As literary superstar Zadie Smith prepares to release her fifth novel, Stylist speaks to the enigmatic writer about Jay Z, anxiety and life in New York
Words: Alexandra Jones
Zadie Smith does not seem like someone who would intimidate easily. With a haul of prestigious awards, millions of book sales and the toast of the New York literary scene regularly dropping by for dinner, she seems more a woman whose presence commands awe from others, rather than the other way round. But there is one person who leaves her speechless. “I got a little star struck when I met Sarah Jessica Parker actually,” she laughs. “I used to love [Sex And The City].” She doesn’t stop there, either. “Interviewing Jay Z [for The New York Times] was quite intimidating too,” she continues. “He was a lovely, charming man. But I remember my editor telling me off because I didn’t ask him about Beyoncé. It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that I was so struck by the level of talent I was sitting in front of.”
I can definitely sympathise. Smith and I are Skyping in my bedroom in north London, and I am acutely aware I haven’t brushed my hair. She, on the other hand, is luminous, peering out at me through the screen in her apartment in Greenwich Village: red lipstick, a lick of eyeliner, hair loose and curly.
Smith, 41, is a literary prodigy. She famously grew up in Willesden, and the north-west London area forms the backdrop to many of her novels. Aged just 21, and yet to graduate from Cambridge, she secured a reported six-figure book deal off the back of just 80 pages of a story. Those 80 pages would go on to become the novel White Teeth, which once published (in 2000, when Smith was 24) won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. It sold over a million copies in paperback. She was the kind of rare (near-mythical) talent that commanded not just lit-world plaudits but column inches.
Much like Lena Dunham’s did recently, her energy and voice so perfectly captured the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist that almost as soon as White Teeth was published, she was held up as the voice of her generation. Since then she has gone on to write four more novels: The Autograph Man, On Beauty (which won the Orange Prize for Fiction and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize), NW and the upcoming Swing Time. Her new novel seems somehow broader in scope than previous works (the action moves from London to West Africa and the States, flitting between the Nineties and 2000s as it goes) but also more introspective (it is her first novel written entirely in first person – “an interior monologue,” she calls it). For me, it is her most absorbing novel to date: it felt like spending 500 pages inside another person’s complex, if not always likeable, mind.
Alongside the novels she has built an impressive body of academic work. She has authored books of essays and commentaries on subjects ranging from Brexit (“my mother had people shouting racist things at her in the street. It wasn’t pretty and no-one’s delighted. But it seems a fair amount of buyer’s regret is going on now...”) to the difference between ‘takeaway’ in London and ‘takeout’ in New York. Then, of course there’s her work as a journalist and interviewer (mostly for The New York Times and The New Yorker) and the teaching post she holds in the creative writing department at New York University. All of which must require quite the juggling act.
New York state of mind
Since 2010, Smith has lived – along with her husband, the writer and poet Nick Laird, their daughter, Kit (six), and son, Harvey (three), in New York. “I have a completely distorted view of England now,” she admits. “I come back in the summer and it’s all strawberries-and- cream and Wimbledon. I don’t see it in February any more. I don’t remember that thing where you think, ‘I can’t possibly survive another day of this.’” Her accent fluctuates slightly, though she has mainly retained a base-note, north London twang.
Born in 1975, her mother, Yvonne (who migrated to England from Jamaica), and father, Harvey, separated when she was a teenager, though she stayed close to both. Her early years were spent on an estate and it’s a place she remembers fondly. Growing up, Smith was close to her younger brothers, Ben (now a stand-up comedian) and Luke (a rapper). She does, however, say that having her daughter made her think more about her girlhood and what it means to be female. “Back when I was growing up, women wore big trousers, big boots and sweatshirts and these women were everywhere. It wasn’t unusual to look like that. The girls in my school were hardcore, man, they were not messing around. They were totally sexy, but their idea of sexiness was just so different... they weren’t wobbling around in high heels. Now, the ways to be a girl seem so narrow. Like all girls in Greenwich Village, my daughter wants to be Taylor Swift. I think that’s the biggest aspiration of all women at this moment in America.”
Smith admits she didn’t have many female friends while growing up – alongside her brothers, books were her closest allies. It was this voracious reading that saw her leave London for Cambridge University to study English. If White Teeth had never been published, she imagines she would have gone into academia. “Even though I was glad that somebody wanted it, I thought, if you’re a serious person, you do a PhD.” But despite not having done one, she does seem like a serious person: earnest but in a flattering way, as if she’s taking your questions very seriously. Fittingly, her answers are thoughtful and measured. She has a reputation for being a little frosty but when we speak she seems warm and open. In fact, it makes sense to me that when strangers approach her they mostly want to tell her about their lives. “I get a lot of that,” she says. “It may be against common opinion but I think cab drivers’ stories are always amazing. I wrote a short story out of one of them not long ago for The Paris Review.”
Smith has a dry, acerbic sense of humour and laughs often (a big, head-tipped-back, rasping laugh), sometimes at me. She hoots with mirth when I ask whether I’d ever find her on a Sunday, like Carrie Bradshaw, eating eggs Benedict with a group of gal pals. “No-one brunches in New York any more,” she deadpans. “That’s so Nineties! If you tried to get brunch and a Cosmopolitan, the waiter wouldn’t even serve you, they’d be so disgusted.” Rather, her free time is spent domestically. “We invite a lot of stressed-out writer friends with too many children over. You get everyone in the same living room and the kids hopefully mind their own business so you get to talk for two minutes about something that isn’t Thomas The Tank Engine.”
Still, her life in New York does sound glamorous. She and Laird are known for hosting and attending some of the most buzzed-about literary parties in the city. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author (and friend of the couple) Jeffrey Eugenides recently wrote, “Among the mix of people who show up (and everyone does show up, which is itself remarkable) are [...] Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, alongside actual celebrities like Lena Dunham or Rachel Weisz.”
Thanks to their prime location in a bohemian enclave in the middle of Manhattan, Smith admits that she is spoiled for choice when it comes to socialising. “I can walk out of my door and get a martini in 30 seconds. I live next to galleries, I go to see music and art, I go to readings and I meet young people who are doing interesting things. When I’m not working, I feel like I take full advantage. I have a lot of fun.” Although, she admits, the constraints of having two young children mean that she has this type of fun less regularly. “People are often in denial as their lives change. You think you can still get very drunk at night and then work in the morning. And I just can’t. Now I only get drunk once a week, which, as an Englishwoman, you’ll know is a great restraint on my part.”
A day in the life
When she’s writing, Smith’s working day is strictly regimented. Along with her husband, she wakes at 6am, they take the children to nursery and then return home. She runs each morning – “When you’re sitting at a desk all day, with no colleagues, no-one to talk to, no distractions, it can get a little bit depressing. So I run by the river, I see New York and by 9am I’m at my desk. That’s it until 2.30pm and then the children come back.”
Smith has spoken before about the mental toll the writing process can take. She says that writing a novel has never been a pleasurable experience and she is famously disdainful of her own previous works, refusing to even keep copies in the house. Of White Teeth she has said, “To me it’s a book by a different person, and it’s not to my taste [...] it’s OK for a 22-year-old.”
When I ask her about it she is sanguine. “But anybody who writes knows [that it’s not a pleasurable experience]. Even transcribing this interview is not going to be fun for you, is it? It’s work! And it’s tricky and it’s a drag.” She is half-laughing, but the crease between her brows implies a very small rebuke: don’t ask obvious questions if you don’t want obvious answers. So I try a different tack: what about self-doubt? Can you ever outgrow it or do you need it to be a great writer? “Well, it’s self-doubt that makes me go over a sentence an OCD amount of times. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If I had less self-doubt I’d just leave it. And that sentence would be bad. Although, if you have too much of it, it can stop you working altogether.”
And indeed she’s not, as some of us might think, some kind of writing machine. Smith recently appeared on an episode of Lena Dunham’s podcast, Women Of The Hour, to talk about productivity. As she explains to Dunham, when she’s writing, she has no online presence whatsoever. “If I could control myself online, if I wasn’t going to go down a Beyoncé Google hole for four and a half hours, this wouldn’t be a problem. But that is exactly what I’ll do,” she says. She uses site-blocking apps SelfControl and Freedom to block Facebook and Twitter and communicates via flip-phone. While to some it might seem idyllic – lots of us dream of eschewing social media and office gossip for a life garrisoned away, creating great works of art – she points out that it can be lonely. “It’s usually me and this one [she holds her snuffling grey pug, Maud, who quickly wriggles out of her grasp, knocking the laptop over as she goes]. I’m constantly confronting myself and my own limitations and all that’s happening, every day.”
As well as the running, which helps her manage periods of ‘melancholy’ (“here we’re in the land of medication and I don’t like to take anything, so finding something that is helpful is crucial”), she says that her husband, Nick, helps to rescue pieces of work that she’d rather consign to the bin. He’s one of the first people to read and edit each new work, though it isn’t always a blissful process.
“Of course, sometimes it causes terrible tension. I’m editing his novel now and it’s not easy. I was doing it yesterday and he got into a bad mood about an edit. But I say to him the same thing he says to me: would you rather be embarrassed in front of me or strangers?”
They’re currently in the nascent stages of writing a TV series together; each Friday they leave their apartment for a nearby cafe, where they spread the work between them until 3pm. “It’s a very slow process,” she explains. Today, she will eat lunch – she orders from the same local cafe every day – and then, as it’s Halloween, she has extra preparations to make before the children get home.
Before she goes I venture one more question: how does she feel about being Zadie Smith, mythical author, voice of her generation? She seems pragmatic. “You know, I’ve seen it before. I saw it with Martin Amis and the same with Doris Lessing. You might get beaten up for 50 years and then suddenly it turns and you’re a national treasure. I don’t engage with it, I think you just have to keep your head down and do your work. Because it’s silly, really.”
And what are her hopes for the success of Swing Time? “I’m just relieved to be done, to be honest. At 41, I guess my life is full of quite a lot of other things – I’m busy with my domestic life – so finishing any novel is kind of a relief. It’s one thing off the checklist, along with ‘buy olive oil’ and ‘must remember toilet paper’.” And with that, the voice of her generation clicks off.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (£18.99, Hamish Hamilton) is out 15 November
Photography: Rex Features