Zadie Smith is the closest we have to a literary celebrity, but her unwillingness to appear in public means we know little about her. Of course, this merely enhances her appealby Jason Cowley / March 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
A rare audience with Zadie At the age of 31, Zadie Smith, at least from the outside, seems to have everything a young writer could wish for: a large readership, the Orange prize, super-lucrative publishing advances, critical acclaim, and the movie deal (for her most recent novel, On Beauty). She can publish whatever and whenever she wishes and in the publications of her choice. But who is she? What does she want? Where as a writer is she heading?
It is difficult to answer these questions, because Smith seldom, if ever, gives interviews, certainly in this country, and, like Graham Greene before her, refuses to appear on television—she even declined to be interviewed on camera for the BBC’s coverage of the 2005 Man Booker prize, for which she was shortlisted. This is no pose, no grand Greta Garbo-like retreat from the world, because the truth about Zadie Smith is this: she has little confidence in herself as a speaker.
In early January I saw her appear at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in central London alongside Philip Gourevitch, the recently appointed editor of the Paris Review. They were there to talk about a new book of selected Paris Review interviews with writers (reviewed in this issue), but I was there for only one reason: to see and listen to Smith, whom I have never met but whose work I admire. The event was a sell-out and, beforehand in the lobby, there was a curious excitement, as if we were waiting to see a movie star rather than two writers. In a way, this should have been no surprise, since there is something distinctly starry about Smith. She is the closest we have to a genuine literary celebrity in the American model, and her reticence and lack of confidence in public merely enhance her mystery and appeal.
That night at the ICA, Gourevitch was as sophisticated and controlled as you would expect of a paid-up member of the New Yorker’s in-crowd; he had the flair and timing of a natural raconteur. Smith, by contrast, was hesitant, edgy, a little anxious. She wore a baseball cap pulled so low that its shadow partly obscured her lovely face. At times, she seemed frustrated, as if what she said was not what she had meant to say; as if she were not in control of her words. “As you can see,” she said apologetically at one point, looking out at the audience, whereas before she had been either looking down or askance at Gourevitch, “I’m an awkward speaker.”
She was not being disingenuous; she meant it, and friends of mine have heard her say this before at the Hay literary festival. Yet it was fascinating to listen to her all the same, not least because she has a clear, pleasant, unaffected voice, more redolent of the Cambridge common room than the inner London comprehensive she attended.
There is a palpable neediness about Smith. “I need constant encouragement,” she said. “When I’m beginning something, even if I’ve written only three pages, I contact my agent and my editor and say: ‘Do you want to see what I’ve written? Do you really want to see?’ I want them to say, ‘Yes, and then to tell me to keep going, to keep going.’ At the end, when I’m close to finishing, it changes—then, I need constant abuse, for people to tell me what doesn’t work and why.”
She spoke of the “nausea” of writing—of the compulsion to keep doing it, to keep trying. “If you want to write well, it’s an intention that’s mysterious even to you.” She spoke of how writing, at times, brings her no joy. “I keep asking myself—what is it I’m trying to do? It was like that for the first two thirds of On Beauty. Only with the last 50 pages did it begin to feel as if I was freewheeling. When it is like that, when it works, it makes you so happy. There it is on the page. This is why I do it. The feeling is fantastic.”
Smith is presently living in central Rome with her husband, writer Nick Laird. She has no plans to do any more interviews. “I don’t want people I don’t know to know me. My friends know me—that’s enough.” Like Garbo, of whom she has written well, Smith wants to live—and indeed write—but not publicly.
Then she turned to Gourevitch and said, “I think we better stop now.” And they did.
CAR Hills: unfairly neglected I received a letter a couple of weeks ago, with the ominous heading: “CAR Hills, unfortunate developments.” Regular readers of this magazine may well remember CAR (aka Charles) Hills, who wrote a column called “Clapham Omnibus,” which told of his strange and melancholy wanderings and encounters in and around the southeast London council estate where he had lived for many years. Hills writes novels, short stories, essays and reviews. Many of them are very fine, suffused with the same sad tone; he is an elegist, mixing tenderness and brutality, with an eye for the absurdities and comedy of the human muddle. He is presently in prison, hence the unfortunate developments. In a more just world, this literary outsider would be better known, and a perspicacious publisher would have issued a selection of his work. It would be a shame if he never found the many readers he deserves.