Unfortunately, I have yet to read any of Zadie Smith’s books. However, given her renown at such a young age (according to her Wikipedia page, she was basically courted by publishers during college) I decided to read her Atlantic Monthly interview. When I did, the title of a certain Ani DiFranco song came to mind, hence this post’s title.
Zadie Smith believes that fiction is a “hypothetical area” in which to experiment with possible courses of action.
I have to admit, it’s been a while since I thought of it that way, and I was glad for the reminder. Lately I’ve been so stuck in “What would really happen? What would these characters actually do?” that I feel like some of the “let’s play make-believe” aspect has gone out of my writing. And isn’t that the most fun part?
Later Zadie says:
In a lot of American fiction, particularly young American fiction, the idea of writing third person is anathema. But I didn’t even know there were novels that weren’t in third person until I was quite advanced in years. So that kind of narrative voice seems natural to me.
I felt the same way — Books in first person? Isn’t first person bad? Isn’t literature about the characters, not about me? — which is another reason I had a hard time writing in the first person myself. (Except for personal essays, of course.)
I also found her methods VERY interesting:
I don’t take notes. I don’t have any notebooks. I keep on trying to do that because it seems like a very writerly thing to do, but my mind doesn’t work that way. I tend to get the idea for a novel in a big splash. Usually I work out the plot for the first half and then kind of feel my way through the other half. I wouldn’t say I make excessive plans, though.
I don’t think I could work that way — I love my journals, and I’m desperately trying to finish #23 so I can start #24, because there’s nothing so exciting as starting a brand new journal! — but it almost elevates Zadie to an unreal level of cool that she doesn’t need notebooks the way most writers do.
Also, WOW, can I just say how much I love her for saying this?!
All my books are made up of other books. They’re all deeply structured on other fiction, because I was a student in fiction and I didn’t have much actual living to draw on. I suspect a lot of other people’s novels are like that, too, though they might be slower to talk about it.
THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH NOT HAVING MUCH “ACTUAL LIVING” TO WRITE ABOUT YET. JUST LOOK AT ZADIE SMITH!
I think every writing student needs to hear that. And every parent of a writing student should probably hear that too. Or maybe just my mom…
When it came to writing the academic part of the novel, I was thinking about how I felt when I was a student—how lost I felt a lot of the time, and confused about what I wanted and what I was getting.
THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH FEELING LOST AND CONFUSED.
I think I know a few people who could stand to hear that too.
You’re constantly told in college and elsewhere that good taste and good fiction are about not pushing, about not expressing your opinion too forcefully. So we’re always hearing things like, “Oh, it’s a very good novel about a young black boy, but unfortunately the author presses too hard on the question of race.”
And the same with women’s fiction. It’s nonsense, and it’s time to stop. I felt like a hand was at my throat when I first started writing. That if I was going to be a proper writer, I’d better be as polite as possible and as calm as possible and as un-angry as possible—and recently I’ve been thinking, you know, fuck that, basically.
Like I said: fierce, flawless.