Writers & Company

Ali Smith on art, adolescence and gender ambiguity in her time-bending novel, How To Be Both

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the U.K.'s Women's Prize for Fiction. To celebrate that milestone, Writers & Company is revisiting interviews with past winners.
Ali Smith is a Scottish author, playwright, academic and journalist. (Christian Sinibaldi)

This interview originally aired on Oct. 5 2014.​ 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the U.K.'s Women's Prize for Fiction. To celebrate that milestone, Writers & Company is revisiting interviews with past winners.

Award-winning author Ali Smith is an original — inventive, versatile, full of wit and linguistic exuberance, alongside an engaged political and social sensibility. 

In 2014, Smith's novel How to Be Both won not only the Women's Prize for Fiction, but also the Costa Best Novel Award, the Folio Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize. Written in two parts, the book marked an imaginative experiment in both form and publishing — half of the print run started with a 15th century Renaissance painter, and half with a 21st century Cambridge teenager. Evoking resonances between the two characters, it explores the timeless sensibilities of adolescence, questions of gender identity and the many ways of looking at art. 

Smith's latest work is a four-book series that has been described as her "seasonal quartet." Drawing on the cyclical nature of the seasons to find reassurance in fractured times, it concludes on Aug. 25, 2020, with her new book, Summer.  

Smith spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about How to Be Both in 2014. 

Fascinated by frescoes

"I started this book with the original notion that I wanted to write a book based on fresco structure. I'd been reading about fresco structure and I'd got quite excited about the ways in which you see something on the wall that is literally a physical part of the wall. 

"When they began to find ways to restore frescoes — especially after the damage that was done in the Florence floods in the 1960s — they were peeling off the wall layers and underneath they found these original underdrawings, or sinopie, for the frescoes. 

I started this book with the original notion that I wanted to write a book which is based on fresco structure.

"I just loved it, because it's layered. All you can see is the surface — but actually there's something else underneath. I was reading a book about the Florence frescoes in particular. One little paragraph mentioned a fresco with a small boy in the original picture — and then on the surface of the finished fresco, he disappears. 

"It's the perfect gift for a narrative structure, which is that everything is layered all the time and you have a surface. The surface works like surfaces do — we cross it and can use it like we do with bridges or ice. And yet, underneath the thing which is happening, it's possibly different and has something that's not being said."

Portrait of a Man with a Ring is a painting by 15th-century Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. (Wikimedia Commons)

"It was a perfect dimensional structure. So I wondered if I could make a narrative work on those terms.

Gender acceptances 

"There's hardly anything known about Francesco del Cossa. We know very, very little. We know his father's name. We know his mother's name. We even know his brother's name.

"We don't even know when he was born, or died. What we do have is a surfeit of ambiguity and understanding about gender.

"I've always had this notion of the ways in which societies will simply accept gender ambiguities because of talent. It could be possible that the whole of Renaissance is peopled with acceptances which we simply take as male because of the ways in which power has just ended up being over the years. 

I've always had this notion of the ways in which societies will simply accept gender ambiguities because of talent.

"So I now wonder about almost everything I see, simply from the imaginative moment which I thought something clicked into place here; it is possible. 

"There's just something about del Cossa which is wide open to the real bodies, figures and importance of the people who usually have no power."

The age of adolescence

"In this book, one of the main voices is an adolescent voice. This particular book comes from the point at which history has not forced any codification onto somebody. 

"The adolescent is in a peculiarly precarious position, having come through childhood, which is a wide open but very moral state. The adolescent is about to be something, but doesn't have to be it yet. 

"If we're looking at the history of the 20th century, the ways in which the teenager did not exist until this century is a very interesting thing.

The adolescent is in a peculiarly precarious position, having come through childhood, which is a wide open but very moral state.

"There's a rebellious folk spirit in this century which I think is at the romantic basis of the teenage state — and has never left us. The culture we live in, in the western world, is still fixated on those years."

A portrait of Lee Miller in Arlesienne (1937) by Spanish painter Picasso. (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Why art matters

"I remember going to galleries with my dad. We'd go to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and we would stand in front of the Picasso picture of Lee Miller, which he particularly liked. 

There was a conversation to be had, which standing in front of the artwork made happen between us.​​​​​​

"My dad didn't know he liked it, but he always stopped at it. He would say to me, 'What's the point of that? And I would say, 'Do you not like it? Isn't it beautiful?' 

"And then I would realize that he was very drawn to it, but he wanted to talk to me about it. There was a conversation to be had, which standing in front of the artwork made happen between us."

Ali Smith's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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