Correction to This Article
A Nov. 14 Style article on novelist Zadie Smith misspelled the name of British writer Martin Amis.

Zadie Smith, Putting Herself Into Her Work

Every character has a piece of her, admits British author Zadie Smith, author of
Every character has a piece of her, admits British author Zadie Smith, author of "On Beauty." (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 14, 2005

Zadie Smith is tucked somewhere back in the corner, in the children's book section, behind a microphone that is lost in the sea of people who have flooded Olssons in Penn Quarter for a Wednesday night reading. The crowd is multicultural, young and old, in business dress and student slob. Bodies fill the aisles, blocking access to literature, fiction, health, sports.

The lines twist through the store, running so deep that those in the back can only make out phrases here and there as Smith stands behind the microphone -- somewhere back there, they assume, since they can't actually see her -- reading an excerpt from her new comic novel, "On Beauty." Outside, as twilight falls, passersby stop on the sidewalk and peer through the plate glass, watching her mouth move, nodding and pointing, even though they can hear nothing.

She is a literary rock star, Zadie Smith, all of 30 years old and spoken about in the same breath as fellow Brits Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Martin Amos ("a postmodern Charles Dickens," this newspaper declared her). She is used to the comparisons by now -- after all, they started five years ago, upon the publication of her first, critically acclaimed, novel, "White Teeth" -- though she finds them somewhat surreal. Surreal, like the fact that Rushdie and McEwan, authors she devoured as a student, are actually her "contemporaries," men she sits next to at literary events, where they exchange chitchat about their various work.

"Well, it's not like it's me and Ian and Salman having tea every Tuesday," Smith says, laughing, over mineral water at the Topaz Hotel a few hours before her book-signing.

"I see them at festivals, but we don't hang or anything."

Smith is, after all, a working-class girl from the multiethnic north London neighborhood of Willesden Green. She grew up in a tenement flat, the daughter of a white father and a Jamaican mother. She had to beg her way into Cambridge. She is a master of self-deprecation.

"What experiences did you draw upon to develop your characters?" asks a serious-looking middle-aged man at her reading.

Smith laughs.

"Oh, I haven't been anywhere!" she says, and the audience chuckles with her. "That's the beauty of writing fiction. I get to make it up!"

Her world, she explains, is that of the books that populated her childhood and continue to be the greatest pleasure of her adult life. Vacations, travel? Her family's idea of a "trip" was a jaunt to Cornwall. "I've never been to Africa or India or anything like that," she says. Her biggest journey, thus far, was her first American book tour, for "White Teeth" -- one that was a kaleidoscope of bad room service, cookie-cutter bookstores and too much self-criticism for her publicist's taste.

"The first time out of the gate, she was a very young woman who had not really had an exposure to the public, or to reading [in public], or anything," says Ann Godoff, Smith's American editor at Penguin Press. "People were saying, 'Here's the next new thing.' She had spent a long time writing a book, sitting quietly in a room doing that, and this piece of it -- the public face of authordom -- was completely new and alien."

Back for her second American book tour ("I think Milwaukee next, and then somewhere in Texas?" she muses), Smith is more relaxed, playful. She recently celebrated her one-year wedding anniversary with poet husband Nick Laird, who has accompanied her on this book tour, making, as she puts it, "all the difference."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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