Zadie Smith: I have a very messy and chaotic mind

The acclaimed writer takes questions from famous fans including Teju Cole, Philip Pullman and Sharmaine Lovegrove, and a selection of our readers

Zadie Smiths second collection of essays, Feel Free, could be described as a tour through her enthusiasms punctuated with diversions. She writes with equal fervour about Jay-Zs rapping, which pours right into your ear like water from a tap, as about Edward St Aubyns rich, acerbic comedy. Her early dislike of Joni Mitchell is used as a segue into a discussion of philistinism and taste. A booklet on early Italian masterpieces sparks an examination of the concept of corpses and the unthinkability of death.

Although the subjects may seem wide-ranging, she says, they always seem very narrow to me. Im very familiar with what Im enthusiastic about, and its hard to see variety in your own tastes. The only thing they all have in common is how passionately she feels about them. I like to know I love something before I pitch it. For me, writing 3,000 words about something you dont really like is a kind of torture.

Written between 2008 and 2017, the 33 essays, columns and reviews were, in a way, a respite from her fiction. Usually an essay comes when Im playing hookey from novel writing, she says. Writing a novel is like doing a long-distance race, and writing an essay in the middle of one is like turning left off the route, finding a cafe and paying close attention to something different. Its a form of relief. They are also fundamentally different writing practices. Fiction is messier. Essay is, for me, an attempt at a kind of clarity. I have a very messy and chaotic mind, but when Im writing an essay I find I can exert a bit more control over it.

Looking back over the essays, they remind her of that time I was obsessed with Lynette Yiadom-Boakyes painting or that time I was reading a lot of Ballard. If theres a pleasure in rereading them its just the pleasure of bringing back to mind somebody elses wonderful work and the effect it had on me.

To mark the publication of Feel Free, Zadie Smith has taken the time here to answer fans questions in an honest, revealing way. Kathryn Bromwich

  • Feel Free by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton on 8 February (20). To order a copy for 17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846 Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Questions from famous fans

Matt

Matt Haig

Author of books including Reasons to Stay Alive and Humans

You have been sceptical about things like Twitter and Instagram in the past, as you value your right to be wrong. Do you worry about what social media is doing to society?
My worry is narrower: myself, my family. I cant stand the phones and dont want them in my life in any form. They make me feel anxious, depressed, dead inside, unhinged etc. But I fully support anyone who finds them delightful and a profound asset to their existence! Different strokes for different folks.

The societal question is more complex, although I think its users themselves and not luddite abstainers like me who are best placed to speak on it. But as youre asking Maybe its time to speak a bit more honestly to ourselves about how were using this technology. Avoiding self-deception thats the hardest bit. You have to get off the defensive, out of the public argument and just sit in a corner with yourself and do a frank accounting. What is this little device in your pocket doing to your intimate relations with others? To your behaviour as a citizen within a society? Maybe nothing! Maybe its all totally cool. But maybe not?

Im not delusional I dont envision people casting their devices en masse into burning bins any time soon. (And Im as addicted to my laptop as any user of an iPhone.) But perhaps a reassessment is due, along rational lines. Do we really need to be online for 27 hours a week? (This is the latest figure for teenagers, but it grows crazily with each year that passes.) Do we need the internet in our pocket at all times? Do we need it resting by our pillows at night? Do our seven-year-olds need phones? Do we wish to pass down our own dependency and obsession? It all has to be thought through. We cant just let the tech companies decide for us.

writer

Philip Pullman

Novelist

What poems do you know by heart?
Thats Nick [her husband, the writer and poet Nick Laird]s department. He makes the kids memorise poems and they manage it but I never do. All I can recite are Frank OHaras Animals, and a few scraps of Hamlet, Henry V and Macbeth. In the brain space where memorised poems should be I have a large collection of rap couplets.

Sadiq
Photograph: PA

Sadiq Khan

Mayor of London

I read in a previous interview that you consider London to be a state of mind. I think youre right. What does London mean to you creatively and how does it influence your work?
The people, the humour, the variety of place and circumstance are all endlessly interesting to me. Theres also the microcosmic nature of north-west London in particular. A lot of things that happened in England over the past three centuries can be found in north-west London in miniature: enclosure, industrialisation, suburbanisation, immigration, gentrification

Juno

Juno Dawson

Author of The Gender Games

Several years into my transition, Im still referred to as trans author Juno Dawson. Do you also feel you have a dual role as an author and also a voice of your community?
My trouble is I cant think of community in the singular. Doesnt everyone exist in a Venn diagram of overlapping allegiances and interests? Im a black person, also a woman, also a wife and mother, a Brit, a European for the moment a Londoner, a New Yorker, a writer, a feminist, a second-generation Jamaican, a member of the African diaspora, a Game of Thrones-er, an academic, a comedy-nerd, a theory-dork, a hip-hop-head and so on.

I am delighted to be all these things and everyone, no matter where they are from if they really think about it will find themselves with a similar plurality of communities. At different moments, youll feel the pull of certain commitments more strongly, especially if an aspect of your identity is particularly embattled.

But the whole debate can fall into a kind of trap. I know the argument: no one calls Don DeLillo the white American author Don DeLillo, so why should I put up with being called the black British author Zadie Smith? But by that logic, the rhetorical pressure falls on this idea of neutrality, as if to be white is not to possess a race or an identity is simply to be the author whereas to be black is precisely to have an identity. And then from there you are forced into the corner where you find yourself arguing that to be truly great, truly the author, you must have your blackness forgotten, you must aspire to people seeing beyond it, past it.

Its a version of that backhanded compliment I sometimes heard as a child: Honestly, youre just my mate, I dont even think about your colour. Im colour blind! I think you have to reverse the concept to see how strange it is: Oh, Don, I dont even think about you being white any more, I just love your books! No, I dont desire this supposed neutrality. I am all the things I am and also an author. Its all inseparable, as Don and his whiteness are inseparable.

Chris

Chris Ware

Cartoonist

Do you have any secret techniques for overcoming self-doubt?
As you know, there isnt really any solution to self-doubt. In the end, you just have to write and doubt simultaneously.

Hans

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Artistic director of Londons Serpentine gallery

What is your unrealised project, your dream? We know a great deal about the unrealised projects of architects, but almost nothing about those of artists or writers. Doris Lessing once said that besides the unrealised, there are also those projects that we self-censor, those which we do not dare to do.
I began a speculative fiction thing. But every time I sat down to write it I thought of Ursula Le Guin turning the pages with a look of pained disgust in her eye and I grew fainthearted and put it away again.

Alana

Alana Massey

Journalist and author of All the Lives I Want

I couldnt think of anything sufficiently literary so Ill ask: do you have concerns that the hiatus One Direction took at the end of 2015 was, in fact, an official and permanent breakup of the band?
We were having kids when 1D began (is that the accepted abbreviation?) and by the time we were done they were already over. My attention has been elsewhere. I know my daughter has a karaoke machine that plays a song of theirs about not knowing youre beautiful. It makes me want to lie down and give up on life.

Nikesh

Nikesh Shukla

Writer and editor of The Good Immigrant

What song lyric best describes you?
And I just blame everything on you/ At least you know thats what Im good at Kanye West

Sharmaine

Sharmaine Lovegrove

Publisher of new BAME imprint Dialogue Books

How has it felt for you, from such a young age, to be viewed as a mouthpiece for race, gender and culture because so few others have been invited to have their stories heard?
I never conceived of myself as a mouthpiece. Nor do I think of myself as telling my stories, exactly. I think of myself as thinking about all sorts of things, on the page, in public. I try to point out the idiosyncratic way in which I think and also the commonality Im seeking. Something like: Im thinking this are you, reader? But I dont mind if the answer turns out to be no. Im less interested in convincing people of an argument than in modelling a style of thinking. Thats whats important to me in the literary world: ways of seeing and thinking.

When new voices come from underrepresented constituencies, theres always the hope of a new perspective: a new angle, a new mode (though, in fact, nothing can ever guarantee true newness). For example, if Im reading Teju [Cole]s essays, Im confronted with a mind that works completely differently from mine, with a different focus trained on different subjects Lagos, 16th-century Flemish art, photography and thats thrilling to me. Or I can pick up Imbolo Mbue and read about New York from a perspective I couldnt conceive by myself: that of a recent Cameroonian migrant. Or I can read Edouard Louis and know something of what it means to grow up in extreme poverty in contemporary France I mean, how the world might look to a person who has been formed by such experiences.

I like to hear a variety of voices, but they dont have to be personal stories. What Im really interested in is other conceptions. People have radically different minds, in my view, and I want to be exposed to as many of them as possible. I think there can be almost as much difference, experientially speaking, between you and the person next to you on the bus as there is between me and my pug. And if, as too often happens, publishing houses choose only writers they recognise, from their own milieu, their own backgrounds, class, perceived community etc, well, then you get far less variety in this pool of minds and we all miss out. Writers principally but readers, too.

Gemma

Gemma Cairney

DJ, broadcaster and author of advice book for teens – Open: A Toolkit for How Messy and Magic Life Can Be

Is there anything that sears your heart for the younger generation? What are the hardest things for them in modern life and the most hopeful and magic too?
I dont have many ideas about the younger generation. Isnt that how it should be? The best thing about being young is the sense of being profoundly misunderstood by older people. I miss that feeling.


Teju

Teju Cole

Writer

You must be under some pressure to be agreeable, to agree with the right opinions. But I notice that you think through things, rather than just agreeing to them. How do you defend that space of independent thought?
I dont think of myself as a contrarian. Im useless at confrontation. But I also cant stand dogma, lazy ideas, catchphrases, group-think, illogic, pathos disguised as logos, shoutiness, ad hominem attacks, bombast, liberal piety, conservative pomposity, ideologues, essentialists, technocrats, preachers, fanatics, cheerleaders or bullies. Like everybody, I am often guilty of some version of all of the above, but I do think the job of writing is to at least try and minimise that sort of thing as much as you can.

Maria

Maria Balshaw

Director of the Tate museums

Creative freedom seems very important to hold on to right now, especially for our cities. Who are the emerging art and fashion heroes for you in the UK?
I am so out of touch I wouldnt know. But I get very excited listening to British hip-hop and grime on the radio whenever Im home. I dont hear it in New York. Its one of the main things that makes me feel optimistic and excited about London.

Zadie
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 Memoirs of Hadrianand thought it was boring and stopped. This year, I discovered its a masterpiece.

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: 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?
Many. Im on a lucky tear with books right now. Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston, Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam, Daybook by Anne Truitt, The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams and a strange and powerful recent essay by Karl Ove Knausgaard called Fate.

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: The World Goes On by Lszl Krasznahorkai and 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 The Golden Notebook 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.

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

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/21/zadie-smith-you-ask-the-questions-self-doubt