Zadie Smith’s biography is one of contemporary writing’s fondest and most famous
yarns of precocious and meteoric literary success. As a student at Cambridge she writes White Teeth (2000), an ebullient, epically proportioned novel about multicultural London. It gets picked up by Hamish Hamilton, and on the strength of eighty manuscript pages a two-book, six-figure deal is struck before she’s even graduated. Rapturous praise and a glut of awards follow. Millennium hangovers have scarcely subsided and Smith is already being hailed as the ‘voice of a “new England”’. It is a perfect literary storm.
All this would be enough to turn anyone’s head, but Smith, very wisely, kept hers down. Two more novels – The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005) – arrived in quick succession. She spent the next seven years establishing herself as an essayist and cultural critic of notable range and sensitivity, writing pieces for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian, The New York Times and the Sunday Telegraph – many of which are collected in the volume Changing My Mind (2009). As a literary critic her roving mind and resolutely un-buttoned-up enthusiasm for fiction in all its forms have significantly enriched some of Brit Lit Crit’s otherwise tediously dogmatic debates about what novels should be like and what it is that they do. For a while Smith spoke of herself as a ‘recovering novelist’, but before long returned to writing fiction – and to her old stomping ground, Willesden – with her most recent novel, NW (2012).
Our conversation took place over email during June and July of this year. When we began, Smith was busy teaching fiction-writing workshops in Paris, but these days she is generally to be found in New York, where she has been Professor of Creative Writing at NYU since 2010. In our correspondence, she reminded me very much of the authorial presence sometimes glimpsed in her novels: affable, modest and wise. Her responses to my questions were thoughtful and precise, and ranged widely over topics including the nature of literary innovation, Hollywood musicals, her move to the US and what lies ahead in her writing.