Several weeks ago, Valerie and I went to see Zadie Smith, the opening author in the Inprint Brown Reading Series for this year. I wish I had not been so tired when I returned home that night because I'm sure this post will not do her reading justice. I did make a few notes that night and the next day.
After she was introduced, she came out, gave a brief introduction to the portion of On Beauty that she was going to read, apologized for the voices she would use for the various characters, and began to read. I enjoyed the part of On Beauty that she read and didn't mind the character voices at all. After the reading, she was interviewed by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, an English professor from University of Houston. I've written in the past about these post-reading interviews by English professors. The best post-reading interviews that I have seen have been done by Fritz Lanham of the Houston Chronicle. He knows how to ask questions that will interest an audience of various types of readers, not just academics. Well, Dr. Brown-Guillory was not bad; she asked very few English professor questions then asked several good audience questions.
Here are fragments of Smith's answers to some of the interview questions:
When asked about her writing process, she said that she works like a college student. She works in pajamas until about 4:30, hoping someone will call her to go out. She said that she went straight from being a college student to being a working writer, so she never developed any other working routine.
When asked to give advice to young writers, she said simply, "Read."
She talked some about Iris Murdoch. I'm not sure I understood completely or remember clearly, but she is working on a nonfiction book called (I think) Fail Better, that title comes from a quote from Iris Murdoch. (I did a search for this quote and found some references to it and Iris Murdoch in some recent interviews but nothing definitive.)
In answer to another question, she said that she thought having a writer in the family must be the most embarrassing thing for a family. She said something about it being difficult as a young writer to write about family because you still need their approval too much. However, she acknowledged that an older writer who didn't feel the pull of family ties as much would probably not find writing about family as difficult.
At one point, Brown-Guillory said that she finds that Smith's writing seems like that of an older author. Smith said that she attributes that to her reading of the classics when she was a teenager. She made some joke about not being a very interesting teenager because she didn't do anything except read.
When asked about which character she liked the most. She said the character that you like the most is the one that you write the best. (I think she said that Jerome was her best character in On Beauty, but she might have said Howard.) She went on to say that when you lose compassion for your character, you can't write well about them any longer.
She talked about an anthology of character stories that she is editing. Apparently this book is for free/charity because she made some statement about not knowing when this book would actually be finished since it is how hard to get writers to write for free.
In the final analysis, Zadie Smith is attractive, funny, and very personable. She chatted with everyone who waited in line to have her sign a book. Valerie and I both said that we would like to go out for drinks with her. She seemed like a person who would be fun to hang out with.
I've read the first part of On Beauty, and I like it so far. I have laughed out loud and nodded my head in agreement with observations about Americans and America several times. If I didn't have to work tomorrow, I would probably stay up reading very late tonight and finish the novel tomorrow.
I know that I haven't conveyed, in the least, how much I enjoyed her reading. I really wish I had taken notes during the reading and interview. Next reading, I'm will try to do better. For now though, I'm off to bed, reading myself to sleep with On Beauty.