In an India exclusive, Zadie Smith talks to Supriya Dravid about her new book, why she believes it is a good time to be a writer, and why the simplest of stories always make for the most delightful reading
ELLE: Hi Zadie, long time. How have you been?
Zadie Smith: Okay. In the middle of my life, so sometimes totally insane and other times strangely at peace.
ELLE: Congratulations on Grand Union. Were you contemplating writing a book of short stories, or did this just happen by chance as you kept writing?
ZS: My editor suggested it, and sent me a file of all the short stories I’d ever written. I read through that file
and hated almost everything. So that started me on the path of, “Shall I ditch the idea or can I add to the stories I like, until I end up with a book I’m proud of?” I went for the second option. It was fortuitous timing, too. I hadn’t written anything since June because of the school holidays, and now it was September and I had some time and my fingers were itching. I have to say I loved writing the new stories. I think I had a better time writing this book than any other. It reminded me of when I started writing as a teenager: the same joy, felicity, playfulness, and sense of mischief.
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ELLE: Grand Union is a discerning chronicler of our times. It explores race, Brexit, modern lust, complicated women—how long did it take you to put the collection together? Is it harder writing a short story as opposed to a novel or novella? Which one took you the most time to complete?
ZS: I think a novel is the hardest thing to write. To remain in one space, with one set of characters, for years on end. That’s hard for me; I can get bored and depressed. The pleasure for me in short stories is the infinite variety. I am very aware it has become the fashion to write ‘linked’ short story collections, where every story is either in the same voice or set in the same place or milieu. And usually in the first person, too, so the read is as smooth and unstressful as a long drive down a one-way street. I don’t mind that kind of thing, but I must admit that what really excites me (and what I wanted to try to create) is what I find more often in music—ambition, variety, surprise. I see it in the albums of Prince, Outcast, or any Kendrick Lamar record, where each cut comes from a different world. Where your sensibilities are pulled this way and that, and therefore pushed to extremes. Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme were good at that too. They were always asking themselves, each time: “What is this thing, the short story? What can I do with it? What can I make it do?”
ELLE: I liked Sentimental Education. I loved the complexity of Monica. It also seemed like an acute observation of someone so real.
ZS: I’m glad! Though I really never am sure what people mean when they talk about the complexity of my characters. Surely, accurately rendering even five minutes of the genuine complexity of a person’s life would take a thousand pages! Instead, I simplify and symbolise. I don’t get anywhere close to what being a person is really like…With Sentimental Education, the thing that struck me was how its earliest readers were shocked by the sex. That blew my mind. I mean, according to the surveys, everybody’s on Pornhub all day long, but a few sentences of prose can apparently still surprise and offend? Amazing. But the more I thought about it the more I was glad, because it made me realise that it’s not really the sex itself that’s the issue. It’s the fear of something that smells like the truth. We’re surrounded by representations of sex—and representations of women—but they’re almost all mediated lies. So what becomes shocking is a glimpse of a truth, any truth, even the very small glimpse of it that fiction provides. In a way, it’s a great time to be a writer: when we’re all so busy lying—both to each other and to ourselves—it becomes powerful to tell even the tiniest sliver of the truth.
ELLE: While writing, do you start and complete a book solely for yourself first, and then for a reader? I ask this because your words move beautifully between the past, present and future.
ZS: For myself as a reader, but always thinking of others, hoping that my kind of reader—the one who doesn’t confuse writing with transcribed speech—is still around.
ELLE: Did you really get a dog? I loved Blocked as a story. It was so honest, and may I ask if it was exactly how you felt after writing White Teeth?
ZS: Well, in Blocked, it’s God speaking—or a God—so I can’t entirely relate. But like all characters, you extrapolate from your own experiences. I’ve made a few little things. The God of my story, meanwhile, has made everything. So in that story, I took some of the lame anxieties I have had about making little things and multiplied them by, well, infinity! Though, unlike God, I have always had a dog.
ELLE: The stories in Grand Union move quickly, especially in For The King. I know you are particular about certain nuances, as one ought to be, when you wrote for ELLE last year. I read some of the stories in one sitting, because of the manner in which you have written. Are you conscious of the reader reading your story when you write?
ZS: I am aware of working with a new kind of readerly attention span. And I know that most of what we read online all day is written as if writing and speech were the same thing, in that it purports to come from a single source—a person’s deepest insides or whatever—and to be authentic because of this. It’s a very innocent kind of writing, in the end. Meanwhile, the ambivalence and ambiguity of fictional language has become strange to a lot of people, and so I try to remember that, and play with it a little. That said, although I am interested in experimenting, I’m not into punishing readers. That is a macho modernist stance. I believe complexity of ideas can exist in the most fluid and simple of forms. And so, it delights me if a story can be read in one gulp. But they are almost never written that way—with the exception of Two Men In A Village, which I wrote for three hours straight in a café in Calgary.
ELLE: I actually did see the Pathé reel of Kelso Cochrane’s funeral after reading about him in Grand Union. You’ve credited your mum with reminding you of this story at the right time. In many ways, I hope I am right to think that it is also representative of the times we live in. Is that what prompted you to write about it?
ZS: As long as young black men are thought of as a form of object—both by the state and by far too many citizens—stories like Kelso’s will reoccur. But the whole point of the story is that Kelso Cochrane was not a symbol, and not a representative of anything, neither of his time nor ours. He was a human being, sacred in himself and to the people who loved him, as well as to the community he came from. His murder was an outrage made possible by racist ideology—which still persists. I was prompted to write it out of love. That is the only reason I write anything.
Grand Union, published by PenguinRandomHouse India is now on stands.
Featured photographs: R.Burman
Styling: Malini Banerji