An Interview with Zadie Smith

Graduate student Josie Gill put some questions to Zadie Smith about her experience of Cambridge, her writing, and her life as a writer.

Studying at Cambridge

What was your sense of Cambridge as a place, and as a community for writing and thinking?

I didn't come from an intellectual background. The parent of a friend introduced me to the idea of Cambridge when I was about sixteen, and then, in the two years during my A levels, I constructed a great fantasy about the place - I felt it was going to save me. So I came with the highest expectations, and with no experience at all, which should have led to a great disappointment, but the opposite was true. I found it to be pretty much everything I hoped it would be. But I also credit King's for that. Since then, I've visited other colleges in a professional capacity, and also to see friends, and the more I see of Cambridge, the more I feel King's is unique. It was a real intellectual community; I knew nothing about drinking societies or Blues or banking. Maybe it went on, but I never saw it. To me King's was one long, invigorating conversation.

Could you tell us a bit about your experience of the English course - Which aspects did you enjoy the most? Which elements seem the most important now?

It was thorough. It started at the beginning and ended near-ish the end. And the things it missed out - contemporary Americans, contemporary British - I didn't miss; I read them later. I can't exaggerate my lack of preparedness when I arrived: I knew nothing, so I could have no complaints about what was put in front of me.

The most important to me, though, were the literary theory and the philosophy. They left me capable of independent thought, something my school education never really achieved.

How did studying prepare you for writing, if at all?

Without it, I never would have written anything. The great breadth of novels I read - they made me write.

You started work on your first novel and had short stories published in The Mays whilst you were a student. Looking back, was there a particular moment or event which inspired you to write?

There was no particular moment. I had always wanted to write, and the more I read the more sure I was of that.

Literary connections

You describe your last novel, On Beauty, as 'a novel inspired by a love of E.M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted'. What is it about Forster's writing that you find so attractive? Can you say a bit more about how he has inspired your other fiction?

I have to say I find him a lot less attractive than I used to. I've written and talked about him too much. The reasons are very personal - when I was in North London, reading about Cambridge, trying to imagine being there, Forster was the only one of that lot - Strachey, the Stephens boys, Keynes, Brooke, etc. - who seemed to me 'within reach'; he wasn't as intimidating as the rest; he was suburban; he wasn't especially bold, but his was work had a radical tinge... a sort of iron fist in velvet glove approach. And that suited me, as something to aspire to, at the time.

Forster aside, are there other obvious or subtle debts in your fiction? Can you point to specific moments or examples where this is apparent?

White Teeth has always seemed to me one enormous act of plagiarism. But I'm not going to help anyone 'spot the author'. It's a young person's book, written by a very young person heavily under the influence of her reading. Any sharp-eyed reader will find the clues here and there.

You have been described as having 'one eye on contemporary life and the other on literary heritage'.  Do you agree with this description? Is this something you set out to achieve in your writing?

Literary heritage matters to me. Specifically the history of English literature. I loved Milton when I was 14 in Kilburn - I don't feel a radical break with that language, or with the language of Keats or Pope. There is change and there is also continuity - that seems obvious enough to me. And I don't believe the language degenerates; I think the language of, say, British hip-hop is an addition to the language of Milton, not a threat to him. And the centuries speak to each other - the radical leaflets of the 17th century Catholic insurgency are not a million miles from the fundamentalist Islamic pamphlets you can pick up on the Kilburn high road...

Life as a writer

How do you think life as a writer today differs from the lives of writers in the past? How would you compare your life with that of Forster or even Byron?

Well, Byron had a bear. I didn't get one of those. And Forster had an independent living. I didn't get one of those. Then again, neither of them had to go on a book tour, so it's swings and roundabouts.

You've written a lot of critical essays for newspapers and literary publications. What's the relationship between these and your creative writing?

They're the same thing to me. Except when I'm writing criticism, I'm in much less pain.

You have just been named in the Powerlist 2008 of Britain's 100 most influential black people.  How do you feel about this?

I have no feeling about it!

The term 'black British' is often used to describe your fiction. Do you think this a useful way to categorise your writing?

It's a perfect term to describe the genetic/cultural entity that is me. Less effective description of the fiction, though.

What are your thoughts about being studied at A Level?

Honoured, incredulous, a tiny bit depressed. I mean, happy obviously, but not if I'm taking the place of an actual dead person who might be more useful to them. Seems to me that you can read White Teeth any time - I don't think it serves much of a purpose on a syllabus.

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