In this conversation with Canadian Living's editor-in-chief, Jes Watson, author, essayist and all-around brilliant Brit Zadie Smith shares the impetus behind her new novel, Swing Time, talks changing up her style and reveals why writing about what you love is always a dangerous move.
Jes Watson: This is the first book you've written in the first person, and the narrator remains nameless throughout. It has the feel of an autobiography, but it's still firmly rooted in fiction. Why did you decide to write the book that way?
Zadie Smith: I wanted to see if I could pull it off, really—to create a completely fake life that felt real to the people reading it. That's the challenge of the first person in fiction, because you're lying. You have to try to make it real. So it was a kind of test for me, and I enjoyed doing it.
JW: Is there anything in the book that is true to you?
ZS: It's all fiction. But the interest of the book, certainly the interest in tap dance and music, is mine. But that's always true. My interest in Rembrandt in On Beauty was mine. I think the most autobiographical things are always the preoccupations.
JW: Dance is the driving force of the novel. What inspired you to focus on that?
ZS: I try to think of what is pleasurable enough to sit there for three years and think about. I need to have an external focus, a kind of enthusiasm. I'm a bit sad about writing about [dance], actually, because one guaranteed way to destroy a pleasure is to write a novel about it.
JW: You have amazing precision when it comes to translating the movement of dance into prose. Did that come easily?
ZS: Whenever I'm writing about something, I work on the principle of "Say what you see." When you write, all kinds of things can get in the way: You want to sound smart, or you want to say something pretentious. But I've been more and more focused on what is in front of me and how I, in the least number of words, can convey that to somebody else.
JW: Was the idea of costume and style important to you?
ZS: I think one of the subterranean forces in women's writing are these descriptions of food and clothes. The example I always think of most intently is Virginia Woolf, if you read A Room of One's Own. It's a strange essay because so much of it has to do with food. It's a kind of mental space that women occupy. It's a tradition in women's writing, and a proud one at that.
JW: The architecture of the book is fluid, jumping through time periods and locations. Did you set out to write it that way?
ZS: I always mean to start at the beginning and end at the end in a straight line and for it to be 140 pages long. That's the plan, and then a quarter in, I realize it's going to be 200 [pages] and then 300, and I get very depressed. I don't like long novels, and I don't intend to write them. I'm always trying to tell something, then correct it a little bit to keep the person reading on their toes. So they don't get stuck in one position.