Writers & Company

The brilliant Zadie Smith on what keeps her urgently engaged with the world around her

The British-born novelist and essayist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about her latest book, the short story collection Grand Union.
British author Zadie Smith spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2019 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Leah Maghanoy ©Art Gallery of Ontario)
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Since bursting on the scene with her first novel, White Teeth, at 24 years old, Zadie Smith has become a literary phenomenon. Her thought-provoking, prize-winning fiction and essays — engaged with the concerns of contemporary life — have made her one of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers of her generation. 

Now Smith has published a new book of short stories, her first. Called Grand Union, it's a wide-ranging collection that takes readers to unexpected places. From mother-daughter relationships to Brexit to college sex and the domination of the iPhone, she captures the world around her with characteristic insight and wit.

Born in North London in 1975 to an English father and a Jamaican mother, Smith currently lives in New York City. She spoke to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in October 2019.

Grand deception

"The Grand Union Canal runs through my neighborhood in London. It's not a particularly beautiful canal. Grand Union was built around a story that isn't in the collection. It is a story about a couple, a black guy and an Indian girl, who live on a canal boat in quite reduced circumstances. They were having a kind of internecine war with a white couple who lived on a much fancier houseboat across the water. I got bored of writing it, but the title remained. 

"The older I've gotten, it strikes me that that when we resolve conflicts in a third term, it isn't usually in happiness and contentment, it's usually some kind of a lie. We lie to ourselves or we lie to each other. And so I rewrote the whole book thinking about the idea that, in our dialectical arguments, the self as a thing is some kind of self-deception." 

The older I've gotten, it strikes me that that when we resolve conflicts in a third term, it isn't usually in happiness and contentment, it's usually some kind of a lie. We lie to ourselves or we lie to each other.- Zadie Smith

Worlds apart

"I don't think I have a too pessimistic view of human relations, but people are fundamentally dissatisfied with each other all the time. There's the problem of the things you consider to be your rights or what's owed to you and they're in constant conflict with your duties and what other people need and want and consider their right.

"It's just a continual act of compromise. It's never more fierce, I suppose, between mothers and daughters who are often wanting quite separate things."

Acclaimed British author Zadie Smith is interviewed on-stage in Toronto by Eleanor Wachtel. 1:09

Mother's Hierarchy of Needs

"When you're just trying to survive, or when life feels like a daily struggle, it's like there's a Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid at the top. There are indulgences, including total gentleness and kindness, all the time. But when you're trying to survive, perhaps that's not the first thing on your mind. The struggle deforms relationships sometimes in some ways. 

When you're just trying to survive, or when life feels like a daily struggle, it's like there's a Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid at the top.- Zadie Smith

"So in Grand Union, I wanted to write a story in tribute to that struggle. Nanny of the Maroons is the main character in one of the stories, who is not what your average reader would call a sympathetic character. But she was a hero and a warrior. She was an escaped slave in Jamaica and a great heroine of Jamaicans. I just wanted to pay tribute to that kind of grit — maternal grit, which is perhaps looked at as a bit severe and isn't like the apron-wearing mothers that you see on television, but has its own virtues."

British author Zadie Smith in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel in 2019 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Leah Maghanoy ©Art Gallery of Ontario)

Somewhere down the lazy river

"The story in the collection, Lazy River, contains a metaphor. I wanted to write a story about how it felt, existentially, to be alive in 2017. The word, which came to my mind over and over, is inevitableism. It felt like being unfree and that an ideology of inevitableism had occurred. The lazy river seemed a good metaphor. And then, instead of disguising it or dressing it up in some realist tale of married couples hanging out in a hotel in Spain, I thought that the urgency of the situation meant you should just get to the point. So the metaphor became concrete. 

"The iPhone was launched in 2007. In 2019, it's like there's no existence outside of having a smartphone device anymore. That has been a very surreal thing to watch happen and to see it closing in every gap. The only people left are children, but even that is changing. My kids go to a public school in New York and now almost every nine-year-old is given one. We are so deeply connected to technology that the intensification of people living in the algorithm had become, to me, so impossible to survive. Practically, there are no longer any people not in it that the lazy river seems to be the right metaphor."

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

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story credited the quote "The mother daughter relationship, through different stages of life, is generally a rich subject and perhaps inevitably a complicated one," to Zadie Smith. It was said by Eleanor Wachtel.
    Feb 21, 2020 11:15 AM ET

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