Teaching, grading essays, caring for small children, and unloading the dishwasher, Zadie Smith dreams of four uninterrupted hours to write.
“I have a novel maybe in mind but I barely have time to occupy my own life,” says Smith, 38, gifted author of the award-winning White Teeth, On Beauty, and NW, novels that chronicle race, class, and identity. “Maybe the good thing about that is, by the time you get [to write], you really want to be there.”
A sensation in her twenties for White Teeth, Smith will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Stranahan Theater as part of the Authors! Authors! series sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
“I meet writers who are single with no children and they’re bored and they don’t want to be at their desk. I just don’t have that anymore,” she said from her New York City home. She’s not fussy about where to write: She crafted much of her last book in the library at New York University.
“I just need child care, earplugs, and a computer and I’m good to go.”
Originally named Sadie and born in London in 1975 to a dark-skinned Jamaican mother and a white, working-class Englishman, Smith is striking: dramatic cheek bones, large black glasses, and a rich, low voice nuanced by life in Britain. Wednesday she’ll read her essay, Why Write?, about the challenges serious scribes face in the online 21st century, when untold bloggers fancy themselves writers.
A significant obstacle to writing is self-deception, she says, paraphrasing Iris Murdoch and revealing her own philosophical bent. A writer must create as truthfully as possible a picture of her conception of the world as she experiences it.
“I’m also reading about Kierkegaard [Kierkegaard’s Philosophy: Self Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age by John Douglas Mullen]. He was preoccupied with the idea that most of us live deep in self-deception. It’s an unresolvable issue. There’s no solution to self-deception, you just have to try and stay aware and battle with it every day.”
Kierkegaard’s point: Being human is an ongoing negotiation between oneself and “the group, the world,” she says, and that transaction is often difficult. “There’s no way of settling and thinking, ‘Oh now I’m finally free.’ That’s not what it is to be a human being. To be a human being is to be constantly in anxiety and doubt; that’s a good sign... if you didn’t have anxiety and doubt you’d be an animal or a chair.”
Smith loves movies, eating and drinking with friends, and living in different cultures. She’s married to Nick Laird, a poet/novelist she met in college, with whom she parents Katherine, 4, and Harvey, 11 months. They spent two years in Italy, where she learned to speak the language.
At NYU, she teaches two literature classes in one semester and spends the rest of the year writing. Laird teaches at Princeton University and Barnard College. She likes teaching. “It gets you out of the house, you meet people, it gives some structure to my day, and it allows me to be in New York. It would be very hard to be in New York unless you were a Russian oligarch or something. The students are bright. I like marking essays.”
On life in the United States, she says, “ I feel in some ways freer in America, but the freedom is a frightening freedom. You’re free do anything in this country: free to die alone, free to not be helped, but also free to achieve these extraordinary things. That’s the deal. It’s extreme. Whereas in England the boundaries are smaller but you’re more protected.”
She is, she says, simply lucky to be near the top of the literary ladder.
“They let one through every few years so I got to be that one. I was born at a very particular moment in a great welfare state in the middle of a boom: free education, free health care, free university, free everything. That’s what made my life possible. And then it was shut down again. But it’s not enough for one person, everyone deserves these chances.”
One chance occurred early on. At 20, she wrote a short story which would become a chapter in White Teeth, and it was printed in a student magazine. An editor saw it and offered her 1,000 pounds (about $1,665) to write a book “which was more money than I could imagine.”
Another bit of good fortune: some of her college friends had upper-echelon families and one suggested she meet with his mother, a writer. “She said, ‘Don’t do that,’ “ and put Smith in contact with her own agent. The result was a far better book deal and by 24, she’d finished the remarkable 448-page White Teeth (2000), a rambling tale spanning periods from 1857 to 1999, focused on three London families and their intersecting teenagers: a white, working-class Brit and his Jamaican wife, a Muslim Bengali couple, and an academic Jewish family.
Looking back, she wonders how she pulled it off, suggesting it may be the healthy synapses of a young brain fresh from years of a thorough education. She’s been inspired by the work of Keats, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Hurston, Shakespeare, Austen.
A problem serious writers face is not having enough access to talented editing, a process she enjoys both receiving and doing.
“It’s hard to get it these days because editors are businessmen now. A lot of writers hire independent editors or rely on other writers and rely on friends. I’m like that too. I get a lot of people to help me. It takes a village to write my novels. I had dinner last night with a lot of writers and many people were saying they thought some of the best editors were at magazines — the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, Paris Review. I think a lot of writers would like to hire those editors for themselves and I imagine that will happen. When you see your best work in these magazines, that’s not an accident. It’s because they were edited for months and months by very, very smart people. That’s what publishing houses used to do but they don’t any more. You never ever grow out of the need to be edited.”
Among her editing projects was a request by philanthropist Dave Eggers, known for his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that would raise money for his foundation to help poor kids get to college. She decided to ask several writers to each create a character for what became a collection, For The Book of Other People (2008).
“You’re asking your friends and really good writers to write for free, which is not easy. They have to give up a lot of time, which could be otherwise paid time. It’s awkward, it’s horrible to be on the other end of those emails where you’re begging people you respect and like and you’re becoming an irritation to them.”
Even more difficult is the editing. “You then have to ask people to change things they wrote for free, which is not what people want to do, so it was a delicate process. But I guess I learned that I really love editing. For the writers who would let me change things and correct things it was a real pleasure. There are other writers, of course, I wouldn’t change a comma. It’s fascinating to see the various fonts they use, to be backstage, to see how they produce this work.”
Contact Tahree Lane at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6075.