Even though Zadie Smith's debut novel, White Teeth, came out only shortly after she graduated from Cambridge University in 2001, it nailed the glorious chaos of modern-day, multicultural London and won the prestigious Guardian First Book Award, among heaps of other prizes following. When it was soon discovered that the then-24-year-old Smith was as fiercely intelligent as her book, the literary media were won over, and they deemed her the ideal spokesperson for London itself.
Jealous yet? Don't be: While equally inventive, funny and smart, her follow-up, 2002's The Autograph Man, failed to win many accolades. Since then, Smith has spent time as a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard and married her longtime best friend, fellow acclaimed writer Nick Laird. She's also written her best novel to date. On Beauty is at once an homage to E.M. Forster and an examination of hip-hop and academia, starring a large cast of varied characters. WW spoke to Smith last week by phone.
WW: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Booker Prize-after seeing that longlist, which includes authors like J.M. Coetzee and Salman Rushdie, it must feel like such a rush.
Zadie Smith: It's extraordinary. I was reading my way through the longlist, so I know the quality of it. But when you write, you can't think about what judges are going to like. Also, I write funny books, and you'd never expect that because funny books are not usually the big Booker shortlisters.
So much of your humor comes from your characters' clever observations-it shows an extraordinary ability to get inside the head of so many disparate personalities.
I just like people. I like to write about them. I suppose I am quite affectionate about them. I just did this thing at the New Yorker festival with Jonathan Franzen, and somebody asked him why he hated his characters. He argued that he didn't hate them, but he didn't want to get too close to them.
Do you see yourself in any of the characters in On Beauty?
If you'd have asked me that when I was writing White Teeth, I would have been very haughty about it, because I was straight out of Cambridge, and I liked the idea that fiction was completely separate from the person who wrote it. That's nonsense-you're obviously connected to what you write!
I think that all fiction is partially autobiographical in the sense that the writer was interested enough in something to write an entire book about it.
That's exactly it-it's a statement of belief and of faith. You're saying, "These are the things that I think matter." That's why, when you meet writers, one of the most clear things is that these people are like their books! An encounter with the person is like an encounter with the book-there's no difference. I couldn't believe that, but meeting Martin Amis was like meeting London Fields.
People compare On Beauty with White Teeth-they're both big and beautiful and loud. But what would you say to someone
who'd read The Autograph Man, which seems quieter-like the odd man out, in a way-and didn't think that book was like you as a person?
People are thrown off by very superficial differences. When I look at those books, I can see the same obsessions-particularly with ritual, faithZadie Smith reads at i and family. The Autograph Man was obsessed with death because at the time, my father was so ill and I was depressed. I think it's about the horror of detachment. The one thing that I cannot stand in life is the idea of not feeling genuinely. It just feels to me that life is so unbelievably short, you just don't have time to waste it not having real experiences.
That reminds me of a line I love in On Beauty when Jerome's writing in his journal, and Kiki comes over and says, "Too much recording-try living." And he replies, "False opposition." But I do see that some writers seem to write just from other books, rather than experience.
I think that's true, and I'm always in danger of doing that. For lots of people, a lot of their living is done through books. I think that's a strange experience, but you can't take your childhood away, and that was my childhood. I can't replace it with playing in the woods, because that didn't happen-I stayed at home and read Jane Eyre.
Do you ever feel like you missed out on certain life experiences a bit, having spent so much time reading?
When I think of myself and my life as a reader, I just think that it's incredible. When you read Tolstoy or someone else, you're in this man's brain. That is extraordinary. And the truth is, I wouldn't swap it for any other sort of life or way.
Smith reads Thursday, Oct. 6, at First Unitarian Church, 1101 SW 12th Ave., 228-4651 (Powell's). 7:30 pm. Free.