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Zadie Smith

Adventures in Paris, London and New York with the peerless British novelist

Text by Sophie Elmhirst
Portraits by Inez & Vinoodh
Styling by Jonathan Kaye
Issue n° 14, Autumn & Winter 2016

There is cause for celebration — a new Zadie Smith novel is in our midst. And this time, the fearless British writer has moved beyond the familiar setting of her other books, the decidedly ungentrified London postcode of NW6. Having left the area in 2010 and relocated with her family to New York, where the 40-year-old happily teaches the lucky students of NYU, her ear for dialogue and vivid storytelling are opening up to tales of her adopted city and of west Africa, where her book Swing Time is set. When the writing’s done, though, the former jazz singer likes nothing more than a good old singsong around the piano or a blast of uncensored hip-hop. Eclecticism, for Zadie, is an essential source of constant revelation.

Paris, late June, and le Jardin du Luxembourg is overspilling with tennis players and pushchairs and ice-cream-coated small children in various stages of euphoria and collapse. Among them are two belonging to the author Zadie Smith – Kit and Harvey, a girl and a boy, six and three – who are in the playground in the middle of a truce negotiation with their mother, identifiable from across the gardens by the bright red wrap tied around her hair. A babysitter, hired for a few hours each day, hovers. Zadie has to work; the children don’t want her to go. The everlasting debate.

Zadie Smith arrives at the cafe in the gardens wearing the familiar harried expression of one who has spent a long time trying to reason with those not yet fully equipped for the task. She seems a little weary, yet she’s casually glamorous, in possession of the kind of elongated figure that means she can glide between restaurant tables without dislodging a napkin. She wears a fitted grey dress and sandals, red on her lips, a golden “Z” swinging on a chain round her neck, and though she is unconfident in the language, she knows exactly what she wants: a table inside; fish, as long as it’s hot; a drink (pink champagne). This, possibly, will help.

There have been, she says, a series of childcare disasters. The whole family – Zadie; her husband, the poet Nick Laird; and their children – is in Paris for a month while she teaches at New York University’s summer school there. The Paris jaunt was supposed to be fun, a bonus, the reward at the end of a long year – and it is, of course, but there is still work to be done: classes to teach, copy edits to finish on her new novel, Swing Time. The rest of the year, the family lives in New York, where Zadie is a tenured professor in NYU’s creative writing department. The job means they can live downtown in a Greenwich Village rent-controlled apartment that would otherwise cost $20,000 a month, but it also has its downsides: the essays, the marking, the expectations of star-struck students who want to go for drinks after class (she always says no). Still, she says, in an accent that has gained some of a New Yorker’s tang but lost none of its north London bedrock, “Once we’re in the classroom and we’re talking about Kafka, I’m happy.”

Here and in the opening image, Zadie’s in a chrome blue extra-fine silk shantung coat by THE ROW.

Zadie Smith occupies a particular space: she’s one of the few writers whose fiction and non-fiction is held in equally high esteem, whose opinion on the world is regularly sought simply because it’s hers. She is a respected novelist, has been in the trade now for 20 years (she’s 40), and has won numerous prizes and plaudits. She was twice on Granta magazine’s decennial list of the 20 most promising young British novelists under 40, in 2003 and 2013, and On Beauty, her third novel, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006. “She can write on damn near anything,” says David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, to which Smith contributes. “From the rhetoric and voice of Barack Obama to the music of Joni Mitchell to the streets of New York, her adopted city. As an editor, you count your blessings. Zadie Smith is a blessing not merely to The New Yorker but to the language itself.”

When the first 100 pages of White Teeth, Zadie’s debut novel, arrived on the desk of Simon Prosser, her editor at Hamish Hamilton, he knew straight away what he was dealing with. “I’ll never forget [it]. The exuberance and energy of the writing were extraordinary – the words jumping off the page, the characters leaping into life. My immediate sense was: here is someone with so many things to say, about ordinary and extraordinary lives, about the ways we live now.”

Over the years, Zadie has garnered wealth – she bought a large house in Willesden, north London, where she grew up; lived in Rome for a couple of years; is liberally generous to friends (one told me a Net-a-Porter bag arrives every year on her birthday). But she has also won an international following and a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic that sees her tracked by admirers. (“Literary celeb spot on the way to Beyoncé,” one fan tweeted when she spied Smith at Wembley Stadium a couple of days after we met.) Each of her books is accompanied by something more palpable than buzz: the kind of hot-wired anticipation that precedes a Radiohead album or a Terrence Malick film – that is, a major event for a fan base that treats the output of its artist with religious solemnity. But there’s also this glamour. Recently, she was photographed at the Met Ball in New York, giving the full hand-on-hip pose, in the same room as Madonna and Kim Kardashian. This is not typical of authors of novels.

Since White Teeth was published, there’s always been an added dimension with Zadie – beyond talent, beyond fame. She was quickly cast as a generational totem, an ambassador of Vibrant Multicultural London in its turn-of-the-millennium prime. This was never invited, never desired, mostly a concoction of the British press. But here she was, a dreamy package: beautiful, madly young, mixed-race, state-school-educated, with a reassuring Oxbridge stamp of approval. Oh, and the kid could write. It’s never gone away, this sense that she is something more than a writer of words, which is, she says, all she’s interested in being. As an old friend of hers pointed out to me, still now, the papers will find almost any excuse to run a large picture of her face. It is a beautiful face – fierce cheekbones, dark brown eyes, heavy lids – but the message is clear. Welcome to Britain! A paradise of diversity! Except it isn’t, quite. “If I go into my publisher’s,” Zadie says, “I’m still the only black person.”

A week before we met, Britain performed its grand act of self-sabotage and voted to leave the EU. There had been seven exhausting days of second-to-second political unravelling, of calamity and betrayal, of long-time inhabitants of a once-proud nation being racially abused and told to “go home”. Most people were still walking around with their phones an inch from their faces, endlessly thumb-scrolling as they tried to keep up with the pace of events and the apparent revelation of the true nature of their country. Laird spent the week on the internet, sucking in the news. Zadie was reading the 16th-century French essayist Montaigne.

“The whole concept of news is slightly philosophically odd to me,” she says, as we sit in the cafe, waiting for the fish. “I’m not sure what the purpose of it is. Nick thinks I’m absurd… fiddling while Rome burns. Isolated intellectualism.” She smiles. She can see the absurdity, too. She’s good at that. Any stance Smith adopts – and there are many – is quickly prodded, often mocked, from an alternative view. She has a sense of humour that unleashes itself at the darkest moments, an appealing blackness to her comic timing. And it’s not as if she’s disengaged. She’s just taken on a commission to write about the whole gory showdown for The New York Review of Books. “So I’m trying to think,” she says ponderously. “I’m trying to think quite slowly.

I think quite slowly.” She laughs. “People in England are so keen to comment. It’s a comment culture. They’ve written an article in 35 seconds. It takes me a bit longer to work out how I feel.”

More like six months, for a piece. Years for a novel. To finish anything, there has to be a process of disentanglement from modern life. She’s not on Facebook or Twitter. Her phone has the old sing-song Orange ringtone long assumed to be extinct. When she’s working, she listens to white noise and disables all possible internet functions on her computer. She has to be partly out of life in order to write about it. She’s a novelist, not a journalist.

“I think most novelists are incredibly stupid about politics,” she says. “They know about psychological life. But geopolitics? To me, novels are intimate. They can make you think, but if they don’t make you feel there’s just no purpose to them.”

Still, she wrote the piece, published a couple of weeks after we met. The essay, entitled “Fences: A Brexit Diary”, is universal and profoundly personal, like her novels. It is about class, community and inequality; the fences – literal and metaphorical – that the middle class has built around itself in the UK; the sickness and sadness in a British society that has become ruinously unequal and deeply divided, in a kind of apartheid which manifests itself in the playground of the primary school Zadie’s daughter attended for a year in Willesden. Kit had befriended a boy from the housing estate where Zadie grew up.

“A playdate was the natural next step,” she writes in the piece. “But I never took that next step and neither did [her mother]. I didn’t know how to penetrate what I felt was the fear and loathing she seemed to have for me, not because I was black… but because I was middle class. She had seen me open the shiny black door to the house opposite her housing project, just as I had seen her enter the project’s stairwell each day.” This is what Zadie cares about: not politics for its own sake, but the way it plays out through people.

Right now, Zadie is in that particular weightless state of pre-publication. Swing Time, novel number five, after White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005) and NW (2012), will be out in the autumn. Is it wonderful to have finished, or is it disorienting? “It’s funny,” she says. “I was talking to a lot of middle-aged novelists [about this]. Of course I know a lot of middle-aged novelists.” Zadie seems to class herself as one of them, which is perhaps more a reflection of her prolifically long career than her style, manner, entire vibe. “When we were younger, you really had a sense of relief, or you thought you’d be very happy, and you were quite happy for a few weeks.” She sounds surprised even at the memory of the emotion. “This time, I didn’t experience that really. It’s terrible really.”

Once you’ve been writing for as long as she has, it’s become a job like any other, a routine ingrained into the day-to-day structure of her life. Her writing time is shaped by her other commitments: on the days she’s not teaching, Thursdays and Fridays, she writes from 9am to 2.30pm while the children are in school. “I have always written in the library, even before kids. But recently I inherited a nice office at NYU after the wonderful writer EL Doctorow died, so I often work there,” she says, adding, “The students have started coming up to me in the library, so it doesn’t work.” (Though she’s able, Simon Prosser says, to write anywhere, “on trains, planes, in coffee shops or even, as I once saw, backstage in the green room five minutes before doing a reading.”) Then she’s a mother again, rushing to pick up her children, buy dinner, fix dinner, pack them off to bed.

And when it’s all done, the book complete, is it hard to function? “You don’t know how to have free time. You don’t how to do that,” she says. “I know Philip Roth quite well, and he would finish a book and start the next the next day. I always thought, ‘What a tragic life, Philip.’” She says this with dry, affectionate humour. “But now I see exactly what he’s talking about. It’s what you do if you have this condition.”

This condition?

“I think it’s a condition. That’s my personal theory after doing it for 20 years. I recognise it in other people. I think it’s the same for actors. That’s a kind of condition too, a more tragic one in my opinion. I think they are kind of psychological states.”

So what are the symptoms, what are the causes?

“I think it’s formed in childhood; it’s a kind of weird response to a certain kind of parent. It’s what it is! I was reading Jonathan Safran Foer, who’s roughly my age, and a German novelist, Daniel Kehlmann, who’s exactly my age, and in both books there’s a line at some point: ‘I’m nobody.’ That’s the condition of novel writing, being no one at all. So when you stop writing, you confront this terrible truth, this fear that you’re not really anybody.” She says all this quite calmly, as though an existential crisis were simply laced into the job description. “That kind of flexibility that people admire – ‘Oh look, she’s a woman, now a man, now this, now that.’ Happy people don’t do that!” Zadie grins, in perfect contrast to her point. “Happy people are just themselves.”

Before we meet, a slim 15 pages of Swing Time arrive one afternoon in my inbox. No more, no less. There’d been a leak at a book fair while Zadie was still writing the book, and the publishers were nervous (not many people write books that others think worthy of leaking). “The first 15?” she asks, part apologetic for the paranoia, part hopeful for the sake of chronology. The first 15, yes. “The book is mostly set in Africa, but you’d never know that,” she says ruefully. The part I received was pure London – back, in fact, in her old neighbourhood, the place which has provided character and landscape for much of her fiction. The NW terrain: Willesden, Kilburn, their streets and houses and estates.

Zadie spent her early childhood on an estate with her two younger brothers and her parents. Her father, Harvey, left school at 13, fought in the Second World War at 17, married twice and became a salesman. Her mother, Yvonne, who is Jamaican, took a degree in social work, then qualified in child therapy. When Zadie was still young, Harvey moved out and went to live round the corner, ending an era of fairly entrenched marital warfare. He was 30 years older than her mother and died in 2006. “The freedom they gave us, it was good,” Zadie says of her parents. She remembers years of “running with her friends”, as she puts it, being left to get on with it. Her father bequeathed her a deep love of British comedy (which she wrote about with poignant, painful grace in her New Yorker essay “Dead Man Laughing”) but not much else. Now, both fondly and bluntly, she recalls his limitations. “My father was very nice, but there was no reason to admire him.” This, she says, was wholly beneficial. “Girls I know with fathers who did something really great – they’re really in awe of this man, and they want to meet men who are like him. That’s quite hard. It’s a cross to bear. I never had that cross to bear, God bless him.”

Six years into her own parenthood, Zadie has come to some key understandings. “The main thing is that your children are not you.” She’s resolute on this point, and about letting go of any plan you might have for a child, any claim on who they are or what they might want, and, most of all, on some vicarious bid for fulfilment through them. “I have no aspirations for them,” she says. “I don’t really care what they do, probably because my aspirations are fulfilled. And I think that’s great, but my kids are going to want the opposite – they’re going to want me to be unbelievably interested in what they do.”

There is, she says, already a war of sorts under way with her daughter. The battleground is clear: “My solipsism, their needs.” Their solipsism too. “She’s just aware that there’s something else that I’m very occupied with, and it annoys her. But I’m not going to stop, so we’re going to have to come to some kind of compromise.” There is a daily reminder, a constant lurking presence: her addiction to the printed word. “Whatever I’m doing, I’m reading, and it annoys her.” Zadie will have a Kindle tucked in her bag in the park, an audiobook on in the car. But reading is also, she says, the best part of parenthood: the bedtime ritual, a nightly diet of fiction equally cherished by mother and daughter. “It’s when our interests are aligned.”

Parenthood, according to Smith’s law, isn’t about making everything wonderful for your child. Happiness is overrated. “I have a certain amount of unhappiness,” she says. “But it’s been a good thing. A certain amount of unhappiness is useful in life, it gives you all kinds of boundaries and knowledge of other people’s unhappiness and how not to cause it. Perfect happiness is a strange goal for a child. They need disappointment.” As a teacher, she says, she constantly sees students with vaulting expectations who then fall into a kind of semi-permanent state of shock on realising that the world isn’t designed exclusively for their pleasure.

“The kind of school I went to – say you go visit somebody’s house, or estate, worse off than mine. The things you were exposed to are frightening. Frightening is good sometimes.” Mollycoddling and overprotection, shielding your children from reality in its variance and ugliness, does them a dangerous disservice. “These kids who grow up with no idea that everybody doesn’t watch Charlie and Lola and go to France every summer –” she means her own, of course – “what kind of life is it? It’s a life of delusion. Are they only to see nice things, people being nice to people, niceness all the time? The world is not nice!”

Zadie is wearing the olive silk slip dress by NILI LOTAN.

It is possible that Smith is an unreliable narrator. She talks about the world and herself with a stark honesty that scorns lazy thinking and can feel like being blasted with cold water – bracing, but harsh at times, especially when turned on herself. In the early years, the self-critique was ferocious, and mostly directed at her work, as if all the compliments White Teeth had received only confirmed its awfulness. In 2001, shortly after September 11, she wrote an article in The Guardian describing the novel’s “overblown, manic prose” and expressing despair at the pointlessness of writing in the face of world events. “Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important.” The act of writing, she has said, is a process of overcoming self-disgust.

Now there are glimpses of forgiveness, of a gentler mode. “The pleasure is in having written,” she says. “They sent me the proof pages [of Swing Time] and they had the page ‘Other Works by Zadie Smith’, and I looked at [the list] and thought, Well, I did write those books, and it’s a good thing.” She quickly qualifies the statement to negate even the suggestion of arrogance. “I mean, not objectively a good thing in the world, but it’s what I wanted to do and I did it, so I might as well take some satisfaction.”

This is about as close as you’ll get to Zadie patting herself on the back. “She’s hard on herself to the point that she’s too hard on herself,” her friend the columnist Hadley Freeman says. “And not just about her work; she can be very hard on herself about her mothering, how she is as a friend. It probably helps to keep her balanced.” Yet Smith is the kind of friend who comes round every day when you’re having a tough time, who, when she decides she wants to be your friend – as she did with Freeman when they were in their early 20s, at a house party in east London, neither knowing anyone – will tenaciously pursue, call, support, love, never letting a friendship slip out of her grasp even when she’s neck-deep in a novel and surrounded by a celebrity force field. Her parties in London used to contain half her primary school in one room and Ian McEwan and Martin Amis in another, Freeman says. Smith’s closest friends are still her oldest. “Kellas is a lawyer at Birnberg, a social justice firm,” she says. “Houghton applies lottery money to charities and nonprofits. And Parnes works in prisons!” They put things in perspective.

The self-criticism is, perhaps, a kind of perverse motivator. On the cover of Zadie’s 2009 essay collection, Changing My Mind, is a Samuel Beckett quotation, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It’s an article of faith: the moment you think you’ve cracked it, it’s over. And it’s what keeps her trying new things – each book a leap from the last, an experiment in form. Now, in partnership with Laird, she’s trying her hand at screenplays – he does plot, she does dialogue. Some projects are faring better than others. An adaptation of her story “The Embassy of Cambodia” is done. Then there’s a Robert Pattinson space movie from which, Zadie says, she was fired (“I’m probably not that good at working with others”). And a series about 1930s LA that was gazumped by another on the same subject. So writing with your husband works? “It’s just something to do together. Otherwise we’re in our separate rooms. Sometimes we have a huge argument,” she concedes, “but it’s quick. You know the way with marriage – it’s a swift process.”

Smith and Laird have been friends from the age of 19, when they met as English students at Cambridge. (On Desert Island Discs three years ago, Zadie described how she would go and sit in Laird’s room for hours on end, waiting in vain for something to happen. They didn’t date until their late 20s.) There’s a fault line, though: music. “Nick has control of the stereo,” Zadie says sombrely. Her taste is pure hip-hop, most of it unplayable in a house also occupied by people under 10. “You can get clean versions, but it’s so depressing,” she says. She’ll sneak on the odd track, tolerate his indie, compromise with Beyoncé. Zadie herself, friends confirm, has a seriously good voice. At university and before, she worked as a jazz singer to earn money, and every year on her birthday, there’ll come a point in the evening when she’ll take her place by the piano and sing. “It’s like watching Nina Simone,” Freeman says. “It’s incredible, and sort of makes you want to punch her in the face.”

“That’s the condition of novel writing, being no one at all. When you stop, you confront this fear you’re not really anybody.”

Soon enough, the month in Paris will end. The family will pack up and return home to New York. Because it is home now. Zadie thinks they’ll probably end up selling the house in Willesden, currently rented out. She’s fallen for America hard. “I love it,” she says. “I feel a bit embarrassed to admit it.” Why? “I don’t know. When you’re English, you grow up with some sense of superiority to this nation. But I think it’s an extraordinary place.”

Her appreciation is partly a consequence of what it feels like to be black in America. “For me – and I’m sure black Americans feel differently; they have a different history – but for me it’s a freedom. To meet black intellectuals, black artists; to have my daily life, my professional life, so mixed.” It’s been a contrast to the England of her childhood, where “you either didn’t exist in the culture or you were some kid in sportswear”, and to France. Zadie describes a dry-cleaner in the neighbourhood where they’re staying in Paris who won’t talk to her when she goes into the shop. “She thinks I’m an Arab.”

Does it make her mad when these things happen? “No, I don’t have that reaction,” she says. “I don’t know why. I’ve never had that reaction. It’s something from my childhood – we were just always taught to believe that we were not the problem; it was somebody else’s problem. I’ve inherited that.” The American experience, then, becomes ever more alluring. “I don’t feel so isolated. I see radical black thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates not just being celebrated but universally listened to, respected – his book Between the World and Me is a number one bestseller. That has been a revelation, to be in this eclectic African-American world, in which I am a guest, but a happy one.” Zadie often walks down Broadway and marvels at the extraordinary and strange people who pass by, no one giving them a second glance. “And I look at Nick and he looks at me, and I think, How many countries in the world is it possible for that person to exist in?”

In New York, theirs is a particular existence: they live surrounded by fellow NYU academics, every apartment receives The New Yorker, and playground chatter is more likely to be about genetics or art history than nappies and schools. That’s when the parents are there, of course. Mostly it’s Zadie and a bunch of Jamaican nannies, “for whom I’m often mistaken.” She laughs. But they might not stay in New York forever. Smith wants to keep moving. If the screenplays work out, maybe they’ll move to Los Angeles. Or to Beacon, an upstate New York town she’s heard about, a racially diverse, hippie-ish mecca with a normal school. She senses a time in the future, once the children are independent, when she’ll do some proper travelling – China, Japan, South America. “I haven’t been anywhere, you know. I’ve just been knocking between America and England.” That’s what comes from spending 20 years in a library, head in a novel.

One of Zadie’s close friends in New York is Lena Dunham, and you can see why: both writers, precocious in their gifts and apparently confident, were thrust straight from university into the unforgiving strip light of publicity. No time to grow up quietly, behind closed doors. Their first meeting was a drink in SoHo. “I was so nervous I washed my armpits in a random bathroom,” Dunham writes in an email. “Something I’ve done for no man.” Now the pair talk work, but also, Dunham says, “moods, health, party attire or party angst”. Zadie says her one piece of advice for Dunham had been not to work through her 20s and wake up at 30, as she herself did. Dunham, obviously, worked throughout her 20s. Zadie laughs. “I don’t know. What else are you going to do?”

Here, Zadie wears a white cotton shirt by CÉLINE.

Lunch is over, capped off with a tarte au citron and coffee. Time to get back to the kids. They bookend everything, as children will. “I think they already have a fair idea of the kind of person I am,” Zadie says. In what sense? “Kit has already got a handle on it: somebody here is deeply incompetent.” That morning, her six-year-old daughter had stood at the doorway of the apartment and said to her mother, “Checklist! Have you got your keys? Have you got your phone?”

For all her self-dismissal, Zadie is also at her most powerful and passionate on the matter of her children, or more specifically on the matter of how you write and have children. It’s the kind of question that often gets put to women authors and rarely gets asked of their male counterparts. There are some who maintain it’s impossible: you can’t create and procreate. A few years ago, an article in The Atlantic magazine suggested that the secret to a woman’s successful writing career was only having one child. Zadie launched a counter-attack in the comments: “The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd.”

Now, she unleashes what appears to be a thought process that has germinated into full-blown fury over years of just getting on and doing it – that is, having kids, writing books.

“I refuse to be bullied by the idea that you have to have mental peace to write. I definitely have no mental peace, but I have written despite that… It’s been from about the mid-1970s that we’ve had this phenomenon of women with children writing. There’s 2,000 years of that not being true, like literally never true. You can find four exceptions maybe, including AS Byatt. Really, it’s a revolution. The one thing I feel is really depressing is this idea that writing needs only this absolute concentration, months alone. That’s what men were telling their wives while they sat up there, and it might be true. But it’s a different kind of mind, a different kind of book. Dickens had 10 children. He wasn’t thinking about them. Nor was Tolstoy, for sure. They were writing all day long. Women are thinking about them. The writing is different.

I don’t think it’s worse; it’s different. It’s a female consciousness, a female writer. And that’s what I’m doing. My books are filled with children – the thought of them, the memory of them, and the round experience of having been one and then having them. To me, that’s an enrichment of literature.”

It’s a roar in the face of a culture still wrestling with the old myths and failing to catch up with the reality before it: a woman doing what was for so long deemed beyond her, or intolerable, and not asking to be congratulated for it but proving, day after day, year after year, book after book, that if you have desire and will and work ethic and ability – and white noise – it is possible.

After lunch, like the English people we are, we shake hands. Zadie strides off through the plane trees, into the pressing warmth of the Parisian afternoon, probably to buy ice creams and curb a tantrum, and maybe – if she can get away with it – to read. Her mind will be full of Kafka; her life will be full of kids. It works.

Hair: James Pecis at D+V Management. Make-up: Jeanine Lobell at Tim Howard Management. Manicure: Deborah Lippmann at The Magnet Agency. Lighting: Jodokus Driessen. Photographic assistance: Joe Hume. Styling assistance: Max Ortega Govela, Maddie Jones. Hair assistance: Jenny Kim. Make-up assistance: Caitlin Wooters. Digital operation: Brian Anderson. Production: VLM Production. Post-production: Stereo Horse.

This profile was originally published in The Gentlewoman n° 14, Autumn & Winter 2016.