Christpher Bollen interviews Zadie Smith in, um, Interview.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: I know that being a British writer is important to you. You see your place in literature as distinctively British—not global, or Western, or post-geographic. Why is Britain so meaningful to you?
ZADIE SMITH: I don’t really know. I was just discussing this new global novel that’s coming out, which is written very carefully so it can sell to all markets. It offends no one. It’s a literary novel that is so neutral that it means the same in Israel and Pakistan, and everywhere else. It’s depressing. I just feel I’m a writer of a particular place and I can’t really disguise it. There’s a big history in literature—and Joyce is the most obvious example—of writing obsessively about two miles of town. Even though Joyce hadn’t lived there in 30 years. And there’s the same history with New York novelists of course. It’s just love, right? You write about what you care about.
BOLLEN: Creatively, do you always go back to London in your mind?
SMITH: I think London is a state of mind. I was taking the subway up here today, and it could have been London, in that there were no two people of the same color sitting next to each other. It’s a certain kind of city that I grew up in that I’m used to, that’s second nature to me now. New York, in ways, is very similar.
BOLLEN: I will say that reading NW as an American is probably very different than reading it as a Londoner. For one thing, you really capture the vernacular of North West London. For those of us who aren’t British, it’s a form of English where you really need to slow down and read to comprehend. So many “innits.” I think Americans feel they have invented slang, so it’s a surprise. Although I have a theory that American accents are going extinct.
SMITH: Because of television?
BOLLEN: Yes. The Southern accent or the Long Island accent is slowly being flattened out into the national weatherman accent. But those are regional differences, rather than class or racial differences. The dialogue in NWemphasizes class and race.
SMITH: It’s just a different perspective. For instance, I adore Don DeLillo, but it happens in Don DeLillo’s fiction that everybody speaks exactly like Don DeLillo. It’s not important to him because the differences between these people is not what he’s getting at. He’s usually got a larger, macro idea going on. But for me, in London, when you hear somebody speak, it tells you everything. And the difference is not small. It means up to and including differences in life expectancy, education, and what they do on a Friday night. Everything is different. But it isn’t about recording voices accurately. The Wire doesn’t copy precisely how African-American men talk in Baltimore. It’s a separately designed language to indicate these people, but the way people really talk is usually boring. “Yeah. Like. Okay. Sure”—it’s tedious. If you try to record that in prose, you’ll send your reader to sleep. If I try to record North West London contemporary slang, it’s too enormous and too evolved, and I’m just too old for it. So you just choose some basic terms, something that can be handled and understood, and go from there.