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Zadie Smith

Biography | Interview

An interview with Zadie Smith
Smith answered questions about her book and her career from a garret in an old house at Harvard University, where she is a Radcliffe Fellow for the 2002-03 academic year. Her window overlooks the building where one of her literary heroes, Vladimir Nabokov, lived during his own Harvard stint in the 1940s.

White Teeth is such a vivacious, anarchic story. Did you know how it was going to end when you started it?

No, I don't think so. I just finished a short story and I don't always know the ending when I start. I know it up to the middle, and the rest of it is a bit like pedaling downhill. If you don't get panicked it's fine.

What was the kernel of the idea for White Teeth?

I wanted to write a book about a man who gets through the century in a good way. He lives a good life by accident. That's where Archie came from. He's a kind of Jimmy Stewart-ish character, maybe a bit simpler than that. The rest of it formed itself around him with lots of bits and bobs from my reading and my own life. It was a kind of mishmash, as first novels tend to be. [Laughs]

His friend Samad seems very different...

Those two characters are bits of me. I can be very simple about things, like Archie; and then I have a more intellectual side, like Samad. Also, they're a classic English double act, like a lot of comedy routines. There's definitely a lot of television in Archie and Samad.

Is the book set in the neighborhood where you grew up?

Yes, and where I live still -- Willesden and Kilburn [in north London]. It's a very Asian area-Pakistani and Indian. I suppose it seems exotic now, but it was a very normal London upbringing.

You must be very observant to pick up all the different dialects you use in the book...

I'm fairly observant. If you grow up in London you hear a lot of different voices all the time. But I would say that's true of Paris, or New York, or any urban center. It would be very hard to get on a train and not notice that there are sometimes twenty-five or thirty different races. That seems to me a fairly normal experience if you live in a city.

Last year Masterpiece Theatre broadcast a drama based on the Stephen Lawrence case [The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, about a black teenager killed by a racist gang in London in 1993]. Your story paints a much more optimistic picture of multiculturalism...

The people who killed Stephen Lawrence are representative not of a problem of multiculturalism in London, but a problem of economic deprivation. They're very poor white kids, and they did it to Stephen Lawrence as a kind of last-ditch attempt to make themselves significant. It's pathetic. But I don't think it's representative of multiracial London at all.

How were you trying to approach multiracial London?

I was just trying to approach London. I don't think of it as a theme, or even a significant thing about the city. This is what modern life is like. If I were to write a book about London in which there were only white people, I think that would be kind of bizarre. People do write books like that, which I find bizarre because it's patently not what London is, nor has it been for fifty years.

You are half Jamaican, half English. Did you grow up with the same feeling of cultural dislocation that affects some of your characters?

The people in White Teeth are immigrants. I'm not an immigrant, so it's a different experience. But I was around people who had that experience, who felt separated or cut in two, who had moved from one country to another, who had that sense of leading two lives. Samad thinks that way -- that somewhere in the world there is this other Samad who still lives in Bangladesh and is very good and religious and proper. But he has to deal with the real Samad. I think that's a fairly common experience. But that's a guess; I couldn't know.

Was the media reaction to White Teeth different in America than in England?

Certainly people talk about different things. I noticed in America that if you write a book of any kind, you're made to be the representative of all the issues that might surround it. So you're consequently called on radio shows and asked, "What is the future of Islam?" There is a kind of desperate need for somebody to tell everyone what to do, which I find really peculiar in America. And then when you tell them, they're not interested, because it's also a country where everybody's opinion is their opinion, and they really don't give a damn what you think. So it's a very odd experience.

What do they focus on in England?

I think they find the book more familiar and less serious. The conversation around the book seemed to be less didactic than it did here.

In White Teeth you allude to the Salman Rushdie fatwa. [Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, was condemned to death for blasphemy by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.] What impact did that have on you as an aspiring writer growing up?

I was a teenager at the time. I remember it being a constant argument at dinner parties, or in the playground, or on the bus. It would always come up one way or another. There were people who supported the fatwa very strongly and who still feel that way. Then there is the other side, who feel absolutely, as I do, that a writer deserves his personal freedoms and that any questioning of it is kind of horrific. What I wanted to show in the book is that for people like Samad it was a confusion of issues. Samad at root believes in free thought, and asks it for himself and for his family. But he thinks Rushdie's book is a rejection of everything that he is, and he feels very hurt by that. It was common to hear people who had never read the book saying that Salman Rushdie should die. Insanity -- but that's what was going on.

Did the Rushdie fatwa cause you trepidation when you were writing your book, in which you lampoon Islamic separatists?

I wrote White Teeth in the late nineties. I didn't really feel trepidatious about it. It was a different time.

You lampoon quite a few different groups. Were you criticized?

White, middle-class people who came to my readings would listen to the passages about the white, middle-class family and say, "God, I know people just like that! They're so awful!" And Islamic fundamentalists would listen to the passages about Islamic fundamentalists and say exactly the same thing. Everybody thinks it's about somebody else. That's how people respond to representations of themselves. So, it was fine.

Has the reaction to your book changed in light of September 11th?

I haven't really read from the book since then. I'd be glad to. Part of what White Teeth shows, from an entirely comic perspective, is where some of these people come from and how ideology gets so twisted. All the way through that book you're shown people with such extreme positions that they will sacrifice major parts of their own lives and other people's lives for that principle. To me that's an absurdity. And it takes on a completely new context when you think about people like Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. He lived not far from me in London. I knew boys who disappeared for six months and were going to what are now being called training camps. These things start small and they start in people's heads. To try and ignore that, or to try to ignore the human element of it doesn't seem to me particularly healthy.

What was it like to see your book turned into a film for television?

I was actually an extra in it, but you can barely see me. I went on the set for the party scene where Archie meets Clara, which is a bastardized version of how my parents met. It was a very odd thing to walk into this seventies house and see my mother come down the stairs to be met by my father. But the main thing about it is that as a writer I work by myself. No one has to work for me. In fact, no one has to do get up and do anything. But when I was on the set there were suddenly all these people. There were trailers all the way down the street; costume makers; people arguing about which hat they're going to wear; literally 500 extras. It was such a cold day, and I thought, "This is all happening because I sat down and wrote this thing and now here we all are, freezing our asses off!" I'd never want to be involved in film or anything with that amount of responsibility.

Was it odd to have someone else interpreting your work?

I didn't care about that. The minute the book is finished for me, it's just gone. As long as something interesting is done with it, I don't mind.

How do you feel about being on PBS?

I just found out about PBS, because I have a TV in the flat I'm renting. I've watched The Forsyte Saga about fifteen times now. I've been here four months, and it's been playing since I got here. That doesn't happen in England. They play it once, and you might see it again in fifteen years. But yeah, it's great to be on PBS. When I get excited about White Teeth, on the rare occasions I do these days, it's the idea that Archie or any of those characters might stick around. I like the idea that someone would say, "That's kind of Archie-ish," or, "That's a Samad thing." That's what my favorite English novels do. Even if you forget everything else in the book, you'll remember one of the characters. If that happens in White Teeth, even if it's by force-feeding it on the television, I'd die happy.

Any thoughts on appearing in the same Masterpiece Theatre season with George Eliot's Daniel Deronda?

Wow, really? I didn't know that. That is a compliment. She's turning in her grave, I'm sure.

What do you think of the cast of White Teeth?

Phil Davis wasn't what I physically imagined at all for Archie, but when I saw the rushes, I thought he was amazing. And Om Puri is just so perfect as Samad. The best thing about the show is the young people. They're funny and they're charming, and they're not there just to suffer, which is about the only time you see black or Asian faces on British TV. That first scene in White Teeth, where Clara is dancing in front of the mirror is really joyous. She lights up the screen.

And the music really sets the mood...

Yeah, the music is great. The director said to me that the music sends people immediately to that place and that time, particularly British pop music, because it's a very small country and the songs get played endlessly. They're a quick and easy way to get into the seventies or into the eighties.

Were you surprised at the popularity of White Teeth?

I think that's a surprise which will last me my whole life. The most incredible thing about it is that I get to be a writer now for the rest of my life. Even if I never write anything which anybody ever buys and reads again, White Teeth is enough for me always to be able to publish some little thing some day. That was the greatest pleasure of it, because all I wanted to be was a writer.

Why do you think it caught on?

It was very fortunate timing. End-of-the-century books catch people in an end-of-the-century mood. The possibility of a community which involved so many different people and could be workable was a very optimistic idea. My generation, particularly, seemed to have fallen full into it. If you walk down the street in Willesden, you see gangs of kids that are five or six years old; there'll be a black kid, a Chinese kid, a white kid. It's like a Benetton ad. They don't notice, because there is no reason for them to notice. It's how they've grown up. Supposedly everything has changed [since September 11th]. But I don't feel that what happened last year is in any way an indictment of that possibility in society. I think it's just another reason to push harder and harder for it.

Also, White Teeth is funny. People like funny things. There has been an incredible rash of solemn fiction in the late eighties and nineties. And I think, now, I'm not the only one who's been writing funny. There are especially a lot of American writers who want to make you laugh. Thank God for that!

Your new novel, The Autograph Man, is quite funny also. Yet it's very different from White Teeth. Was this difference deliberate?

Yeah, I could never have written White Teeth again. I'd never want to. Books are not brands. Some people are very willing to see themselves as a brand, but you can't be a certain type of writer to a certain type of person all the time. It will kill you. It was lovely to have such a large audience with White Teeth, but it was unnerving to have people come up to me and say, "I love this part of the book" -- and it's the part of the book that is similar to their own life. So the Indian guy will say, "I loved Samad, but I didn't like that stuff with Archie at the end." The black woman will tell me, "I loved Hortense, but why all that stuff about the kids?" You want people to read the thing that isn't them. I abhor the idea, if you're an unmarried woman in your early thirties, of reading Bridget Jones; or if you're a guy in your late thirties, of reading Nick Hornby. You want to swap those books around. All across western readership people want this comfort reading. They want to have a reflection of themselves. I think really great fiction doesn't always give you that. I never pick up a book about a young, mixed-race woman in London. That doesn't interest me. And, of course, that's the book I get sent constantly by publishers. They think I want to read books about young, mixed race girls in London. That's the last thing I ever want to do.

Are you worried about getting typecast as a comic novelist?

When I'm in England, people often say to me, "Why don't you have more ambition? Who wants to be a comic novelist?" I want to be a comic novelist. I always did. And if I die and someone says, "She was a comic novelist," I would be more than happy. My favorite writers are comic novelists. I don't see any point in being anything else.

Who are your favorite writers?

Well, I'm writing a book on them, so it's quite easy to list them: [E. M.] Forster, Updike, Nabokov, Zora Neale Hurston; also Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. Larkin is my favorite writer. I don't read a lot of poetry, but Larkin is my big guy. I like David Foster Wallace a lot, and I like Dave Eggers. I love Kafka. I do like Dickens.

Are these essays you're writing?

Yes, the one I'm doing at the moment is on Forster. Some of them are paired, so there's one on Vonnegut and Salinger, but most of them are alone. They're about the moral impulse in writing and the idea that most fiction writing is the impulse on how to be good. Part of the point is to get at the books that my generation doesn't read that much. Forster is kind of dying over here and in England. I've done a little bit of teaching in England to younger kids, and they get a block against anything they see as archaic, even -- terrifyingly -- in books that were written only fifty years ago. There is something about the sheen of these books, the language, the conversations, the mention of the gramophone; they just shut it off. It doesn't touch them. That kind of depresses me a little bit.

You must have a lot of fans. Are there any who you find disturbing?

Email is the great channeler of disturbing people, so I get some stuff but not half as much as other young writers I can think of. There are certain writers who attract a cult. It's something I'm interested in, and I want to write about it in Vonnegut and Salinger. These are two wonderful writers, but what specifically is it about them that creates a cult? I certainly don't have that kind of cultish audience, but I know people who do and their lives are made extraordinarily miserable by lunatics. I get maybe a fifty-five-year-old woman from New Jersey who wants me to marry her son, but nothing really awful.

The companion edition of White Teeth by Zadie Smith, is available from Vintage Books.

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