Last Friday in Fort Greene, in shouting distance of Brooklyn’s brand new Barclays Center, you’d have been right to assume the queues on Lafayette Avenue were for a rockstar. Wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder, arms raised in air, (‘cos there’s zero elbow room down here…) – Zadie Smith popped by Greenlight Bookstore to sign copies of her latest, NW, from Penguin Press.
“You lot were clearly too cheap to spring for Jay-Z tickets, or you’d not be spending Friday night in a bookshop,” she began warmly, right before drawing a neat geographic analogy (“Hackney is to Bed-Stuy as Queen’s Park is to the Upper East Side”). She then read two brief bits from the novel. Perhaps she needn’t have bothered, as most of British Brooklyn was right there in the room. These were some of their questions.
Could you talk about your New York Times interview of Jay-Z? Were you nervous? Were you pleased with how it turned out?
Yes of course. I was honoured to have been asked to write it. Half the piece got edited out though. The NYT doesn’t allow swearing in its pages, but since we’re talking Jay-Z, and it’s hip-hop, the meat of our conversation was lost. There’s a whole genre of people who can’t be represented by the New York Times, because their words can’t appear as spoken. That’s unfortunate.
To what books and reading material did you turn when writing NW?
Lots of Baldwin – that’s quite obvious, I think – The Fire Next Time, Autobiography of Malcolm X, texts of the Black Liberation struggle and the American Civil Rights Movement. Also, various Western philosophers like Kierkegaard, since Leah (a main character in NW) is a philosophy graduate.
How do you come up with characters?
I’m lucky to have very varied social circles when I was growing up. Sometimes, ha – sometimes you’ve written a character and then you actually see them in the street. For writing in general though, I really need structure. I’d find it too easy to veer off track otherwise.
Do you live in England now or in America? Is writing easier or more demanding now you have a daughter?
I live in New York mostly these days because my daughter’s now in school here. And I teach in the city. I’ll probably be here for a bit. Although, I’ve never heard anyone ask a male novelist, ‘So how’s your career – how are you coping now you’re a parent?’ But they’ll still put the question to a woman. Interesting.
Why do you write in this “experimental” manner in NW? Is this your “style” now, or a political statement, or some kind of challenge to your reader?
Well, I think that’s rather conservative. We don’t do this with art in a museum. If you walk into a modern art gallery and see an artist has placed an elephant upside down, you’d accept that as the artist’s expression and engage with it as such. Nothing complicated about the way I write. Every writer just wants to make you FEEL, and there are different ways to achieve that. Take Tristram Shandy – there’s a modern/post-modernist protagonist, and even since him, writers have still been perfectly able to write books.
Who is your ‘Ideal Reader’?
Someone who’s various. Most people latch on to the character they’re most like, and that’s their guide through the world of the novel. My ideal is a reader who can find his or herself in lots of different characters.