Zadie Smith on ‘little sparks of something like actual life’ and her latest, ‘NW’

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Zadie Smith. (Rachel Cabbit for WSN)
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Zadie Smith began her reading at New York University's Kimmel Center on Thursday night with an apology.

“Because of my young-kid situation”—her daughter Katherine was born in 2009—“I’ve been doing an inordinate amount of New York readings,” she said, expressing concern that some of the reading’s attendees would be about to receive rehashed wisdom.

She needn’t have worried: the two excerpts she had prepared from her new novel NW were crowd pleasers. And, anyway, this crowd, gathered for an event organized by the creative writing program at N.Y.U., where Smith has been a tenured professor since the fall of 2010, was eager to be pleased, rapturously gazing at the author as if she were the Muse herself. Smith, who had accessorized for the occasion with a trademark head-wrap (pink), large black glasses, and a scarf (red, animal-print), had an easy, unassuming charm.

The first excerpt she read, drawn from the third (and longest) of the book’s five sections, required a brief “geographical explanation”: Queen’s Park was analogous to Bed-Stuy, Harlesden to the Bronx, Smith told her audience, transforming her native London into New York shorthand. (NW, as the title suggests, is set in northwest London and focuses on four people who grew up in Caldwell, a fictional council estate.)

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The passage Smith had set up involved a chorus-like gathering of voices at a children’s playground, a group led by Natalie Blake, one of the book’s four main foci, and, as Smith read, she rendered the individual voices, supplying a variety of accents and intonations: a Rasta woman, an elderly white lady, some troublemaking teenagers, a credible-sounding Indian man.

(When she was asked about depicting people of such varied cultural backgrounds and how she went about doing so without flattening or misrepresenting them, Smith suggested that at least some of her success came from refusing to obsess about the portrayals in terms of their capacity for being representative of larger cultures:

“It’s not something I’m especially conscious of,” she said. “I tend to take liberties, and I get things wrong.”

And anyway, she said, no fictional character should be meant to stand in for a whole race, a whole ethnicity, a whole group of real, living people. So mistakes, which were bound to happen, did not much matter.

Then, with a sly smile, she recounted receiving a “letter from the Bengali people,” detailing all the things she got wrong in her delineation of that group in White Teeth.

“Curiously,” Smith added after a beat, as if winding up for the punch line, “[the letter] was handed to me by a Chinese man.”)

The second, longer excerpt Smith read, taken from the novel’s second section also required some set-up: this selection concerned Felix, a man with two girlfriends in the process of trying to break up with one of them. Perhaps because in this second case the scene she read from concerned only two characters, Smith abandoned much of her earlier performativity, though she retained a sort of playfulness, a looseness that gave the piece the air of a comic riff. (Something a bit curious happened as Smith read: incidents that had not struck me as especially funny in my own reading of the novel became remarkably so in her on-stage handling.)

Most of the inquiries that followed the reading, delivered from microphone stands posted at either side of the Kimmel Center stage, came from creative writing students who addressed the author with reverence, as if supplicating for life-altering writing advice. (She was variously addressed as “Miss Smith,” “Professor Smith,” and “Hi, Zadie!!!”)

The adulation makes sense: Smith is that exceedingly rare, nearly extinct thing, a popular author who is also taken seriously, an insistently literary writer who has breached popular consciousness and bestseller-dom. That she was only twenty-five when White Teeth, her debut novel, written largely when she was twenty-one, was published, might also help explain her appeal to this particular audience, which skewed young but apparently dreamed big.

Smith was simultaneously encouraging, treating each question with sincere gravity, all the while acknowledging the difficulties of fiction, especially long fiction. She confessed to moments of doubt about whether she would write another novel after On Beauty. In the seven years since that novel, Smith gave plenty of indication that she might be abandoning the writing of fiction: she served a stint as the New Books columnist at Harper’s Magazine, taught, first at Columbia, then at N.Y.U., contributed criticism and observations to the New York Review of Books and varied other publications, released an essay collection called Changing My Mind.

“Every time you write a novel, you learn that fiction is not easy, that a novel is really hard,” she said a bit wistfully. “A novel is a very difficult thing to do. An essay is just much, much easier.”

Asked specifically about her writing process, she described an arduously protracted one:

“I write very slowly, and I rewrite continually, every day, over and over and over…. It’s a continual process. Every day, I read from the beginning up to where I’d got to and just edit it all, and then I move on. It’s incredibly laborious, and toward the end of a long novel it’s intolerable actually.”

What then ultimately brought her back to fiction, she was asked.

“There are little sparks of something like actual life,” she said after a deliberative pause, “and I don’t think an essay could ever create that friction, that feeling of being alive. And when you’re a kid, that’s why you read, and some people forget that, but for me that feeling of the fake-real, the almost-real, I get pleasure from thinking I could do that.”

That “almost-real” quality is due in no small part to Smith’s way with dialogue, and she was repeatedly asked about her approach to writing it.

“Dialogue comes much easier to me [than description],” she said, though she also admitted that when White Teeth was adapted as a four-part miniseries for British Channel 4, none of the book’s dialogue made it into the script as is. As written, Smith explained, the characters’ speech was too stylized, too over-the-top comic to work on film.

Asked to elaborate on how to maintain the natural flow of a character’s development, Smith exclaimed, “Such hippie questions tonight!” But she gamely embraced that spirit: “I like it,” she announced, before admitting that the notion of natural flow was largely an illusion:

“The truth is, maybe that’s the trick, to make it sound like it just came out, but mostly it’s just very slow work.”

As for character and bringing one to “fake-real” life, Smith suggested that this was part of the unconscious alchemy of writing:

“I never sit down and think, There will be a character ‘Felix,’ and these will have been his jobs and this is the way he feels about things. I start with a name, and I make it up as I go along, the character forms that way. It’s always slow, and hard to describe. When you’re writing, you’re focusing on making nice sentences. It’s almost like you’re making a pointillist painting, and only when you step away do you see, Oh, it’s a man, Felix, and this is what he is like, he wears these clothes, and he is a mechanic. But that’s not really what I’m thinking about as I’m writing it. I’m just trying to make the sentences good.”

She also disputed the notion that “hybridity”—that is, racial hybridity—is a particular concern of hers as she writes.

“I don’t think of the characters that way really. I don’t think—I mean I’ve never thought—of myself as a ‘hybrid.’ You tend to think of yourself as a unity. Maybe to other people I seem like a hybrid, but I feel quite natural to myself,” she said to audience laughter. “What is different in [NW] is that there are different forms, and it’s true that I wanted a different form to suit each character. But that in a way has a lot more to do with their different class and their different attitudes towards life and their different perspectives.”

The difference of forms is made palpable in the novel as each of the sections devoted to a different character assumes its own distinct shape, and the result is a work more experimental than Smith’s previous outings.

Introducing Smith, Deborah Landau, the director of N.Y.U.’s creative writing program, cited Joyce and Woolf as NW’s forerunners, but an even more apt influence seems to me to be Faulkner: NW sometimes reads like The Sound and the Fury in the age of email, Google Maps, and the 24-hour news cycle.

Contemplating the shift in her perspective since the publication of White Teeth, Smith observed that she was no longer the twenty-one year-old who had written that novel:

“I don’t have that kind of wide-eyedness anymore,” she said, and perhaps with NW she was showing her readers how to see differently, how to be less innocent, or how, as she put it at one point, her life has “broadened out.”