Interview by Jane Zwart
Zadie Smith has written five novels: White Teeth (2000), Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW (2012), and Swing Time (forthcoming). She also writes essays—some of which readers can find collected in the books Changing My Mind (2005) and Feel Free (forthcoming)—and short stories. She spoke with Jane Zwart in April at Calvin College's biennial Festival of Faith and Writing.
I wanted to begin simply by asking about the fictions themselves, and if it's all right with you, I think we'll work in reverse order.
I'll start with a novel you still have in your possession: Swing Time, which is due to be published in November. When I heard about it—this new book—what I wanted to ask you is what you're writing it "to see if you can." You've talked about writing On Beauty to see if you could get "the tone or the color of a 19th-century novel" and about writing NW to see whether you could write a book that had "four very different narrative modes." What test of that sort—doing something to see whether you could do it—led to Swing Time?
Actually, it sounds uninteresting, but the test was to write in the first-person. And to write a book that continues to have that feeling of realism and detail in its people but has also an almost fable-like quality.
So if it's a fable, it has a moral?
[laughs] It's hard to describe, but if you could have all Christian American life summed up by one life or all Polish Jewish life summed up by one life … I was trying to think about black life, I suppose, thematically—and so it's a little bit like that: the feeling of blackness.
All right: we'll wait for Swing Time itself and turn to NW. Before writing it, you'd written an essay about Middlemarch by George Eliot in which you talk about "the famous Eliot effect." And you go on to say of Middlemarch: "Here is the English novel at its limit, employing an unprecedented diversity of 'central characters.' The novel is a riot of subjectivity." Then you explain that each character in the book would think that someone else was the main character. Well, to me, NW—although it doesn't have as many central characters—feels like another "English novel at its limit," like another "riot of subjectivity." But I read it as less sympathetic to its characters than Middlemarch is to its characters. Is that fair?
I was thinking of it the other way around. What strikes me about Eliot and Austen and really about that whole tradition is how judgmental it is. Jane Austen is one of the most judgmental writers ever to have lived.
I think about that alongside the fact that both Eliot and Austen were without children. Because, as the daughter of somebody, you have a lot of judgments. You have a lot of opinions about your parents, about the village you live in, about everybody. One of the experiences of having children is that it thrusts you into uncertainty in a different way.
Austen seems to me absolutely certain, full of judgment. Because it's comic, maybe people don't notice so much, but Pride and Prejudice works through gradations of condemnation for everyone apart from Elizabeth, who is critiqued but finally saved. A lot of it is very severe, in fact, but it's all delivered in the comic spirit. Eliot does something similar. The most simplistic reading of Middlemarch is that is represents a kind of journey or guide through husbands or potential husbands and their various flaws. And I think White Teeth is written very much in that manner, under that influence. But as I've gotten older—and as I wrote NW—I felt less inclined to take that point of view.
That reminds me of what you say in a conversation with Ian McEwan, where you mention that his narrative voice seems to be absent of a judging consciousness. So maybe NW's sympathy is a kind of distance?
I prefer that distance. It seems to me in some way more ethical. The things which tire me in fiction are a kind of fake, aphoristic wisdom or this obsession with judgment—and I think comic novels are almost always about judgment in one way or another.
I had this incident last week when I went to a children's party with my kids—a three-year-old's party—and my husband didn't go, and when I came back into the apartment, the first thing my husband said was, "Tell me everything." So I started talking about all the awful people and the terrible mother-in-law, and then I saw my daughter look at me like it hadn't occurred to her that this was what going into the world was for: to examine a lot of people and then do ridiculous impressions of them and find it hilarious. And I felt very ashamed when I looked at her. The question is: Is there another way of being in the world that doesn't involve this constant act of satire?