Zadie Smith took to the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss her most recent novel, Swing Time, but also revealed in her discussion with Stuart Kelly that there is a collection of short stories on the publishing horizon. Smith was not only speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about her most recent novel but also her career, which has seen her move to New York University where she teaches creative writing.
Surprised that she had not already published short stories at this point in her career, Kelly asked Smith why, to which she replied: “Actually, I think I’m about to…I just never felt very good at it. It’s different from America, where people are trained from a very early age to read short stories, to be preoccupied by them, to create these perfect forms. I always thought mine were a bit like a novel squished into a short story, so I found them a bit ungainly, and also way too long.”
Confessing her interest in existentialism, often apparent in her texts, she also admitted that when she decided to become an author she was not expecting to have a series of novels set in Willesden published. In fact, she at one point refers to herself as “Nabakov, with laughter in the dark,” highlighting the intention and meaning behind her work, but often with humour and touches of humanity.
Kelly admitted that when judging work he often tries to eradicate the writer’s background and history, to which Smith retorted, “why aim to be colour blind?”. “To me, specificity is beauty,” she said, “I love exactly that. I love the Evelyn Waugh-ishness of Evelyn Waugh…that matters to me, not this kind of blind ‘oh, it’s just good, it’s so good, I didn’t even see her colour’. No, I want you to see my colour, it’s important, this is who I am. That has to be seen and discussed.”
What I did find particularly interesting was this use of first person narration in Swing Time, which she admits was her first deployment, one she found particularly difficult. Using a first person narrative meant she removed any need to disclose the character’s name for, if nothing else, it would be weird for them to refer to themselves by name. Not being an advocate of what she perceives as narcissistic activities – the selfie for instance – she did not find comfort in doing this, and seems conscious that this question around name must have been a sticking point in most Swing Time reviews. This hour was a mere glimpse into a wonderfully deep and insightful writer, and my only drawback was that it was not longer.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival and it’s programme click here.