Zadie Smith is sitting opposite me in the cafe of Foyle’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London. She’s busy today, her time being divided into numerous little slots as she promotes her new novel, Swing Time – an hour here for book signings, 45 minutes there for an interview. It must be intense, all this promotion, I say. “A little bit, yeah,” she agrees. But she doesn't want to moan. “It’s usually only for two weeks. And then you go back to your hole for six years – it’s not that bad.”
The 41-year-old is wearing a black jumper with a deep V-neck and a silver necklace with a “Z” pendant. Her hair is down, a jumble of tight curls, and her face is… Well, you don’t really need me to describe her face for you, because I’m sure you know what she looks like. Her beauty is so apparent that she frequently appears on magazine covers. You’ve seen those high cheekbones, that proud nose, the full lips and those charming freckles in countless styled photographs.
Her voice is deep and so is her laugh, which she lets out frequently, often when touching on the absurdity of gloomy subjects.
Donald Trump, for example.
Smith was in a hotel room in Germany when she found out that he had been elected President and she watched his victory speech on her laptop. She has been briefly back to New York – where she lives with her husband, writer Nick Laird, and their two children, a boy and a girl – since the election and she reports that things there feel rough. “They’re just trying to survive over there, at this point,” she says, looking pained. “We’ll be OK,” she adds, hopeful and hopeless at the same time.
Telling her children about his victory was hard, she says, because she, like most of us, didn’t believe that he would win. “The mistake we all made was that we told them for months there is this terrible man, but don’t worry, he won’t win – so it wasn’t really fair. They all woke up in the morning and found that, sometimes, narrative doesn’t go as planned. So that was an error on our parts.”
While she was taken aback by his win, the number of white women who voted for Trump – 53 per cent – didn’t shock her. “That didn't surprise me that much, because have you ever been to a small town and seen how women are to each other? Never mind a big town. Women are not each other's natural sisters, are they? Particularly not at the age of 50, 60, 70. That's just not the way it is.”
Have you ever been to a small town and seen how women are to each other? Never mind a big town. Women are not each other's natural sisters, are they?
As an artist and an essayist who covers politics, she worries about what Trump’s win means practically. “People are doing things like changing their email security, certain things are becoming obvious – you’re going to have to become a little more careful, because you’re going to be writing about this man who has such a thin skin … I mean if he’s going to get very angry about SNL [Saturday Night Live]… We all have to think about how we’re going to be working in the next few years.”
We discuss Trump’s recent tweets disparaging the hit musical Hamilton, sent in a huff after Vice President-elect Mike Pence was booed at a performance. “Extraordinary, unbelievable – it would be very funny if he wasn’t leader of the free world. He himself is a brilliant comic character,” she says, chuckling wryly. The punctuation in those tweets – the irate exclamation marks, the neat little subclauses – is “incredible”, she says. “The funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
If she does choose to write fiction inspired by Trump – which she’s not ruling out: “Historically, when writers are in this situation, it comes to the fore” – she would concentrate on his comic ludicrousness. She’s thinking of a way to represent America in her work, too. She has recently read Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: “It is set in a kind of failing state, but it felt more real to me than a lot of locally based fictions. I think, when you’re writing satire, there might be a space that is America and not quite America, if you see what I mean… We’ll see…”
So, could she leave behind the streets and council estates of north-west London, so familiar to those of us who’ve read her first novel, White Teeth, and her fourth, NW, and her latest, Swing Time? It’s obvious, after all, that those estates no longer mean the same thing; they no longer seem like places where a biracial girl can grow up and go to Cambridge University – as Smith did. The introduction of university fees changed everything, as far as Smith is concerned, with teenagers from poorer backgrounds less likely to be able to afford a third-level education. “I live in America, so I see how that system pans out over the long term,” she says, harshness in her voice.
There is also the fact that so many of the flats on council estates have been sold on the private market. Those estates are “full of hipsters now”, she notes. So, for all those reasons, Smith says, “I don't imagine it's a subject I'll return to. I think of White Teeth, NW and Swing Time as a kind of trilogy, which is now done as far as I'm concerned.”
Swing Time follows two girls, Tracey and an unnamed narrator, as they grow up on a London estate. Drawn to each other through a mutual love of dance and because of the coincidences that underpin childhood friendship – “Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both,” our narrator tells us – they are no longer close when adulthood arrives. The story continues as the narrator begins to work as a personal assistant for a Madonna-like superstar, taking in vanity charity projects in an unnamed African country and glamorous parties in New York. Neither she nor Tracey are happy, though, and the book is particularly brilliant on motherhood – how women resent it, long for it, hate it or avoid it.
It is the first novel Smith has written in the first person. She chose that voice partly because, for each book, “I need to do something formally different as a kind of challenge.” But she was also thinking of the proliferation of “I” pieces on the internet and what that could mean for a novel. “I'd been reading a lot of philosophy and I was thinking about selves,” she says, “and I know when people write these flashy, entertaining ‘I’s, which are meant to, in some way, attract you to them, I don't think you can underestimate how much a writer is trying to make you like them.
“Given that that’s going on a lot in the world at the moment – that kind of perspective of a very attractive person talking to you either on Instagram or on blogs or in email – I really wanted to try and write an ‘I’ that was emptied of all of that stuff.”
Smith says she loves the charming “I” of Bridget Jones, the way the narrator and the reader create a fun relationship together, “but this book is not for that at all. It's meant to make you feel a little more uncomfortable and to wonder exactly about those urges to narrate some version.”
So, the narrator of Swing Time is a little lost and a little desperate as she tries to piece together and control the story of her life and how she’s lived it. We’re not charmed, but we are compelled.
You know if you have a good friend and she's on Instagram and the day looks wonderful. You could go round the same day and find out that she's had a huge argument with her husband, he hit her, she's been on the sofa all day, crying
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – with their intense female friendship and their intimate “I” – were a major influence: “Yeah, she absolutely was an influence,” Smith says plainly. “I don't worry as other people do about copying. I feel like writers give gifts of freedom to each other – that's the kind of purpose of the whole thing and I think somebody unlocks within you the ability to do something in your own way, but it's always going to be influenced and I kind of like that relation. If there's a connection, I'm proud of it.”
She notes that Ferrante has inspired other writers, too – “On the plane over here, I read I Am Lucy Barton; that's another very Ferrante, amazing book and Elizabeth Strout is a wonderful writer and has always been wonderful, but Ferrante unlocked something in her” – and she says that she would love to study her influence. “I was thinking, if I was a PhD student – the other dream part of my life – I could think of all the books influenced by Ferrante in the past three or four years.” Smith is ferociously smart and it’s easy to imagine an academic career once beckoned, but a hit novel – she wrote White Teeth while still at university and it was published to commercial success and critical acclaim when she was just 25 – made her famous. Since then, she’s written four more novels, alongside essays and criticism, and become an important figure in the culture, both here in the UK and in the US, a public intellectual who can discourse on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as easily as the ramifications of Brexit.
She is still connected to university life, though, teaching English literature to creative-writing students at NYU. She teaches more books by women than she used to “mainly because my taste has moved much more towards women's writing, or at least an impatience with young men's writing”. But still, “my course has 16 books and I think only three or four of them are by women”. There are, of course, writers of colour on her course, Teju Cole among them, but when I ask her whether she is conscious of representing writers of colour in her teaching, she says: “I don't run my class like a survey, because I'm arguing about certain philosophical strain in the novel … I resent having my own writing felt that way. But I do think that it's useful for students, aesthetically and ethically, to have a variety put in front of them.”
Trigger warnings and the sense that students might avoid certain material because it will trigger a post-traumatic stress reaction is, she maintains, “a fancy of the right-wing press”. “I'm in New York where, if such a thing were to happen, it would certainly happen in my classroom at NYU. I've never heard a word of it,” she says, before cackling, “and I've taught some very disturbing books.”
When the subject of identity politics comes up though, she looks worried. “I see that my students are concerned with personal identity, perhaps over duty or their concern with their rights, rather than their responsibilities – that's certainly been a shift. I don't particularly criticise them, but I notice it – that concern with how one is perceived in the world has become their first political concern, that they are rightly defined. I suppose this election showed that this wasn't really that important.”
I think of White Teeth, NW and Swing Time as a kind of trilogy, which is now done as far as I'm concerned
She says that she’s “not at all up to date on the day-to-day politics of England because I've been so preoccupied with America” – but we talk about how the Labour party’s infighting has resulted in a mess on the Left. “Without naming particular people,” she says, quite obviously, it seems to me, referring to Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, “I feel like they’re trying to apply the lessons of the Left from the 70s – which I am very close to, which I grew up in, which I benefitted from and which I do not disparage as ideas – but I question the practicality of applying them to a completely different world of global capital and the free moving of citizens around a huge area. It's just going to take a reimagination and a restructuring – I think just sticking your feet in the mud and saying, ‘No, no, no’ is not going to work for anybody.”
Between the writing and the teaching and the thinking and the reading, she is busy – and she is also a mother to two primary-school-age children. It’s not as bad for her as it is for other working mothers, she says, because she can work from nine to three, rather than having to stay in an office late into the evening. But she sees how working mothers struggle and she despairs of the cruel lack of maternity leave in the US and the employment practices that see new mothers leaving tiny two-week-old babies at home, “suffering, pumping milk in the the bottom of offices, suffering unnecessarily because they will not be given a decent amount of human time to spend with their child by their employers”.
She encourages new mothers to spend as much time as possible at home with their babies: “I think women should give themselves a break – six months off, a year off if they can get it – because what is the purpose of [working unnecessarily when children are young]? Who are you trying to show that you can do everything at the same time while a child has need of you at that moment? There's nothing un-feminist that the child has need of its mother – it's a biological, practical fact and, if you have the time to give it, you should give it, if you can. It's not even a moral question – you'll want to.”
Smith knows that she is fortunate to have a supportive husband (“We go back and forth, and he takes them when I'm writing and I take them when he's writing and it works”) and to be able to afford childcare, but even then, things can be tough. Her nanny quit unexpectedly when she was writing Swing Time and, for a time, she didn’t think that she would be able to finish it. “I emailed Penguin and I said, ‘Forget about it; I'll finish it someday, but it's not going to be now.’ So I kind of gave up on it and then I thought, ‘No!’ I guess part of me is quite motivated by extreme situations, like exams – when I was a kid I loved exams.” So she crammed it in, writing between 10 and two, when her children were at school, keeping her head down and disconnecting her internet. (She generally avoids wasting time on the internet, anyway – she doesn’t have a smartphone and she’s not keen on social media: “You know if you have a good friend and she's on Instagram and you see the day and the day looks wonderful and the children and everything looks great, she's so happy. You could go round the same day and find out that she's had a huge argument with her husband, he hit her, she's been on the sofa all day crying, he's a drunk. So the gap between it troubles me.”)
Ultimately, that rush to complete the book makes for a novel that moves quickly, with short chapters. Still, though, it’s longish at 450 pages; she’d love to write a slim novel, she tells me, like I Am Lucy Barton, which she admires so much – but has so far found that impossible. “I’m always aware that the people I’m talking about are not neutral to the reader, so I’m always aware that the moment I put this black boy here, the reader has all these ideas and I have to spend my time countering them. And that is why, I think, my novels are so long.”
As the interview ends, she gathers her belongings, preparing to go and see her brother and his children in north-east London, and I wonder if she’ll ever move back to London, where her family and so much of her world is. With Trump in office, will she feel differently about America? Will she really abandon the stories of north-west London for tales of an American-like state?
“After Trump, a lot of people are talking about leaving America; I don’t really want to leave,” she says. “I want him to leave! He might leave before I leave; we’ll see.”
So, yes, we’ll see.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton.