Zadie, Take Three

The author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man talks about her new comedy of manners-cum-campus novel and the pitfalls of literary celebrity.

book cover

On Beauty
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Zadie Smith
Penguin Press
464 pages

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.

It could.

"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.

Twenty-year-old Jerome Belsey is sending those e-mails from the home of his father's intellectual nemesis. Both men are Rembrandt scholars, but Montague Kipps has published successfully while Howard Belsey's manuscript languishes unfinished, his tenure prospects dangling by a string. They stand at opposite ends of the cultural and political spectrum. Howard is white, British, and represents liberal intellectualism. Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian academic, is a reactionary who opposes affirmative action and wants to take the word "liberal" out of "Liberal Arts." The mere mention of Monty Kipps is enough to send Howard into a tailspin of apoplectic fits. But when faced with the possibility that his son might marry into the Kipps family, Howard is compelled to try to set things straight—though, as he is wont to do, he only manages to make matters worse.

The other, more important thing Howard is busy botching is his thirty-year marriage to Kiki, an American black woman. Kiki is an intuitive and wise figure, who has an enormous capacity for forgiveness. She and Howard have their differences, which have become more pronounced with time. "He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political," Smith writes. "She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice."

Not surprisingly, the Belsey children, like their parents, are strong individuals. Jerome becomes a Christian, inviting his agnostic father's scorn; Zora, who considers herself "the essential bridge between Wellington's popular culture and her parents' academic culture," muscles her way into the poetry class taught by Howard's mistress; and Levi, the youngest, adopts a "faux Brooklyn accent," tells friends he's from Roxbury, and when his boss calls him a nigger, quits and joins up with a group of Haitian immigrants fighting for political change. We meet this family at the moment of their unhinging.

With a nod to Aristotle, Zadie Smith believes that fiction is a "hypothetical area" in which to experiment with possible courses of action. On Beauty contemplates ways in which characters make or fail to make moral decisions. It is a meditation on the ideal of the university and the potential perversion of it; the fragility and strength of relationships; and the ways in which society influences perceptions of beauty.

Smith has had the charmed publishing career that most novelists only dream of. Her debut, White Teeth (2000), catapulted her onto the literary scene. Shortlisted for the Man Booker, it won the Whitbread First Novel Award and the BBC snatched up the rights to make it into a television movie. But Smith refuses to be defined by her past successes. She's been quoted calling White Teeth a "baggy monster" and "the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old." Her second novel, Autograph Man (2002), about a young man obsessed with obtaining the autograph of a famous woman, won the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction. On Beauty, a departure from Smith's previous postmodern stylings, has just been named a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize.

Zadie Smith lives in London with her husband, the writer Nick Laird, and is currently at work on a book of essays titled Fail Better: The Morality of the Novel.

Jessica Murphy

Salman Rushdie
Zadie Smith (Photo by
Roderick Field).

What about E. M. Forster's work made you want to pay, as you say, hommage to him?

I suppose he's my first love fiction-wise. He seems to me a very humane novelist—and one who's actually much more interesting than he appears to be on the surface. He's extremely English. If you're born here, he naturally means a lot to you. Beyond that, I don't really know. I just really like him.

Sorry, that's not a very good answer. I'm a little bit chilly outside a Starbucks in a really awful part of town. Sorry. Go on. I'll warm up, I'm sure.

The first line of On Beauty echoes the first line of Howard's End. And there are also certain plot similarities. But what really interested me was the way the point of view weasels its way into the minds of all of the characters, both large and small, which is also something you see in Forster.

Yes, that's very Forsterian.

And then there's the expansive third-person narrative voice.

In a lot of American fiction, particularly young American fiction, the idea of writing third person is anathema. But I didn't even know there were novels that weren't in third person until I was quite advanced in years. So that kind of narrative voice seems natural to me.

Also, I think of On Beauty as a kind of tying up of my childhood interests.

Do you mean in terms of literature?

Yes, partly. English fiction was something I loved growing up and it changed my life—it changed the trajectory of my life. I went to university to study English literature, which wasn't really normal for my family or my background. So it's something I have a lot of affection for. I'm particularly fond of realism and social comedy and fiction that delves into ethics. That's considered a bit old hat these days, but I learned how to be who I am through reading books like that. And I wanted at least once in my life to write a book like that. I wanted to prove to myself that an old-fashioned type of novel could be written that would be able to do things that were modern.

But once is enough! It's incredibly hard work. I think next time I'll just write in the first person. It seems a lot easier and a lot more fun.

Do you outline your novels?

I don't take notes. I don't have any notebooks. I keep on trying to do that because it seems like a very writerly thing to do, but my mind doesn't work that way. I tend to get the idea for a novel in a big splash. Usually I work out the plot for the first half and then kind of feel my way through the other half. I wouldn't say I make excessive plans, though.

I wonder about the process of re-envisioning a classic, of using the skeleton of another novel. How is that different from envisioning a novel from whole cloth?

The process of writing On Beauty was not that different, actually. All my books are made up of other books. They're all deeply structured on other fiction, because I was a student in fiction and I didn't have much actual living to draw on. I suspect a lot of other people's novels are like that, too, though they might be slower to talk about it.

In On Beauty we have two families, the Belseys and the Kippses, that are, as Jerome Belsey writes in one of his e-mails to his father, "negativized images" of one another. Take Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps. They're both Rembrandt scholars, but that's where their similarities end. Generally speaking, these two men seem to embody the religious and political divide in America.

Do you think? Well, yeah. People profess to have certain political positions, but their conservatism or liberalism is really the least interesting thing about them. That's sort of what I wanted to write about. I'm really not interested in whether somebody is a conservative or not. I'm interested in what kind of human being he is when he makes various life choices. Sometimes that can be completely subsumed by politics and ideology, but I was interested in looking at two men who believe that their ideology is king, when actually it doesn't have any impact on their day-to-day decision-making. That's more interesting than the liberal versus conservative opposition, I think.

Academics don't come out looking all that great in your novel. Both of these men make some decisions that end up hurting people.

When I was growing up, I was so excited by the idea of an intellectual that I presumed that a perfect life went along with it—but of course that's not the way intellectuals work, or anybody works. So I guess the book is a bit about that, too. But it drives me crazy when people dismiss the idea of a university. To me university is the finest thing, the finest creation of humanity. It's just that usually it goes slightly pear-shaped.

I'm interested in what you did at Harvard as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow.

Mainly you just keep to yourself. You sit in a room and do your work. You don't have any contact with the university. You have contact with forty other women fellows who are also doing their work. It's slightly autistic in that way, actually.

I produced two short stories in my year there. Not very effective use of time, but it was really, really enjoyable. It was terrific.

Did your time in Cambridge have anything to do with your decision to set the novel in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts absolutely inspired it. I think this was the first time I've actually written about natural things. I always notice that in my books there are no trees, no birds, no landscape at all—because I know nothing about that stuff. But being in Massachusetts was like a sensory overload. It was absolutely phenomenal. I spent a lot of time walking around, and I think that turns up in the book—the streets, the colors. I found it was such a beautiful part of America. I didn't realize how lovely it was. When my mother read the book, she said, "What's with all the snow? Every couple of pages there's six feet of snow."

Being at Harvard also reminded me of my own experience as a student. When it came to writing the academic part of the novel, I was thinking about how I felt when I was a student—how lost I felt a lot of the time, and confused about what I wanted and what I was getting. I always knew I would write a campus novel. I've read a lot of them and I've thought a lot about Nabokov's novel Pnin. When I started this book, I knew I wanted the characters to be intelligent, but I wasn't sure if I wanted them to be academics. When I was at Harvard, I started thinking about all that again.

I thought you did a good job of capturing some of the local details. The Big Dig, the shoot-from-the-hip dean's assistant, some local phrases.

The main thing I wanted to try to capture was American voices. For the most part, I find you write them exactly as you would English voices—add a few things here and there, subtract a few others, and don't worry about it too much.

Have you ever thought of going into academia yourself?

I would love to be an academic. But I'd need to get a Ph.D., so that's what I'm half working on at the moment. I'm writing a book of essays that I'd like to submit to my old college. That's the plan.

Could you tell me a bit about it?

It's going to be called Fail Better: The Morality of the Novel. It's basically just a collection of essays on twentieth-century writers. It's about ethics and the novel. I don't know if it's particularly thrilling. But it's extremely enjoyable to be a critic again. I don't enjoy writing about books I don't like—I just haven't got the energy for it. So it's mainly about books I love.

There was a journal printed in the early eighties, which talked about fiction as a way of doing moral philosophy. Moral philosophy is an arcane language for a lot of people, but fiction is a way of practicing much of the same ideas in a wider field. To put it simply, fiction is like a hypothetical area in which to act. That's what Aristotle thought—that fictional narrative was a place to imagine what you would do in this, that, or the other situation. I believe that, and it's what I love most about fiction. So that's kind of what the book is about.

I would love to talk about Kiki and Howard and their marriage, since their domestic struggles are a big focus of the novel.

The one thing I really wanted to do—and I don't know how well I achieved it—was to make Howard's job be incidental. I tried to set as few scenes as possible in the university, because I primarily wanted the book to be about their marriage.

Kiki mentions a couple of times her relief at not being an intellectual, although she's actually the most thoughtful character in the book in many ways.

Kiki's point of view is partly the way I feel. I used to think of myself as an intellectual, but having now met real intellectuals I know what I am and it's not quite that. Sometimes it makes me sad and sometimes I feel relief.

The fact that Howard is white and Kiki is black is an important aspect of their marriage. Howard says he "dislikes and fears conversations with his children that concern race." Kiki complains at one point that her life is becoming too white.

Are you still there?

Yeah, yeah, I'm just having a cigarette. I'm still with you.

I know it seems improbable, but it really isn't the race thing that I'm interested in. I'm just interested in the difference thing. It wouldn't really matter if the difference were a completely other thing—if one of them was very rich and the other was very poor, for example. The race thing is the first thing I reach for, since I was brought up in a biracial family, but I was just as interested in Howard being really skinny and Kiki being really big as in them being of different colors. The race thing is not really their problem. Their problem is that she's a woman and he's a man and she's getting older and that does different things to women than it does to men. That's the main deal with them. I think the color thing is slightly further down in the problem pile.

As for the Belsey children, I found myself continuing to think of them after I'd finished the novel and wondering what would become of them. I imagine Zora becoming a professor or politician. Jerome, a minister. And Levi, he was my favorite...

He seems to be everybody's favorite. He really is the only autobiographical thing in the book. He's my little brother. I think all the critics should come meet my little brother. He's so popular. Maybe that's the trick. Maybe I should just base all my characters on real people.

I can't imagine that would be a good idea.

Yeah, maybe that's not such a good plan. But my brother Luc is a very engaging boy and he was a joy to write. Maybe it was the happiness of writing him that makes him such a memorable character.

You get the sense that Levi is still trying figure things out. Certainly his older siblings are a little bit further on than him.

My little brother is just coming out of his teenage years. He's twenty-one now. He has a passion for every single subject, even ones he knows absolutely nothing about. He's very amusing that way. He'll never read the book, which is a shame, because I'd like him to read it. Maybe I'll put it on audio or something and force it into his headphones.

Maybe if he knows a character is based on him?

No, he's disinterested. Deeply disinterested. I told him already. He read the first fifty pages, but because his character wasn't in it sufficiently that far in, he quit. But you never know. Maybe when he gets older.

Do you wonder about the lives of your characters outside the boundaries of the novel?

With my previous two books, I didn't. We're talking right now about the characters in On Beauty as if they actually existed in some way. If someone tried to talk to me about the characters in White Teeth in that way, it was ridiculous to me. I couldn't. To me those characters were just a collection of sentences, and I couldn't engage at all with the idea that they were in any way real people. But with this book I feel differently. Maybe that's a good thing in terms of my development.

I also feel that this book was more of a surprise to me. I didn't really know what I was doing for a lot it, and that wasn't such a terrible thing, actually.

But I still haven't answered the question. More than anything, I wonder what would happen to Howard and Kiki's marriage. On the evidence of people around you, it doesn't look good. Everybody seems to get divorced. When my mother read the book she said that it was incredibly romantic given the reality of most people's lives. It's tough out there.

Let's talk about the theme of beauty. How did you come up with this title?

I don't fuck around with titles. I come up with them immediately and then don't ever think about changing them. And I've stockpiled them. This one came from Elaine Scarry's book, On Beauty and Being Just. I read her book and then my husband wrote a poem (which I include in my novel), which takes its title from Scarry's book, and then I took the title for my novel. So I was third in line for the On Beauty title! But even last year there was a book called On Beauty published by Umberto Eco, so it's in no way an original title.

The title is also another way of tying up the loose ends of what I started when I was nineteen. My first two novels are like essays, because I had just come out of college and I wrote books like essays. I'd think up a theme and tie up all the ends and ta-da! There's your novel. I kind of wanted to call this book On Beauty to recognize that trait in me and also to try and kick free of it a little bit. So it is a book about beauty, but in a very loose sense, and it's about all these other things, as well.

I'm trying to find a lighter here. Go on.

This novel looks at the social concept of female beauty, how society defines beauty.


Kiki was thin in her youth, but as an adult she's a full-bodied woman. "Her body had directed her to a new personality; people expected new things of her, some of them good, some not." At the opposite end of the spectrum, there's Monty Kipps's beautiful daughter: "each leg was perfectly wrapped, separated and fetishized in its tube of denim."

Personally, I had the opposite experience of Kiki. I was very big as a child and now I'm not big. It's eye-opening to have fantasized about being thin one day and then to actually realize what it means to be a not-enormous woman walking down the street, and how people consider you their property in some way. It's fascinating. It also confirmed for me a lot of the angry thoughts I had as a teenager, about how the world is unbelievably biased toward beautiful women. But it also devours them, sells them, determines their lives. Beautiful women are perhaps even less free than those who fall outside of the traditional definition of beauty. Black women are lucky in not having—so far—an enormous beauty industry to hound them every fucking day of their lives. So my novel is partly about that.

I always go on about not writing political dogma in books, but I don't mind feminist fiction. I don't mind banging on a bit when I'm feeling pissed off. It's not the worst thing in the world. People are too sensitive about that shit.

It's evenhanded, but you do deliver a sharp line here and there.

Every now and then. A bitch slap. It's one of the tricks of high art. You're constantly told in college and elsewhere that good taste and good fiction are about not pushing, about not expressing your opinion too forcefully. So we're always hearing things like, "Oh, it's a very good novel about a young black boy, but unfortunately the author presses too hard on the question of race."

And the same with women's fiction. It's nonsense, and it's time to stop. I felt like a hand was at my throat when I first started writing. That if I was going to be a proper writer, I'd better be as polite as possible and as calm as possible and as un-angry as possible—and recently I've been thinking, you know, fuck that, basically.

Do you think fiction is potentially a place to put your political views?

If it can be done well. You have to have a great deal of talent to do it, and the problem is that most of us don't, so when we get angry our writing does become undigested and hard to read. But there's a place for fiction that's radically furious. I might not be the person to write it, but somebody with balls should.

I think of a writer like David Foster Wallace. People seem to think of him as some kind of intellectual dandy, but I find his stories incredibly forceful.

I'm listening to you, but I'm desperately looking for a lighter at the same time.

How did you decide on Rembrandt? Presumably you could have made Howard an expert on anything.

That's actually true. Partly, it's my own ignorance. I had to choose somebody I knew something about, and loved. He's obviously a genius, but he's also a total vulgarian. And I'm a vulgarian, or at least I'm from a tradition of vulgarians. When you look at his paintings, what he's trying to do is to give you a human being. He's really desperate to do that, and it shows in the sketches. There's a wonderful sketch of a mother, leaning down to comfort a child who has been fighting a dog or something similar, and it was clearly done at the moment. Rembrandt was in the middle of a street and saw this and he sat down and sketched it. He's so interested in people. Shakespeare was also a vulgarian. I love pure intellectualized art, too, but there's something about Rembrandt ... He's so meaty, his people have such big noses, everybody's so fleshy, and his work is so full of love. I find that very moving. And it was a lovely experience to be able to spend some time with the paintings and to try to look at them properly. I'm not the most visual writer in the world, but that was a joy.

But I didn't want to do anything more than the lightest touch. Sure, Howard is a Rembrandt expert, but who needs to know about Howard's expertise? That's not the most significant part of his personality. I wanted it to be light. So I tried to hold myself back. I do have a tendency to get over involved.

In the endnotes, we learn that you used your husband's poetry and your brother's rap lyrics in the book. I find this idea of collaboration fascinating because it's not something you see all that much.

One thing that irritates me is that even with the most paltry and thin books, the book doesn't come by itself, it comes with this package of interviews, its own York Notes. I don't know what the American equivalent of that is. You know, the explanatory notes that come with fiction when you're taking the exams?

Cliffs Notes.

Yeah. All these writers are supposedly experts on their own books, and you become convinced that the book is better than it is from these interviews, which create an edifice that isn't there. And of course this perfect work is the sole creation of the writer because of his incredible genius, which is never in doubt, yadda-yadda-yadda. And I know it doesn't work like that, because I know these writers, and I know how they work. I wanted to be a bit more straight about the collaborativeness of writing a novel—how many other people look at it, touch it, think about it, help with it.

The truth is, a book is sometimes smarter than you are and involves more people than just you. This book certainly did. Without all the other people who supplied stuff, it wouldn't be what it is. I think that's why I'm such a disappointment when I give a talk and it's always like, You wrote this?

Why don't you give interviews in the U.K.?

Because I live here and I want to have a normal life. I want to be able to get on the tube and do normal things.

If I were a Ph.D. student studying contemporary novelists I would only look at their foreign interviews, because they say so much more. When writers are in their home country they're cagey, terrified—but when they're in, you know, Belgium, they'll tell you everything. They'll tell you about their mother's underwear. It's much more interesting.

I read in an interview that you have a distrust of writing workshops. Is that still true?

You know, it's less true, because I had to teach a writing workshop at Harvard and the kids I taught were absolutely incredible. It was not at all like the cliché I had in my mind of some kind of group therapy session. Everybody worked really hard, and the students were really, really great.

Another way of looking at the collaborative effort...

Yeah, they transformed the way I was writing. They were quite open with their opinions, and I learned a lot. Also, I've been such a traditionalist as a reader, and they were reading Chuck Palahniuk and people I don't really read, and I was made to see the value of books like that.

How do you cope with all the attention—some positive, some negative—that you've received?

Very badly. It makes me feel extremely panicked. The way I've learned to deal with it is by realizing that's what I get paid for. It's not for the writing of the book, which is a joy, but for putting up with all the rest of it. The difficult thing is that people get very angry that you don't enjoy all the attention—maybe because they want it, in which case I would gladly give it to them if I could. But they'll find someone else, there's a new girl every year.

Have you noticed any differences in the sort of reception your work gets in America versus other places?

No. I read all the reviews and the reviews are all vaguely the same. I guess the difference is that in America, there's not so much gossip and commentary about me. That all goes to Dave Eggers or somebody else. I get that stuff in England, and I hate it, but in America I feel completely free of it—or maybe I just don't know what part of the paper it's in. I feel like I'm just a writer in America, not some kind of freak.