I feel that this book is the first book that I’ve really written as an adult . . . I knew my own mind a bit more. And I stopped trying to please people. Zadie Smith
If there is a top-secret list of crucial human beings to evacuate from Earth in the event of its destruction, I feel confident that Zadie Smith is on it. The 36-year-old London-born writer’s first appearance on the global literary stage is so memorable, the subject of so much just-post-millennial bibliophilic fervor, that its very success has almost served as an iron weight throughout her career. Smith’s first novel, 2000’s White Teeth, about two eccentric multiculti families in North West London, fulfilled the hopes and checklists of every British and American reader to the point that it barely seemed worth trotting further into the decade to find its generational star. Smith was crowned the future of literature almost immediately. And perhaps deservedly, as White Teeth is a brilliant, rambunctious, vividly written, deeply hilarious novel that even exceptionally gifted writers couldn’t pull off at age 80 (let alone a first-timer at age 22, still a student at Cambridge).
The problem, though, with the success of White Teeth is that its writer didn’t want to write White Teeth sequels. Thankfully, Smith went her own way, following up her debut with the contentious in-search-of-identity novel The Autograph Man in 2002, and the more mature E.M. Forster-influenced On Beauty in 2005. Along the way, Smith was a fellow at Harvard, sipped Campari in Rome, and married the talented Irish writer Nick Laird.
While the book world has spent much of the last decade discovering new young writers and pronouncing them “the next Zadie Smith,” the real Zadie Smith worked on her own development, never much for being told what to do or think. Somewhere, Smith, the prodigy novelist, also became Smith the astute cultural critic, and in recent years the publication of her essays (with subjects as diverse as the merit of David Foster Wallace’s fiction, the state of the realist novel, the problem with Facebook, and the fate of Willesden Green Library Centre) turned into something of an event—as if our generation had finally found its public intellectual as well as its fiction champion.
Thing is, Smith doesn’t seem to be much interested in being the generational symbol of anything. She’s much more interested in living her life, which means teaching at New York University and raising her and Laird’s daughter, two-year-old Kit. It’s been seven years since Smith published a novel, and this month, NW finally fills the void. It’s an astonishingly different track—less comic, less sweeping, more experimental, more kinetic, more grounded in a tough, compromised view of the world, with sentences that haunt, snag, and snap far more than they tap-dance, glide, or encapsulate. Utilizing a number of narrative structures and framing devices, NW focuses on four young women and men who grew up in a fictional council estate in North West London called Caldwell, as well as their navigation around London and one another. Smith claims it’s her first book as an adult, and while she’s always been rather quick to dismiss her past successes, NW has the texture and intelligence of someone who has been doing a lot of thinking about the human animal for a good many years.
It’s amazing who you can meet in bars in New York. I first met Smith in 2000 by accident at an out-of-the-way bar in downtown Manhattan before White Teeth was published in the United States. She struck me then as she strikes me now—a woman with profound beauty and wit that induces a person to lean in to gather as much of it as they can. (Sometimes I’m horrified to realize that we are the same age). This past July, I met her for this interview in the restaurant in Bryant Park that is attached to the main branch of the New York Public Library. She had just come back from a vacation in Mexico with her husband and was a week away from departing to London to spend the remainder of the summer in her hometown. We listened to the waitress recite the specials (and I thought of a line in NW where Smith describes a character’s voice as being like one given by a waitress reciting the specials). We ordered seafood dishes. Then we began.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: Maybe now there is enough distance from White Teeth to address what it felt like for you, a 22-year-old Cambridge student, to be suddenly heralded as the novel-saving voice of a generation. Were you overwhelmed by the attention?
ZADIE SMITH: I’m going to try to answer very honestly. It’s got two aspects. The bit that involves the public life I could not really tolerate and cannot really tolerate. I just can’t get used to the idea of being somebody unreal in people’s minds. I can’t live my life like that. And it’s just anathema to being a writer. It’s not healthy. But in another way, when I’m writing, what it’s about for me is being good on the page. None of that noise could change the way I feel about my writing. Which is not always particularly positive. [laughs]
BOLLEN: So you weren’t chewing your nails thinking there was a meter over your head comparing all future works to the first one.
SMITH: It made me feel that I had to work very hard, but I’ve always felt I had to work very hard to get my own approval.
BOLLEN: Were you surprised that White Teeth took off like it did? I remember the year it was released it was pretty much running equal to the newspaper on the New York subways.
SMITH: Why would anyone assume that a 500-page novel about Willesden Green would sell? It’s the ongoing shock of my life. In one way, I’m incredibly grateful. The money meant—and has meant—that I can write as I like. I can write a book of essays, or I can write books that are somewhat strange. My publishers are patient with me. But one thing I feel about it is entirely generational. You and I both grew up in a generation where, if 20 million people like something, then that means it’s probably not any good. [Bollen laughs] That’s what I was raised to understand. It’s kind of inverted snobbery, but I just thought, It can’t be good. That was my reaction for a very long time, and I’ve been very harsh on that novel.
BOLLEN: I read somewhere that you refuse to open White Teeth. You can’t read it.
SMITH: Never ever. To me it’s a book by a different person, and it’s not to my taste. But I will say, now that I’ve grown, I can look back and think, Okay, it’s okay for a 22-year-old. It is what it is. It’s full of flaws but I think fondly of that 22-year-old who wrote it. Whereas before she filled me with total horror.
BOLLEN: I know that being a British writer is important to you. You see your place in literature as distinctively British—not global, or Western, or post-geographic. Why is Britain so meaningful to you?
SMITH: I don’t really know. I was just discussing this new global novel that’s coming out, which is written very carefully so it can sell to all markets. It offends no one. It’s a literary novel that is so neutral that it means the same in Israel and Pakistan, and everywhere else. It’s depressing. I just feel I’m a writer of a particular place and I can’t really disguise it. There’s a big history in literature—and Joyce is the most obvious example—of writing obsessively about two miles of town. Even though Joyce hadn’t lived there in 30 years. And there’s the same history with New York novelists of course. It’s just love, right? You write about what you care about.
BOLLEN: Creatively, do you always go back to London in your mind?
SMITH: I think London is a state of mind. I was taking the subway up here today, and it could have been London, in that there were no two people of the same color sitting next to each other. It’s a certain kind of city that I grew up in that I’m used to, that’s second nature to me now. New York, in ways, is very similar.
BOLLEN: I will say that reading NW as an American is probably very different than reading it as a Londoner. For one thing, you really capture the vernacular of North West London. For those of us who aren’t British, it’s a form of English where you really need to slow down and read to comprehend. So many “innits.” I think Americans feel they have invented slang, so it’s a surprise. Although I have a theory that American accents are going extinct.
SMITH: Because of television?
BOLLEN: Yes. The Southern accent or the Long Island accent is slowly being flattened out into the national weatherman accent. But those are regional differences, rather than class or racial differences. The dialogue in NW emphasizes class and race.
SMITH: It’s just a different perspective. For instance, I adore Don DeLillo, but it happens in Don DeLillo’s fiction that everybody speaks exactly like Don DeLillo. It’s not important to him because the differences between these people is not what he’s getting at. He’s usually got a larger, macro idea going on. But for me, in London, when you hear somebody speak, it tells you everything. And the difference is not small. It means up to and including differences in life expectancy, education, and what they do on a Friday night. Everything is different. But it isn’t about recording voices accurately. The Wire doesn’t copy precisely how African-American men talk in Baltimore. It’s a separately designed language to indicate these people, but the way people really talk is usually boring. “Yeah. Like. Okay. Sure”—it’s tedious. If you try to record that in prose, you’ll send your reader to sleep. If I try to record North West London contemporary slang, it’s too enormous and too evolved, and I’m just too old for it. So you just choose some basic terms, something that can be handled and understood, and go from there.
BOLLEN: You actually grew up on a council estate. I think that’s not something most people are aware of.
SMITH: I realized after I published On Beauty that a lot of people in America think that I grew up in some upper-middle class family. But the On Beauty family is not my family.
BOLLEN: Did your early memories of living in public housing come into play when dreaming up Caldwell?
SMITH: The estate I grew up on was a very nice one. I used some of that. I left it when I was eight for a flat up the road, so my experience is limited. But my earliest memories are of living in that communal way. I grew up in that scenario. My parents were not educated. My mother became educated. She took a degree in her thirties in social work. My father left school at 12. He never got an education. I was really lucky because I went to a normal public school. You take your exams when you’re 17, and if you got good grades and you got through the interview, you could go anywhere. I remember doing a reading for White Teeth in 2000 and a nice middle-aged American lady asked me, how did I get to Cambridge. I explained. And she said, “Yes, but how did you pay for it?” And I said, “Well, we don’t pay for university in England.” The whole room went, “Huh?” [laughs]
BOLLEN: We like to think we don’t have a class system in America but basically we have one called college.
SMITH: Yeah. Money. Anyway, it’s not true anymore. There’s a fee in England now. It’s still tiny, comparatively—£3,000.
BOLLEN: How did you decide the races for your characters? Leah is white, Keisha is black. Certainly, diversifying the lives that came out of Caldwell was important to you.
SMITH: My life looks like that. My life is black and white and mixed. My mother’s a Rastafarian, my dad was a short white guy—it’s not an affectation. It’s also the lives of millions of people throughout the world. But there is this pocket of people who read books, who struggle to name a black friend, so to them it’s unusual or exotic in some sense. But to me, it’s not. I became really aware of it at the birthday party my brother threw for his 4-year-old daughter. Her birthday is on New Year’s Eve, so he kind of combines parties—one that starts at midday and goes all night after the kids have gone to bed. He lives on a council estate. I went in, and it was like the United Nations: Chinese people, Indian people, black, white. That’s his life. And being in his life, I thought, God, my life has gotten white compared to the life I grew up with. Because of the world I work in—it’s white. Whereas his life isn’t.
BOLLEN: NW comes seven years after your last novel, and it’s far more experimental in terms of narrative and character. Were you purposely trying to break up the rigid traditional form?
SMITH: I had to do something which interests me. I was very bored. I get bored. That’s always been the case. I tried to work as if I were painting abstract. You have a sense of the mood, no? I knew there were three sections and I had a sense of the mood I wanted for each one, a kind of color. And that was the hardest thing. I really worked very hard on this book. It took so long and it kept on going wrong and I kept on being overwhelmed by some kind of self-loathing, which is very common when I am writing. So it was a bit of a battle, but then finally I felt it came more or less right. Or as right as it was ever going to be. So then I stopped.
BOLLEN: I think a lot of people who read your New York Review of Books piece in 2008 on the state of the realist novel felt in some way you were arguing against the kind of books you wrote, even though you were speaking about Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. There was a sense of, Okay, if Zadie feels this way, then what’s she going to write next? And clearly you did break that mold.
SMITH: If I’m honest with you, I feel that this book is the first book that I’ve really written as an adult. For a lot of people this would be their first novel. I’m 36. It happens that I wrote three books as a very young person. I don’t think it’s uncommon. There are a lot of British writers who started young, from Dickens to Amis to McEwan. But they were much more sure of themselves as young writers than I was. Your mid-thirties is a good time because you know a fair amount, you have some self-control. I knew my own mind a bit more. And I stopped trying to please people.
BOLLEN: I noticed in your first three novels there was a much more comic tone. For me, comedy tends to be a way to let the reader in, to please them. In NW, the lines that really hit me like a bullet were far more sobering. Here is a description of the view of Willesden from a bus window: “Well-appointed country living for those tired of the city. Fast forward. Disappointed city living for those tired of their countries.”
SMITH: The funny thing about White Teeth is that when I was writing it, I didn’t realize it was funny. It was just the way I expressed myself. And then people described it as a comic novel and I started thinking I was a comic writer, maybe that’s what I am. And I still love the comic. And I hope there are things that are funny in this book, but no, I’m not off my head with joy every day. [laughs] Grown-up life is much more confusing. There is a great quote I read in Harper’s recently that went something like, “When you’re young, you know the world, but nothing about yourself, and as you get older, you know yourself very well but you know nothing about the world.” That seems accurate to me. Young people understand the world. They should be listened to on matters of politics and world organization. But they know nothing of their own lives. And I feel that way, too. I don’t feel I know much about the world anymore. I’m partly just running out of time. But I do feel I know myself a bit better. For what that’s worth.
BOLLEN: You broke NW into sections, character by character. And you capture these lives in moments that largely ignore the usual “turning points” that define a person-graduation, marriage, having a child, promotion, etc. These are nervous psychologies more than concrete biographies.
SMITH: I got a little tired of this idea of an authorial voice of complete knowledge or perfect wisdom. I got really tired of being in readings and having people much older than myself saying, “Oh, you’re so wise, you’re so full of wisdom.” But I don’t know anything! What you’re reading is an imitation of what wisdom sounds like. And so I got very tired of that voice, because it really is just a voice. There are other ways to demonstrate the fact that you’re pretty much put down midstream. It’s like you’re being thrown and you have to make it up as you go along. I read a lot of existentialism when I was writing this book, but it doesn’t have to be high theory. You know it yourself. You’re so profoundly inconsistent from one moment to another. The shock of your life, for instance, is to be shown a letter you wrote from five years ago. You usually can’t even recognize the voice. I wanted to express that feeling of self-alienation or the sense of not really having a self at all. For so many novels, it’s like they’ve taken characters and got them on a pin. The point is to make them squirm, to ridicule them, to judge them, and pronounce this final conclusion, which is usually a faux liberal “Ahh . . . But no one knows anything in the end.” Full of judgment, full of opinion, full of certainty, and I just found it quite suffocating.
BOLLEN: I was recently rereading Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which is one of my favorite books. But what struck me this time was that Mailer managed to take this group of poor white Americans, including a spree killer, and render them without a hint of judgment. They become these gorgeous, in-depth, constantly opening characters because there is no sense of the author ridiculing or looking down on them. That, to me, is Mailer’s gift. You can say there is no moral center, and for me, that’s its freedom. In so many popular literary novels today, the author screams judgment. The characters can’t climb out from under the author’s disdain.
SMITH: That’s what I love about Bret Easton Ellis. When I was 20, someone gave me Less Than Zero, and I couldn’t read it. When I was about 26, I read American Psycho and I knew it was great and I would always remember that [David] Foster Wallace takedown of it and how deeply wrong I thought he was about that book. But I only really read Less Than Zero recently. There’s something about the ability to see things or attempt to present them as they are and not as you would like them to be. His blankness in describing what’s real—he’s been proven right a hundred times over. But when he wrote it, it was horrifying to look at. No one wanted to look at it. I don’t think it’s the only truth of our lives, but it’s a truth of our lives. And that’s the only thing you can hope for a novelist to express—some aspect of the truth. For that reason, I always think he’s one of the better American novelists. And also the prose is clean and beautiful.
BOLLEN: People think that style comes easily, but it’s insanely hard to write.
SMITH: My thing is that good novels are really fucking rare. They’re just really rare. So I totally agree with everyone who says it feels like the novel is dead—because it always feels like that. If I made you read through all the novels that were published in 1912 or 1880, you’d be like, what an incredible sea of crap. And then you’d find a Henry James, or Ulysses. But I think there’s also a lot to gain from novels that are just quite good. There are lots of novels which are just quite good that have really made no impact on my life. I don’t mind those novels, I’ve got nothing against them. Long may they continue.
BOLLEN: We live in this visually obsessed society. Ironically, though, when it comes to reading books, which is a visual act, we suddenly become a society that prefers books on tape. We go audio. So it isn’t a visual obsessed society, it’s a passive one, the most passive way of experiencing things the better.
SMITH: When I’m disappointed by a novel, why am I disappointed? And it’s really something so simple. For it to be a worthwhile novel, there has to be a reason for it to be in written language. In 1820, that was not one of the demands because there was no other option. That’s what there was as a medium. But now there are all these other mediums. I could hear a song. I could watch a film. I could be on the Internet. You have to give me a reason why you have written this down. It doesn’t have to have an elaborate literary structure. Some of the most simple books—like that book I really loved last year, Peter Stamm’s Seven Years—you could make into a movie, but you would be losing something. It had to be in sentences. The sentences were necessary. That’s all people want from fiction, right? The feeling of it being necessary. Most of the things we read feel so fundamentally unnecessary.
BOLLEN: Right. You could just turn it into a movie and skip the book part altogether.
SMITH: Or you could just tell me about it over lunch. [laughs] I don’t always pass this test myself. But when I’m writing, I really try to reduce what is unnecessary, so I’m only left with what feels vital. A lot of what I was trying to do with NW is just reduce the waste and make the thing a literary artifact, by which I mean, a thing that’s made of language. Because that’s what I love to do, that’s my job.
BOLLEN: I’ve noticed in your past novels, your male characters are your strongest characters. NW is a reversal. It’s much more female-centered.
SMITH: Yeah, the men hardly exist. When I was a kid, I didn’t have many female friends because I felt I was a very awkward kid. I wasn’t a very attractive kid, I was very bookish: I didn’t feel comfortable in teenage girl company. So you have this anxiety about teenage girls, and you grow up and realize that women are greatit’s teenage girls who are a fucking nightmare. [laughs] So now that I don’t know any teenage girls, I’m much happier in my life! And older women particularly—I think as I got older and met older women I understood it better. And you certainly realize in teaching that it’s harder for a male student to take a woman seriously. I notice when women go to teach at university, they dress very severely. You have to bring something added to establish your credentials; whereas any old guy can walk into a classroom, particularly if he has a beard, and people will assume genius. This affects the literary world, too. You have this sense that women’s matters are not serious. I remember one year a Booker judge saying, “Oh, these books are too domestic,” and the judge held up my book as an example of a book that wasn’t domestic, thinking that was a compliment. But I don’t consider that a compliment—to have a women’s field, if that’s what it is, denigrated.
BOLLEN: You feel you can’t write a serious novel about women.
SMITH: I dedicated this novel to my best friend, Sarah Kellas. In the ’90s growing up, we were very boyish, we didn’t wear dresses, we wore big baggy pants and tank tops and we were very loud-mouthed and weren’t particularly feminine. It wasn’t a thing in the ’90s, nobody cared. And then there was this kind of hyperfeminization of women that I suppose when I started writing I did find a little bit alien. Because I felt these aren’t my women, I don’t know who these girls are. So then you start to think, Well, maybe I should just leave that alone, because I don’t know them and they don’t know me. But now I feel people are coming around again, like that show Lena Dunham does[the HBO series Girls]. These are women that I can recognize. There was that whole period during the aughts where it was like, “I have a stripper pole in my bedroom—it’s so empowering,” and little girls going to get their nails done with their mothers. I was like, You know what, I’m going to opt out of the whole game because that’s not my crowd. But I feel like my crowd has returned. They always were going to because you can’t live like that, like a Barbie doll.
BOLLEN: Do you feel that having a daughter has changed you as a writer?
SMITH: I’m sure it has. It’s up for a therapist to decide how. But to me, in practical terms, it comes down to time constraints. I don’t suggest that young women writers have children for this purpose, but it’s really worked for me. I just found it very focusing to be told that I have three hours, and I’m paying for those three hours. If you sit around reading Jezebel for those three hours, then shame on you. You have to work because you’re paying someone who probably has their own family, relying on you. It’s a horrible network of doom. I found it very focusing. The practicality was almost a revelation. The most I ever had was five hours-you have five hours, you do everything you can in those five hours, and then you run home to be with your family. So there was no time to read over or obsessively edit.
BOLLEN: NW has a theme of direction—people who are moving forward in their lives, but who are also coming back to where they started. A lot of it is the inability to propel oneself into the future. I don’t want to say your book promotes a no-future mentality-more an unknown understanding of where the characters are headed.
SMITH: I was so happy when I was writing this book, to a certain degree, rediscovering the existentialists, Camus and Sartre, and remembering how life-affirming they are, to use an incredibly cheesy phrase. They take away absolutely everything. But it’s not misanthropic, it’s not cynical. Camus is the least cynical man on Earth, the most positive, the most life-grabbing. He loved men, he loved women, he loved food, he loved Algeria, he loved France. He was nothing but love for existence, for what there was. And that’s the kind of writer I would like to be, without being sentimental. He wasn’t sentimental. He was intellectually rigorous. It was a different kind of vision. It doesn’t have to be this split between this arid intellectualism, which doesn’t even want to deal with the fact that humans exist, and this overindulgent self-defense for humanity, which a lot of fiction takes on. I just felt there was a way to say, “I don’t know anything. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what’s going on-but it’s okay.” The bottom line is: You’re going to die. You’re gonna be dead forever. It’s an infinitely longer time than you ever were alive. And it’s painful, but of course, the thing is, it’s just intensely beautiful, too. Because infinite life, as even dogs in the street know, would be the hell that never ended. So it’s this extraordinary, beautiful gift.
BOLLEN: There’s this moment in NW when someone asks, “How did we make it out of Caldwell?” meaning out of the council estate, or out of the dead end. And the character answers, “We worked harder.” There is the idea of upward mobility not being based on luck or good fortune but on the individual’s choice. That’s a very American point of view and runs against the current of much of the book.
SMITH: That’s for the readers to decide. The author has no comment. That interests me, because in my mind, the book was a little puzzle that you solve yourself, and your solution is interesting to me, but it’s probably not going to be mine.
BOLLEN: I won’t give away the ending, but the idea of blame does appear in a striking way at the end. Who is to blame? I know you told me a few months ago that you had to rewrite the ending because everyone hated the last hundred pages of the first draft.
SMITH: It makes me sad sometimes when I read in reviews, critics saying, “Oh, these editors, they just let Zadie write whatever she likes.” And it’s so untrue. Twenty people edited this book, over and over again, and if it remains crap, it’s my fault. I don’t want the editors to be blamed. All I can say is that it was much worse before. I edit and edit and edit and edit and edit . . . The last section I rewrote entirely. Because after everybody read it, there was this horrible radio silence. I had to get it out of them, mostly from friends, because friends don’t want to be mean. But nobody liked it. It wasn’t good. I knew it wasn’t, but I just had a little hope that maybe I could make it work. Because I had been working for so long, I wanted to go on holiday. And I just thought maybe everyone would say, “It’s great! Print!” And when they didn’t, and I had a very childish, throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-pram reaction, I thought, “You know what? Fuck it. I have a job at NYU. I don’t need to write this book. Forget about it.” Really it was Nick who said, “Don’t do that.”
BOLLEN: He made you go back . . . well, not made you. He encouraged you to finish.
SMITH: Made me, because he said, “We’ve all had to put up with you for seven years. Something has to come out of this.” And I’m glad he did. But the thing is, if I stop writing novels, it’s okay with me. It’s really okay. I love teaching, I love reading. I really love writing these non-fiction pieces. I think you can squeeze out a novel every two years, but most people don’t have a novel to write every two years, that’s the truth. One good thing about having a family—well, there are many good things—but with Nick and Kit, it’s such a bonus because you’re self-sufficient. That’s also, I suppose, a bad thing about family because it stops you from being so open to the world, but I really like just being at home with those guys.
BOLLEN: It’s hard to imagine someone so celebrated for their novels just up and quitting the field.
SMITH: It’s fine with me to have the model of a [E.M.] Forster, who wrote six novels when he was young, and then he never really wrote another one.
BOLLEN: Every summer you leave New York to return home to London. It’s important for you to go back home for a bit?
SMITH: I’m glad to get back. My family is big and boisterous. There’s something very tempting about the New York lifestyle. You can settle your life how you like it. Lunch here and dinner here and if someone gets in your way for a second, you’re ready to rip their head off. But life should involve things you don’t want to do. Complication and uncomfortable things. Back in London, my life returns to its previous state. [laughs]
SMITH: Pretty large chaos. I think I so wanted my life to be ordered. I’ve been traveling for 10 years, trying to live this writer’s life, without anyone bothering me, and then as you get older, you realize that all those people bothering you—that is your work. Without it, what are you? Just some global, international writer thing. There’s nothing there. That’s an empty life, you know? So it’s good to go home.
BOLLEN: You just interviewed Jay-Z for the [New York] Times. I know you’ve been a fan for a long time. Is hip-hop a big influence on your writing?
SMITH: Yes. Poetry and hip-hop. Old English poetry and modern hip-hop. I guess some people think it’s some sort of [postmodern] relativism to say that when I met Jay-Z, it was like meeting Keats. It was a big to-do. I don’t think these guys are just pop stars. I don’t consider them that way. I realized when I left that I had entirely forgotten to ask a single question about Beyoncé. I don’t think Jay-Z’s lyrics are in NW, but I think Reasonable Doubt [Jay-Z’s 1996 debut album] is mentioned. I don’t know if this sounds entitled, or the complete opposite, but when I finished the book—and they warned me—I realized that including lyrics costs money. I’m not even gonna tell you the amount, but it was unbelievable. They gave me the option of removing the lyrics, but it would mean destroying the book, so I have to pay for them.
BOLLEN: You have to pay for them yourself?
SMITH: I have to pay for them. I’ve written to Nas and I’ve had a fairly good reaction from his agent, and I’m hoping I might get let off that part of it. But I wanted to include the lyrics because they’re in my mind, they’re in the mouths of so many kids, and they’re so beautiful. It’s such beautiful music. I don’t believe in being proud of things that I haven’t done myself, but as far as I can be proud of my community—whatever that is, the black community—the most extraordinary thing is jazz and hip-hop within one century. It’s like the Renaissance. It’s an unbelievable well of talent, genius. I’m kind of over-awed that those two things could happen in one century.
BOLLEN: I wanted to end by asking you about happiness. Most novelists rarely deal in the subject of happiness.
SMITH: The thing about happiness is novelists think they know something that other people don’t know. [David Foster] Wallace wrote about this subject quite well. And I witnessed it just last week when I was in Mexico at this resort. The things we think are going to make us happy, that we aim for, are full of nullity. If you go to an upscale resort, which Nick and I went to, never going to these places before, you think, “I want go somewhere with no culture. Just a beach, drinks. I’ll be able to have a good time.” And it’s like death, right? It’s a nice time, but it’s basically like death. And it’s lots of Americans walking around telling each other, “This is great, right? I’ve got a big fuzzy nipple drink and I’m in the pool, and I can see the sun setting. This has got to be happiness!” I heard one Texan saying to another, after a moment of doubt, looking slightly glum and bored, “If you can’t be happy here, you can’t be happy no place.” He knew he was unhappy. Many novels are about that. But I just read this book called Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. He put it in the context of Christianity because it was the joy that made him a Christian. But this feeling of joy that came over him—Emerson had it, too—it’s completely different from happiness. Happiness is, “I won some money,” or, “You got the bird you wanted.” This is an inexplicable feeling of gratitude. It comes over you sometimes. And particularly if you are unreligious, you don’t know what to do with it. You suddenly get this wave of something beyond pleasure. And I think the novel has been a bit shy of describing that because it blends itself so easily to sentimentality. But I’ve had that feeling from time to time ever since I can remember. Nick always says this about me, and it’s true, I have to do everything I can to not be a Christian. I have to put all my energy into not being religious. It’s a daily effort. But I think we often pretend this feeling doesn’t exist-that it’s deceitful. When I was writing NW, I read A Simple Heart by Flaubert. It’s a long short story about a girl—a maid-—who has a parrot. She lives a perfectly nice, quiet, happy life as a maid. And then she dies. That’s it. What’s so extraordinary about it is how unusual that narrative is.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN’S FIRST NOVEL, LIGHTNING PEOPLE, CAME OUT IN 2011. HE IS THE EDITOR AT LARGE AT INTERVIEW.
PHOTO: ZADIE SMITH IN NEW YORK, JUNE 2012. ALL CLOTHING: SMITH’S OWN.