Autumn highlights: Zadie Smith
17.08.12 | Alice O'Keeffe
One of the most eagerly awaited literary offerings this autumn is NW (Hamish Hamilton, September), the new novel from Zadie Smith. It’s a return to the fertile north-west London setting of her hugely successful 2000 début White Teeth. Fittingly, we meet at The Paradise Club on Kilburn Lane, about a mile from where Smith grew up in Willesden and where, later in the evening, she will give the first public reading of NW to an audience of booksellers—to an enthusiastic reception.
It’s been seven years since her last novel, the Orange Prize-winning On Beauty. Smith explains that she wrote the first few pages of NW that long ago, “and just got stuck there for a really long time, about five years”. That is, she says, usually the way with her books, but “it was a longer struggle than usual”.
Those early first pages contained “the idea of a stranger coming, which is pretty ancient I suppose, the idea of someone coming to the door and not being entirely welcome”. NW opens with a compelling doorstep encounter between Leah and a desperate stranger asking for money. The novel follows four characters; Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan. All have escaped the inner-city Caldwell housing estate where they grew up, with varying degrees of success. Leah has acquired a flat, a non-demanding job and a devoted husband through no particular effort. She’s content with the way things are—and she really doesn’t want to have the baby that everyone tells her is the next step.
Leah’s oldest friend changed her name from Keisha to Natalie as part of a dedicated reinvention that has taken her from the council estate to the Bar. But after all her efforts, and the lifestyle she has to show for it, Natalie is on the verge of self-destruction. Meanwhile Nathan’s life has always been more about simple survival. As these lives cross, entwine and diverge, a dazzling and vivid portrait of a corner of 21st-century London is realised.
Smith describes NW as a book “about time, and about how time feels to people and how to deal with it. That’s the most simple answer and the most honest, because that’s what I was thinking about when I was writing. It’s so intense just to think about the way you experience time, how quickly it passes. That was really my whole hope when I was writing the book, that I might create that feeling in people. They have it anyway, obviously everybody has it, but just to intensify it for the length of a book.”
NW has a tighter focus, both in terms of geography and the cast of characters, than her earlier novels—“I think I just wanted to stop doing a lot of things badly and try to do a few things well.” The prose is inventive and ambitious, and a particular strength is the dialogue—but Smith is lightly dismissive: “If you have an ear for it, it’s not work at all . . . dialogue for me is the only thing I do without effort. Everything else; unbelievable effort!
“Certainly the fluidity of youth has gone, so you have to struggle with each page,” Smith says, reflecting on the writing process. “It’s very hard to listen to yourself for that long and feel that—even if you have had a career of some kind—someone wants to hear it or read it.” Even with three successful novels under her belt? “For me it’s worse because I just think of all the people I’m going to disappoint.” But she acknowledges: “You have to be willing to disappoint people too, and just write what you feel you need to write.”
Much of NW was written in New York, where Smith teaches on the NYU creative writing course. Being so far from London engendered “a kind of longing” for the city. “It’s an act of nostalgia, it’s much more emotional I think, when you’re far away.” Teaching is also crucial to her writing life: “When you’re with young people they make you read things, they put books in your hand . . . It’s very easy as a writer to stop being open to new things. You just decide that the 20 books you read when you were 20 years old will do, and you never read anything else. I’m always terrified of being that person.”
Her readers will be pleased to learn she’s already had an inkling for the next one—the only intriguing detail that “it’s a strange thing, a sci-fi book”—but she warns it will be years and years before fruition. But, as she says, “I think a novel should feel urgent, no? I don’t like to write unless I have a good reason to. And I know as a reader, I never care how long I have to wait for a novel—as long as it’s a good one.”
NW (Hamish Hamilton, 6th September, £18.99, hb, 9780241144145)
Photo credit: Dominique Nabokov