Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years, NW, focuses on the lives of four people trying to escape their past. The setting is largely Smith’s home neighbourhood, to which it is both love letter and the context that her characters are trapped by. Here she spoke to online editor Ted Hodgkinson about why spending time in America has made England ‘usefully alien’, writing tighter sentences, the ‘essential hubris’ of criticism and why novelists prefer writing in their pyjamas.

TH: Women are often the timekeepers of this novel. The arc of Leah and Keisha’s lifelong friendship is traced in numbered vignettes, each with their own internal relativities. The fates of many of your people, from Shar, to Felix and his shut-in father Lloyd, are sealed in part by the removal of womanly affections and attentions. Is stretching and contracting time the only power women in the novel possess in their bid to change their circumstances?

ZS: Well, I think it’s an enormous power and advantage women have, this understanding of time and mortality. It’s only a shame that we often do everything we can to abandon or deny this natural advantage. I always think of the menopause: what a gift it is to women to have, in their own bodies, this piece of time-keeping which allows them to fully understand, in their bodies, that death is coming. Men don’t have that – you see so many men heading towards their deaths in utter shock and incomprehension because right until the final moments they thought they were going to be given some kind of reprieve. Or all those powerful men who make terrible fools of themselves in old age with girls a quarter of their age . . . They’re not very good managers of time, men. So it’s an odd thing that in my generation this female advantage has been so submerged. The menopause never spoken of among young women, hidden like a curse. Everybody trying to look and be twenty-eight forever . . . In Leah and Natalie’s case they both seem to reject a healthy relationship with time. Leah by staying still and Natalie by refusing to understand that it is finite. But I’m not a pessimist about those two: the novel doesn’t end with the end of their lives and they have in front of them the same possibilities for change that we all have all the time.

The novel both celebrates Willesden – from the numerical sequences of its bus routes to the daily rituals witnessed in the barbers – and tells of lives stagnating in a community with very few ways of escape. Is part of the difficulty being forced to live multiple lives, from childhood to adulthood, in the same small pond, as it were, and is this what leads Natalie/Keisha to live out her fantasies, with humiliating consequences, through online chat-rooms?

I don’t know . . . I guess I think anonymity is one possible solution to the problem of life, at least as the book sees it. In the book the problem of life is basically: I only have one and it moves in one direction. People tend to seek all kinds of solutions to that dilemma, and the anonymity of technology has offered us a new kind of ‘out’. I don’t know if it’s the right one or the best one, but it ended up in the book.

Does returning to the Hanwell family  who have appeared in several of your short stories – give you a sense of expanding a literary universe that has a deep set of roots in the real, as if you are writing about a family you have been living alongside for years?

I wish I had the patience and consistency for that sort of thing. But really the name Hanwell exists as a talisman in my stuff – I don’t think the Hanwell family (if you read the stories and the novel) all fit together in any logical way. How is Leah related to Hanwell Senior? Maybe it’s her grandfather, but I’m not sure. Perhaps one day if I get a great burst of energy I’ll link them all properly.

The battle for survival in the novel is largely a battle of perception with some spectacular casualties being Annie and Lloyd whose decaying inner worlds have become manifest as their physical hiding places: with each respectively nestling into their own variety of squalor. Is it a different kind of challenge, as a novelist, to inhabit the lives of those who have closed themselves off to change?

Not at all! That’s what a novelist is: someone who does the same thing every day while things decay around them. In their pyjamas. With dirty plates and fag ends and piles of dirty clothes and hair that is dreadlocking itself through neglect. It was very easy to write those scenes!

Technology in the novel can act as a portal to fantasy, in Natalie/Keisha’s case, but can also prompt a ‘level of self-awareness literally unknown in the history of human existence’, to borrow a phrase from the book. Does being at such a historical moment signal a potential sea change in human behaviour and what kind of challenge does that pose to a novelist?

What it does to the novelist is only of concern to novelists; more interesting is what it does to people. Only two hundred years ago it was physically impossible to see yourself doing something you had done yesterday, that is, to see it in three dimensions, speaking and moving. It’s a miracle! It’s really unprecedented. The ancient myths thought that if we stared at ourselves in this way too long we’d fall in the water and drown. The myth preceded the technological reality (as seems to happen), but now we’re really here, relating to ourselves as objects. My daughter takes it completely for granted that the day after we go to the park I can show her a video of herself in the park. Two hundred years ago she would have thought she was having a dream, or losing her mind. Four hundred years ago she would have screamed and wept, denounced me to the elders of the village as a witch and dedicated herself to the Lord . . .

How has living and teaching for stretches in America impacted on your view of London? Was being away one of the things that led you back, in your fiction, to the place you started from?

It has made me weep with the realization that the barbarism ‘impacted’ has now truly crossed the pond . . . Aside from that: oh, you know, it probably intensified by fondness and nostalgia for my corner of it. It also made it usefully alien. I remember flying back into London one day and the papers were full of ‘Today the Duke of York yada yada yada’ and it seemed so surreal, like a headline from a fairy story. The grand old Duke of York! And tell me: were his ten thousand men involved?

One of the central characters in the novel is Olive, a family dog, who suffers a tragic end when he is caught up in the crossfire of a feud between his owners and those loyal to slighted (as she sees it) Shar. The grief that follows threatens to engulf the family. Why don’t we tend to take the death of an animal as seriously as the death of a family member?

Well, that’s a question a writer like Coetzee takes seriously. For four hundred years we’ve seen this constant widening of the circle of ethical concern: first black people become ‘people’ – and claimed the rights that are assigned to ‘people’ – then women, then the variously disabled, and the sexually ‘deviant’. It doesn’t seem at all unlikely to me that two hundred years from now – if we make it that far! – the current arrangement of relationships between animals and humans will be considered a kind of monstrosity. But for many people this has already happened . . . I can assure you if my pug died I’d be devastated. On the other hand, I still eat chicken. I can’t preach to anyone on that front.

Becoming middle class is both something to aspire to and a poisoned chalice in the novel. For Felix his time working for a film company appears to offer a glimpse of salvation, until he is pulled down by drugs, whilst Leah and Natalie both aim to rise to the middle class by becoming lawyers and in due course feel a sense of betraying their roots. Is there something particularly English about this anxiety over entering a different strata of society?

Perhaps, I don’t know. It’s hard certainly to think of a middle class more afflicted by self-contempt. The phrase, in England, is a form of insult. In France, too. But that’s not true in America. I suppose we suspect the bourgeoisie of a lack of vitality, and that’s always to be feared, at least a little.

The novel explores a range of registers and influences, with a surface texture that is realistic and a deeper structure that subtly calls attention to its architecture. Do you feel a tension between so-called ‘experimental’ techniques and a more traditional style of storytelling, and is this perhaps one of the energizing frictions for you when you write?

Not exactly; it’s all storytelling, but depending on how you do it you get different effects. Instead of ‘traditional’ I would use ‘familiar’, because actually the novel form has always had many traditions, existing simultaneously. In England we’re familiar with a certain layout on the page. When we read it makes us feel a certain way. But there are other ways to feel and in this novel I wanted to try some of them, to suit the different moods of the stories I was telling.

This is your first novel in eight years, during which time you’ve published regularly as a critic, written a book of essays, edited a collection of fiction and taught classes at several writing programmes. Does this more critical work make immersing yourself into the long haul and in some ways subconscious process of writing a novel more of a challenge or does it enrich it?

It’s my feeling that the process of being edited by American journals improved my sentences. It was like going back to school. And with a tighter sentence I was able to writer a tighter book.

On the other hand, in what ways does writing a novel make you reflect differently, if at all, on your essayistic work?

Whenever I write a novel I’m reminded of the essential hubris of criticism. When I write criticism I’m in such a protected position: here are my arguments, here are my blessed opinions, here is my textual evidence, here my rhetorical flourish. One feels very pleased with oneself. Fiction has none of these defences. You are just a fool with a keyboard. It’s much harder. More frightening. At the same time, I work really hard on my novels, so when I return to reviewing I expect the novels I read to really have something going on. Not perfection, because I know that’s impossible and not really even desirable – but some kind of genuine urgency. Some risk has to have been taken. Something in the book has to be genuinely fresh: perspective, language, form, ideas, something.


Photograph © Linda Brownlee.

Into the Cosmos