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…