Penguin prepares double edition of Ali Smith novel

Penguin prepares double edition of Ali Smith novel

Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton is publishing Ali Smith's Man Booker longlisted How To Be Both (28th August) in a double edition; there will be two versions of the hardback, looking identical on the outside, and buyers will find themselves picking one or the other at random.

The novel is written in two parts of equal length - one in the voice of a contemporary teenager, recently bereaved, and one in that of a true-life early Renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa - with links and slippages running between the two. In half of the print run, the contemporary section runs first; in half, it is placed second, so the reading experience becomes different.

Smith told The Bookseller she started the novel with the idea of this variable two-part structure and had to check with Hamish Hamilton publisher Simon Prosser that Penguin was prepared to do it before she went ahead. She said: "Simon really cuts me slack, Penguin is a big business, and God knows how he talked it through. He said, 'We'd just split the print run and divide the file.' Some of the international publishers have raised an eyebrow, sweetly - 'What if people think it's a mistake?'"

Oddly, the e-book has proved more complicated; rather than the random allocation of the print edition, it looks likely that two separate digital versions will be offered with readers asked actively to choose one or the other. (But anyway, Smith prefers print, "with a spine, like an animal – trees and skin").  

Inspiration for How to be Both came from a secondhand book about Florence's frescos which Smith happened across. "There was damage to the frescos from floods, and they took the fresco off the wall like a great skin, and underneath there was the synopia – the original sketch the artist made, with a rust-coloured stick. Often the picture underneath was really different from the picture on top. We look at the surface and always there is something underneath that we can't see. So I wanted a two-fold structure with a surface beneath, which rises through the skin of the story."   

She herself has absolutely no preference about which order the novel is read in. "Saramago [Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer whom Smith discussed in her book of essays, Artful] laments the fact that with narrative you don't have synchronicity – the novel as a form has to be about time, it has to adhere to a chronology – sequence and consequence. My two-part structure is about honouring the way that time works for us as human beings – we hold the past in the present moment. And when you read a book, you travel in its present.

"Who says a story will reach us in the same order, always? We are always accompanied by the other possibilities. When you read Middlemarch at different ages, you are getting to a narrative, but it is never the same book – even when it is the same book."