Conversations in the Library: Zadie Smith & Kurt Andersen
Discussed: conceptions of the true world; post–White Teeth guilt and Protestant worry; the benefits of self-reinvention; dead white males; and a defense of gangsta rap.
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ZADIE SMITH: There were problems: Kiki was meant to be from Florida and there are mistakes in terms of her accent and the way she speaks. But I try not to be really fearful because if you’re terrified about accuracy, particularly cultural accuracy, for me, I would be paralyzed. So I try not to think about authenticity and you lose things by doing that. You lose readers, too, who are just insulted. But maybe from taking a bit of an imaginative risk, you get to gain a few things too. That’s how I try to think of it.
ANDERSEN: I read that you were, as a child, an obsessive fan of MGM musicals and that you wanted to be, at some point, a tap dancer.
SMITH: I think people who know me would say I’m a very un-visual person, and that’s quite clear from both of the novels, too. I like things that are very wordy and with a lot of contemporary cinema, I’m a bit lost. I can’t understand scripts with only 25 words in them and excessive music. Some of my favorite films, like The Philadelphia Story, are incredibly artificial constructions. They creak, like plays when you see them filmed. I don’t know why but I’ve always preferred that kind of thing: extreme artificiality on film.
ANDERSEN: In certain novels you do a certain kind of stylization really successfully. Obviously what you have done thus far is realism and naturalism with extraordinary success.
SMITH: The realism is an indulgence, particularly in this book. If I had a critic’s hat on or if I was thinking and talking seriously about it, I wouldn’t get behind the kind of realism I write. I wouldn’t run on that ticket. I wouldn’t defend it and I wouldn’t argue for it. That’s the strange thing I find in my writing. I know a lot of writers do run on the ticket they write for and will argue and make a case for it. Thus far, I wouldn’t say that was true of me. I love to write that way and this book was a great indulgence and a joy to write, but I would have a hard time defending the practice of writing 19th-century fiction.
ANDERSEN: So do you approve of conventionally unrealistic modernist 20th-century fiction more?
SMITH: I’m writing a long essay on David Foster Wallace and there’s a line in one of his stories that describes someone “breaking the rhythm that excludes thinking.” That’s what I really admire in fiction. People are able to do that. The rhythm I write in is pleasurable because it’s familiar. I suppose that is what I admire most.
ANDERSEN: Will the Zadie Smith novels we’ll be reading in 10 or 20 years be more like David Foster Wallace or Kafka?
SMITH: That’s extremely unlikely, I can tell you. Wallace is an extreme example because you could say he looks modern and he smells modern, so people are kind of terrified—not him literally but his books. Coetzee is a very good example of someone who may lull you into familiarity but isn’t at all what I would call classical realism.
There are a lot of ways to skin the cat. I haven’t completely given up on the idea of realism but you have to define what realism is. If it just means books that sound like movies or books you could move through as a person moves through a real environment, that’s not a very effective description. That’s a bit lazy. As you write, you hope for something as close to the truth as you conceive is possible. It’s not that I would like to write books that are actually someone else’s idea of a true world, but you want to at least be accurate in your conception. It would be strange if straight 19th-century realism was your conception, wouldn’t it? Given that you’re living in quite a different time and world?
ANDERSEN: There are architects who build perfect reproductions of 19th-century houses.
SMITH: There are. I live in a lovely updated Victorian house myself. But what you can do is not always what you want to do. Writers are limited by ability and will and patience and all kinds of things.
ANDERSEN: When White Teeth came out, you were a child. It won at least four of the big British literary prizes. It was a best-seller. At the time, or even perhaps more in retrospect, do you feel as though that success at age 24 discombobulated you?
SMITH: I think I’m quite hard to discombobulate actually. I can’t ever know what it would have been like to have a more natural, healthier career. Obviously it wasn’t natural or healthy. But like all things, you can only deal with the cards that you’re given. Of course what White Teeth gave me was the freedom to write at my own pace and to write the book as I wanted to write. The financial side was taken care of by that book. But that’s a great responsibility. So I spend most of my time feeling guilty about not quite working as I should or doing the work that I could do given the time and freedom I have.
ANDERSEN: I’m also interested in how it affected the writing of your second novel. Suddenly you knew you had an audience, you knew critics and civilians were paying attention. Did that transform the nature of writing for you?
SMITH: The thing is, I’m 30 and I’m from that generation that is enormously suspicious of mass audiences. If five million people like something, it’s almost certainly not good. That’s the opinion I grew up with. So then it’s very strange when five million people buy your book and you’re one of those people. The first thought is: There must have been something in my work that made it so easily pleasurable to so many people. So that was slightly disturbing to me. But it’s been really enjoyable.
The one thing I’ve always noticed about my audiences, particularly when I started going out and reading in public, was how varied they were in age and race and class. I started to think about that as a gift, which I suppose suits my temperament. When I’m writing I like to bring people in a bit and then throw them slightly. I’m in no way an iconoclast at heart. I never have been, so it would be ridiculous to pretend to be one. But it’s nice to know that you have so many different people. You can offend them in so many different ways and maybe move them in different ways as well. When I was younger, I’d go to other people’s readings and everybody was a 26-year-old hipster and I’d think, Where are my 26-year-old hipsters? Then I realized that my audience was varied in a way that was really exciting to me.
ANDERSEN: That’s presumably a function of the fact that the characters in your books are so varied—almost perhaps to a fault—and certainly you were generous to all kinds of people. You don’t privilege the 26-year-old hipster over the old person or the white person over the black person.
SMITH: You’ve hit upon something that I didn’t realize about readers because I’d been in academic environments for so long and hadn’t been reading contemporary fiction. People do read for character in that way. They really do align themselves. Young women buy books by young women about young women. But I’d been completely out of that loop.
ANDERSEN: You escaped the academy just in time.
SMITH: You’re completely right. When I first wrote White Teeth it was quite common. I’d be at the table and an Indian woman in her early 30s would say, “I really like Alsana,” then an old man would say, “I really like Archie,” and then a young woman would say, “I really like Zora.” But the purpose of the stories I tell is to force people to empathize a bit further away from themselves.
ANDERSEN: Howard, in On Beauty, is this white butcher’s son, who’s now this very hoity-toity art professor in America. His son, with Kiki, is this half-black American who grew up in a college environment but who plays at being a tough ghetto kid. You play both of those cases of self-reinvention as they are: ironic and interesting and funny. In real life, do you find that this kind of self-reinvention is a good thing—the fluidity that permits it in society and culture?
SMITH: For me it was a necessity. I was recently talking to a woman called Gabby Wood, a really good writer and journalist. Her father is an academic and I couldn’t hide my amazement at the idea of having a father who is an academic who, when you gave him the work, would understand it entirely. She didn’t need to change because what she was making was understandable to the people she came from. My reinvention came from going to Cambridge and having this life that wasn’t really predestined for me. But for people who are born slightly outside all of that, you have no choice but to reinvent yourself. Otherwise you’re not really going anywhere.
But there’s a kind of sadness connected with it, I think particularly the scene in the book with Howard and his father. I knew quite a lot of people like that in college. The people teaching me were working-class English boys who were now incredible theorists and professors of all stripes living completely different lives, and this other thing about them—that they were from the north or that they had very humble families—had disappeared. I always thought that was a strange sadness: If you are from anywhere outside, you have to let go of your life, whereas if you’re slightly more entitled, you bring it all with you, which I imagine is so much more pleasurable.
ANDERSEN: Living in and visiting America, has your sense been that, as we Americans like to think, this is an easier transaction for us than for those in Britain?
SMITH: I can only talk from my own experience and that was the key difference to me in the academic environment. My education was free from the day it began to the day it ended. It would have been impossible under any other circumstance, whereas, in my experience with American universities, the kids have a lot of money, apart from exceptions.
ANDERSEN: You were at Harvard.
SMITH: I was at Harvard. But Cambridge should be thought of as the academic equivalent, and it seemed to me that there was more opportunity there. Otherwise I never would have been there.
ANDERSEN: Other than changing your name from Sadie to Zadie, a little more than half your life ago, are there any other instances of explicit self-reinvention that you’ll admit?
SMITH: Well, I was in love with a boy whose name began with Z and I thought, at 14, that somehow I could help the situation by joining him at the other end of the alphabet. But now I’m very glad because it works as a name for the books that is slightly separate from the name I have for myself in my head, which is my real name, with an S.
ANDERSEN: Really? So Zadie Smith is a character or brand?
SMITH: It’s become that. It’s become something that is on a book. I don’t think of myself that way all the time.
ANDERSEN: You were quoted as saying in an interview: “I’m a little paranoid that whatever I do is in danger of being destroyed by the person I’m becoming.” What does that mean?
SMITH: That must have been a bad book tour day! I suppose I haven’t quite approached the mentality. My husband is a Protestant. I have no religion. I feel like a Protestant in that I’m very suspicious of things that take you away from your work. It seems so long ago now but when I first started writing, I just thought people wrote books and that was the end of the story. I didn’t know there was all the other stuff. I don’t mean to sound strict but I think that other stuff is personally corrupting, honestly.
ANDERSEN: So we’re witnessing some corruption right here.
SMITH: You’re witnessing corruption as we speak.
ANDERSEN: Given that you’re prone to Protestant worry, do you worry, having spent all of your working adult life in a darkened room alone making up stories and not having been out in the world in other ways, that you will come to the end of your well of material and experience?
SMITH: As an adolescent I never believed in experience. When my friends went to India, I just thought all that was totally irrelevant: travel or relationships or even friendships. I thought all you needed was to read other people’s books and this would make you a writer. That is the kind of writer I think I was. White Teeth is very much a product of reading a lot of fiction and putting it through some fiction blender. But the older I get, the more I absolutely believe in experience. It is transforming and it’s a central test of your life. It’s very easy to read and make all these little moral decisions about what happens in Pride and Prejudice or what happens in Vanity Fair but it’s nothing like moving through the world, being married, having friends, dealing with humans. I take it much more seriously now.
ANDERSEN: Another thing you’ve been quoted as saying, and this doesn’t sound so much like a bad book tour quote: “I always find an absurdity in people’s most strongly held cultural views.” And what I take to be the corollary: “I’m almost entirely ambivalent most of the time.”
SMITH: My husband always has a go at me for my ambivalence; he’s not ambivalent. There’s a great phrase that Foster used to describe a character: she was full of “consistency and moral enthusiasm.” And he doesn’t mean it as a compliment. I think of English fiction as having a deep horror of people who are both consistent and morally enthusiastic. Those are the worst type of people you can ever come across. But then again—and this is also from reading Foster Wallace recently—it’s a very easy default position to be the cynic, or the postmodern cynic, and to fear people who have this moral enthusiasm. The bottom line is you have to find something to worship and you have to live by it. These are very strict Aristotelian ideas but I think it’s true.
I do have a horror of party politics. My husband is here so I’m very conscious of him listening to me. He would say it’s just because I can’t bear to read those sections of the paper and I’m sure he’s right. I can’t bear the idea that once you pick your side, you follow it all the way through against all common sense, against everything that is before your own eyes as evidence. The global warming issue is a good one. It’s extraordinary to hear people arguing political angles on this incredible inevitability facing them down.
ANDERSEN: Although that’s a good case-in-point of where one ought not to be ambivalent, right?
SMITH: Absolutely, but I suppose I’m ambivalent about political positions.
ANDERSEN: Does that ambivalence lead toward the exquisite moments of comedy in your books or vice-versa? Are you just a comically inclined person and that feeds your ambivalence?
SMITH: I don’t think of myself as a funny person but I’m quite ambivalent toward the idea of offense. I don’t get offended very often. If you do get offended, then when you write, your sympathy is more with this character, whoever it is, and you’re trying to abuse everybody else and highlight the grandeur of the central character, who is usually you. But I don’t find myself wanting to make a case for the me-ness of me very much. Mainly because I’m not quite sure what the me-ness of me would be like. It’s a complete delusion, because I think I have no qualities or personality or trait, like I’m some kind of master of negative capability. But I know there are a lot of people who think I’m an ass or I’m this or that. I obviously have a strong personality and the worst kind, where I think I don’t have one. I think I’m just sitting around observing but actually I’m a real pain.
ANDERSEN: But I think that’s one of the reasons why your books are so prized by critics and readers: they lack the obvious authorial character.
SMITH: It goes all the way through my life: I can’t write diaries and I can’t bear to write in the first person at all.
ANDERSEN: Even fictionally?
SMITH: I did it once in a story for The New Yorker but even that is kind of at a distance. It’s that Gatsby position of being the person looking on at the main story.
ANDERSEN: I’ll put the next question in the third person for you. Fill in the blank in this sentence: Zadie Smith is a ______ writer. What are the first and second factual adjectives that you would stick in that blank?
SMITH: I’m very willful; I’m a person who is very determined. That’s my main quality: persistence more than anything else when I’m writing.
ANDERSEN: Does that lead you to things you’re happy with as a writer?
SMITH: I’m happy…-ish. A lot of it is in retrospect.
ANDERSEN: I guess that’s the ambivalent suffix, right?
SMITH: It depends. I get very nervous about doing things like this and that I’m not going to be smart enough. I go back and read over previous smart things that I’ve written, and it always seems like, Who was the person who was smart enough to write that piece?
I read this piece about Kafka that I wrote. I don’t ever remember having those ideas or being that smart, but it must have happened at some point. There’s always a feeling of falling off or there was something that you were able to do or understand and then you promptly forgot it. College is like that: you’re never as smart as you were when you were 19. It disappears.
ANDERSEN: And you’re never quite as convinced that you are smart as you are at 19.
SMITH: It’s probably quite true of women in general. Maybe it’s a bad generalization: they think they don’t know what they probably do know, whereas some boys tend to err in the other direction. But I do have that. It takes a while to convince myself that I did know it and it wasn’t foolish or that I didn’t plagiarize. I always think that wasn’t me or somebody else must have done it. That’s a very constant feeling.
ANDERSEN: Speaking of Kafka and your very smart piece about him, you talked about why he wasn’t a novelist but he was trying to do this inherently impossible thing, which maybe all artists are doing. But I read also that you are writing with your husband a musical about Franz Kafka?
SMITH: We’ve done no work on it, mainly because I’ve done very little work on it. But I do hope. It would be great for me to mix two extreme pleasures in my life: fiction and musicals.
ANDERSEN: When I tallied up the writers you’ve mentioned in various interviews at various times that have been your literary heroes or influences—you’ve mentioned C.S. Lewis, Foster, Nabokov, Dickens, Raymond Carver, Updike—Updike is alive but the rest are dead white males. I wonder if you draw conclusions from that?
SMITH: I was thinking about this recently because I’m writing this essay about those three qualities of persuasion Aristotle talks about: logos, ethos, pathos. I was thinking about ethos and the idea of being the right person to speak and having the right to speak. I notice with a lot of young American white males that they feel very guilty about being interested in those writers, and they feel that they need to defend it. I’ve never felt a need to defend those books that I like. It never even occurred to me. But now people do say things like “dead white males” and how it seems strange to have a lot of interest in those writers. Whatever is the best writing, as far as I can tell and feel, is what I’m interested in. And that stretches to lots of other writers, too, but I had a very traditional education so those writers came up more often than others. Particularly when it comes to women writers, I seek them out a lot more and read them a lot more actively. It does become a matter of survival. You do need to know that there were women who wrote really well. When I first read Virginia Woolf, I felt pleasure that she was a genius but also great relief that she was a genius, because she was a woman.
ANDERSEN: Speaking of the realm of identity politics as a template put over literature: when I googled “Zadie Smith” and “postcolonial” I had 23,000 returns. I’m wondering what you think of that phrase and the concept, as applied to you and as a general academic rubric.
SMITH: I think it’s a factual description for a great deal of writing. I think you’re really pushing it with me. I was born and bred in England and I’m about as post-post-postcolonial as you could possibly be. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but part of it is just convenience. I apologize to postcolonial authors because they have a right to be there. It just so happens that White Teeth was published in the last year of the century and it’s very neat. So you read Rushdie and you read Kureishi and then I’m just clumped in as the last minute goes on the clock.
ANDERSEN: “Oh, she has a Jamaican mother! She makes it.”
SMITH: And that’s nice but I feel slightly disingenuous to be there. I do notice often when I’m meeting students: they read White Teeth and then they have to write about Autograph Man and it doesn’t really fit in with the whole postcolonial thing. It all gets lost. But no writer should complain about their books being bought by students. That’s what makes books survive, so any way that I’m in colleges is extraordinary for me.
ANDERSEN: In On Beauty, the art historian, your quasi-hero of the book, Howard, is very much a caricature of the kind of deconstructionist, poststructuralist academic theoretician. With what kind of attitude toward his kind of work did you begin this book?
SMITH: Part of it is absolutely a caricature and part of it is a self-caricature because I was that person. That was my whole deal when I was in college. And again, it’s about juggling logos, ethos, pathos. Is your work going to be of knowledge? Is it going to be from your personhood—you take me because I’m authentic, because I’m postcolonial—or is it going to be emotional?
When I was in college, I had given myself completely to logos and the rest of it could go hang. Howard is that man. I realized later in a fairly predictable way that it was at the expense of all the other parts of my life and my work, or what was to become my work. So it’s affectionate. But I didn’t want it to be anti-intellectual. It really gets me down when people go on their big hunts against postmodern theorists because some of that is some of the greatest writing you’ll ever read. There are essays by Derrida that I would count next to any novels I love, and also by Barthes, Foucault, and Levinas.
I really don’t mean to ridicule that because it’s not to be ridiculed, certainly not by me. But there’s a certain kind of theory that calcifies and gets stuck and becomes about careerism. It’s inevitable. If I’d stayed doing what I was doing and if I’d gone on to become an academic, I would have gotten my little corner. I would have intimidated my students. I would have been that person absolutely. I was extremely fortunate to get out when I did.
ANDERSEN: It seems to me that one reason you got out is because you have the capacity to create moments of beauty that people like Howard don’t.
SMITH: There’s an essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences” by Derrida that is extraordinarily beautiful and intellectually sublime. So it’s not that these people aren’t artists. The best critics are as good as any artist. But English studies has always had the problem that when it was first introduced, they needed to make a profession of it; they needed to make it serious. It had to look like math and science. To do that, they did some incredibly twisted things. It’s quite hard to sit in a classroom and talk about love and affective experience and the enjoyment people get from novels without sounding like a load of kooks, and nobody wants to sound kooky at a university.
ANDERSEN: But it didn’t used to. What changed? In 1960, say, that didn’t sound kooky and in 1975 it did.
SMITH: I don’t know. I have sympathy for it because when I did teach, I realized how difficult it was to make my students feel they were going through a rigorous experience, which is what they want. What I ended up doing when I was teaching literary theory was to bring everything to the table. We have the novel and we don’t try to force it into a different shape but we bring things to it, to kind of kiss-and-greet. You bring pieces of philosophy and you bring pieces of history and you bring things that seem to be relevant without smashing the book into some shape that just isn’t going to go. We try and keep respect for the novel but add things on top rather than dilute it in some way.
ANDERSEN: Beyond what sounded like your slight dissatisfaction with being a 19th-century realist, do you feel like “Enough for now with this multicultural celebration I’ve specialized in as a subject. I’ll let that lie fallow and try something else”?
SMITH: I read a bit of White Teeth again recently because there were lots of pieces in the papers about this great celebration of multiculturalism and, not remembering what the hell was in the book, I thought maybe I should check this out. I had a look and in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Particularly Millat is in revenge against that very idea. He can’t stand the idea of “happy multicultural.” He thinks it’s nonsense and that it’s always been a lie, and that’s what sends him on his whole trajectory.
I think you have to be white or something to think that just showing people different colors together is a statement of some kind. It’s not a statement; it’s just a reality. I’m really honest to god just trying to show what I see on the subway every single day or on the street or in a restaurant or anywhere. When I go back to universities and into literary life, I walk into a room and I’m the only black girl a lot. But that’s not normal. That’s just the world of books and universities and posh fashion parties. It’s not life. It’s not real.
ANDERSEN: But all the non–black girl characters in that novel and the others are not stick figures or shallow…
SMITH: No, I do want to try and bring as much sympathy to everyone, but I don’t see the racial differences as the big difference. Particularly in On Beauty, I’m really much more interested in the way people behave to each other: their personal ethics. Of course race is a difference but it’s a small difference. The world is much more split between cruel people and kind people or generous people and people who hold things back.
ANDERSEN: Or as Salman Rushdie once said when he was under his fatwa, “The world is divided between people who can take a joke and people who can’t.”
SMITH: Absolutely. That’s a great definition.
AUDIENCE: My sense is that you resist categorization, so in terms of definition (if you do define yourself), would you place yourself under the category of British writer, black British writer, or neither?
SMITH: I don’t actually have a problem with definitions at all. Definitions are easy. It’s just what you draw from them. I absolutely think of myself as black and English as a citizen—very much English, and very, very much an English writer, and very, very much black. I didn’t think that there was any kind of contradiction between them. It’s a fact of what I am.
AUDIENCE: You said you felt very guilty about your life. Is it because you’re not spending your time trying to change the world and doing good political things, or what is it?
SMITH: That’s one of them; that will do for starters! I’ve been reading this biography of Joyce and to watch a man with literally nothing beg every day for two pounds from here or there, with the children in tow and traveling and writing these extraordinary books. What’s that American phrase you have? “The more given, the more expected” or something? That’s a fantastic thing to say and that’s the way I feel about it: I just don’t do enough. To be honest, I don’t think it’s a necessity of writers—although they can, obviously—to make political stabs or to be considered wise on those issues. I certainly have no wisdom on any of those issues, so I don’t feel that way. But I do think that by the nature of your profession you should do your profession well. I would like to be the best writer I can be with the freedoms I have. And I don’t feel I achieve that always.
AUDIENCE: When you first started writing, what was the most difficult aspect of writing for you and how do you work through that?
SMITH: I think the most difficult thing is just having the confidence to think that anybody would care. That’s the main thing, isn’t it? Who gave you the right to do anything at all? Then there are all kinds of technical difficulties: getting through the middle of a story, ending a book, trying to keep all the characters out of the realm of caricature—which is really genius when you can do it and is almost never done, certainly never by me. And just the work of it, a lot of the everyday work. It’s a lot of overcoming self-disgust. I think self-disgust is a daily experience for writers. At every level, what you write just seems horrible. To try to get over the horribleness is a big deal.
ANDERSEN: Do you feel as though from White Teeth through Autograph Man to On Beauty that you’ve figured it out substantially better? Do you do it more easily now, relatively speaking?
SMITH: There are definitely technical things that I hope I do better, and I do feel I do them better. I read a part of White Teeth to my husband recently, a paragraph. I can’t remember where it was. I was so enamored by the sounds of things. There are whole paragraphs that don’t make human sense—it’s really extraordinary. So I hope I would never speed on in that way that I used to write, as if I were just singing or something, just carrying on and not worrying.
Also, as you get older you get a little more commitment to the truth, a little bit more sympathy. There’s a boldness that young people have that is lovely and great. I love to read first novels and to just see someone say, “Here I am, here’s my stuff, screw you.” That’s what a first novel is. But it’s also a joy to read novels in their maturity. But I’m 30 so I think I have a long way to go.
AUDIENCE: More in Autograph Man than in White Teeth, it seems like you write about male friendships. Is that easier for you to do than writing about female friendships?
SMITH: I have a little suspicion in my head that if I ever do write a really great book, it would be because I have figured out more about women and how they relate to each other. If I could do that, I think it would be a great application of skill to a subject that is genuinely difficult.
When I was growing up I had many more male friends than female. Particularly when I became an adolescent, I was completely horrified by female life and by “being a girl.” Everything about it just seemed a great personal disaster for me. But now as I get older, I’m getting better but I still think I have difficulty with women in certain ways.
ANDERSEN: As characters?
SMITH: As characters and as people because they keep so much under the surface. It’s an old cliché, but men are much more out there. They speak much more frankly; they don’t seem to have those levels of disguise that are absolutely necessary to survive as a woman in the West. You need to do these things. I also find male friendships very touching when they’re genuine. It seems to me very direct and very much about a genuine companionship. Women’s friendships, as any woman in the room knows, have deep complexities and dark holes.
ANDERSEN: As opposed to the simpleminded male friendships that exist…
SMITH: It’s terrible, but I do think that way. It’s my prejudice!
ANDERSEN: How did you choose the title White Teeth?
SMITH: That’s the question I get asked most often and I must not be giving satisfactory answers. The answer is quite boring: it was always the title. I never thought twice about it. There’s a kind of joke in England: you can only see black people in the dark from their white teeth. It’s an old 1970s joke I used to hear as a kid, so I think that’s probably it. But on a much more conscious level, it’s a series of incredibly labored metaphors about people and roots in the book. That was the actual conscious reason.
ANDERSEN: Will every book you ever write have two words in the title?
SMITH: I don’t know! I’m very fussy about titles. I think of them at once and they never change. I am always amazed at people who are writing and they’re choosing between titles and they don’t choose until the end, or the editor chooses them. That’s amazing to me. I’m very set on even the typeface of the title.
ANDERSEN: What’s the next novel called?
SMITH: I haven’t decided yet. I haven’t started writing it. It’s still just murmurings in my head at the moment. With On Beauty, I myself was a pretty big girl when I was a kid so it’s something I think about and experienced. If you’ve ever had a big physical change from being very big to very small or vice-versa, you understand what these things mean in the world and how extraordinary it is to pass through the world as one physical person and then as another. All those books about women dressing as men or a black person whiting up—sometimes they’re not that interesting. But to live the experience, if you can manage it, is quite striking. I wanted to write about that and the feeling of carrying a body like that around.
Also, I suppose I wanted to make a point, which isn’t that disguised in the book. It’s often said but I do think it’s true, that in the black community, like my mother’s Jamaican community, there’s a lot of beauty in bigness as well. Sometimes I felt bad when I was big, but a lot of the time I didn’t. And in terms of all the things that bigness is meant to keep you from, my life now is no different. You have the same amount of love. You have the same life. Nothing really changes except the culture, which is screaming at you that you were wrong. So I wanted to write about the beauty of that kind of physicality as well.
ANDERSEN: When White Teeth came out and it was said again and again, even in the reviews, “It’s a great book but she got published because she’s so pretty,” did that strike you as though you’d suddenly taken off your glasses, and having not felt yourself so beautiful, were?
SMITH: There was incredible irony, absolutely, given my childhood. But I used to shy away from questions like that and now that I’m older, I’m really angry about it. It’s really irritating. I work really hard to write my books and I worked really hard to get through college. It’s just outrageous to be told that after all that, it was because you put your photo on the manuscript. That was the story that used to go around London: a complete untruth. In fact it’s just a nasty piece of sexist nonsense—adding race to it as. It’s unpleasant.
AUDIENCE: Given the imminent collaboration on Metamorphosis the musical, I’m wondering if you’re a fan of Mel Brooks and if so, what your favorite films are?
SMITH: If I could get a ticket to that show, I would be a fan, but I’ve never gotten a ticket to The Producers in London or in New York. But I am a fan of Mel Brooks. I like comic films maybe almost as much as musicals. We were having a conversation recently at a dinner party where people were bringing up all these incredibly sophisticated Italian and French films and I have no experience in that area. I really am a straight down-the-line American comedy/musical fan.
In On Beauty there’s a Tupac quote. It was meant to be a Biggie quote, which I then had to change because Biggie’s estate was trying to charge me something like $8,000 for one line. I just thought, Come on, man! What’s that about? We’re meant to be exchanging ideas and meant to be able to sample. Eight thousand dollars for one line of hip-hop!
I have two separate areas of taste: I really like ’40s show tunes and I really like gangsta rap. I don’t know how that came to be. I really don’t think of it as gangsta rap so when I read those articles that are so aggressive toward it, I never get involved in that. To me, the music is so beautiful so that whole argument is kind of to the side. I know that people argue about the representation of women. But you know in epic poetry when someone will boast about the size of the army or something? I think of rap like that. A lot of things that people find offensive I don’t even register. I just think that’s the boast; it’s what you do to get there and then you do the song. I don’t notice that stuff. There are things like the Biggie video for “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” that seem to me ecstatic. They’re so joyful that you can’t help but be delighted to hear them. And the wordplay is extraordinary in the best rappers. They’re just beyond belief.
ANDERSEN: So I guess when Jay-Z did A Hard Knock Life, which is a pseudo-’40s musical…
SMITH: No, I hated that! That was awful! That was too much of a good thing; it was bad. I really like Jay-Z but not that. I think of rap as an expression of that violence; I don’t think of it as the instigator. Of course in every medium there will always be those relations, but I think that kind of communication is quite rare. I just don’t understand why you can have hard-boiled literature or serious literary fiction like American Psycho, which deals with urban horror, and then in hip-hop it’s always taken to be like politics, like it’s speaking in the first person and directing people to behavior. I think of hip-hop as narrative. I always have.
ANDERSEN: Although isn’t the difference between American Psycho and hip-hop the magnitude of impressionable people that it can affect?
SMITH: Absolutely. See, this is why I never write op-ed pieces defending rap because I absolutely know I couldn’t and I’d be given all this evidence on the contrary. But I know that within the community, for the people who listen to hip-hop, the understanding is quite different from the piece you read in The New York Times. It’s not the same thing at all; they’re not hearing the same words. There’s a fondness to some of these songs. There are songs that will make you weep. I think of rappers as people who are not consistent. They’re completely inconsistent. They’ll write incredibly radical songs about change and transformation and then they’ll write the stupid song about the bitches and the hos. They’re like that. That’s what they do. But I try and keep the best of it and love it for that.
Copyright © 2006 PEN American Center. All rights reserved.