Writers & Company

Zadie Smith, Caryl Phillips and Aleksandar Hemon on their lives as readers and writers

In 2015, these acclaimed international authors convened with Eleanor Wachtel for a special panel to celebrate Writers & Company's 25th anniversary.

The acclaimed authors convened for a special panel to celebrate Writers & Company's 25th anniversary

Eleanor Wachtel with Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith and Aleksandar Hemon at the International Festival of Authors on October 28, 2015. (Mary Stinson/CBC)

This interview was originally broadcast in 2015.

To wrap up Writers & Company's special programming in celebration of the show's 30th anniversary season, we take a look back at the 25th anniversary with Aleksandar Hemon, Caryl Phillips and Zadie Smith on stage at the 2015 Toronto International Festival of Authors.

Aleksandar Hemon's books include his debut story collection, The Question of Bruno, and his novels Nowhere Man and The Lazarus Project. The Bosnian-American author's latest book is a two-part memoir titled My Parents / This Does Not Belong to You

Caryl Phillips is a Kittitian British novelist, playwright, essayist and academic. His novel The Lost Child imagines the origins of Heathcliff, Emily Brontë's mysterious hero of Wuthering Heights. His latest novel, A View of the Empire at Sunset, is about the life of Dominican-born writer Jean Rhys, the author of Wide Sargasso Sea

Zadie Smith started writing her first novel, White Teeth, while she was still a student at Cambridge. It was translated into more than 20 languages, selling over a million copies. The U.K. author's latest novel is Swing Time. Her most recent titles are the short story collection Grand Union, the essay collection Feel Free and a book of reflections during the pandemic, Intimations.  

A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Phillips, Intimations by Zadie Smith and My Parents by Aleksandar Hemon. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hamish Hamilton)

​Reading, writing and the art of the copycat

Caryl Phillips: "The moment when I shifted gears in terms of my reading was when I was a teenager. I wanted to hide from my parents. When I became a surly adolescent, I began to dive into large books like Middlemarch, like Anna Karenina, like Madame Bovary, like Tess of the D'Urbervilles — books in which I could hide and imagine a world that was different from the house that I was living in.

I began to immerse myself in narrative, and in alternative narratives to the one that I was living.- Caryl Phillips

"It didn't seem that great to me, it seemed as if everyone else was having a better time than I was. I wanted to have this alternative world.

"I loved words, I loved reading already, but there was the pushing of a 'Down' button on the elevator, if you like, into what Harold Bloom would call 'deep reading,' when I became a teenager.

"I began to immerse myself in narrative, and in alternative narratives to the one that I was living. I just became deeply interested in other people's lives."

LISTEN | Eleanor Wachel interviews Aleksandar Hemon in 2018:

The Bosnian-American writer talked to Eleanor Wachtel about his two new works, My Parents and This Does Not Belong to You, which explore his parents' memories of displacement, his own identity and the very nature of storytelling itself. 52:19

Aleksandar Hemon: "We edit the stories of our lives to comply with what we think of ourselves right now. But then we become who we are now because we were all these other people before. And so this requires some kind of continuity to cover up for discontinuity. 

"And for me one of the great pieces of continuity of my life, which has been disrupted a few times, is reading and my relationship to books.

We edit the stories of our lives to comply with what we think of ourselves right now.- Aleksandar Hemon

"This is why re-reading is so rewarding to me now. Nabokov said rereading is all that counts.

"To measure the distance from your previous self, the self that read that book before. It's always interesting."

Zadie Smith: "When my brothers and I would type out stories, famous stories, like Agatha Christie stories. In my brother's case, he typed out entire comedy routines. There's nothing original in that habit.

My experience was just copying — very, very closely — other people's stuff.

"I think sometimes kids who want to write put a lot of emphasis on finding their voice. But that was not my experience.

"My experience was just copying — very, very closely — other people's stuff. I think it's quite typical of writers. The emphasis is on the sentences themselves, not on you finding some unique voice."

LISTEN | Eleanor Wachel interviews Zadie Smith in 2020:

The latest book from the bestselling author is an insightful and moving essay collection exploring ideas and questions prompted by this time of social isolation. 1:08:06

Why one should read Shūsaku Endō...

Silence is a work of historical fiction about a Jesuit missionary who sent to seventeenth century Japan.

Caryl Phillips: "A few years ago I had a conversation with Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver. 

"I told him that I thought Silence by Shūsaku Endō was a great masterpiece and that he should check it out because he directed Machine

"And I read about a year ago that Scorsese's next film is Silence. So I went back and read the novel.

"Quickly, before [you see the film adaptation], read Silence."

...and why Elena Ferrante matters

Hemon: "Her books are brilliantly narrated and have such a great intensity. They deal with the unforeseeable subject. 

"The books are organized into short chapters and most of them end up with some kind of seeming resolution to the conflict in the chapter. But in the next chapter, new conflict begins.

Her books are brilliantly narrated and have such a great intensity.- Aleksandar Hemon

"And this rolling forward, in that way. This is what is so compelling about it. But it's not just a narrative trick, it is part of the strategy, organized around the unforeseeable subject. 

"I keep thinking about this.

"I read these books and thought I needed to start doing things differently."

Smith: "When you read her, you realize that she is incredibly clever — an intellectual, in fact — and that nothing in that book is accidental or secreted.

I don't think I've had more joy reading in a very long time.- Zadie Smith

"That may appear that way. I don't think I've had more joy reading in a very long time."

Author Elena Ferrante, who has long guarded who true identity, is best known for a quartet of novels set in Naples. (Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Aleksandar Hemon, Caryl Phillips and Zadie Smith's comments have been edited and condensed.

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