British novelist Zadie Smith discusses life as writer in New York, merits of Twitter

Novelist and essayist Zadie Smith sat down with the Arcade on Tuesday before she gave a reading in the LBC. 

Novelist and essayist Zadie Smith sat down with the Arcade on Tuesday before she gave a reading in the LBC. 

British novelist Zadie Smith spoke Tuesday at the Lavin-Bernick Center to a room packed with students and New Orleans locals. She read an unpublished story, titled “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” which she said came about in an effort to escape her writing’s usual “intensely local perspective.” For the second part of the evening, English Professor Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé interviewed Smith, then opened the floor up to questions from the audience.

Smith has published four novels, most recently “NW” in 2012. Her first novel, “White Teeth,” won international praise and several awards, including the Guardian First Book Award and the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. She was raised in North London by a Jamaican mother and an English father. She now lives in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at New York University.

The Arcade got a chance to sit down with Smith before the lecture. The conversation touched on Tao Lin, growing older, life in New York, and Twitter.

The Arcade: Has living in New York affected your writing?

Zadie Smith: It has. A third of the novel I’m writing right now is set in New York, so it’s seeping in in a more practical way. I feel more distant from England, I think about America more, I read American papers, I think about this election rather than the one at home. It has its effects but I’m aware, also, that New York is full of writers and we’re all from somewhere else. So making New York your subject is — well — it’s a crowded scene. It appears, but I still write a lot about England.                                                                                         

A: So there’s this idea of the New York writer. Have you gotten interested in New York writing?

ZS: New York writing — what it really means is that someone does your laundry, and you eat Chinese food almost every day, and you go downtown to the movies and uptown to the opera. They’re not wild anymore. I know all those New York writers; most of them have got families and they’re living in Brooklyn. I think New York writing to me is about — the thing that distinguishes it — is that New York writers spend a hell of a lot of time with other writers. I think that that shows sometimes in their writing. I like it. I like being a part of a community, even a fancy-pants New York literary community. It’s nice for me.

A: And you found less of a community like that in England?

ZS: It’s different in England. Class matters so much, you know. In America, it doesn’t as much. When I’m around writers, I don’t feel working class in relation to them. I guess I always felt that in England.

A: I read your piece about the billboard you could see from your window in Manhattan. Do you find that [New York] is a different space in terms of the commercial culture?

ZS: Well, you know, I’m much less likely to write about a beautiful tree. I’m surrounded by commerce. I live between Greenwich Village and SoHo. I think New York is good for me in that my life is very limited. I have to take my kids to school, I do a very small amount of things, I don’t have adventures. If I was doing that in some rural village in England, I would feel that my subject is very small, whereas in New York, even though I walk three blocks, there’s an amazing amount of people in those three blocks, and an amazing amount of things to see. Just getting on the subway is useful to me. I’m lucky, the world comes to me. I don’t have to do much.

A: So you mentioned your new novel—where is it set?

ZS: It’s set in London, and New York and West Africa, and it’s not finished. That’s the main thing about it. But it is being published this autumn, so I need to get on with it.

A: So you don’t have a Twitter?

ZS: I do not have a Twitter.

A: Can you talk about that decision?

ZS: I don’t have the phone that would allow me to do the Twitter. There’s a limited amount of things you can do on a Samsung from 1987. For me, it’s not a moral point, it’s just about time. I don’t have time. I don’t have the time do it, to do any of that. Even if I look at Lena Dunham’s Instagram, which I perfectly enjoy doing, that’s half an hour. I don’t have half an hour. I have four hours to write every day and I have to write, so I do waste time on the Internet but it’s mainly just lurking. I see Twitter, I read it, but I just can’t waste time on it. For other people it’s part of the their process or part of their art, and they make an audience that way, but to me, it’s just not useful for me. I don’t have that many opinions, or the ones I have are totally offensive. If it was on Twitter, I would be in so much trouble everyday. It’s not worth it.

A: It seems to me like your work deals a lot with identity, and building an identity in a communal space or a family or one of a community. Can you talk about how technology would play into that?

ZS: I mean, I’m old. I don’t want to pass judgement on how people are forming their identities online. Except to say, I guess, I know a lot of young people who do a lot of Twitter, very famous Twitterers, and I noticed, when they do something on, and there’s five million people reading their tweets or whatever, and I’d be surprised by something they’d express, but when you talk to them in private you realize that they don’t feel, they don’t feel that way. There’s things you’ll say online that are not true, really. They’re for some kind of approval. Some kind of reaction. And that would tire me very much, having to try and please people, to say the right thing. The fear of offending people. I would find it exhausting, I think…I was on, for a very little while, I was on Instagram without a phone. It was a very laborious process, you have to take photographs, download them to a PC, then upload it. It’s ridiculous. Takes about an hour each time I did it. And was for just family friends, like 40 people, and I noticed within a month that I was not honest. I was not honest! I could have a day with my husband that was just absolutely brutal, screaming, shouting, you would never know it, because of this lovely picture of the dog and the kids, and a life in New York looks fabulous. And I thought, “What is the purpose of this?” I just didn’t understand what I was doing. Felt like I was running a business. And I couldn’t. And maybe when you have children, the most painful thing is that you’re thinking not first of the child, but of the image of the child. It seemed to me slightly deadening. I couldn’t do it.

A: And what do you think of, I’m thinking about a specific couple of New York writers, like Tao Lin and Mira Gonzalez…

ZS: I love Tao Lin. I think he’s brilliant.

A: They just had “Selected Tweets” come out, which seems like a very large part of their work.

ZS: I think Tao Lin’s tweets are really good and really interesting…And he makes an art form out of it, and he, he’s one of the few writers that I’ve read who treats online reality in an integral way. You know, he exists within it. He’s very aware that for most people that is now a large part of their lives, a large part of their day, and I think he’s very smart but he’s also very rare. There aren’t many like that.

A: You mentioned that you spent four hours a day writing. Can you talk a little bit about your process and how you conceptualize your work?

ZS: My life doesn’t really enable a process. Like, today I knew I was going to be wasting most of my time in an airport, so I have a computer, I have brown noise, I have earphones, I have a work program that blocks out the internet and a blank page and I just try to get as much done as I can. I’m obsessed with making lunch as short as possible, doing it… making everything domestic, condensed — I wash up quickly, clean, I have someone to look after my children, I just have practical concerns. But allowing myself those four hours, now, most of the time I don’t get it, but on a good day I get it. Yeah. I just learned to write in very extreme circumstances. I wrote a whole short story, in fact, I’m reading it tonight, in a cafe in Calgary, recently. I never used to do that shit. So, I’ve just become very aware that I’m halfway through my life and I haven’t got time to waste. Halfway. Two-thirds of the way. Whatever it is. Yeah.

A: Well, speaking of that, a final question. If you could recommend a reading list for college students, or some books for people 18-20 years old, what should they read?

ZS: I mean I can’t. It’s hard to be specific because the list is so long, but the thing that strikes me is that you should read the things that you don’t want to read. Like you can read Tao Lin any day of the week, but there’s a whole world of writing, not just Anglo-American writing, international writing, going back, you know, like 2,000 years that you could read. My recommendation is always to read in a vertical fashion, not just the kid that seems cute or smart to you, or the latest guy in the New York Times, but to read deeply. And when I think, like, my generation, I think of the incredibly hip, brighter times, like Foster Wallace, and I think about what he was reading, Which included ancient Greeks, Romans, the whole of philosophy, the whole of the English novel, French, that’s what makes a writer like that. So it depends what kind of writer you want to be. But reading seriously is what makes a good writer, in my opinion.

A: And you see a distinction between reading seriously, like, things that have been written, and are part of the established canon, that are old and that are not necessarily fun to read?

ZS: The canon matters to me because I want to feel myself part of a long process, but reading what just came out, if I’m reading Ben Lerner that to me is as serious as reading Schopenhauer, I just mean quality. But an important thing to me, I guess, is not just reading my peers. I don’t see the purpose of that. I have to read a bit more widely than that.

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