Zadie Smith feels bad for the people of Britain. Here she is, safely exiled in New York, with her stellar career, her beautiful family and her sparkling social circle. The one-time darling of the London literary scene, whose debut novel White Teeth was published in 2000, having gained her a £250,000 advance before she had even left Cambridge, nowadays teaches and writes in the US.
The reviews for her fifth novel, Swing Time, are coming in and everyone agrees, it’s her “most mature work yet”, “a successful return to her roots”, “a reminder of why we need her”.
For the homeland she left behind, there’s the feature-length BBC adaptation of her brilliant but bleak 2012 novel NW.
“It’s pretty hardcore, isn’t it? I do feel sad I have to emotionally stress out viewers with it. I know this is a hard time for Britain and everyone wants to watch shows about baking. But what can I say, sometimes it’s good to be stressed out.”
She admires how director Saul Dibb has captured her old manor of Kilburn in London with such an astute eye, his camera lingering lovingly on council bins, market barrows and bed frames propped up against walls. “They filmed in every street! I kept expecting to see my mum in the background.” And yes, she does worry what her social-worker mum Yvonne will say about her painting Kilburn as a place of irredeemable misery, but she admits that since moving to the US six years ago, she has developed a faintly apocalyptic vision of events back home.
Nikki Amuka-Bird and Phoebe Fox star in NW
Due to an illness in her husband Nick Laird’s family, she did relocate to London last year, but left again just after the EU referendum. In an essay for The New York Review of Books she reflected that the result felt like a rejection of the optimistic, multicultural world she grew up in – one that she celebrated (and lightly satirised) in her debut novel White Teeth in 2000.
She has noted that since the vote to leave the EU, more of her compatriots are doing the same as she is – “playing hookie from real life”, as she puts it. “I was at a party at Emily Mortimer’s house in Brooklyn and it struck me how many expats there were. It’s an exodus. That’s a shame. I love Britain. I’m as British as they come. It will get it back. It’s just a bad moment.”
And while she still relies on BBC online for weather reports and cake recipes, she has embraced the US – which has, after all, helped her to escape the pressure that came with her early success. “I feel much more optimistic here,” she says. American habits – exercise, therapy – have worked for her, much to her surprise. “I sometimes fall in with the latest exercise cults, but mostly I just run by the river. Even that sentence sounds ridiculous to me.”
We meet at the Lafayette Café, a gleaming French brasserie not far from her SoHo apartment and just around the corner from New York University where, since 2010, she has been teaching creative writing (a lot of her work is remedial, she says: social media has destroyed a generation’s grammar). She’s dressed in a black T-shirt and well-cut jeans, looking a decade younger than 41, but charmingly all over the place. Her table is scattered with the detritus of her morning – green juice slowly separating in a glass, caffè macchiato cups, an endearingly basic $20 phone that doesn’t do emails or emojis.
Nick Laird, Zadie Smith and Richard Brody
Her schedule is hectic, with publication events for Swing Time (her talks are all sold out), play-dates for her two children, Kit (seven) and Harvey (three). At one point her husband, Laird, the Northern Irish poet and novelist, calls to compare notes on Ariel Levy’s memoir, An Abbreviated Life. “Did you cry?” she asks him.
“I thought Ariel picked up on something that a lot of our generation deny, which is that life does have limits,” she says, keen to share. “We can’t do whatever we want, whenever we want. We can’t have babies whenever we want to have them. A lot of the girls I teach – they really feel that they’re limitless. And then they have to live and find it’s a pretty brutalising experience.”
When we last spoke, soon after Harvey was born, she seemed anxious about motherhood and the sacrifices it would bring. “I convinced myself that I was terrible at it when I was trying to be a mother and write at the same time. But I’m not bad at it. You just need the time. It’s not the parenting, it’s the strain of trying to do too many things at once. New York women have this idea that it’s going well when everything’s organised and scheduled. It might be functioning – but it’s not the same thing as going well. Being there is different.”
Still, she concedes, such values are now old-fashioned. “I sometimes feel like an Ancient Mariner wandering around. I was talking to a young actress recently, who will remain nameless, and she said, ‘If I get married and have kids or whatever, does that mean I have to stop smoking weed and screwing everybody?’ I don’t know what she wanted me to say. I don’t want to impinge on her freedom. But you know what kids are like. They’re incredibly conservative. They like consistency, they like to see their mother and father in the same room. To this actress, it was like this outrageous imposition.”
Of the BBC adaptation of NW, she freely admits, she had “literally nothing to do with it”. But she’s happy with the way screenwriter Rachel Bennette has reshaped the story, externalising the interior struggles of main characters Leah and Natalie. “I know it’s not easy adapting my stuff with its basic non-shape,” she says.
She once described herself as “overwhelmed by nausea” on reading White Teeth (she took its critics to heart) and doesn’t betray much affection for her later novels The Autograph Man or On Beauty, either. However, she has silenced her auto-critic for the new novel, Swing Time. “I’m pleased with it. It’s actually got a plot. It goes in a straight line.”
Swing Time’s title is both a reference to the classic 1936 musical comedy and to the experience of living in a diaspora. To be black, Smith feels, is to be removed from your own timeline, radically disrupted. “But it [the novel] is a lot more fun than it sounds,” she smiles.
What does come through – joyously! – is Smith’s first true love, music. Her late father Harvey kindled in her an early love for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and she once had a sideline impersonating Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald in libraries and hotel bars, before her brothers (both musicians) made her too self-conscious to continue. “They’d always be: ‘Too much vibrato’ or ‘You’re overdoing it’.”
Earlier this year, she sang in public for the first time in 20 years, performing Easy Living by Boz Scaggs for a New York Times charity gala in a tremulous alto. “I wanted to rehearse it 100 times. The piano players said, ‘We’re going to rehearse it once.’ If you rehearse something too much in jazz, you kill it.”
She is similarly ill at ease with public speaking. “I always feel like I’m a disappointment to people when I’m on the road. They expect a fluidity when I speak, and I can’t give them that.” She froze when asked for her thoughts on Hillary Clinton during a recent podcast. “The truth is, I can’t say anything more intelligent about politics than my seven-year-old can.” Indeed, she has no compulsion to write about politics at all: “None. None.”
All the same, it’s the tension in contemporary politics that makes the 1990s setting of Swing Time so poignant. Smith looks back on it as a golden age for classless, cosmopolitan, optimistic Britain. “It was a different universe – everybody was working,” she says. “For my students now, it’s completely different.”
She resists the comforting idea that, by most measures, life is vastly improved for most people. “There are many places in the world where things have stalled at best or are actively getting worse. In the west, everything functions OK, but people’s emotional lives seem to be in trouble, and I include my own. An intimate life seems to be unclear to people. When the person you’re dating turns out to be depressed, or you need to get an abortion, common sense says, why stay? There are a million other options out there.”
When she was at university, it all seemed simpler. “You needed someone to love you and you felt so lucky to meet them. When were you going to meet another one? So you held on to them like a piece of driftwood.” She and Laird were college sweethearts and retain a close professional relationship, always the first to read one another’s work. It’s rewarding, but it clearly comes with its pressures. “There will be periods of almost intolerable unhappiness in a long relationship. And people can’t see the point of that. It looks like some remnant of Christian theology, this idea that you must be crucified and for some reason it will be worthwhile. But something does deepen, day by day, in this feeling of knowing someone for so long.”
After a pause, she says: “Life’s a lot harder than I thought. And we’re the lucky ones. Isn’t that funny? To have nothing but luck and still find things so hard. When I was in college, I thought you could get through on charm alone. It turns out it’s the least important part – it’s like totally irrelevant.” She laughs ruefully. “Oh man.”
NW is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm
Swing Time is published by Penguin Books on 15 November