Writers and Company

Zadie Smith on the ups and downs of female friendship in Swing Time

The author of White Teeth and On Beauty talks to Eleanor Wachtel about her most recent novel, and discusses essays from her new collection, Feel Free.
Zadie Smith's new novel is about the lives of two girls who dream of becoming dancers.

Zadie Smith started writing her first novel, White Teeth, while she was still a student at Cambridge. The novel, which was published when she was 24 and sold over a million copies, tells the story of a cross-cultural, cross-generational, ethnically diverse London. Smith's third novel, On Beauty, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize. 

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Zadie Smith from New York about her most recent novel, Swing Time. Smith describes Swing Time as being about "tap dancing, black women, money, poverty, sadness and joy." The book's two main characters — a nameless narrator and her friend Tracey — dream of becoming dancers, but as they grow up their lives go in very different directions.

This interview originally aired in 2016.

Why she's attracted to imperfection

"I always remember thinking of musicals as hugely problematic, and that's somehow what I liked about them. I have the same instinct in my social life — my husband will always say that if we're at a party, I gravitate towards the most awful person. I get some kind of pleasure out of talking to people who are demonstrably awful. I don't know why. But musicals are like that for me. They're a mixture of the sublime and the obviously awful — terrible plots, offensive routines. I don't know why I'm attracted to that mix of form. It's obviously much cooler and more sensible to be attracted to perfect form. But something about perfect form repels me. My novels are like that too — I know they should be slim and controlled, but instead they're this ragbag." 

On girls and bonding

"The two girls in the book bond as kids who feel a kind of tribal connection in a neighbourhood in London, which is still mainly white and British. I think it's about watching the other girl and finding out how to live. I think small girls read each other like we read novels, as a kind of guide. You wait for the other girl to do something, and then if she makes a mistake you think 'oh, not that.' In the popular culture it's described as just envy, or spite, or love/hate. I don't think it is that. I think it's this incredible act of imaginative empathy."

On the "thrill and dread" of writing in the first person

"The first person is so real to people that they really think it's you. And I think that's tiresome over a long stretch. Think of someone like Philip Roth, who spent 50 years defending himself against accusations of being the various avatars. I understand why readers do it; it's a natural instinct and I have it too. When I'm reading, I always make this autobiographical error, even when I know the writer very well. But when you're writing, you know that fiction doesn't really work that way, and that some of the things which feel most real are reliably the most artificial, the biggest lies.

"So, I was wary of that, but it's also something you can play with in the fiction — you know that readers have this autobiographical instinct, and you can mess with it a bit. I think in Swing Time, one of the most common mistakes people make with the autobiographical idea is that a narrator will always be presenting themselves in their best light. So a narrator who isn't particularly selling themselves one way or the other is a slightly destabilizing position. And I quite like doing that."

Zadie Smith's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the show: "Pick Yourself Up," by Jerome Kern from the movie Swing Time (1936).