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.
"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."
"He's off looking at the White House now," she says, and there's a wee bit of jealousy there.
Only she has an interview to do. "My mother says I'm the worst interview in the world!" she moans at one point, dropping her head into her hands. Her hair is up in a head wrap, giving more prominence to her gorgeous cheekbones and wide eyes. She is talking about reading. Or, more to the point, not reading -- at least at the moment. So far on this trip, she's managed all of two pages of Us Weekly, discovered in the seatback pocket of the car that retrieved her from the airport.
"I have absolutely no idea what it was about," she says of the magazine. "Obviously, I know movie stars. But a lot of it is about localized American celebrity. It's quite mysterious. It's like reading a novel or something."
She did bring tons of novels with her on the trip -- and has been collecting more as she goes along -- but, to her chagrin, there has been little time for that. She pines for them, though. Reading, she says, "is what fills me with stuff.
"That's the one thing that was absolutely true: I was able to read since I was very young," she says. "That's really my only distinguishing characteristic. I can't add. I don't understand basic science. Or anything else. But I can read anything. I've always been able to, and I've always liked to. Even if I didn't understand it, I liked to."
By begging, she says, she got into Cambridge despite all her mathematic and other shortcomings, and there she embraced literary theory and devoured every book she could.
"I'm really very grateful for it," Smith says of her time at Cambridge. "Without it, I don't know that I would be the kind of writer that I am. It made me widely read. And widely read is what I survive on. If I didn't have that, I'd really be doomed."
It was there that Smith started writing "White Teeth"; she was only 19 at the time. What happened next is literary lore: Based on fewer than 100 pages, she sold the manuscript for what has been reported as a $400,000 advance. She was 24 when it was published, to almost universal acclaim.
"White Teeth" is a complex novel, one that Smith says is imbued with her own sense of sadness at the time. Her father was ill with kidney cancer and she was confronted, in her early twenties, with her first sense of mortality.
"That was a sadness that was kind of long-lasting," she says. "And it's still there. I think in extreme situations, you find out what is really you, what's at the center of you. And at the center of me is just more books. I thought maybe for a while that wasn't true, but I do like to write a lot."
She rediscovered her joy in reading when she spent a year as a visiting lecturer at Harvard, where she re-read many of the classics that had shaped her as a writer before teaching them to her undergraduate students. "On Beauty" is heavily informed by that period -- the novel is set in New England, at an Ivy League wannabe college in a small town just outside Boston.
The story is about two academic families, the Belseys and the Kippses, and the reverberations that come when their lives collide. Howard Belsey is a fifty-something liberal white professor who has never gotten tenure or finished his great academic work (a critique of Rembrandt) and who has just committed an act of betrayal that threatens his 30-year marriage to his African American wife, Kiki, and the family unit he treasures. Monty Kipps is a bombastic, conservative African American professor who ahbors affirmative action and is publicly homophobic.
In the New York Times Book Review, critic Frank Rich describes Smith's talents as displayed in the novel thusly: "humor, brains, objectivity, equanimity, empathy, a pitch-perfect ear for smugness and cant, and then still more humor."
The book is a clear homage to E.M. Forster's classic "Howards End," opening: "One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father," echoing that novel's first sentence: "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister."
What is striking about "On Beauty," though, is the authenticity of the characters and their voices, be it the older Howard Belsey or his teenage son Levi (based in part on Smith's younger brother Luke) who awkwardly tries to bond with a Haitian immigrant seller of bootleg pocketbooks on the street.
"You hustling , man," Levi explains to a bemused Choo. "And that's a different thing. That's street . To hustle is to be alive -- you dead if you don't know how to hustle. And you ain't a brother if you can't hustle. That's what joins us all together -- whether we be on Wall Street or on MTV or sitting on a corner with a dime-bag. It's a beautiful thing, man. We hustling!"
The most powerful relationship in the book is between Howard and Kiki, a true love that has lasted 30 years of struggles to survive despite disappointment, frustrations and powerfully painful infidelity.
"That is the biggest treat of fiction that nobody ever really admits to -- that every character is just a little bit of you," Smith says. "It has to be, otherwise, you couldn't -- well, maybe if you were very, very good and had an enormous imagination, but I don't -- you couldn't do it. There's a lot of Howard in me, for instance. I'm not a 55-year-old white guy, but sometimes the inside of you doesn't look like the outside of you."
"Hmmm," she says. "That might be a good principle to apply to my fiction."
To critics, "On Beauty" represents clear-cut proof that Smith is not a one-shot wonder (her middle book, "The Autograph Man," received middling reviews and comparable sales), and it prompts a hunger to see what she can produce next. Her editor knows it's impossible to predict, but it's also wonderful to imagine: What will Smith be capable of writing at 35, at 40?
"If her work is really to be appreciated," Godoff says, "it'll be something that is read by generations of people."
Just don't expect Smith to start seeing herself that way.
"If nothing else," she says of "On Beauty," "it's a pretty enjoyable read. I wanted to write a book that gave me some joy. . . . There are lots of bits in it you don't want to look at or you think are badly written, but there's a few bits in it just as good as I can be -- within the restraint of being me and what I can do."