When word gets out that I’m interviewing famed British novelist Zadie Smith—and by “word gets out” I mean I post about it on Instagram, because I’m a millennial—my people collectively freak.
“Whatttt,” writes one friend.
“Try not to faint,” writes another. “I would be a puddle of admiration.”
“Wait wait wait what?” writes a third.
A fourth fangirl promptly picks up the phone and calls me as soon as she hears, asking if she can come watch the interview. You know, just to be in the same room as Smith. Just to hear her speak. Just to gaze mortal eyes upon her.
And they’re not the only ones: Smith’s upcoming appearance presented by the Vancouver Writers Fest is completely sold out. She seems charmingly surprised when I tell her this.
“It’s incredible, but it kind of builds up without me knowing; it’s always a shock every time a book comes out,” she says via phone (sorry to fangirl number four) from London. “I have such a strange, I think, sense of time, and also of my career, because I just in my mind I’m just getting started writing books. And every time you put your head above the parapet you realize all this time has passed and these books have built up.”
In this case, the book on everyone’s mind is Smith’s latest, The Fraud, which was released on September 5 and is already being fawned over by everyone from The New York Times and The Guardian to NPR and Vulture.
Taking place in the 1800s, the novel dives into the mind of Eliza Touchet, the housekeeper for and cousin (by marriage) of flailing writer William Ainsworth. It also follows a trial, in which a man from Australia claims he’s the heir to a not-insignificant British fortune, that captures the fascination of all of London—and the enslaved Jamaican who becomes a pivotal witness.
Based on real events (including the trial) and following real people (including Touchet, Ainsworth, and even some cameos from one Charles Dickens), The Fraud is an ambitious, sweeping tome that begs questions of identity, and purpose, and the flimsy nature of what is “true.”
But despite its setting in the 19th century, Smith is quick to point out that it’s not a historical novel.
“Just because something is set in the past, does that make it a historical novel? I don’t know,” she reflects. “To me, it’s a contemporary novel about the past. A historical novel is a kind of imitation, and I don’t think this book sounds anything like real 19th-century novels. So for me, it was just a story that happens to be 200 years ago instead of 20 years ago.”
She still did a healthy amount of research, of course, which helps root the book in time and place. But it also leaves room for her own spins and reimagings—perhaps why she acknowledges that there is a subconscious element to her writing process.
“Take the example of Mrs. Touchet: she is the person who has left the least historical trail. I mean nothing, really,” says Smith. “I spent 10 years reading about her cousin, not her, and I intended to write a book about her cousin. But then when I started to write it, literally from the first page, you can see that Mrs. Touchet opens the door—and then that was kind of it. Suddenly it was a book about her, but that wasn’t the plan. I hadn't planned to write a book through the eyes of Mrs. Touchet; that never crossed my mind. So that’s what I mean about subconscious. You just kind of have to get yourself into some kind of flow state. William bored me. I didn’t realize that; I didn’t think he did. But when it came to writing, I wasn’t really into writing about him.”
Smith became known in the literary world thanks to 2000’s White Teeth, and has since penned an impressive number of books, including Grand Union, Swing Time, and On Beauty. Her stories are vast, but signature throughlines can be found: dissections on race, and on belonging, and on London, along with witty dialogue and a strong sense of humour.
On that last point, Smith says it’s not so much intentional as it is natural.
“That’s part of the human sensibility—or at least it’s part of the human sensibility of people that interest me,” she explains. “I’m not sitting around thinking, ‘Where can I fit a joke in?’ It’s just the way the world appears to me, and I don’t find it to be in conflict with other matters. To me, the experience of being alive is this daily back and forth between absolutely tragic and infuriating things and absurd and comic things. The two exist together in my mind.”
Given the complexity of Smith’s writing, it’s no shock that multiple (often opposing) ideas exist in her world. She starts the process of every book with a simple question—what is beauty? (On Beauty); what does it mean to be poor? (NW); what is the relationship between Jamaica and England? (The Fraud)—but from there, she spins layered, rich, and expansive texts that ask a lot of their readers.
Her books are not the kind you can read passively. They require care, and presence, and a bit of detective work. Smith’s own brilliance is clear on the page, and she takes you along with her—not to show off, but because she knows you can keep up.
Or, if you’re me, at least mostly keep up. Two lines from The Fraud stand out to me so much that I write them down so that I can ask her to elaborate.
England is an elaborate alibi.
“The past 20 years, I’ve felt this great kind of consciousness capture of all English and European and even African and Asian lives by American conceptions. I’m sure Canada feels that every now and then,” Smith shares. “It’s a mixture between a capitalist success and a colonial overreach. It’s just that American concepts overrun our own, and one of the parts of writing this book for me was to try to think out of places I come from—out of the African diaspora and out of England, and not with this American mindset. And one of the key differences, it seemed to me, is that so many of England’s most exploitative and most oppressive actions have been offshore. And that is one of the things that has allowed England to have quite often this rosy and sentimental view of itself.”
A person is a bottomless pit.
“That’s the way I felt about these characters: that I could have gone on forever. I’m glad I didn’t—glad for me and for the reader. But you’re only able to give a snapshot of what you feel and think about these imagined people,” she says. “You have to have some humility in your approach to other people, even when you’re organizing their lives or telling them what’s best for them. These are all things I just try to remember myself when I’m writing.”
She certainly has a bottomless mind, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to peek inside and yell.
When: September 23, 7:30pm
Where: Chan Centre for the Performing Arts
Tickets: Sold out, but there will be a standby line at the venue two hours before the event; empty seats will be assigned based on availability on a first-come, first-serve basis