Culture

Exclusive: Author Zadie Smith on juggling motherhood with writing, Game of Thrones and good art

An India-first

Zadie Smith, my forever girl-crush and mum-goals-setter, was candid, charming and so brutally blunt about everything — from writing between school hours, and her love for Game Of Thrones to how we are defined by our actions and behaviour.  

ELLE: You are a mother of two young children, and with not much help with childcare. Writing is a form of mental gymnastics, isn’t it? How do you do it? What are some of your preoccupations at the moment?

Zadie Smith: Both my husband and I write whatever it is we write between 9am and 3pm, school hours. Sometimes till 5pm, if I can find an ex-student to take those extra two hours. But that kind of help comes and goes—I don’t rely on it, otherwise I’m overcome with frustration. It’s my belief that even the freest, most single and childless writers rarely do more than four hours of intense writing a day. I do the same, but I just have much less spare time to waste. If I lose a day to Googling etc., then it’s really a problem because I have no slack, no extra time. The other essential part of my job, reading, is what really suffers. We try and read the moment the kids go to bed, and resist the pull of Netflix, but it doesn’t always work. In order to write, I cut out a lot of things: reading the newspapers, for example. I listen to the radio, because you can do that while cleaning. And I have to avoid all social media and most daytime emailing. But I have also absolutely given up on the idea of peace and quiet as being necessary to writing. I just don’t allow myself to think about that. I don’t go to writers’ retreats, and I really can’t imagine any more what it would be like to write from 9am to 6pm each day, or on weekends or during the summer. I work in the time I have.

ELLE: Motherhood doesn’t slow us down, it makes us move faster within the time constraints, doesn’t it?

ZS: I am more obsessed with time than ever, but I probably always was. I think of that line in Hamilton, ‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time?’ I was always like that. It always seemed to me that life was too short to write, and it still does.

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ELLE: Do you write with music playing? Some of the music you referenced in Swing Time (2016) was phenomenal.

ZS: Never. I love music, but the only thing I listen to when writing is brown noise (a softer version of white noise).

ELLE: As a writer, you are so skilfully multivocal. With each of your four novels, you have played with different literary voices. How much does the psycho-geographical time in your life determine what your books are about?

ZS: I’m not so self-reflecting. To me, they are experiments in literary styles. It’s for the shrink to make the connection between life and work; I can’t give much brain space up to that kind of speculation. I’m just trying to make things out of words that feel fresh to me at the time. Necessary, at the time.

ELLE: Your novels have a medley of characters—biracial, different cultures, negotiating and navigating their position in the world. What is it like to live as a PoC in the United States right now?

ZS: It’s not just the States; it’s the world. I was just reading about a Ukip leader’s girlfriend speaking of Meghan Markle in ways I haven’t heard since the early ’80s. A young woman this is, who feels perfectly free to text her friend about the stain of black blood in the royal family, and the stupidity and ugliness of black people. It’s just one dumb, ugly example amongst many. Something wild and dangerous is abroad right now; it’s always been there, but it’s once again in the ascendance. At the same time, a few days ago, I went to Black comic-con, and sat in a room full of black nerds, fans and academics—some dressed in full costume—and felt the ascendance of something else; a fresh flowering of black culture, black pride, black excellence, black self-delight. The two things are happening simultaneously—they have a causal relation. It feels like whiplash. Sometimes, I feel heartbroken, and at other times, wildly exhilarated.

ELLE: Your first book, White Teeth (2000), came out when you were 25. Then you wrote another book, and another. Were you ever just a regular 20-something, doing 20-something things? Is there ever a time when you are not writing? Did you know that this is what you wanted to do in life?

ZS: Up to the age of 21, I really didn’t write very much at all. I was a reader. I felt, at the time, like I had the normal amount of fun, but I can’t deny I also worked through my twenties. But writing is a weird category of work; it’s also a satisfaction; it’s also a pleasure. What it never is though is ‘mindless’ and I did miss out on a certain amount of mindlessness. I think that’s why I’ve always been so attached to alcohol—it gives me what I can’t get in the rest of my life.

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White Teeth by Zadie Smith @pengiun

ELLE: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.” That line from NW (2012) can also quite easily sum up the mood of the moment—it resonates with feminism and identity, topics that punctuate every form of social commentary at the moment—in the light of Donald Trump getting elected, to the #MeToo movement.

ZS: There’s a funny thing about that quote. Since NW was published, it’s come to my notice that people sometimes quote it in the positive sense, which of course they’re absolutely at liberty to do, but I have to confess I find it wrong-headed, personally. In the book, Leah hears it on the radio, but I didn’t mean that it was something either Leah or I would agree with. I don’t believe people are entirely self-defined or self-created. I think meaning is communal and partial, and concerns a negotiation between many elements: private and public, natural and created, subconscious and conscious, and so on. You cannot be entirely self-defined in fact, because you are also defined by the effect of your actions and behaviours on others. That is a significant part of your ‘identity’, and you do not control it entirely. I think of myself both as the product of many hands and the subject of many interpretations, like all humans. That quote suggests otherwise: a form of perfect control in which the experiencing subject holds all the power. That would work in a world of one, but we don’t live in a world of one. 

ELLE: You grew up in London, and now you live in New York. To quote you, “New York just expects so much from a girl—acts like it can’t stand even the idea of a wasted talent or opportunity...” What is it like for you to live there, and what is the idea of home to you now?

ZS: It’s exhilarating, sometimes a little exhausting. It’s a home to me, but so is London, and I think many places could feel like home to my type of writer. If I have my loved ones around me, a park, a regular café, a bar and a library—that’ll do.

ELLE: What is the physical act of writing for you? Are you meticulous as a writer—do you finish one chapter and then move on to the next, or do you write as and when the process occurs in your head?

ZS: It occurs between 11am and 2.30pm pretty much; after I’ve dropped off the kids and run errands, or exercised and before I pick them up. I write in a straight line generally speaking, from beginning of whatever it is to the end. I’m meticulous in the sense that I don’t leave a sentence alone until I’m completely satisfied.

ELLE: How does the idea of a novel germinate—is it the image, a word, a sentence, an idea? Your novels are very cinematic. How do you imagine your stories—as a film that plays constantly in your head?

ZS: Not at all. They usually arise from ideas—quite abstract ideas. That’s the skeleton. And then, as I write, the bare bones get draped in images, language, memories and so on. I’m always amazed when people say they find my novels cinematic or visual. To me, it’s all sentences.

ELLE: Your characters are complicated and layered. How much do you draw from real life?

ZS: I shave off a lot of shards of myself, and I am also deeply voyeuristic. It’s like acting. You climb into someone else’s skin, and walk around in it, as a relief and respite from being given only one life to live.

ELLE: Do you have a favourite character?

ZS: I think it might be Fatou in The Embassy Of Cambodia (2013).

zadie smith books

ELLE: What I admire most about your writing is the versatility. You write about dancing, about Jay-Z, about pop culture, with such dexterity, experimenting with forms and topics. It’s something that most writers are not very comfortable doing.

ZS: I just write about whatever interests me—it seems so obvious. Doesn’t everybody? Maybe the difference is I don’t worry too much about expertise. I assume my own ignorance—I’m not trying to be a connoisseur of anything, just an enthusiast. Actually, the only time I got really hung up on that issue was with the Jay-Z piece. I was so painfully aware of the gulf between my knowledge and, say, the knowledge of either of my brothers. It was like the gap in Shakespearean scholarship between Harold Bloom and a high-school kid. In preparation for that interview, I consulted my brothers, and read everything and listened to everything over again—but I did too much research, it meant I talked too much during the interview. What I really want to know when I’m talking to someone like that is the mechanics of the art-making—in his case, how those verses get written. Then I want to connect that practical insight to the feeling I have [while] listening to it. Proving ‘how much I know about x’ is never the aim. I’m trying, instead, to capture a response, the kind of aesthetic bliss that good art provokes.

ELLE: Your husband, Nick Laird, is a poet and a writer. What is it like to share a space with another writer? Do you both write at home or elsewhere?

ZS: I have a desk in the bedroom. He has an office in the apartment. But I can go to my NYU office if I want. Mainly both of us work in the NYU library, often sitting next to each other, but facing forward. As to how it is? It’s all we know at this point. Writers aren’t easy—but we both know that by now. He writes novels, too, so we’re in each other’s business quite a lot: reading, editing. It’s a strange kind of codependency, like all marriages. I don’t feel that writing has any special effect on it.

ELLE: What is the purpose of a novel in today’s context? What did it do for us in the past, and what has it done for us lately?

ZS: Novels are the revelation of other minds. I mean that other minds are real, as real as your own. That’s essential at all times, but especially when other-blindness is as strong as it is at this moment.

ELLE: How much do you deliberate on your first line?

ZS: I don’t. I’m not into the cult of first lines—I don’t care about them very much. I always write them quickly and get going. 

ELLE: What is the best piece of writing advice that you have ever received?

ZS: It’s a strange thing, but I can’t think of anyone ever giving me any, really, except my mother who told me, when I was about eight, not to copy out people’s work word for word, and pretend that you had written it (I’d just done that). I still find that to be excellent advice.

ELLE: What kinds of television shows do you enjoy watching?

ZS: I like everything that everyone else watches, except Stranger Things, which I don’t like. I have special love for the second season of Insecure, the original web series of High Maintenance, the first and second season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and every last second of GoT (Game Of Thrones) and Idiotsitter

ELLE: What are you reading at the moment?

ZS: Many books about the years 1830- 1880, for work.

ELLE: Have you been to India?

ZS: I have. I came on holiday with Nick, pre-kids, many years ago. We went all over, but I’m afraid I didn’t cover myself in glory. I’m the kind of person who likes to move somewhere for a year. If I’d moved to Delhi for a long spell, I think it would have been heaven, but instead, we were tourists, moving from place to place, without friends or context. We were surrounded by beauty and fascination, but I couldn’t find any way to penetrate it. But I have wonderful mental snapshots, like any tourist: the Paradesi Synagogue, the Jain Caves, a Mumbai parade ground and so on. I need to go again for a longer stretch.

ELLE: And I believe you use a flip phone?

ZS: Yes, but it’s a dull subject. Much more fascinating to me is that fact that 800 million people use iPhones!