Zadie Smith in Berlin, 2016, where she was awarded the 2016 Welt literature prize. Photograph: Brian Dowling/Getty Images
Questions from readers
David ORourke, from Kilburn, London, asks: You published an essay collection called Changing My Mind . Any recent instances? When I was young, I tried to read and thought it was boring and stopped. This year, I discovered its a masterpiece. Memoirs of Hadrian
Brent Lee, Casper, Wyoming: Has moving to the US changed you as an author, such as in your interests or views? Inevitably you become focused on the American news. And maybe Ive become more interested in visual art, living near so many galleries. But the biggest difference is editorial. Im now used to writing even a short piece for an American outlet and having it be edited, back and forth, for six months or even more. I try to apply the lessons of that process to everything I do now.
Jason Jawando, Wolverhampton: Are creative writing MAs a waste of time for talentless saps, polish for the moderately talented or a way to invigorate the literary tradition? None. In my class, we spend 14 weeks reading works of literature and philosophy, mostly by long-dead people, and then my students write essays about what they have read and then we discuss these books, trying to understand how each one works. In between times, a smaller group of students will show me the novel or stories theyre writing and in a series of meetings we discuss their work, try to edit it and improve it, just as my best editors do with me. I never imagine that I am, by doing this, either saving literature or destroying it. Its just a group of people appreciating and analysing literature and also hoping to write it.
GaryLutz: You wrote of your experience of reading George Saunderss Lincoln in the Bardo Many. Im on a lucky tear with books right now. : You shed one way of looking at the world and emerge with another and: The novel leads you places that you never could have gotten to otherwise. I had the same experience and feel huge gratitude. Have you had that gift from any novels (or books) since? Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston, by Francis Spufford, Golden Hill Sally Rooney, Conversations With Friends by by Mohsin Hamid, Exit West Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam, Daybook by Anne Truitt, by Joy Williams and a strange and powerful recent essay by Karl Ove Knausgaard called Fate. The Visiting Privilege
Jenny Bhatt, Atlanta, Georgia/India: Theres been a lot of buzz around the New Yorker story Cat Person , for all kinds of reasons. One good thing is that at least its got people talking about short stories again. What are your thoughts on the short story form in general and who is your favourite short story writer? My main thought on short stories is that I wish I wrote more of them. Of the living practitioners in English, George Saunders, Tessa Hadley, ZZ Packer, Miranda July, China Miville, Ursula Le Guin and Adrian Tomine if I can include a graphic artist are all marvellous to me in different ways. Of the dead, too many to mention, but heres a few: Tolstoy, Joyce, Kafka, Cortzar, Borges, Ballard, Flannery OConnor, Katherine Mansfield, Octavia Butler, Roald Dahl, James Baldwin, Richard Yates, Denis Johnson, Kathleen Collins and David Foster Wallace. Im also presently reading two great new collections: by Lszl Krasznahorkai and The World Goes On How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs.
originalabsence: Some novels are remarkable for their tremendous and moving stories, others for their vitality of language, or their mimetic efficiency (in language). What is more important to you as a reader language or story? Language. But I love and respect story. Just because youre not brilliant at something doesnt mean you dont love it. To have both working with equal power is my dream.
bellaireland: Ive been a huge fan of your work since White Teeth. I cannot believe its been nearly 20 years since that novel was published. What advice would you give to a young, twentysomething BAME writer today? I feel fraudulent giving advice. Im a writer narrowly focused on the page in front of me and then the page after that. But maybe that is advice in itself: focus on the page in front of you. Thats what I see in a writer like Toni Morrison. A fierce, unyielding work ethic, focused on the page. She was on a mission from the beginning, to complete this cycle of books and set down her ideas, impressions, and memories, both personal and historical. You cant distract her from this task. For me, a living example like that was always more useful than advice.
BesideMyself27: Do you believe, like Orwell, that all writing is political? He went further: he argued that the apparent absence of politics is itself a political position. I agree.
Jonathon Kinsella, Liverpool: William Boyd has said that he researches a novel for up to two years and then sits down to write and knows, perfectly, what he wants to say. Others write their way into a novel and then move to its rhythms. Can novel writing be a case of choosing one of these two methods? How would you describe your writing process in this context? Ive generally written my way in. With White Teeth I did the research as I went along. But the thing Im writing now requires so much pre-reading that I am following Mr Boyds advice to the letter.
Claire Handscombe, Washington DC: What are your favourite memories of Cambridge University? How did your time there prepare you (or fail to prepare you) for your writing career? My favourite memory was the day I was accepted. It remains the most unlikely thing that ever happened to me. And once I was there? Well, there are worse ways to prepare to write a novel than reading nothing but novels for three years. Career-wise, it was a London editor (who had been to Cambridge) who read my story (in a Cambridge anthology) and asked whether I was writing anything longer. And it was a friend (from Cambridge) who told me to get an agent, so those are all classic examples of Cambridge nepotism. Maybe I would have been published later, further down the line, but maybe not. I killed myself to pass those bloody A-levels, but everything that followed was the privilege that comes with the place plus outrageous luck (privilege being institutionalised luck). Its affected my writing career in that Ive spent the past 20 years trying to work in a such a way that might feel equal to that luck.
Rik Cooper, west London: Would you agree that literary fiction is just a genre like, say, crime or fantasy? Happily. Bad literary fiction has as many generic, overly familiar and formally rigid elements as bad crime and bad fantasy. But great literary fiction, along with great crime and fantasy, will always feature fewer fixed boundaries. I have no hierarchy of genres in my mind. The essential division for me is between great books and poor ones.
12monkeys: What influence did Doris Lessing have on you? Very little. We never gelled, sensibility-wise. I was raised by a feminist who had all the feminist tomes, but I couldnt finish as a teenager and I still cant. It was Alice Walker, Hlne Cixous, Angela Davis, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and Simone Weil and De Beauvoir who mattered most to me. The Golden Notebook
philipphilip99: Write and then edit, or edit as you go along? Edit as I go along. Every sentence. Many times.
Simon Pressinger: [There seems to be] a dearth of socially engaged art in [the culture] industries, possibly due to a glut of middle-class voices silencing those of people from working-class backgrounds. Any thoughts? Music has been the main repository of revolutionary working-class voices. In music, you can be self-taught, outside of any formal system (a la John Lennon/punk/all of hip-hop) whereas outsider writing has historically been far harder to come by, for the simple reason that to effectively utilise written language for better or worse requires a kind of training and a reasonably good university education tends to be central to that. There have been spectacular autodidact counter-examples Charles Dickens, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglas, Colin Wilson, Jean Genet, William Blake, James Baldwin but the numbers have always been small, especially in England, where our education system is so stratified and unequal.
But there used to at least be a route. You could go to a half-decent school for free, then to a good university for free and come out with an effective prose style. Thats much harder to do now. Middle-class voices silencing the working-class voices is, in my view, far too romantic a way to put it. The systematic educational disenfranchisement of the working classes is the real issue and the consequences of that disenfranchisement go way beyond publishing.
Kadees Mohammed, Birmingham: I read you were writing a script for a sci-fi series. Whats it like writing in a different genre? This is a good example of internet Chinese whispers. I was hired, with Nick, to write a movie set in space with Claire Denis, but I left the project very early and the movie is in no way written by me.
Michael-Angelo Keramidas, Exeter/Munich/Greece: When you were studying English literature as an undergraduate, how did you manage to juggle academic work with writing fiction? Is your essay-writing process different from your fiction writing one? That story is exaggerated. During my finals, I wrote about 30 pages of White Teeth. I think it was an excess of anxiety. There are feats you can achieve at 21 that seem impossible at 42. Now its as much as I can do to make toast if I also have a deadline.
degrus: No British writer born later than 1954 has won the Booker prize (ie no one younger than Kazuo Ishiguro). Do you feel that the literary establishment is failing to promote, reward and encourage young British writers that is, afford them the treatment it handed out to the Rushdie/McEwan/Ishiguro generation? Or do you believe that theres been a tailing off in the quality of new writing coming through in this country since the days of that last crop of literary stars? It takes a long time for the literary establishment to mark the passing of time. In some quarters, Im probably still considered one of these newfangled types of trendy youth writer persons, instead of a middle-aged woman who doesnt know how to use Dropbox.
A lot of interesting British writing recently has been regional or else closely attached to the conceptual provocations of the art world and I have noticed that such work sometimes has a readier home Stateside or in France than in Britain, where there is still a deep attachment to historical novels and, yes, to novels that resemble the novels of that great 80s generation. I love a historical novel as much as the next Brit but not at the expense of everything else.
And no, I dont and have never believed in a tailing off. Thats historical nostalgia. Everyone remembers the great novels of the 19th century and no one remembers the literal mountains of dross published alongside it. In every era there are interesting things. But you have to put your faith in the new and not get hung up on a set of ideas concerning greatness that may no longer apply.
Stephen OFlynn, Dublin: Ive been a huge fan of your work since first reading On Beauty at 17, more than a decade ago. Im wondering if youre familiar with the great Jennifer Egans work? This year, she published Manhattan Beach , a mo