Interview: Zadie Smith (in Italian journal La Stampa, 20 June)
Yes, I'm cute, but what about my talent
Giovanna Zucconi: Have you ever been to Rome before, Ms Smith?
Zadie Smith: No, but my husband and I will live in Rome for seven months from November.
GZ: Oh, with your husband the poet Nick Laird, with whom you are writing a musical on Kafka. And how do you end up in Rome after London, after Harvard? For you, who reads publicly all over the world, is there a difference between reading, let’s say, on an American campus or among the Roman ruins?
ZS: It’s impossible to say until I’ve had experience of Rome and its ruins. At first glance, I think that some things in Italy will be more attractive than elsewhere.
GZ: We don’t often realise it, around here, but anyway… Do you like to appear in public? How do you maintain a balance between the public and the private life?
ZS: I don’t have a public identity. I don’t like the notion of ‘the public,’ it’s a reductive term. At readings I read in front of many individuals, then I go home to my house and they to theirs.
GZ: To be a writer is also a job. Interviews, autographs, prizes, readings. Has your attitude changed toward these professional rites and obligations, compared to in the beginning?
ZS: I don’t have any attitude. I only think about getting back to my study and writing. The rest happens for a few months every few years.
GZ: Even so, isn’t it true that these days being a writer has a lot to do with the ‘look,’ with showing yourself, with appearance…
ZS: Writing a book has nothing to do with the ‘look’ or with appearance. These things are for journalists and the press. When I write I depend only on my brain, and when I read I don’t care about the look of the writer. Either you can write or you can’t, and if someone sells a few extra copies of their book because they’ve got a nice face means nothing. Soon I’ll be forty, then fifty, then sixty, I’ll keep on writing and you, hopefully, will stop asking ridiculous questions about my appearance.
GZ: But writing a book and being a writer are two different things, you can’t deny it. Zadie Smith has been ‘sold’ as a ‘personality’ even before writing the first book (attractive, multiethnic background, liveliness), and you know it: admitting it takes nothing away from your books, but such as it is, we’ll let it go. You said that novelists are not only intellectuals, that a basic literary talent is the emotional intuition. What intuition were you thinking of? Maybe a feeling for the spirit of the times? That’s required to write the ‘right’ novel at the ‘right’ moment?
ZS: What interests me is writing a great novel before I die. The spirit of the times has nothing to do with literature, if you want to get into that you’ve got to be a pop star.
GZ: But you are treated like a pop star, including the paparazzi and the press frenzy: won’t you ever be asked why? Have you never reread White Teeth, even just to understand how that book at that time clicked with so many people?
GZ: In the judgement of the Orange Prize, which you just won for On Beauty, they say that the novel is a “literary tour de force”. What does that mean? It's satisfying to read…
ZS: I don’t know. It was a lot of fun to write, three years shut up in my room is, for me, the pleasantest of experiences.
GZ: Success always means quality?
ZS: If fifty million people buy something it doesn’t mean that it’s either good or bad. Eminem is talented and an enormous success, Kafka had enormous talent but with no success. For me, my books have sold well but if I’m a good writer — that is, if my books are good — individual readers will decide, and future readers.
Comment: There seemed to be a lot of friction between them. She was quite prickly, I thought. But the interviewer was treating her like a megastar, rather than a serious intellectual.