Zadie Smith + Nick Laird: The WD Interview

Nick Laird and Zadie Smith talk about how teaching affects their writing, craft insights they’ve discovered, and how staying off Twitter has made them better writers in this November/December 2020 Writer's Digest interview.
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My appreciation for the writing of Zadie Smith began January 30, 2007 at Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road. I spotted the most beautiful book cover I’d ever seen, for a book called On Beauty. I bought the book without knowing anything about Smith, saved the receipt as a bookmark, and started reading it on the plane back to the States. With writing as beautiful as the cover, my heart broke for Kiki and I was infuriated with Howard—but more than that, I was astonished at the depth of the characters’ nuances and motivations.

Fast forward two years and I stumbled on the writing of Nick Laird in much the same way. Shelving books at Borders Books & Music, the story told through illustrations on the cover of Glover’s Mistake caught my eye. Then, the multi-layered story of James, David, and Ruth and their life in London drew me in and I couldn’t put the book down.

It was a quick reference to Zadie Smith on the acknowledgments page of that book, and then a brief name-check of “Nicky Laird” while reading White Teeth a few months later when I started putting two and two together. Nick Laird and Zadie Smith could be added to the list of literary power couples who live, write, and edit together.

Known collectively for their novels, poetry, short stories, and essays, they met when Laird was editor of The Mays anthologies (a collection of writing from the students of Oxford and Cambridge) and Smith submitted her writing for consideration. Laird, who has written four collections of poetry, three novels, and has several other projects in the works, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize for his most recent collection of poetry, Feel Free, and is a professor of poetry at Queen’s University in Belfast and at New York University. Smith is a tenured professor of fiction at NYU and is the author of five novels, three essay collections, and a collection of short stories. In addition to splitting their time between writing and teaching, they also split their time between New York City and London.

Laird’s most recent novel, Modern Gods, hits on the intersection of politics, religion, and culture in a captivating tale of reinvention, and Smith’s newest essay collections Feel Free (2018) and Intimations (2020) address similar topics with the same level of depth and nuance as On Beauty, so that’s where we began our conversation.

Both of you write about topics that hit on politicized themes, and Nick, you’ve said in previous interviews that writing is inherently political. Do you think writers have a social responsibility and if so, what is it?

Nick Laird: I think one has a responsibility to tell it like it is, and I think writing is inherently political because deciding what to look at or prioritize or highlight is a question of ethics and motivation and history. Poems deal in meaning, purposes, and human values so they are always political in some sense. Being interested in relationships between truth and authenticity is political, but I’m not interested in fiction or poetry that is motivated solely by politics: We resist work that has, as Keats said, a “palpable design on us.”

As for resistance poetry, I find that poetry is too large and various to be reduced to a focus on Donald Trump. The problems—and the joys—of life are much deeper and wider than that. If he comes up in the poems because I’m exercised by him—and I am, and he does—I try to also make sure it has an eye to the wider story. Why he’s here, what historical patterns he embodies, etc. I don’t want poems that just say racism is wrong. I’m not so interested in poems that tell me what I already know.

Poetry is language where the meaning or the signified is the whole process of signification itself: It’s how it is said, as well as what is said. It’s form and content. To attend to the multiple aspects of words, their sonic qualities, their history and connotations, is to resist a world where language is worn to a purely functional leanness by commerce, capitalism, bureaucracy. That’s a political—and radical—act in itself.

Zadie Smith: There’s a lot of pious, self-aggrandizing stuff you hear from writers on this point: They’re giving a “voice to the voiceless,” etc. … As if they’ve been elected to the task. I don’t presume to imagine what political effect my writing has—that’s not something that can be predetermined. But I do hope to model a kind of thinking that might have some utility. Alternative ways of conceiving of arguments and ideas, for example. My first commitment is to beauty, which is in no way apolitical, in my view. I think of my favorite Marxist aesthete William Morris: “I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

[Read our interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen.]

You’ve both commented that neither of you have smartphones and don’t participate in social media. How has that choice has affected your writing?

NL: Yeah, no smartphones. I have a dumb phone that my family has the number for but I don’t carry it around. I don’t do social media, though I’m Professor of Poetry at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University in Belfast, as well as teaching at NYU, and I have an account on Twitter to publicize scholarships or events that the Centre is doing, but I try not to use it. In the early days someone was impersonating Zadie on Twitter so I had to contact them to get it taken down and I got an account then in my name. I used it a bit in the early days of lockdown, and now I look at it maybe once a fortnight. I do find myself occasionally retweeting a grizzly bear righting traffic cones or a cat playing the piano, but mostly I find it embarrassing, like being party to an argument at the next table. It’s a terrible format for intelligent discourse and becomes a weird glimpse into private neuroses masquerading as public acts. As an experiment, Twitter is certainly an interesting experiment, but unfortunately, it’s an experiment that’s ruined the world. It’s a race to the bottom of the human psyche.

Still, it’s impossible to be immune to the moment: Writers are sunk waist-deep in the times and we all know it when we see it—a kind of platform manners in the work. But I’d hope that not participating in social media, not writing for response, or not for the quick response, not hoping for likes or clicks or retweets, might allow a certain freedom to the work, and in the long term this would be a good thing.

ZS: At first, for me, it was mainly a selfish time issue. I didn’t have the time. It was either kids and books, or Twitter and kids, or books and Twitter, but it couldn’t be all three. But I realized it was, for me, also a mental health issue. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Addictive personality plus self-involvement plus tendency to want to escape reality … it would have been the death of me. I understand it’s “my privilege” not to have to have one, and I’m very grateful for that privilege, but I also know that if I’d had a smartphone these past 10 years I would be a vastly different writer, a much more depressed person, not to mention the fact I’d have a completely different relationship with my kids … I’ve regretted a lot of things in my life but not that choice—not for a second. That doesn’t mean I’m not online: I’m on my computer plenty. But having it in my pocket 24/7 would have been, for me, totally destructive.

Those are all selfish personal reasons. Of course, there’s also the political aspect. It’s become clear over the past decade that one of the biggest battles in front of us, as citizens, is the wholesale corporate colonization of our minds and free will by enormous capitalist conglomerates. In my view all our other, urgent resistance movements will be either rendered toothless or seriously diverted from their aims if a mass abdication and/or transformation of these monopolistic platforms doesn’t at some point take place. It’s not a luddite position—to me it’s about resistance. I don’t have anything against “technology.” I have something against the way the technology is currently being exploited as a medium of behavioral experimentation and modification on an unprecedented scale. I cannot pretend I didn’t get a phone for this reason but at this point I’m very glad that I happen to not have one.

Both of you teach literature, writing, and/or philosophy at a college level. What impact does that interaction with students have on your writing?

NL: I find my students’ interest in poetry—at least the students who are interested in reading it as well as writing it—contagious, and exciting, and renewing. I try to teach students to be alert to a poem’s mood, its tone and pitch and rhythm and texture, and not just “what it says.” I do worry that there is a tendency to police each other in workshop, and there is a certain right-thinking now that is rigorously enforced. I find my Irish and British students perhaps more open to discussion, though the U.S.—as it has done since the ’50s—is remarkably successful at exporting its culture, and I see this culture of thought policing creeping into my classes in Europe.

ZS: You get to see, in real time, the total dismantling of your world and all your ideas about the world. And then perhaps if you stay long enough you get to see the cyclic nature of some of these deconstructions and reconstructions. … Either way, it’s bracing.

You’ve both escaped pigeon-holing yourselves into a writer of a specific form—Nick is known for his poetry and novels; Zadie is known for her novels, essays, and short stories. Often we hear that if a writer writes one thing well, publishers want more of the same. How did you escape that fate? Was there ever a point when you had to convince a publisher to take a chance on something new?

ZS: I know my experience is not representative so I’m not sure how to answer it. I’ve always just thought of it as “writing” and not worried too much about what form I’m writing in. I’d never write poetry, because that’s a completely different formal challenge, but the difference between lengths—short stories versus novels—never struck me as very important, nor the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I’m sure they make an enormous difference to publishers: A novel is no doubt always more welcome than essays. But again, I’ve been fortunate to write the things that feel urgent to me at the time: not urgent financially or because a publisher demanded them, but because I needed to write them. I’m very fortunate to able to write what I feel I need to write rather than what an audience or publisher wants me to write. It’s a form of leeway that came my way because of White Teeth, which earned money for my publisher and freed me to follow my nose as far as the choice of projects goes. I hope I would have written freely with or without the cushion of White Teeth, but it’s a counterfactual. I’ll never know.

NL: I’ve never thought of it in those terms. I imagine if I sold millions of books that there would be some pressure to repeat the formula, but fortunately or unfortunately my lack of sales frees me into writing what I want. As for fiction, my publisher after my first novel asked me not to make any characters in my second novel Northern Irish, as the British public aren’t interested in people from Northern Ireland she said—which is, or was, true. And I went along with it. I wouldn’t do that now. Though comprising a significant proportion of the U.K.’s population, the Northern Irish are not represented in British life at all really—not in the media or on television—and to the extent that they are represented it’s always through the prism of the Troubles—as bigots or terrorists or victims … In any event, I’m working on a couple of nonfiction books—one a guide to poetry, and the other reworking various essays and lectures about Irish and American poets.

Nick, I’ve read that you’ve been working on several scripts/film projects, and Zadie, I read that you were as well, but decided it wasn’t for you. Nick, what appeals to you about working on scripts?

NL: I like working with other people. I was a lawyer for a few years after college and enjoyed working on a team. The life of a writer is one of intense loneliness, and scripts are a way to work with other people. I also enjoy the speed of it. You can get it done quickly.

Zadie, what didn’t you like about it?

ZS: The fact that I’m no good at it! My structural mind and my plot mind are the weakest part of my writing game. My dream film-wise is to be hired to polish dialogue—but nobody ever asks me to do that. They ask me sometimes to write films or TV but I find creating plot from whole cloth incredibly hard to achieve. I’m the person who watches a TV show and has no idea who the murderer is till the last 10 minutes of the last episode. Nick’s the one who knows a few minutes after the opening credits are finished. It’s a different skill set.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Is “the writing life” what you imagined it would be?

ZS: I just wanted to be in the word business. I would have been happy as an editor or a teacher or a book reviewer. I always wanted to be a writer at some level but when I was a kid it seemed fantastical as a job. I thought only about passing my exams, and then the next exams, and then reading one book, and then the next. The writing came out of the reading. Even now, though I am aware I obviously have a “career,” in order to do it effectively I have to keep to the same student-like routines. Here are the books I want to read this month. Here are the essays (now self-assigned) I have to complete. Here is the novel I have in my mind. That’s how I work.

Zadie Smith | Writer's Digest quote

NL: I think of it less that I wanted to be a writer, and more that, like all kids, I made up stories and poems when I was little but I never quite grew out of it.

Nick, before becoming a full-time writer, you practiced law and wrote, until you got two book contracts at the same time, at which point writing during lunch and in the evenings didn’t cut it. You gave up law and switched to focusing on writing full-time. Now, you teach and write. How are you able to do both now?

NL: The last six months have just been childcare, cooking, cleaning. When the lockdown started Zadie was depressed and locked herself in the basement of the friend’s house we were staying in, then came out with a book of essays. But I can’t work like that. I need the kids to go back to school. I’ve been able to teach during this time but not write creatively. Simply to feel like I was doing something I wrote 20,000 words of a children’s novel, which I might continue with, but it was a matter of just getting an hour and then frantically banging out 500 not-very-good words. I needed to feel like I was doing something, anything. If the kids go back to school I’m hoping to sit down and see what I’ve got.

Many interviews have documented that you share your work with each other and edit each other. Do either of you share your work with anyone else before your agent or editor sees it?

NL: Zadie shares her work with everyone. She wants a daily cheerlead. I share mine with no one. I pooter along. At the end I give it to her to read—and in the case of a review or an essay or fiction, to edit—but then it goes to the actual editor.

ZS: Nick first. But also many friends and other writers. It’s harder than you’d think to get someone to read an unpublished novel. … It’s a time commitment and everyone’s busy. But I really value the opinions of others. I’m thankful to anyone who reduces the possibility of me making a fool of myself in front of strangers.

Zadie, you made a name for yourself very early on (White Teeth was published when you were just 22) and you’ve talked about how a writer’s prose changes over time just as painters have periods. What writing (craft) or publishing (business) knowledge do you have now that you wished you’d had then?

ZS: My publishing knowledge remains paltry. But craft-wise I hope I’ve come on quite a bit. The main things that have changed for me is that I now know good dialogue requires no italics, that silence can be as useful as noise, that the reader needs space to have their own thoughts, that happy endings are not a part of my duty, that aphorisms about life are usually fraudulent and self-regarding, that wisdom—if it exists—means understanding what you don’t know, and that most people are so much more mysterious than you could ever imagine, and this should be reflected in any writer’s approach to “character.”

Zadie, in your essay “Some Notes on Attunement,” you mentioned that one summer you made a point of reading writers who’d made sex their primary concern. And Nick, while you were researching for Modern Gods you collected dozens of books about Papua New Guinea. Writers can spend years researching—how do you push yourself out of that reading/research stage and into the writing?

ZS: That can be hard. A habit left over from college, for me, is completism. I have to read the whole stack of intended books and make notes before I start. But sometimes it’s a mistake. Last year I read a load of books in preparation for a historical novel but then I didn’t start writing and none of the reading has stayed with me so I’ll have to start again. And the task starts to look endless …

NL: Shame. Boredom. Bills.

In a conversation with Michael Chabon, Nick talked about the idea of creating an origin myth for a new book—something to tell interviewers and the press that gets attention. In 2018, you both had collections called Feel Free published (Nick’s, a collection of poetry; Zadie’s, a collection of essays) and the origin myth is that the title was Nick’s first and Zadie borrowed it. After reading the conversation with Chabon, I wonder, is that really how it happened? It certainly is effective.

ZS: I’m afraid that was no ploy. That was a genuine fuck-up on my part, for which I may never be entirely forgiven. I don’t consciously create origin myths. But I realize during the press part that small narratives get solidified and get dispersed and obscure the much more vague truth of the writing process which, for me, is usually “I started at page one and kept going” or “I was struck by some tedious trauma from my childhood and had to make it into a novel to be free of it.”

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Order a copy of Feel Free by Zadie Smith.

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NL: I don’t think I was suggesting that one consciously creates an origin myth. I only meant that the genesis of any work is complicated and nuanced. One tries to scratch one’s psychic itch, but to articulate that means having to reduce it to an anecdote, and that becomes solidified in one’s own mind. I had a long poem in The New Yorker years ago called “Feel Free,” and was always going to call a collection that. I was writing into the title for a couple of years. Then Zadie couldn’t find a title for her book of essays and wanted it. We tussled, I gave in and was going to change my title, then my editor said I couldn’t or shouldn’t, and by then it was too late. Zadie’s book was called that too. That’s what happened. My new collection is called Resolving Host and she’s already made noises about liking that title, but it’s not happening again.

Feel Free by Nick Laird

Order a copy of Feel Free by Nick Laird.

Bookshop.org | IndieBound | Amazon

Nick, you’ve said that you’re not very good at sending out poems to literary journals or magazines, and that you often save them up until you’re making a new book. So, what is the impetus to create a new collection? When have you saved up the poems long enough to warrant a new collection?

NL: I like the collection to hang together as a work in its own right. I want poems to inform each other, and inform on each other—to whisper behind each other’s backs, as it were. After a few years you start to think about the bunch of poems you have and notice themes or motifs, then you print them out and play around with them.

Nick Laird | Writer's Digest quote

Zadie, in your essay “The I Who Is Not Me,” you wrote that you don’t plan your novels very much in general. So it seems in the plotter vs. pantser debate, you’re more on the “write by the seat of your pants” camp. If that’s an accurate interpretation, why do you prefer to write that way? How do you make it work for you?

ZS: I don’t know any other way. For me to plan is to be bored senseless. I try to have chords—the way you do in a jazz quartet. If I sing with a band we all know the chords to “Autumn in New York.” But each person in that band will play something different each time and I’ll sing it different each time. That’s how I write a novel. I have some thematic “chords.” I know On Beauty is going to be about beauty. But beyond that I want to be able to move freely. I’m addicted to freedom. I couldn’t write by numbers or by instruction, even instructions I’d written myself.

Do either of you have any final writing advice for the readers of Writer’s Digest?

NL: Just get the words down on the page and try to be truthful to your lived experience, not what you think you ought to say.

ZS: The first duty of a writer is to write the best book they can write. Every other duty is secondary to that one. If the first duty seems ridiculously indulgent or impractical to you then you may be in the wrong vocation. Vocation—not business. WD

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