Monday, September 12, 2011

Interview with Zadie Smith from Bold Type

How did you get started on White Teeth? Did you go to university to study fiction writing? Did you always write stories when you were growing up? The novel began as a short story, which expanded. It was a natural enough thing to happen. My short stories have always pushed twenty pages. That's no length for a short story to be. You either do them short like Carver or you stop trying. Besides, I was walking into novella territory, which is no good, so when I got to eighty pages, and after the encouragement of a few people, I just kept going. I went to University to study English Literature. I never attended a creative writing class in my life. I have a horror of them; most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy. The best, the only real training you can get is from reading other people's books. I spent three years in college and wrote three and a half stories but I read everything I could get my hands on. White Teeth is really the product of that time; it's like the regurgitation of the kind of beautiful, antiquated, left-side-of-the-brain liberal arts education which is dying a death even as I write this. Generally, an English Lit degree trains you to be a useless member of the modern world and that's what I'm being in the only way I know how. I didn't always write stories when I was young. I wrote some, but I've never been prolific. From the age of five to fifteen, I really wanted to be a musical movie actress. I tap danced for ten years before I began to understand people don't make musicals anymore. All I wanted to do was be at MGM working for Arthur Freed or Gene Kelly or Vincent Minelli. Historical and geographical constraints made this impossible. Slowly but surely the pen became mightier than the double pick-up timestep with shuffle.
Who did you show the novel to first? I read what I had to friends. In a college atmosphere like Cambridge you're fortunate enough to be surrounded by about five hundred wannabe William Hazlitts, so it's not difficult to get feedback, constructive criticism etc. I love to be edited if the editing is intelligent and I had about five good friends who were essential to the germination and progression of the book. Where and when do you do your writing? Any small room with no natural light will do. As for when, I have no particular schedules... afternoons are best, but I'm too lethargic for any real regime. When I'm in the flow of something I can do a regular 9 to 5; when I don't know where I'm going with an idea, I'm lucky if I do two hours of productive work. There is nothing more off-putting to a would-be novelist to hear about how so-and-so wakes up at four in the a.m, walks the dog, drinks three liters of black coffee and then writes 3,000 words a day, or that some other asshole only works half an hour every two weeks, does fifty press-ups and stands on his head before and after the "creative moment." I remember reading that kind of stuff in profiles like this and becoming convinced everything I was doing was wrong. What's the American phrase? If it ain't broke...

How did you do your research for the historical parts of White Teeth?
The same way anyone researches anything from a Ph.D. to a family tree: libraries, internet, movies, occasionally stories people told me--but mostly just books. Books, books, books. As far as I'm concerned, if you want to find out about the last day of WWII or the roots of the Indian Mutiny, get thee to a books catalogue. People who were actually there rarely ever tell you anything of wider interest. Everyone's a navel-gazer. I have a friend who's grandmother was born in 1902; she's a ninety-eight old intelligent Jewish lady who's lived this whole century. Ask her what the first World War was like, and she'll tell you the woman she lived next.

Are you an only child? Are there any echoes of your family in the novel?
Nope. Two brothers of 22 and 16 who are about to revolutionize British hip-hop (they pinch me if I don't say that) as well as a half sister and a half brother in their mid-forties. I'm extremely close to my younger brothers; family is everything and that's why none of my family appear in White Teeth in any obvious way. The people in the book are fairly savage to each other. My family are a much happier, calmer unit than Archie's. The Smiths could never keep up with the Joneses


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