With tremendous success comes a price, but Zadie Smith is realistic about paying it
She’s 30 years old, has already published three international bestsellers, taught a class at Harvard and wants you to know that it’s not “a race to the finish line of death”. Zadie Smith is poised, sharp and conventionally beautiful with a simultaneously soft and angular face. She wears a brown headscarf, a brown trench and a wooden bracelet. She tells the crowd at the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) that she doesn’t like to be a young celebrity (in her native England, Smith is followed and photographed like a certified famous person) and likes America because, “Nobody bothered me in America, that was nice. America is too big a country for writers, they have actors.”
Fame has definitely changed Smith’s life – she says that instead of living most of her life, she was reading. And reading and reading. “If I had to make a choice between reading and writing, I would give up writing,” Smith says, “it would be a desperate life to not read at all.” Smith spends a good amount of time on book tours, travelling around the world. Though she says, as soon as she gets anywhere, she makes sure to make it as much like her native North London, England as possible – and sets up her hotel room so that she can immediately settle in to start reading.
At a reading at the IFOA, Smith’s reads with three other young notable authors, one of which is her husband Nick Laird. Her performance receives the most applause out of her group, though Laird comes considerably close. He is known to be a bit sensitive about his wife’s fame, especially uncomfortable when people refer to him as “Mr. Zadie Smith” – it happens. After the reading, as Smith attends to a line-up of tens of people clutching her books and waiting for autographs, Laird waits at the bar.
Geoffrey Taylor, IFOA director, swears that Smith wasn’t given any special consideration. Smith did go on last, but he says, “We just used alphabetical order.” As an afterthought, he mentions, “Sometimes we do reverse chronological order if we need to, though.” Smith’s career started when she was still studying at the University of Cambridge. She wrote White Teeth (2000), her first book, while in her early twenties (it came out when she was 25). After graduating, her sophomore attempt, The Autograph Man (2002) was met with less acclaim than White Teeth, but it still ended up in the hands of readers across the world. After that, Smith took a fellowship at Harvard, where she taught, worked on a non-fiction book on writing, and got working on her latest book, On Beauty, which she is now promoting after it was released in September.
The day after reading to an audience of pleased fans, Smith appears at an interview with Rebecca Caldwell, again at the IFOA. Not surprisingly, On Beauty deals with American academia and its nuances. The main characters in On Beauty are of mixed decent, a constant quality of all Smith’s books. The reading was met with a great response and her fans are still enthusiastic. “I wanted to write about how it feels to be taught,” Smith tells the IFOA audience. She mentions that although she doesn’t feel much for the characters she’s written after she finishes a book, she identifies with Kiki, one of On Beauty’s main characters.
“Kiki is the only character that I could talk about – I can sort of imagine what happens to her after the book ends.”
The audience at the interview is almost as diverse as one of Smith’s novels – people of all races show up, as well as a good mix of young, old and in between. Smith, unlike the other authors she read with the night before, did not speak before or after her reading. She simply stepped to the podium, read her bit and hurried offstage when she was done. The author is known for hating to be in the public eye and hating to speak with reporters. When Caldwell asks her about her reluctance to speak to the press, Smith says, “I would never stand by anything I say in an interview, I only stand by my fiction. If anyone wants, they can come up here and do my interview for me.”
Smith makes earnest jokes and handles the questions asked of her frankly. One man in his fifties sticks his hand up right away when the audience is given the chance to ask questions. “I notice that you’re quite attractive,” he says to a sea of giggles, “I wonder, would your books be any different if you were frumpy?” “I have to inform you,” Smith starts sharply, “that in 2000 I was 80 pounds heavier. I was very frumpy. So they wouldn’t be different. You know, Paul Auster is a good-looking man – would you ask him these questions?” Her answer is met with much applause.
Zadie Smith read at the International Festival of Authors. For future readings and schedules, visit http://www.readings.org.
Originally appeared on bravo.ca