Zadie Smith started writing White Teeth while she was a student at Cambridge, and the novel was published when she was only twenty-four years old. A big, vibrant story of cross-cultural, cross-generational, modern London, White Teeth won three first novel awards: the Whitbread, the Commonwealth, and the Guardian. It was made into a television miniseries, translated into more than twenty languages, and sold over a million copies.
Some way to launch a career. Zadie Smith was born in North London in 1975, the oldest of three children, to an English father and much younger Jamaican mother. Her last novel, On Beauty, is another sprawling multicultural and multigenerational story, this time set mostly in New England. In part a campus novel, the main character is a professor of art history, and not long ago Smith spent a year as a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Booker and won the Orange Prize.
Zadie Smith is a generous writer, moving easily between sensibilities, ages, and intellects. Even before she published On Beauty, she was writing insightful essays about Kafka, George Eliot, E. M. Forster, and Nabokov. To her own surprise, she found herself with a collection, Changing My Mind, which also includes her reflections on movies, some contemporary writers, and her craft. She spoke to me from the cbc’s London studio.
EW: The opening essay in your collection, Changing My Mind, describes your first encounter with the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by early twentieth-century African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. Can you tell me about that?
ZS: In my early teens, my mom was always pushing black American fiction my way with absolutely the best intentions, and I had some of my best reading experiences through that early Toni Morrison, early Alice Walker. But I suppose after a while I became suspicious about why she was continually pushing only black American fiction at me. So when she gave me Zora Neale Hurston I was reluctant to read her, but the book got around that.
EW: Briefly, what’s Their Eyes Were Watching God about?
ZS: It’s really just a simple love story about a woman looking for the right man in her life, and she goes through three of them before she finds him. But it’s also obviously a story about what it was like to be a black woman in America in the late 1920s, early 1930s. And it’s the story of a consciousness coming to life—from an oppressed consciousness to one that is genuinely free.
EW: You say it took you only three hours to read but it left you in tears. Why did it have such an impact?
ZS: I’ve read it so many times now, and taught it and studied it, that it’s difficult to remember exactly because it’s become such an artifact to me. I think my initial response was a personal one. Not that the character was like me in practical terms, we were from different universes, but her genetic inheritance and mine were similar, her hair and my hair, her eyes and my eyes, and her skin and my skin. These were reading experiences that I didn’t normally have. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to have that experience. So I think it was a sense of relief.
EW: You were fourteen when you read Their Eyes Were Watching God. But what had you been reading around that time? What kind of writing interested you?
ZS: Actually, I just left my husband this morning reading Jane Eyre for the first time, which reminded me that a) he should have read Jane Eyre before, and b) I read Jane Eyre when I was about fourteen. There’s a thing that Nabokov said once that I completely agree with—you never read as many books as you did between the ages of eleven and fifteen—so it’s almost impossible for me to answer that question because when I think back over what I have read, almost everything was in thatperiod. It was an extraordinarily fruitful time.
Off the top of my head, I was reading a lot of Victorian fiction and everything on my mother’s shelves. I was reading a lot of inappropriate books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and various kinds of feminist fiction that she had. My mom had this very eclectic bookshelf, partly because she wasn’t particularly educated herself and neither was my father, but they had an idea that if they bought books with penguins on the spine this was a sign of quality, so they would go to car-boot sales, et cetera, and buy these books. Of course in that period, mid-1970s, early 1980s, that was absolutely a sign of quality. So we had the green Penguins and the blue Penguins and the orange Penguins, and I made my way through those and it was quite a good early education.
EW: One of the terms you use to describe Their Eyes Were Watching God is soulful, and you admit that it’s a hard word to define. What is it about Hurston’s novel that gives it soul?
ZS: Soulfulness to me means authenticity and naturalness; obviously both of those things are very awkward in literature. There is no such thing as natural in art—there is only the artifice of looking natural. But Hurston does it incredibly well. And it was a language she had in her ear, the language of Eatonville, which is the town in Florida where she grew up. It’s not patronizing, though I know a lot of black readers at that time did find it painful, maybe because it was so accurate and they felt that their language was being exposed to an audience that might not appreciate or understand it. But reading it now, there’s no doubt that that language is rendered with love and affection and respect. It’s so full of imagery, so immediate. There aren’t many people who write dialogue that apparently natural; Salinger was another one, but in terms of “black speech,” if you can say that, I don’t think anyone can touch Zora Neale Hurston.
EW: Did you ever talk with your mother about the book afterwards?
ZS: Yes, I think she was pleased I became such a fan. I know when she read that essay she was pleased because she tends to think that her children have sprung from nowhere. She finds it hard to comprehend how they are the way they are. So it was nice for her to know she had a great influence on the way we are.
EW: Did readingTheir Eyes Were Watching God make you see your mother or her life any differently?
ZS: It did. I don’t think it had really dawned on me what it was like to be a black woman—black as my mother is, not mixed as I am—in a white culture. She told me stories about her honeymoon: my parents went to two places, Morocco and Paris. And in Paris, they couldn’t get a hotel room—they had to come home. Everywhere they went, they were turned away. And even in the early days when they were trying to rent apartments, she said she would phone and ask for a room and be told it was free, and then turn up and be told it wasn’t free. She kept experimenting and making the distance between those two events as short as possible, so she would phone from the end of the road and turn up two minutes later and it would never change: she was always told the room wasn’t free.
I didn’t grow up in an England that overtly racist so it was a surprise for me to hear those stories. And it made me better understand the connection she felt with black American writers. It seemed to me that we’re English and they’re American—the history of our communities is so diverse. But there was a connection for my mother in terms of history and, I suppose, humiliation.
EW: It’s astonishing to think we are talking about, what—the early 1970s? In Paris and London?
ZS: Yes, isn’t it? Mid-1970s, just before I was born. But I was recently turned away from a club in Paris with my brother for similar reasons: they thought my brother was a thug from the suburbs. So it’s not that unusual. Certainly in the areas my parents lived in, in the 1970s, there were still posters in the windows that said,“No Irish, no blacks, and no dogs,” which people in Britain do remember. It was extraordinary!
EW: Did Zora Neale Hurston’s book hit you in a different way? You had been reading Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, was there something about this book, especially, that got you?
ZS: It’s not all racial, it’s partly stylistic. I was used to a kind of English fiction that was very formal in its effects and had a third-person voice—almost stuffy, at least very fixed. What is unusual about Hurston is this thing she does between a very close first-person voice and a third-person voice. There isn’t much of that in English fiction.
And then, at a much more basic level, I think if you’re a kid and you want to do something and you don’t see many people who seem like you doing what you want to do, it’s a great joy to find out that it has been done not just competently but brilliantly, so that meant a lot to me at the time.
EW: In contrast, your essay on Kafka shows someone who didn’t identify with his own community or with any sense of community, or even, sometimes, with human beings. Did that sense of alienation strike a chord with you?
ZS: In fact, Zora was quite like that too. Her natural instincts were to be a loner, and in her autobiography, which many of her fans don’t like to read, she really is quite conservative. A lot of her opinions vary from what you would think the black community of her time would have felt, so she struck out alone and was really determined to write what she liked and not write on behalf of a community. One book she wrote, Seraph on the Suwanee, for example, is entirely populated by white people, which was an enormous shock to her black readers. But she had decided, I feel, that the whole of humanity was going to be her province, not just the black part of it, so I think she has a connection with Kafka there.
But Kafka was a more extreme case, you’re right. He really didn’t feel he had much in common with humanity as a whole. I mean, I like Kafka, like everybody, because the prose is extraordinary and that is the thing, before any politics of identity or discussion of community. It’s just about how you make a sentence. Zora Neale Hurston makes an extraordinary sentence that is all hers, and Kafka makes a different kind of sentence that is all his. I think that’s what matters to me first, above everything else.
EW: You see Kafka as a kind of existential prophet whose alienation is a twenty-first-century concern.
ZS: I wanted that essay to question the idea that he is only an existential prophet. I really wanted to return Kafka to the banality of his everyday life because it’s very easy to think of him as somebody who stands outside of literature altogether, who isn’t a writer in a way that we are writers, or human in the way that we are human. I think that is a mistake and a romanticization—which is not to take away from the work what is extraordinary and transcendent. But I think what is fascinating with Kafka is to try to hold the two ideas in your head at the same time. He was this quite dull, quite tall, quite elegant, quite handsome man. All things we kind of block out when we’re thinking of Kafka—we would rather think of him as a peculiaroutcast, but in fact he was dashing.
EW: Going back to the existential prophet idea, it also had to do with the way he captured the modern sense of alienation from oneself, that conflicted assimilation of immigrants where you lose one place but don’t completely gain another.
ZS: Absolutely. In that sense, he is a prophet. He predicted what was clearly inevitable by that point: people were going to start living in places where they weren’t born, and start attaching themselves to cultures from which they didn’tcome, and the kind of anxiety that would cause. He came from a community that had been doing that for more than a thousand years, so he knew about it. And I think that’s a lesson Judaism teaches us about religion becoming culture, and about community having an almost sacred content. That is something we have all learned retrospectively.
EW: I read somewhere that you and your husband, Nick Laird, have been working on a musical about Kafka?
ZS: This is like the bane of my life. I think I had this half-thought once and mentioned it somewhere, maybe ten years ago, and now it follows me around, this imaginary musical. I would love it to be true; I don’t have the time right now, I have so many things I haven’t finished. What I was thinking about was an operetta—before anyone starts fearing a glistening Kafka musical.
EW: Did you fantasize about an approach to take?
ZS: I have a great deal of love for things like The Threepenny Opera. I love the musical as a form anyway. It’s one of my favourite things—not present-stage musicals, I suppose, but 1930s and 1940s film musicals. I thought the operetta would be an interesting way to tell Kafka’s life and incorporate his fiction. So we’ll see, maybe it will happen.
EW: Another novel that has made a lasting impression on you is Middlemarch by George Eliot. You point out that it gets better as you get older. You quote Virginia Woolf’s famous remark that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” What makes Middlemarch part of that select group?
ZS: When I was writing this book, what I really wanted to convey was the books of my adolescence and early adulthood, and Middlemarch was one of those books. It’s just an extraordinary achievement in a novel. It’s so diverse and gigantic—its concentration is so diffuse. It’s a social novel, which England has always aspired to; at the same time, it’s a great philosophical novel, like its continental cousins. It seems to do almost everything, and it was written in circumstances that are incredible to me. I’ve read several biographies of Eliot recently, and I’m always amazed that she made it out of her incredibly difficult adolescence and very difficult adulthood to get to that book. At every point of her life it seemed completely improbable that she would have the freedom or time or mental peace to write something like that, and yet she managed it. This was not a woman who got to go to Oxford or Cambridge or be educated like her male peers. Everything that she learned she learned by herself and by the dint of useful friendships. She sat around translating Spinoza by herself. She just amazes me.
EW: She was living with George Henry Lewes, who was also translating Spinoza. Who started it?
ZS: I think she was first. They met each other late and were each other’s saviours, to a certain degree. But also each other’s curses, socially, because once they met, no one would visit them at the house. They were the shame of London.
EW: Because he was married?
ZS: Yes. She had a very, very difficult life. And the book doesn’t bear any sign of that struggle. I always think how Virginia Woolf’s wonderful essay A Room of One’s Own, says the problem for so many female writers—the reason why their books either don’t exist or tend to be bad—is that they’re so deformed by the struggle of just getting to write that it shows on the page, that they can’t repress their anger or disappointment or fury.What is so remarkable about people like Eliot and Austen is that they did manage somehow to process all the oppression that they experienced and still create art of the highest order.
So Middlemarch means a lot to me for that reason: it’s so witty, so expansive, so full of character and well balanced, and yes, because it changes the older you get and the more you read it. I was fifteen when I first read it and I’ve noticed, particularly for young women, that Dorothea is a kind of heroic figure. When you come back to it in your late twenties or early thirties and beyond, Dorothea becomes increasingly ridiculous, and you realize how much of it was a satirical portrait of George Eliot as a younger version of herself—so religiously serious, so completely lacking in a sense of humour, so devoted to the wrong things. When I was fifteen, I took all of that straight and I didn’t realize the satire in there.
EW: You just think she’s making a bad marital choice.
ZS: You think she is making a bad marital choice, but you think she’s incredibly noble and committed and terrific. And she is all those things, but she’s also extremely dogmatic, doesn’t understand compromise, has no respect for other people’s weaknesses—and that is something the book is interested in: people aren’t perfect, they are flawed, and it is still possible to comprehend and love them. Dorothea does learn that at the very end. But when I was fifteen, she was the model of behaviour and I wanted to be exactly like her.
EW: George Eliot believed that ideas can’t be separated from life if they are to have any meaning and, as you said, she was translating the seventeenth-century philosopher, Spinoza. How did she apply his work to her own writing, or how did he influence her writing?
ZS: I think he made it possible for her to think of nature as an illuminated thing. And she was interested in natural science anyway, and she had come from an extremely religious family and turned her back on that religion, which was incredibly difficult and isolating.
EW: It was Methodist.
ZS: Yes, and Spinoza gave her the opportunity to see the world as illuminated, as fraught with something holy that wasn’t to do with a monotheistic God or obeying certain religious rules. That’s the way she chose to interpret it, and the world she offers you in Middlemarch is holy in and of itself. It has a great kind of humanistic spirit that pushes through it: that people are holy, even in their flaws, even in their sinfulness. I think that really mattered to her and was the engine of her art. It’s something that even for me is completely nostalgic. I can’t imagine feeling that positively about the world. I don’t think that any writer my age could have that feeling for the world that Eliot has. It’s particular to her moment and her experience, and it is a joy to read because it reminds you that it was once a possible position to take.
EW: There is a short passage from Middlemarch that is among its most famous lines: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Why did this line stay with you?
ZS: Honestly, I think it’s a kind of philosophical nostalgia because what those lines suggest is that if we had complete empathy, if we could understand how people are from the inside, we would be capable of loving them as God loved them. That’s what this great nineteenth-century novel is trying to show you: to force you into empathy with people unlike yourself, people of great diversity, unlike each other.
I think contemporary fiction, and certainly fiction since the 1960s, has questioned that assumption—that knowing what lies in somebody’s heart would allow you to empathize with them totally, would allow you to become them. I don’t think that’s necessarily true myself. I think it’s a wonderful thought, and I think Eliot believed it and it gives those nineteenth-century novels that we all have affection for their incredible power. But I think for people in the postmodern age, for lack of a better word, the idea that empathy naturally leads to “right” action is harder to believe because we have an enormous amount of information about people’s lives, an almost constant flow of information, and it doesn’t seem to make us behave any better toward them.
EW: Although it still seems like there is power when you read a first-person account from a place you know nothing about, or that your country is at war with.
ZS: I hope that is true. I think maybe it’s a position you have to defend with more vigour than you used to—it’s not enough to say, Here is my piece of reportage of the inside of Iran, because it is still incredibly easy for people to take narrative accounts like that as just another story. It makes you think for two days and then pass over it. So I think for all of us who work in the arts, who are interested in engaging the empathic soul of somebody, you can’t keep on going down the same road because it gets worn down, it becomes familiar, and it stops having its effect. So I guess when I write about Eliot it’s not that I wish that people wrote novels like Eliot anymore because I don’t think it’s possible, but I’m saying that this path she walked down is incredibly engaging and works incredibly well and how can we find a path as contemporary writers to strike off in different directions but move toward the same need to engage people in that way.
EW: Because you say these aren’t particularly healthy times for the novel.
ZS: You know, it depends. Sometimes I am incredibly hopeful, but then sometimes I think we might have to stop thinking that the novel will keep coming to us in the same form. I spent this morning reading graphic novels, which I love, and it struck me that within thirty pages there were more vibrant ideas than I had read in twenty novels this month. So sometimes the exciting narrative forms are not the ones you think they are going to be, to me anyway. American graphic novels are extraordinary at the moment.
EW: I agree. There seems to be the deepest, baldest honesty coming out from them.
ZS: Absolutely! I just read one by Adrian Tomine, an old one I hadn’t read. It’s a collection of ten stories, and every story has such life in it. I would kill to be able to come up with a book of ten short stories of such vibrancy, of such interest. So sometimes what is going on is not going on where you expect it to be.
EW: It seems like the polar opposite of a nineteenth-century novel like Middlemarch, although you say there is nostalgia for that kind of book as well.
ZS: It’s funny, part of the exercise of writing this book of essays is not exactly that it is the end of my interest in these things, but it is certainly a record of a past interest. I wanted to try to pay tribute to the books that had made me, but the books that I hope for in the future, the books I want to read, will be quite different, I think.
EW: You have written about the disappointment a writer feels in his or her own work, and much of it seems to come down to self-betrayal. Can you tell me about that?
ZS: It’s strange for me because when I first started writing, I was very young, and I thought everybody felt the way that I did, as you do when you are young. As I met writers (I had never met any writers before in my life), you realize there are plenty of writers who just adore their work and think every word they write is absolutely fantastic and will defend it to their dying day. Some writers feel that way; I just can’t find that confidence in myself. At the same time, there is not much point in talking about it all the time because people think you are being falsely modest. But to me, writing is a very painful experience. And I hope it will stop being so painful as I get older, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
EW: You describe when you tried to reread your first novel, White Teeth, you literally felt sick. What do think that was about?
ZS: I think anybody out there forced to read something they wrote when they were twenty-one would have a problem with that—it’s hard. You don’t go back and read your college essays with delight, and it just so happens that my college essay was a novel. The important thing is to respect the fact that other people appreciate the book you wrote. You shouldn’t dismiss it for them.
EW: Although you said your experience was a bit better when you picked up your last novel, On Beauty?
ZS: It’s always a bit better the closer to the time you are reading it. But the only thing that really gives me pleasure is reading some of the very short non-fiction, because non-fiction is an area I can control. At least you can “be right,” which I find a nice sensation. Whereas with novels, it’s impossible to be right. You are always wrong to most people, or half the people. I just find it very painful.
EW: You talk about the connection between style and the author and how there is almost a connection between aesthetic choices and ethics. How is a writer’s style a way of telling the truth?
ZS: In talking to younger students when I am teaching,it seems they’re very concerned about having a voice. But to me, a style is something you can’t help but have. It’s like your skin. It’s not something you can go out and buy, it’s just the way you express yourself. It is implicit in everything you do. Ten years ago, when I was starting and I began to meet writers for the first time, it struck me very forcibly that they were like their books. And I thought that this was something I hadn’t been allowed to even consider as a university student, where we really divorced the author from the work in order to take the work to ourselves more intimately. We just weren’t interested in authors, we never saw them. I had never even considered them. I just considered the “text,” as we went about calling it at the time.
And then when I met authors, the similarity between what you’d call their personality and the sensibility of their work on the page amused me, I was just so surprised by them. It might sound stupid and obvious to general readers who assume that anyway, but I think I had disappeared so far into an academic funnel I’d forgotten that there is a relation, an intimate relation, between the human being and the book. It doesn’t mean that the book is autobiographical—in fact entirely the opposite is usually the case—but something in the voice of the person, something in the sensibility is inextricably tied to the way they write, and once I could admit that to myself, I found writing criticism a completely different experience. Whereas before, in college, I had been writing these very academic, very jargon-heavy—very pleasure-free, to be honest—essays about books that I loved, it was such a liberation to be able to write about books I love in a way that I love writing and to say, Look, there is a relation here. The author and the text, they go together and the relation between them really matters.
EW: It almost seems to be a question of personality rather than ethics because there are writers we would find ethically objectionable. Like Eliot’s anti-Semitism, for instance, or Philip Larkin’s misogyny . . .
ZS: To me, those things are superficial—I agree with you, but they are not really about style. Larkin’s style is one of the most ethical styles that exists. What Larkin said in his letters or what he might have said to so-and-so at his dinner parties is something separate, but the way his sentences are formed, the things his poems believe in, are incredibly important to me and it is sometimes very hard to make that distinction. Larkin could be racist, could be misogynist, was frequently offensive, but the things that matter about Larkin to me—his poems about death, his poems about time¾those seem to me extraordinarily . . . ethical is the wrong word because it sounds as if someone is pushing a point and that’s not what I mean. I mean ethics in the largest sense, that certain poems of Larkin’s have a way of showing me how to be alive and that is the most important thing a piece of writing can do.
EW: I don’t disagree. It’s the idea of the work or style as an expression of personality, of the writer’s way of being in the world.
ZS: Wouldn’t you say that a great style represents the best of a writer’s person? I know that if something I write works, if it is done well, that what is expressed in that essay or piece of fiction is really the best of me, to the extent that if you then ask me about it, I feel stupider than the essay. I can’t remember half the things I put in it. The essay is smarter than me in every way because in those four pages I was able to organize everything just the way I wanted and express the best side of myself. The rest of you, the real human side, kind of drags around behind the work. I think that’s also why people are disappointed when they meet writers because they seem less than their work in some way. I think it’s probably true, but they are connected.
EW: It’s the nature of the connection that is a vexing question.
ZS: The most extraordinary thing to me is that when I read over stuff I haven’t read in a long time, it feels like somebody else wrote it. It feels almost like a stranger, which I guess also connects to the theory that it’s your best self there, someone you can’t be every day.
EW: What does writing do for you? Can you say why you write?
ZS: I don’t write that much. There are people who write every day, and it’s part of their life, and I go for months, and recently years, without writing fiction, for example. For me, it is not a matter of daily survival. And I’ve heard writers speak of something that they can’t help but do. The only thing I can’t help but do is read. If I don’t read every day I’m just completely doomed. I think the more effective question for me is what does reading do for you because it’s reading that I am really addicted to. Writing is a kind of outgrowth of that passion.
EW: Okay, what does reading do for you?
ZS: I’m just completely addicted to it. Nothing will stop me doing it. I realize now with my baby, I’m breast-feeding her and all I do is read all the time. My husband reminded me, “You know you have tospeak to the child occasionally”—because otherwise, she might never learn to speak! She’s used to just sitting on my lap and then when I turn a page, she jerks. That will be her childhood memory: this page-turning noise. So I don’t know, it’s something that allows me not to be myself, or allows me to be in other places among other people, and I get great joy out of good sentence making. Nothing makes me happier. I usually spend the mornings reading and then I do my best to try to write something in the afternoon. The afternoon thing almost never happens, whereas the morning thing always happens.
EW: Changing My Mind is dedicated to your father’s memory, and you write about him with such unsentimental tenderness. Can you tell me a bit about him?
ZS: Well, I guess I don’t know that much about him, which is the reason I’m always writing about him, trying to work it out a little. He was an unusual father in that he was much older than he should have been to have a daughter my age. He was fifty when I was born, so he was always “old.”
And the stories he had to tell were somewhat unusual: he had heard Ella Fitzgerald sing on the Kilburn High Road, he went to see Casablanca in the movie house, he was in the Second World War, slightly younger than he should have been. So to me he was already a bit of a fictional character. I couldn’t understand how someone that old was my father, and I was always very concerned about him dying. On the one hand, that kind of thought is a negative thing, but it’s also just an interesting idea to have in your mind as a very young child. The idea of him disappearing or being part of this distant generation was very preoccupying to me, and it also gifted me a lot of my slightly anachronistic tastes. The films that he loved are the films I love, but of course they’re the films of the 1930s and 1940s, and I know all the popular songs that he loved, which I probably shouldn’t know, because they are the songs of the 1920s.
He was a very disappointed man—he’d left school at the age of twelve and was never properly educated. I think he was smart and would have liked to have had more of an education, so as the years went by we were sort of at odds with each other. He was a man in his late seventies, white, English, uneducated, with a black daughter. We made a funny pair walking down the street. So he was always a bit mysterious to me, and I think in him is the seed of my interest in writing—wanting to figure out who this man was who lived in our house. And a lot came from that, I think.
EW: And when you say “at odds,” you mean you seemed odd, or you were at odds, meaning argumentative?
ZS: I think we had a hard time in my teenage years because he was such an anomaly compared to my friends’ fathers that I just started pretending he didn’t exist. And as I got older and particularly once he got older and more vulnerable, as is common for children with older parents, it all turned around when I realized there was no point in being angry or upset with him because all the responsibility of caring for him was on my side now. So, no, we were at odds because our lives were so different. He made this effort to make sure that all his children were educated, but once you do that in a family, it was just odd, you know. He had a working-class accent, I don’t anymore. He hadn’t read that much and I became well read. I think a lot of working-class or immigrant parents who put their children through school hope that they will have different lives¾you get what you hope for, but what you hope for isn’t something you can always recognize, so it’s a strange relationship.
EW: And that accent shift just happened overnight when you went to Cambridge?
ZS: No, it’s impossible for me now to remember. I have two brothers and we all speak differently and it’s partly who we were hanging out with as children. Parents think they are the biggest influence on their children. Parents have almost no influence on their children. What influences children are their friends and where they go and what they do. So my youngest brother was much more a kid of the street than I was and he sounds like a “street kid,” and my middle brother was less so and he is somewhere in the middle, and I was at home reading George Eliot—I don’t know what happened to me. We were all from the same family, but you would say we were three different “classes.” That interests me, that idea, because people assume that when you are from one place, you are one people. But we are all very different. We dress differently, we think differently, we have different politics, and we’re all from one household.
EW: As an adult, you asked your father to tell you about his time in the military during the Second World War because it was something he hadn’t really talked about before. Do you know why not?
ZS: I don’t know. I mean, people often say that about war veterans, that they don’t talk about it. I can’t really imagine what it was like, landing in Normandy. I’ve seen the movies, but it’s impossible for me to conceive of my father in that situation. I don’t know how he survived it, it’s amazing to me. But he just never mentioned it. He had a young wife, young children, it was the 1980s. The Second World War seemed a long way away to us. I don’t know if he could ever have made us understand it, really.
But when I was an adult I did want to know, and he was really interesting and eloquent about it and very resistant of my attempts to turn it into a more interesting story. For him it was a very banal story, I think, for the most part. I don’t think it was banal when he told it to me, but it certainly wasn’t full of glamorous heroics or anything.
EW: As you describe it in your book, he would focus on what seemed like small details.
ZS: There was a ridiculous moment when I was trying to get him tell me what happened just after they had landed on the beach, and then he decided to tell me he went to buy a pen—but that was like my father, he was quite fixated on the small details. I mean, he helped liberate Belsen. I thought that was more interesting than buying a pen. But it was much more like my father to get into the pen. It was good to hear it, good in a very simple way to have it recorded, and now it’s there always and I can show it to my daughter and I know what he did. And I am very proud of him because it seems like such an unlikely thing for him to do.
EW: Do you think he focused on the pen because of the incident after that?
ZS: Yes, he made this rookie mistake. He was making a small fire to make some tea and it was spotted by the Germans, and they shelled, and people died. My father was injured. It was his fault. Try to think about a young man having that kind of responsibility. For my generation, yes, things can go wrong when you do something stupid, but the consequences are so minute compared to that. He was so ill-equipped for it. He was seventeen, and having an experience like that . . . I had no idea, he’d never told me. I never knew why he had shrapnel in his leg. I still don’t know how to feel about it. I mean, he was responsible for this terrible thing, but it depends what you think of the nature of responsibility—it’s also a terrible accident. But he did cry when he told me, so it must have been on his mind all those years. I had no idea.
EW: How did hearing about his experiences affect how you saw him?
ZS: I was saying to my brothers that when we were kids, we were desperately looking for a way to be proud of our father and also to be interested in him. He just seemed to us the dullest man in the world. Please forgive me for saying that, but he has passed—he just seemed to have no interests, he didn’t like anything. The only thing he seemed to like were old movies, and I fixated on that because I wanted to share an interest with him. I had this preoccupation with the idea that there were these middle-class families out there who had interests—who loved books and had conversations at the dining table about interesting things. And I wanted to be in one of those families. I think On Beauty was an expression of a fantasy I had of being in this kind of family. Then realizing, growing up, that families like that have plenty of their own problems.
So I wanted him to be a different kind of man. And then asking those questions of him in later life, finding out this amazing stuff, I realized actually I’d been living with a very interesting man all of my life and I had been too stupid to recognize it.
EW: Your father shows up in your work in a number of ways, not just in White Teeth and the fantasy levels of On Beauty. You wrote some short stories about a man named Hanwell who was about the same age as your father. Does he share some of his background?
ZS: Those are stories inspired by my father and inspired by generations of my father’s family. He had a strange relationship with his father—his father was another kind of unknowable man, and when he died, my father never went to his deathbed, which interested me. So I wrote a story about that too.
Hanwell became a kind of series of linked lives and stories of my father. Of everything that I’ve written, I found them the easiest to write and the most fulfilling in terms of fiction. They are the only fiction I have written that I uncomplicatedly appreciate.
EW: It’s interesting because it also incorporates the sense of disappointment and sadness in his life.
ZS: Yes. I’m very inclined when things get tricky to tell a joke instead, and my fiction is like that. I think it relies a lot on humour, like a lot of English fiction, to avoid difficult things. But when I was writing those Hanwell stories, I found that I didn’t want to do that—I didn’t feel the need to do it and that was a good thing. I am so early in my writing life, I have no idea, but maybe those stories will prove to be transitional. To me, they seem like a different kind of writing, a different kind of thing I wanted to do.
EW: But a love of comedy was one of the things that you shared with your father?
ZS: Yes, absolutely. He did have a good sense of humour, which I really appreciated. And we found the same things funny. He liked absurdist things; he liked the Goons a lot. The Goon Show is very intellectual comedy, you know, but at the same time it is slapstick and ridiculous. I love that about it. He was also a massive Monty Python fan, which meant a great deal to me because I felt they were extraordinary.
When I sat down to write White Teeth, believe it or not, I was a very serious young woman. I thought I was writing a very serious book, and when it turned out all comic I was so surprised. I didn’t realize that that was the kind of writer I was going to be—but I think I must be under the influence of all that comedic stuff from my childhood.
EW: It is of a certain era, Tony Hancock or Monty Python.
ZS: Yes, when I finished White Teeth I went on holiday. A lot of college friends were there and they did me the favour of reading the manuscript. I know there are still historical mistakes and all kinds of nonsense in it, but they were all smart kids and they checked spelling mistakes and bad facts. One girl there said to me, when she finished the book, “You know, I think you are fatally out of step with your generation”—which made me laugh, and I think it’s profoundly true! I think that now I am getting a bit closer to them and my tastes have changed, but definitely when I was twenty-one I was just completely at the wrong end of everything. Of every trend and of every possible idea in the arts and fiction and the rest of it, and that is partly my father as well, my father’s influence.
EW: So much of British comedy is based on class. Did your father see his own foreshortened possibilities in relation to his class?
ZS: Yes he did, and I think he was right to. I am constantly amazed now in England that class has stopped being a conversation. One thing that Thatcher did which was so brilliant was to suggest that we are all democratic now, and that even to talk about class is a kind of snobbery. It’s the most extraordinary piece of doublethink I have ever heard. And even recently I was watching a news show on tv and somebody dared to bring up the fact that what will probably be the incoming Tory government are almost all Eton-educated, and working-class people in the audience stood up, enraged, saying we don’t talk about that, it doesn’t matter, we’re all equal now. It is so unbelievably perverse. But my father’s generation was politicized and did feel that class mattered. Class matters when it foreshortens what you can possibly do in your life. And the fact is that the boy who is Eton-educated and the boys in that tv audience who are educated in schools that politicians wouldn’t deign to put their own children in have different possibilities in front of them and that does matter.
It mattered enormously to my father that he couldn’t afford to go to the school that he got into at thirteen. He couldn’t afford the uniform, which must have cost, whatever, two and six. And for two and six he lost a life—if that is not a matter of class, I just don’t know what to call it. It is a tragedy, and a lot of men in my father’s generation suffered it.
EW: It certainly wasn’t ability because, as you say, he got into the school.
ZS: I sometimes feel, but I hope it isn’t true, that my generation are the very last generation of the British meritocracy. I went to Cambridge and I didn’t pay a penny. And that is just not possible anymore. I think the fees are already £3000 to £4000 plus the loan. And you hear people say, “Well, if you care about your education you will pay for it.” People who say that don’t understand what it is like to not have money. When you don’t have money, you don’t have money. And you don’t borrow either, because you’re scared to borrow that amount of money. If those fees had existed in 1993, I wouldn’t have gone to Cambridge because I never would have thought to borrow the money. We would have just thought, Well, that’s not for us, end of story. What is happening now in British education breaks my heart because it means that the meritocracy that created, for instance, people like Alan Bennett—it’s gone. It can’t happen anymore. You can’t be a working-class boy from Yorkshire and go to the best university in the country because you can’t afford to. It’s tragic, really.
EW: So it was just that slice of time when access and scholarship were available?
ZS: Yes. It’s sad and it is a question of class, but if you ask me most British people these days have come to accept it. We’re going toward an American model, and I don’t think there is much that can be done to stop it anymore.
EW: When we talked last time, you said that “Families were a messy business.” Now you recently had a baby, your first. Has being a parent changed anything in the way you see or feel about family?
ZS: You know, in all the usual ways: I do have more sympathy for my mother, which I guess recently I have been lacking. We have a pretty fiery relationship, and my mother and her mother have a pretty fiery relationship. Now I have a daughter and I’m almost thirty-five, and I realize it is not so easy to have a kid. Mother was twenty and so young and innocent, married to a man thirty years older.
You start to appreciate what somebody else went through so it makes you more sympathetic, I suppose. The thing that really strikes me is how much arrant nonsense is spoken about family life and family emotion. I kept on hearing that once you have a baby you just become a different and more wonderful person, so full of sympathy, your ego disappears—all complete nonsense. It seems to me that having children is a massive act of egotism in the first place. I am as egotistical and unpleasant as I’ve always been, but now “with child,” so the selflessness I was hoping for hasn’t happened. Maybe it’s different for people who have “proper jobs,” but for me there’s been a strange feeling of continuity. My life has always been about sitting in a chair, reading a book, occasionally typing, and it’s kind of the same, but now I’ve got drool on me.
EW: [laughs] We talked about how the understanding of life experience can inform or affect a work. Do you think the experience of having a child will affect your writing?
ZS: My writing is all about making the future safe. So I get married and I write a book about a marriage of thirty years, still standing. I’ve always tried to write things out before I’ve done them as a way of pre-experiencing them, or a way of not experiencing them, a way of phonily getting through life. I guess I imagined that childbirth and having a child would be that one experience that would be impossible to mediate, the real thing, the genuine thing—here’s life coming at you. But again that isn’t true, it’s possible to mediate almost everything. Or at least it’s possible for me to mediate everything, sadly. So I don’t know if it will be a big transformation. I feel like in print, I already had children.
EW: One of your non-literary models is Katharine Hepburn and your title Changing My Mind is loosely based on a line that one of Hepburn’s characters, Tracy Lord, says in The Philadelphia Story. What is it that inspires you about Katharine Hepburn?
ZS: When I was a kid, I was what people called a “tomboyish girl,” whatever that means, and I suppose I still am. I wasn’t that interested in feminine things, I was just looking for women who were interesting to me. A way of being alive that didn’t involve princesses or pink or any of that scenario. And Katharine Hepburn seemed to be one of those women. She was very attractive, bold, intelligent. She was—womanly is the word I would use.
And when I was very young and reading books I shouldn’t have been reading, I remember reading an Alice Walker essay where she defined womanist and womanly and that concept interested me. I really didn’t want to be a girl, ever. If I had to be female—that’s how I conceived of it when I was young—I wanted to be a woman, and Katharine Hepburn is definitely a woman, in that sense: an adult person of her own mind. And I loved her movies for that reason.
As an adult now, looking around at the contemporary scene, I am really grateful that I am not eight years old in 2010 and a girl, because it is a nightmare, really, a nightmare compared to the landscape when I was ten, in which extreme femininity was an option but you could easily ignore it. Now it’s the only option. Every magazine, every tv show has these painted dolls everywhere with fake bodies and fake chests and redone faces. I don’t think I could have survived that; I would have been completely defeated by it. Whereas thirty years ago, it was a little easier and I had those great old movies and great role models, and Hepburn was one of them. She just seemed so much of a person, and that’s what I wanted to know that women could be.
EW: You call Hepburn the last of the great stars—the very last. Not that she wasn’t unique even in her own time, but why do you think we don’t have stars like her since?
ZS: It’s not the actresses. I constantly see actresses and think, You would be so great if somebody would write you a movie that is not complete and utter nonsense from beginning to end. I don’t go to movies that much, but when I do there are only a few options, plot-wise, for women. Most of them involve whether you’re going to get married, whether you’re beautiful, or whether you’re going to have a baby. There doesn’t seem to be much else going on for girls these days.
EW: It strikes me that the revelation of the Katharine Hepburn character in The Philadelphia Story is precisely what you articulated about Middlemarch, which is respect for the weakness of other people.
ZS: Absolutely. The thing about Tracy Lord is that she has this enormous will to power, and I guess when I first watched that film I was really young, and I felt almost personally offended or shocked by it. Not that I was anywhere near as glamorous or wonderful as Tracy Lord, but I did think I could organize myself in a certain way and I was very set upon it. I thought that having a strong will was everything you needed in life. And that is certainly what Tracy thinks. I was absolutely outraged by that scene where her father, who is a hypocrite and a great sinner and has cheated on his wife, gives her a lecture and says something like, “You may have a fine body and an intelligent mind, but you need more than that in life.” And I thought, Who the hell are you? Get out. Go away.
It is very hard in that movie to appreciate the fact that (a) the man is a hypocrite and a waste of space and (b) he is also right. That is the crux of the movie. Two things can happen: you can be a complete ass and you can also on this occasion be correct. Tracy does need to have some sympathy, she does need to open up, and it is not enough to be talented and wondrous and beautiful, you also need to be kind. When I was a kid and watched that movie I just didn’t know how to settle those two things in my mind. I thought he was being some kind of misogynist in trying to put down this great woman who was so full of life. And now when I watch it, I just see it as a comedy of errors. Everybody is at fault. Everybody has their flaws. The movie is an appreciation of that.
EW: Hepburn may not have been a literary model, but you say that famous line from The Philadelphia Story, “The time to make up your mind about people is never,” is your lodestar every time you pick up a pen to write anything. How does that line inspire you?
ZS: I think of it as something I aspire to. It is incredibly difficult in life. I really feel that once you have a child, once other people have children, every moment is about judging each other, you almost can’t help it. It is incredibly disgusting and self-serving: you decide that the way you will bring up your child is somehow superior to the way your friend is going to, or your neighbour. That invidious comparison in which you are always “the winner” is kind of sickening, but really, I just keep finding myself walking into it.
And in writing, particularly, that way of being in the world—in which you’re always the hero of your own story—is a disaster. The caricature of other people is a disaster, but also trying to convey people in their unknowability is very, very difficult in fiction. It is incredibly difficult, but I think it’s what all fiction writers, good fiction writers anyway, aspire to. Not to pin down people, like a bad comedian: “She’s just like this” or “She’s just like that” because we can all do that and that’s the business of everyday stupidity. The difficult thing is to confront the fact that the person you’ve lived with for twenty years is in some way, in the very centre, not your possession, not yours to know. And mysterious. That is the thing that interests me. And it does not only have to be expressed as alienation.
I always think of French fiction as incredibly brilliant at suggesting that the person who you walked down the aisle with is as strange to you as the person you see passing on a tube platform. It can be terrifying, that realization. But to me it’s also—I can’t believe I’m going to use the word nourishing, but I am!—nourishing to know that you can’t pin somebody down, that they are constantly going to surprise you, and that your knowledge of the world is continually limited and limiting. You have to keep on confessing your ignorance, keep on recognizing your ignorance. And really recognizing it—it’s easy to say on a radio show, but really confronting it every day and living that way every day. The people who do it most purely are our greatest philosophers who we celebrate two thousand years later. Most of us can’t get anywhere near that kind of purity, but it’s a healthy reminder to say, “Maybe I don’t know this guy. Maybe there are things I can’t caricature or pin down. And maybe this person has an inviolability that’s not mine to mess with.”
Eleanor Wachtel is the host and co-founder of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, now in its twenty-seventh season. She has also published five books of interviews, most recently The Best of Writers & Company (Biblioasis).