The publishers Hamish Hamilton who publish so many authors I love such as Ali Smith, Adam Haslett and Deborah Levy kindly invited me to interview Zadie Smith on Thursday evening at a special preview event for her forthcoming novel “Swing Time”. How could I say no?! Smith’s meteoric rise to literary fame occurred in the same year I first moved to London in 2000. Ever since reading the wonder that is “White Teeth” I’ve avidly followed her writing – not only her novels but her eloquent journalism such as her review of Christian Marclay’s artwork ‘The Clock’ (one of the most brilliant pieces of art from the last decade) and her recent powerful essay about our post-Brexit world ‘Fences.’ She’s an admirably thoughtful writer who portrays a wide variety of characters with depth and insight.
I read “Swing Time” last week and it is such an engaging and fascinating book. I’ll post a full review about it in November when it’s published. But just to give you an idea of what this new novel is about here’s a brief summary. The narrator recounts her adolescence growing up in North London in the 1980s with a fiercely intelligent feminist mother and a friendship she forms with a provocative and high-spirited girl named Tracey. They bond over a shared love of dancing and are “magnetically” drawn together because they are both mixed race and have matching skin colours. She recounts her development into the 90s and then the narrative takes an interesting turn where it zigzags through time showing scenes from the narrator’s adult life working as an assistant for a famous pop star who wants to establish a school for girls in West Africa and also shows how the narrator’s friendship with Tracey broke apart in their teenage years. “Swing Time” is also the title of a 1930s musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and a scene from this film features in the prologue. The narrator becomes somewhat entranced with watching scenes from old Hollywood musicals particularly in the offensive way they depict race. The novel gives a fascinating perspective on time, racial identity and growing economic/social/political divisions over a few decades.
The event was held in the Prince Albert pub in Camden – a locale in the neighbourhood of the novel’s narrator. Zadie read from the opening chapter and then we talked about how this novel is quite a different book for her in its structure and focus on only one character’s perspective. We also discussed the vulnerability of writing in the first person, the fractured sense of identity created by the diaspora, the draw of nostalgia and her lifelong love of musicals. She was so engaging and interesting in her answers I wish I could have spoken to her for ages. It was also a strange coincidence that Mark Lawson sat right behind me and Zadie because the room was so packed chairs for the audience were placed behind us as well. When I first came to the UK I loved watching Newsnight Review on the BBC because (coming from the US) it felt so amazing to me that there was a serious show devoted to reviewing the arts and culture. Lawson was the show’s long time host and I’ve always respected his opinions.
This is the first time I’ve interviewed an author so it was slightly nerve-wracking that it would be with someone of Zadie’s stature. But our talk went down well with the audience who all seemed engaged and excited about the novel. It was also wonderful speaking to Zadie one on one about what else we’ve been reading recently and life in the US vs the UK. She’s very friendly and sweet so even though I felt anxious about the interview she put me at ease. It felt like a nice cosy event even though there were around 100 people there with lots of drinks and bookish chat after our talk. It was such a pleasure doing this event. I hope you’re now looking forward to reading “Swing Time” when it comes out in November because it’s such an excellent novel.
Are you a Zadie fan and which of her novels do you like most?