Writers & Company

Ali Smith on the circular movement of time — in nature, life and art

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with the Scottish author about her latest novels, Autumn and Winter.
Ali Smith is a Scottish author, playwright, academic and journalist. (Christian Sinibaldi)

Award-winning author Ali Smith is an original — inventive, versatile, full of wit and linguistic exuberance. Her recent novels, Autumn and Winter, mark the launch of a new series inspired by the seasons — what is being called her "seasonal quartet." With these first two installments, Smith engages with the immediacy of current affairs in Britain, and draws on the cyclical nature of the seasons to find reassurance in fractured times.

Smith was born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1962. She has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize four times, and her 2014 novel, How to be both, won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, the Costa Novel Prize and the U.K.'s Goldsmiths Prize, a  £10,000 prize (approx. $18,000 Cdn) that recognizes innovation in fiction.

Seasons of love

"Summer, especially if you're a Scottish kid, beats all the other seasons, including winter. Winter is a time in which things become still; it kind of clears out the mess autumn made and gets us ready. What the tree is doing is already preparing its leaves, and its fruits even inside itself, as it is waiting for the first buds to open.

"I'd say summer is my favourite season. But every time we enter a new season, I remember why I love them all."

A timely nature

"The thing about the seasons is they suggest to us another way to live when it comes to time. To me, they're very much like the novel in that sense because the novel itself is a creature of time. It's about time and the ways in which we live — past, present and future, all at once.

"To some extent, the seasons — which are cyclic  —  have a comic rather than tragic movement because we know that time will pass because of them. But, at the same time, they allow us to revisit every new autumn or every new winter or every new spring."

Forgiven, not forgotten

"The guilt that we carry with us, even though it's forgiven, doesn't truly go away. The things we do in our lives have real consequences. We are formed by our guilt; we are formed by our things which are forgiven, but at the same time don't leave us. 

"We all know we're made of multiple selves. All our selves from our pasts and all our future possible selves — even the ones we don't get to have — all exist in us at the same time. We hold all the possible and all the actual selves. We are multiplicitous."

Cyclical movements

"We live time dimensionally, and the seasons remind us of that. It was the ideal way to write a series of novels about the present because they would never just be in the present — they would always be part of the movement of time and the fluidity of time.

"Proust knew exactly how to describe the seasons, which pass through us feelingly in memory and form, and at the same time, the future. So the seasons act as a kind of cyclic movement of time rather than a linear shift of time — from the beginning of life to the end of it."

Ali Smith's comments have been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the interview: It's Only a Paper Moon, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose, performed by Ella Fitzgerald.