A little over a week ago, my partner and I attended a reading by the charming, brilliant writer Zadie Smith. This reading, sponsored by Politics and Prose and Sixth & I, was in support of her latest novel NW.
Smith read two passages from NW
and followed by answering questions by members of the audience. The passages from NW
showcased Smith’s knack for witty, insightful dialogue between characters living in a contemporary world still very much at odds with race, class, and other social issues of the day. Works of fiction (and non-fiction) that provide a deeper look into our lives and provide social commentary on the very issues affecting us have always intrigued me. Not having read the work yet, Smith’s reading of these NW
passages only further heightened my interest.
What was also interesting was learning more about Smith’s process as a writer during Q&A with the audience. When asked about character development and if she’s unable to release herself from her characters after completing her works, she said she’d never had that experience. Her focus when writing is “making sentences…and [making] them as well as [she] can.” Her characters develop as her writing develops. Sometimes she hears the voices of her characters before she writes them. Her method allows her to focus more on the craft (on good writing). There’s a sort of practicality to this, as I’m sure it allows Smith to let the her writing flow freely. While characters typically serve as projections of self, Smith takes slivers of herself and others (here and there) and expounds upon them to develop her characters.
Smith says her writing (and editing) is about control. She starts on the first page and doesn’t stop until she gets to the last page. She brought up the fact that natural flow can really help you indulge yourself, but you have to learn how to control it. Her writing, she says, “came out of her reading…a side effect like when you squeeze an orange for juice.” Because she read all the time, her writing was influenced by what she read. As writers, the rule thumb that we often follow (instinctively) is that we write what we want to read. As a recommendation, Smith says it’s pertinent that writers read as much as they can.
When asked about pop culture references in her work , she says they have to be appropriate, telling, and central to the characters. She says, “It’s part of the fabric of these character’s minds, who they are and what they do.” Not a fan of throwaway references, she hilariously quipped that she would not be including Honey Boo Boo in any of her novels.
After attending this reading, I developed a deeper respect and appreciation for Zadie Smith. Instead of following formulas (like some of her peers), it’s clear that she challenges herself with each work. She takes risks. She writes stories that require us to really think about our world and how we coexist within it. Smith’s style and voice, I believe, will continue to push boundaries in the literary world—further solidifying her as one of the best writers of her generation.