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by Zadie Smith
With a certain knack for evading a question she doesn't intend to answer, Zadie Smith is able to bulldoze through a Q&A session with the dexterity of a young (but experienced) movie star. At the age of thirty, she already has three well-received novels under her belt, and her celebrity—some might say notoriety—has taken up copious real estate in London's gossip columns.
She gave me an hour. I caught her on her cell phone outside a Starbucks in what she called a "really awful part of town," and we talked amidst the din and whoosh of passing traffic while she roamed the streets in search of a cigarette lighter.
Clearly, if it weren't for her publicists and for pesky interviewers like me, she wouldn't do any interviews at all. (She's already stopped doing them entirely in the U.K.) She'd much prefer to leave behind the media circus and allow her new novel, On Beauty, to speak for itself.
"One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father." The novel's first line, which almost exactly echoes the first line of Howard's End, is the first tip that we're in store for some wonderful plot twists à la E. M. Forster. Smith admits as much in her acknowledgments. On Beauty, she writes, is an "hommage" to Forster, "to whom all my fiction is indebted." She wanted to return to the fiction she'd been brought up on to see if it could reflect contemporary concerns. The result is a sprawling Edwardian novel set in a fictional Massachusetts college town, which casts a struggling marriage against the backdrop of the racial and cultural questions of today.