and I were in Dublin recently and I heard him talking with other poets but they might as well be talking in Swahili. I don’t have their breadth of knowledge. I like that about them. It’s like they have a special understanding of each other. Heaney is an incredibly kind man – there is a benign love that just shines out of him. Have you ever met a 70-year-old novelist – that’s not the feeling you get when you meet them. When novelists get together its more likely to be a fist fight.’
She accepts that Nick is still seen as labouring in her shadow. When a woman is successful financially people love to try to make the man look limp and pathetic. It’s nonsense. Me and Nick know who we are. His thing is so separate from me. He’s a Faber poet. In my mind that’s a big fucking deal. I’m a popular novelist; he’s a Faber poet. He sent them stuff and waited a year for a reply. When I got my book deal at least I had a formal introduction – I knew someone who knew a literary agent. Nick wrote as a noone. He’s the first living poet they’ve taken in 8 years.’
She relishes talking about her husband’s success more than her own but just as she leapt ahead of him at college with the publication of White Teeth, so Smith may now be about to make another huge career stride. The bookies have installed her as one of the favourites to win the Booker Prize. She is characteristically self-effacing when I mention this but for once she allows the kernel of self-belief that must lie beneath all the self-effacement to come through. ‘People are talking up my chances but I’m just happy to be mentioned amongst those great writers’, she tells me, tucking a wispy bang behind her ear. ‘But’ she adds, barely able to make herself say the words lest it sound like crowing, ‘I’ve written a good book, I have a nice life. And I’m happy with it.’


~ by Donal Lynch on January 21, 2008.