A Conversation with Zadie Smith about On Beauty
This is a novel based, both in plot and theme, on E. M. Forster's
End. How did you come to the idea of writing such a book? What is it that
appeals to you about Forster's work?
Forster represents one of the earliest loves of my reading life and the first
intimations I ever had of the power and beauty of this funny, artificial little
construction, the novel. I wanted to pay tribute to the influence he had on me
as a teenager, and as it was a book about Beauty, I wanted the novel also to be
a record of beautiful things I've lovednovels, pieces of music, certain human
faces, paintings, and so on. But I actually think the points where On Beauty
meets Howards End are the least interesting bits of the book for me. It was
simply a way of writing inside a certain genre: the literary update. I was
thinking of things like Graham Swift's As I lay Dying/Last Orders combo; Joyce
using the structure of the Ulysses story; Helen Fielding using Pride and
Prejudiceto mention three very disparate examples.
It was a kind of scaffolding for me, but in the end the books only meet
properly at two or three points. I suppose I still think of myself as an
apprentice, and this was the end of one part of my apprenticeship"learning to
write an English novel." I know many people think of me as too slavish to that
tradition, but that's because I grew up feeling so far from every tradition; I
overcompensated. But now I feel "legitimate" in some way; writing this book
helped me feel that. The predictable consequence is that it has freed me up and
now I want to be illegitimate. I'll never write a novel so engaged with
tradition again, so linear, sonineteenth century. I finally feel free to do my
own thing. This is a long way of saying, working through my Forster habit has
got me to a new place.
What was it like adapting Forster's ideas about class and home to a modern
setting? What were the most crucial differences, for you, between Forster's
context and the world of this novel?
Again, this is really not how I was thinking when I was writing. It was just
a little hook to hang a novel on; the actual working out of character and plot
is a much more intuitive thing than this question imagines. I didn't even
re-read Howards End. All the theories come after the fact.
To answer your question as a critic and not a novelist, the most obvious
difference between England circa 1910 and England now is that the sudden drop in
fortunes that Leonard Bast experiencesthe free-fall from simply "working-class"
to "economic and social oblivion"is not quite as swift nor as absolute as it
used to be. Leonard makes one mistake and is doomed. Carl would have many
chances. Then again, the permanent dispossessedthe migrant classForster
wouldn't recognize that.
This is a complex novel with many major characters. What do you enjoy most
about writing in so many voices? Do the many different points of view emerge
organically or do you tend to "mastermind" them all from the beginning, so to
I think the interesting thing is it never occurs to me to write in only one
voice. That's the thing about fiction writers: what seems alarming or particular
or perverse about them is simply the shape of their brainthey cannot be
otherwise. It's so exotic to me to read, say, a Douglas Coupland novel and hear
this one, mesmeric, first-person voice passing through the whole, but that's the
shape of his brain, and third-person refractions of large families with
different voices is the shape of mine. I don't mastermind itI can't help it. I
suppose I must enjoy it, but I think the deeper motivation is that I find my
Writing in the first person is completely alien to meI wouldn't
know where to begin. I do notice that some writers ignore voice, or bring all
voices to the same frequency, and this is because their emphasistheir
understanding of the difference that makes all the differenceis different from
mine. Ian McEwan, for example, clearly at some level feels the great difference
between people is their capacity for cruelty. I think the beliefs that novelists
hold about character are formed within them when they are very young, long
before they actually start writing. For personal reasons to do with my
upbringing, the questions of accents, of class-as-revealed-through-voice,
weighed very heavily on me. It's actually an aspect of my fiction, of myself,
that I find a little depressing. There are deeper differences between people
than the social, but I find it hard to express them without making some
reference to the social.
All of the English charactersaside from Howard's fatherlive some or most of
their lives away from their native land, as you yourself have done. How has
living in "exile" changed the way you write? Do you identify in particular with
Howard, as an Englishman in America?
Living in "exile" sounds so romantic, but the truth is, I've never done it. I
have the opposite experience: I live on the same street I was born on and have
been in the same half-mile nest of streets for thirty years. I'm very attracted
to exile literatureparticularly Nabokovexactly because the idea of being away
from home for any serious length of time is so inconceivable to me. But what I
saw when I was in America for a brief spell, teachingand what I hope to see
again when I visit Rome for a few monthsis how sensuously nostalgic your
writing becomes when you're away. That incredible Nabokovian wistful lyricism,
the kind you find in Speak, Memorythat's what I associate with exile. Or the
Joyce who wrote Dubliners while in Trieste. Basically, I only ever leave home so
I can feel lonesome for it.
What was it like trying to capture the voices of Americans, especially
in the younger characters? Are there characters in this book that you think
would only be found in the United States?
I made many, many mistakes with the American dialogue. I knew I would. The
same was true of the "Bengali" dialogue in White Teeth. If you write about
people who aren't you, that's always going to happen. You have to ready yourself
for the postbag of outraged people telling you no one speaks like that. But I
suppose I rebel against that a little; it irritates me when people write to me
and say, "A Black American Woman would never say that." Really? How come? There
must be one, somewhere, who just might. No one ever writes and says, "A white
man would never say that," because white men can say anything they like; they
can sound like Philip Roth or David Foster Wallace or Marcel Proust. They
apparently have the tongue of the world. So I try to listen and make things
believable, but a part of me is resistant to the very idea of absolute "correctness" when it comes to human behavior, and I just don't
have that journalistic interest in veracity. People who do will always fling my
books across the room, which they are completely free to do. But I guess I like
my freedom of making up speech, of making it work in the world of the novel.
This work, as with your others, is at times laugh-out-loud funny. What
role does humor play in your writing process? Is it something you try to
interject or does it just emerge? Do you consider your work to be satirical?
I really love this quote that I heard George Saunders repeat recently:
satire is the imperfect praise of perfection. That's a very Socratic idea,
weeding out the false to incrementally reveal the true, or the true-er. I don't sit down to
write "satire," and I hate what is usually called "satire," but you're
absolutely right that a tone of great solemnity is not available to me. When I
think of the books I love, there's always a little laughter in the dark. I love
Jane Eyre; I don't love Wuthering Heights. I love Tolstoy; I don't love
Dostoevsky. I love Joyce; I don't love Proust. I love Nabokov; I don't love
Pasternak. I don't think I'm a funny person, but the fiction I grew up on was
leavened with humorI understand the other tradition and I admire it, but I just
don't love it. It never occurs to me to write as, say, A. S. Byatt writes, as
I'm sure she would never dream in a squillion years of writing like me. The
ironic theme in English writingand I don't mean po-mo* irony, I mean the irony
of someone like Defoe or Dickensis either in you or it isn't. Those who find
Austen arch and cold and ironical, lacking the kind of intimate and metaphysical
commitment of a writer like Emily Brontë cannot be convinced otherwise and vice
versa. I appreciate both schools, but I can't get out of the side I'm on. I
don't think I'd want to, though occasionally I have wet dreams about turning
into Iris Murdoch.
*po-mo = postmodern.
Is Wellington based on your own experienceseither as student or
teacherat universities? What aspects of the academic environment do you most
like and dislike? How has it influenced you as a writer? Will you continue to
Wellington is based on bothexperiences as student and teacher. I think
the larger part is based on my student experiences, because they were simply
much longer and more substantial. My relationship with universities is very
screwy. I wanted to be an academic and planned to be one, and then I started
writing White Teethten years of my life vanished into novels. I certainly think
of it as the road less traveled, a road I would have liked to go down.
My main feeling is that my time as a student, especially my last year, was
genuinely the happiest period of my life. ButBIG BUTthere were many things
about academic life that I found unbearably oppressive and absurd. There's so
much of one's real lived experiences that you have to leave at the gates.
There's something about English departments in particulara kind of desperate
need to be serious, to be professional, to police this very ambiguous and
necessarily amorphous act, readingthat I find hard to deal with. English, as a
subject, never really got over its upstart nature. It tries to bulk itself up
with hopeless jargon and specious complexity, tries to imitate subjects it can
never be. I always feel a disappointment coming out of English departments, as
if all these brilliant people are gathered and poised to study something and all
they have to study is . . . these things? Novels? But they're so . . . smooshy.
It's as if, at some fundamental level, they consider the novel beneath them.
They want something more macho, harder, with a more rigorous structure. It
depresses me, how embarrassed some people seem to be about novels, how much they
want them to be something else. The flip side of that experience is finding a
professor here, a professor there, who is absolutely willing to engage with
everything a novel is and face up to its strengths and failures as a human
product and allow students to express their most intimate intellectual and
emotional experiences of reading. When that happens, there's no better place to
be in a university than in an English department. But when someone is spending a
semester explaining to you why Adam Bede is an example of the nineteenth-century
pastoral fallacy, that's a little demoralizing. To me, a university is one of
the most precious of human institutions; that's why when they fall short of
their own ideals, you feel so cheated.
Howard and Kiki's marriage is one of opposites, as you say: "He was bookish,
she was not; he was theoretical, she political." How fundamental are these
oppositions? What do you think two such people provide for each other? Do you
have an idea in your own mind of where their marriage is headed after the end of
I used to think those differences made all the difference. They don't mean
anything. All that matters is kindness and the capacity to recognize the
existence of people other than you. It's a couple's relative ability to do
thatthis is what really matters. Many of the things I was taught to believe
were importanttastes, opinions, talentsI don't believe in their importance any
more. I grew up in a family that put all the emphasis on talents: what can you
do? My adult life has pushed me toward the understanding that what I can do is
neither here nor there, that these are the most superficial elements of a
person's character. The most intimate thing I can tell you about On Beauty is it
was a book born out of that realization, and then after I finished it, I
realized that writing something is not the same work as living it. The depth of
the book comes from the realization, and the shallow parts of it come from me
really not having the knowledge I pretend to have. That's a long way of saying
that writing about a thirty-five-year marriage is not the same as living one.
The other big news of my adult life is that I can't live my whole life on the
I have absolutely no idea where their marriage is headed. The book ends
for me exactly where it ends for you. I have no imagination outside of my books.
On Beauty contains some amazing portraits of serious,
ambitious women who are struggling with the competing demands of motherhood,
sexuality, body issues, career, and ideology. What do you find to be the biggest
struggle for contemporary women? What unique challenges, difficulties, or joys
do you find in the process of writing about women?
First of all I have to show you an Iris Murdoch quote:
The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal
fantasy, the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which
prevents one from seeing what there is outside one. . . . This is not easy, and
requires, in art or morals, a discipline. One might say here that art is an
excellent analogy of morals or indeed that it is in this respect a case of
For me, that projectnot giving into personal fantasy, not being deluded,
recognizing the inviolability of other peopleis seriously complicated by being
female. You look at life for women today, it is the very definition of personal
fantasy, of self-delusion, and of a narcissism so acute that to read through
your average issue of a glamorous women's magazine is not that different from
reading a porn magin fact, there are more adoring/self-hating naked female
images in the women's mag.
We are fixated on our own image, utterly deluded
about our own bodies, about the whole realm of the physical. It's perfectly
normal to open a magazine and hear from an eighty-five-pound woman that
starvation is her personal choice, from a woman about to undergo breast
augmentation that major unnecessary invasive surgery is a dream come true, or
from a prostitute that she loves her job, that she wouldn't swap it for anything
in the world. It's a pretty extraordinary situation. And these are just the
cosmetic strugglesthere are women all over the world who live like medieval
slaves. Sohow to lighten up this answerwell, I guess the really interesting
and difficult thing about writing women characters is that you have to deal with
the idea of people who lie about themselves constantly and lie to themselves
constantly and are maybe so deeply invested in that lie that there really isn't
anything resembling truth left. So that's tricky. Also, there's some bleak humor
in the gap between women's ideas of themselves and the reality of their actions.
So, for example, the ruling belief shared by men and women is that women aren't
really visually aroused in the same way as men, and that they value romance
enormously and that they are frequently cheated on by their husbands. But in
fact it's been demonstrated that women cheat just as much as men, and it is
often a purely sexual affair. I find that very interestingthe stories women
tell themselves, and the enormous industry that exists to flatter and elaborate
their fondest fantasies. But really I guess I'm talking about young women.
Something changes when women are forced out of the beauty industry and the
marital fantasy industryI think they become their real selves. Women like Kiki,
like Carlene, in their fifties, are a whole different ball game. They are
humans, not refracted images of some insane feminine myth. When I was fourteen I
thought I hated women, and then when I grew up I realized I just really didn't
like fourteen-year-old girls. I wanted Kiki to be a celebration of a free female
consciousness. She's completely idealized for that reason. But why not? Men get
to have heroesKiki's my kind of hero.
In writing about three mixed-race children, you are writing about what many
people think is the inevitable future of the human race. Yet each of the Belsey
children really seems to struggle to find an identity that works. How do you
imagine their futures? What advantages or disadvantages do you see in this
inheritance of multiple countries and multiple races?
The Belsey children don't struggle to find an identity because they're mixed
race, they struggle because they are "of Modernity," and the product of a
twentieth century that invented and patented this piece of claptrap called "finding an identity," and it drives everybody nuts, mixed race or no. The
search for an identity is one of the most wholesale phony ideas we've ever been
sold. In the twenty-first century it's almost entirely subsumed in its purest
form of "brand identity"for Levi to be "more black" would simply involve the
purchasing of items connected with the idea of blackness. How can anyone be more
black? Or more female? It's like saying "I want to be more nose-having, more leg
possessing." People can only be defined by their actions in a world that
contains other people. Sitting on a hill alone screaming "I am a Muslim in the
2429 age bracket who likes Pepsi and sitcoms about loose bands of
interconnected young people in my age group; I am a person who is French and
into the things of Frenchness; I am a basketball player; a flower picker . . ."
What does it mean? The Belsey children need to stop worrying about their
identity and concern themselves with the people they care about, ideas that
matter to them, beliefs they can stand by, tickets they can run on. Intelligent
humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone.
The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful. The
Belseys need to weigh situations as they appear before them, and decide what
they want and need and must do. It's a tough, unimaginably lonely and
complicated way to be in the world. But that's the deal: you have to live; you
can't live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an
identity is easy. It's the easy way out.
This is your third novel and it seems, especially in its elaborate and
masterful descriptions, your most accomplished. How has the actual practice of
writing changed for you? Was On Beauty written in a similar manner to
your previous works, or has your work style changed?
I'm glad if that's trueI'd be disappointed if I thought I hadn't made at
least a little progress since I wrote White Teeth. I was twenty when I started
that bookI'm thirty now. The practice of writing has defined me utterly; I
never got a chance to do anything else with my life. The past ten years have
been spent basically in my study. I've worked very hard at trying to make up for
what I obviously lackreal lived experience. I've tried to rid myself of the
belief that I don't have a real lifea toxic idea. Everybody's life has an equal
reality. But I did feel that the writing in White Teeth is basically adolescent,
a very good fake, and, after it's success, I realized my writing would have to
do its maturing and development in public. Most writers don't have a White Teeth
hanging aroundthey arrive a little more formed with an On Beauty. My juvenilia
is on the shelf for anyone to look at. But there's a lot in On Beauty that is
still hamstrung and dutiful to an idea of the novel that I don't really believe
in, intellectually. I think when you say it's the most accomplished you mean "It
looks and smells just like a real novel." But what's the point of that really?
This is what I have to figure out in the next ten years. I think the biggest
change in me and my writing is the realization that in the end my best work
might be nonfiction. I'm writing criticism now and I feel so much more confident
and happy about it. It allows me to express my passion, which is really other
people's fiction. I find it hard to express anything really personal to me in
the fiction: I'm too self-conscious. But maybe that will change.
Please talk to us a little about the title, On Beauty. Why did
you choose it and what does it mean to you?
It's not a very interesting answer. I felt a lot of my fiction to be very
essayistic, very tick-all-the-boxes, so I wanted to give this one an essay title
and do exactly the opposite; be free with it, let it go its own way. I can't
explain it any better than that. My titles always come immediately to me and are
never changed. I never really have a very good reason for them apart from the
fact that they seemed inevitable.
Zadie Smith discusses her research for White Teeth and how writing eventually won
out against her first love, tap-dancing!
How did you get started on White Teeth? Did you go to university to study
fiction writing? Did you always write stories when you were growing up?
The novel began as a short story which expanded. It was a natural enough thing
to happen. My short stories have always pushed twenty pages. That's no length
for a short story to be. You either do them short like Carver or you stop
trying. Besides, I was walking into novella territory which is no good, so when
I got to eighty pages, and after the encouragement of a few people, I just kept
going. I went to University to study English Literature. I never attended a
creative writing class in my life. I have a horror of them; most writers groups
moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is
therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy. The best, the only real
training you can get is from reading other people's books. I spent three years
in college and wrote three and a half stories but I read everything I could get
my hands on. White Teeth is really the product of that time; it's like
the regurgitation of the kind of beautiful, antiquated, left-side-of-the-brain
liberal arts education which is dying a death even as I write this. Generally,
an English Lit degree trains you to be a useless member of the modern world and
that's what I'm being in the only way I know how. I didn't always write stories
when I was young. I wrote some, but I've never been prolific. From the age of
five to fifteen, I really wanted to be a musical movie actress. I tap danced for
ten years before I began to understand people don't make musicals anymore. All I
wanted to do was be at MGM working for Arthur Freed or Gene Kelly or Vincent
Minelli. Historical and geographical constraints made this impossible. Slowly
but surely the pen became mightier than the double pick-up timestep with
Who did you show the novel to first?
I read what I had to friends. In a college atmosphere like Cambridge you're
fortunate enough to be surrounded by about five hundred wannabe William Hazlitts,
so it's not difficult to get feedback, constructive criticism etc. I love to be
edited if the editing is intelligent and I had about five good friends who were
essential to the germination and progression of the book.
Where and when do you
do your writing?
Any small room with no natural light will do. As for when, I
have no particular schedules... afternoons are best, but I'm too lethargic for
any real regime. When I'm in the flow of something I can do a regular 9 to 5;
when I don't know where I'm going with an idea, I'm lucky if I do two hours of
productive work. There is nothing more off-putting to a would-be novelist to
hear about how so-and-so wakes up at four in the a.m, walks the dog, drinks
three liters of black coffee and then writes 3,000 words a day, or that some
other asshole only works half an hour every two weeks, does fifty press-ups and
stands on his head before and after the "creative moment." I remember reading
that kind of stuff in profiles like this and becoming convinced everything I was
doing was wrong. What's the American phrase? If it ain't broke...
How did you do your research for the historical parts of White Teeth?
The same way anyone researches anything from a Ph.D. to a family tree:
libraries, internet, movies, occasionally stories people told me--but mostly
just books. Books, books, books. As far as I'm concerned, if you want to find
out about the last day of WWII or the roots of the Indian Mutiny, get thee to a
books catalogue. People who were actually there rarely ever tell you anything of
wider interest. Everyone's a navel-gazer. I have a friend who's grandmother was
born in 1902; she's a ninety-eight old intelligent Jewish lady who's lived this
whole century. Ask her what the first World War was like, and she'll tell you
the woman she lived next door to in 1916 really knew how to cook rabbit.
Are you an only child? Are there any echoes of your family in the novel?
Nope. Two brothers of 22 and 16 who are about to revolutionize British hip-hop
(they pinch me if I don't say that) as well as a half sister and a half brother
in their mid-forties. I'm extremely close to my younger brothers; family is
everything and that's why none of my family appear in White Teeth in any obvious
way. The people in the book are fairly savage to each other. My family are a
much happier, calmer unit than Archie's. The Smiths could never keep up with the
First published in Bold
Type 2000. Reproduced by permission of Random House publishing.