DATE October 13, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Zadie Smith discusses her new novel, "On Beauty," and
her life growing up with an English Father and a Jamaican mother
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.
"On Beauty" is Zadie Smith's third novel. Her first, the award-winning
best-seller "White Teeth," was published in 2000 when she was 25. "On Beauty"
explores the culture wars of the 21st century by reducing that battle to two
academics on opposite sides. One's a white liberal, the other a black
Terry spoke with Zadie Smith when her novel was published last year. It's now
out in paperback.
"On Beauty" is set in a fictional New England college town and follows the
parallel stories of two families. Howard Belsey is a radical arts theorist.
He's white; his wife is African American. Newly arrived from England to teach
at the same college as a rival professor is Monty Kipps, a black Christian
cultural conservative. They have a shared history. Howard's son Jerome once
lived with the Kipps family while doing research in England. Now that the
Kipps family has come to New England, Jerome Belsey finds he's enjoying
spending time with them again and finds them a relief from his own family.
Here's Zadie Smith reading from her novel.
Ms. ZADIE SMITH: (Reading) "How could he explain how pleasurable it had
truly been to give himself up to the Kippses? It was a kind of blissful
un-selfing, a summer of un-Belsey. He'd allowed the Kippses' world and their
ways to take him over entirely. He'd liked to listen to the exotic. To a
Belsey, chatter of business and money and practical politics. Hear that
equality was a myth, and multiculturalism, a fatuous dream. He thrilled at
the suggestion that art was a gift from God, blessing only a handful of
masters, and most literature, merely a veil for poly-reasoned left-wing
He'd put up a weak show of fighting these ideas but only so that he might
enjoy all the more the sensation of the family's ridicule, to hear once again
how typically liberal, academic and wishy-washy were his own thoughts. When
Monty suggested that minority groups too often demand equal rights they
haven't earned, Jerome had allowed this strange new idea to penetrate him
without complaint and sunk further back into the receiving sofa.
When Michael argued that being black was not an identity but an accidental
matter of pigment, Jerome had not given a traditionally hysterical Belsey
answer--`Try telling that to the Klansmen coming at you with a burning
cross'--but rather vowed to think less of his identity in the future. One by
one, the gods of the Belseys toppled. `I'm so full of liberal crap,' Jerome
thought happily, bowed his head low and pressed his knees into one of the
little red cushions provided for kneeling in the Kippses' pew of the local
TERRY GROSS, host:
That's Zadie Smith reading from her new novel, "On Beauty."
Zadie Smith, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Now the two main families in your novel are the Belseys and the Kippses.
Would you describe some of the defining characteristics you've given to each
Ms. SMITH: Well, I think they're quite similar in their way. I mean, the
obvious difference is that one family are kind of liberal, intellectual
Democrats, and the other family are--well, he's actually a Trinidadian with a
very kind of Colonial mind-set, a black Englishman with very conservative
views. But what I was more interested in was the idea that both families have
created a little pathology of their own. They're very sure about the kind of
people they are, and that's what interested me, that families perform
themselves in a certain way to other people, and they--both families do that.
GROSS: They perform themselves. You say, like--one of your characters says,
`Married couples are like a Vaudeville act.'
Ms. SMITH: I do feel that sometimes. And since I got married, I'm much more
likely to be invited to the kind of dinner parties where it's nothing but
married people, so eight couples, and you do feel that it's kind of a team
situation. Each couple is their own team, and there's competitive attitudes
between couples and they come with a performance, with a shtick sometimes,
sometime a happy shtick, `We're so in love,' and sometimes quite the opposite
type of shtick. `We've been married 30 years and we hate each other.' But I
was interested by that 'cause when I was single, I thought it was so insane,
and now that I'm married, I see how it happens.
GROSS: The Belsey family in your novel is--it's a multicultural family.
Howard, the father, is a professor. He's a white man from England. Kiki, the
mother, is a nurse. She's African American. What's it like for her in the
predominantly white community that the family lives in, and what are some of
the things she feels she's maybe given up to be with her husband?
Ms. SMITH: Yeah. I mean, Kiki's one of my favorite characters in the book,
and it's exactly because of that, because she's made--she loves her husband,
but she made a sacrifice to be with him. In the first place, she's not part
of the intellectual community that he's part of, and she has to spend a lot of
her time, you know, pretending to be interested in things she's not that
interested in, having conversations that--it's not 'cause she's stupid, but
she just--it's not her milieu, and her milieu is something quite different and
she feels she's no way to express that. And also I think at one point in an
argument, she gets very angry. She does say that she's lost in this sea of
white, and I do feel that sometimes that when there's a dominant community in
numbers, like the white community is in the Western world, they don't tend to
imagine that it feels strange sometimes. Like, I go to parties all the time,
I have done ever since I was in college, where I'm the only black person. I
mean, that's just the standard experience. And for a long time, I stopped
noticing it 'cause after a while you stop noticing it and then, just every now
and then, you look around, and it feels strange. I think for a lot of white
people they can't imagine spending every single day at parties, at meetings,
in every work environment with nothing but black people. In courtrooms, if
everybody was black and you were the only white guy, it's a strange
GROSS: Well, you know--and you write about this, too, through the character
of Levi, who is the youngest son, that's--he's the youngest of three children
in the family. He's in high school, and he thinks his white father doesn't
understand what it's like for the son to be a person of color. He thinks his
father doesn't understand that newcomers in the neighborhood see him--see the
son and are afraid he's going to rob them. And Howard, the father, dislikes
and fears conversations with his son about race. It just makes him really
Ms. SMITH: Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
Ms. SMITH: That's the sad thing. That's true. I think I thought of my
father a little bit like that. It was very much his intention when we were
growing up to be color-blind. That was a very popular phrase in the early
'80s, as well, and it was absolutely well-meant and a wonderful way to grow up
but it doesn't--it's OK within the household, but when you walk outside of the
house, there are people who aren't color-blind or don't think that way. And I
certainly think for both my brothers, with having a father who was not only
white but, you know, 30 years older than he kind of should have been, that's a
very strange experience. It's quite hard to explain how strange it is to be
the 15-year-old black son of a 75-year-old white man. So I think I used some
of that in the book definitely.
GROSS: So your father's white and your mother is black.
Ms. SMITH: Yeah, exactly the same.
GROSS: Oh, I think it must be so--interesting isn't exactly the word I'm
looking for but it must be so something to grow up in a family of different
races where your father is a different color than you are and...
Ms. SMITH: Yeah.
GROSS: ...in a way, that race impacts on your life. It's impacted
differently on his life than on yours.
Ms. SMITH: I think--well, the one thing that--if I try and promote any idea
in my fiction, I hope I don't promote anything too much, but one of them is
that when you grow up in such a situation, it's completely normal to you. To
me, when I was a child, all families were mixed race, and I found going into
households where everyone was white or everyone was black unnerving 'cause it
wasn't what I knew. And also just as a matter of fact, in my neighborhood,
being mixed race was very, very common. So I felt like I was part of a very
large community of brown girls. They were everywhere, but I try and show in
the book that this experience isn't abnormal at all or in any way different
until sometimes people make you feel that it is, people outside your family
circle. I think maybe that's what's happened to Levi.
GROSS: Describe your neighborhood a little bit, too, the neighborhood you
grew up in, where you said, you know, most of the families were of, you know,
Ms. SMITH: Yeah. Well, traditionally, it's an Irish area and a black area.
It's called Kilburn. It has an enormous amount of Irishmen and Jamaicans, and
that's kind of reflected in my family. Almost all the women in my family end
up marrying Irishmen, and I did as well. And the neighborhood is just very,
very mixed. My brother teaches in a school in the next street to where I live
and the next street to where we were all born. And in his school, there's
something like 104 languages spoken. So that's the kind of environment it is.
It's just like the whole world on your doorstep.
GROSS: One of the sons in the Belsey family in your book speaks very
differently than his parents do. And again, you know, his mother's black, his
father's white, but the son speaks a much more--and this is Levi--speaks a
much more hip-hop kind of language and wants to--he wants to sound more
street, and his parents can't figure out, `Where did this come from?'
Ms. SMITH: I mean, I think it's quite common that kind of difference within
family. It can be class. It can be a matter of vocabulary. It can be an
obsession. Like I was in a bookstore quite recently and the owner was telling
me that his daughter is obsessed with '50s rockabilly culture, and it's like
having a completely different person in the house. And I think that,
particularly teen-agers, when they're intent on making themselves, often
choose things which are completely outside the family circle. And my youngest
brother was like that. He became very obsessed with Indonesia and Islam, for
example. So we're a kind of black-English family with no religion and our
youngest brother was an Indonesian-fascinated Muslim boy. So that stuff
happens all the time.
GROSS: Well, the character in your novel, the son that we're talking about
who wants to be more street, he falls in with some young men from Jamaica who
he thinks are really cool because, you know, they're street hustlers and
they're poor. They're--they seem more authentic to him, and I wonder, you
know, in America I think there is this kind of fascination with, quote,
"authenticity," and for a lot of people--you know what I mean? Like, being
more street seems more authentic and being...
Ms. SMITH: Well...
GROSS: ...middle class and educated seems less authentic. Is there a
Ms. SMITH: Absolutely.
GROSS: ...dynamic in England? Is this like an American thing?
Ms. SMITH: Oh, it's all over the world, but the idea is I think some of
these people sneer at it, particularly in rap music, the idea of authenticity
or being real, but that's kind of almost an existential hope, and it follows
in poetry, it follows in academic life. There's always a quality called
authenticity which people are seeking, and I don't know why, you know, it's
often ridiculed in rap music when--and I try to show this in the book. It's
just as common on a university campus. Howard also wants to be authentic, and
his idea of authenticity is to be as purely theoretical as possible.
So Levi also has the urge for authenticity. I think it's very common and
particularly when people are moving between classes, and I guess that's true
of my family, that we're not working class anymore. You're very glad to be
middle class but you also have a slight, I don't know, nostalgia about what it
was to be working class. And there's equivalent, say, in poetry, the idea of
the pastoral being back in the country. That's an idea of authenticity, to be
part of the land rather than part of the city. I think it's a really common
GROSS: What did authentic mean to you when you were growing up?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I was different from, say, my little brother in that I was
very, very determined to be--I wanted to be educated, and I thought that was
the most important thing and I wasn't too concerned about what I might lose on
the way to being educated. And it was only once I became educated that I
realized that I wasn't the person I'd been before. Now my voice has changed,
my habits have changed, my taste changed. You know, I eat in restaurants. I
travel in cabs. My whole life has changed. And sometimes I suppose I do feel
nostalgic for a different life or a life that I came from. And sometimes I
put that in my fiction. But I don't know. I was never as obsessed with
authenticity in that way. In fact, I had much more my parents' habit of
wanting to transform into something else. I was quite hopeful for that.
BIANCULLI: Zadie Smith speaking to Terry Gross one year ago.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2005 interview with Zadie Smith, author
of the best-selling novel, "On Beauty."
GROSS: One of the characters in your novel is a rapper who is very smart but
not very educated, and he wouldn't have the money or the grades or the
schooling to go to the university where the novel is set. However, the
Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry teacher in the novel recognizes his talents and
invites him into the class, and some of the novel is set at this bar where
there's a lot of, you know, like, spoken word and rap performances.
Ms. SMITH: Right.
GROSS: And you consequently had to write a not very good rap for a not very
talented performer to give. And I would love for you to read that for us or
perform it for us.
Ms. SMITH: OK. But I'm not doing the voice. I'm going to do it in my
GROSS: That's fine.
Ms. SMITH: OK. (Reading) "`My womb,' she said, `is the tomb,' she said, `of
your previous misconceptions. I know the identity of your serenity. When you
claim my hero was blonde, Cleopatra, brother, that's plain wrong. I hear the
Nubian spirit behind the whitewash. Oh, gosh, my redemption has its own
GROSS: How did you write something that you intended to not be good? And I
should say it's not like you don't like rap. You just wanted to write...
Ms. SMITH: No, I love rap.
Ms. SMITH: But I guess I--this is not quite rap. This is more spoken word.
GROSS: Right. OK. Yeah.
Ms. SMITH: And a lot of spoken word I do like, but I recently went to a bar,
not unlike this, in London, and the one thing that struck me about spoken word
when it's bad is that it's insanely egotistical, and it's all about this
first-person voice. And it's relentless and it doesn't end, unless you just
completely don't clap and turn the other way, and even then, it doesn't end.
It goes on and on and on. And I've always been interested in that kind of
first-person voice, and hip-hop I think is incredibly creative with the first
person, but it's still very different from what I do, which is third person
and involves lots of different voices and trying to kind of as best as you can
suppress your own voice. So I'm always amazed by that first-person
confidence. It's like someone's standing on the stage, really confident that
everything they say is completely fascinating, and I think that can get a bit
tiresome, which is why when hip-hop is fantastic, it's amazing, 'cause one man
has convinced you that he has the whole world in his mouth. When it's done
brilliantly, I don't think there's anything I like more, but the bad stuff is
very bad. That's true.
GROSS: My favorite rhyme you wrote for the book, and a character who's
mocking how bad some of the spoken word is, such as the one we just heard,
offers this as an example of how bad it can get. "My vagina in Carolina is
much finer than yours."
Ms. SMITH: Yeah, that's horrible.
GROSS: That's really horrible.
Ms. SMITH: I guess I just--I like art which is really generous and the book
is full of kind of paeans to people like Mozart, like Rembrandt who try to
include as much as possible in their art and were interested in other people.
And I'm quite unnerved by the idea that when you meet a lot of young writers,
particularly who say, you know--ask me something like, `How will I know when
I've found my voice?' or, you know, `I write a lot of journals but I haven't
found my voice yet,' and I always think you need to concentrate less on the
idea of your voice and maybe listen to more of what's going on in the world
and other people.
GROSS: Let's get back to the character of Kiki, who you've said is, I think,
your favorite character in the book. And she's the mother of the liberal
family that teaches at the Ivy League university. And again, she's black, her
husband's white. She's put on about 100 pounds during the years of her
Ms. SMITH: Yes.
GROSS: ...and she's been physically transformed. And it seems as if being
physically transformed has changed her personality, too. You describe her as
having a spellbinding bosom and you write...
Ms. SMITH: Yeah.
GROSS: ..."The size was sexual and, at the same time, more than sexual, and
so her chest gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control. Sassy,
sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting, she could no longer be
meek or shy. Her body had directed her to a new personality."
Would you talk a little bit more about your sense of how a physical change
like the one she had changes her personality and also how race figures, if at
all, into what people project onto her as a large woman?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I mean, I think it's always there all the time in terms of
your physical presentation. You can't control it. Your face speaks before
you. But when you had a transition, it's much more obvious. You notice it
more. And personally, I used to be very big, so I know the difference, and I
remember it. And I do think that if you're black and big--people would always
call me sister and stuff. I got a lot of that. Like I--there's a lot of--I
did. I would immediately be very humorous, for instance, or very nurturing
or--and I don't know if I'm either of those things. And then when I lost the
weight, there's a whole new kind of thing that comes into play, a whole new
kind of stereotypical idea of you which is also not you. And I suppose when I
get big again, inevitably as everyone in my family does, I'll be returned to
the previous mode.
But I guess when I was a kid and a big kid, I was incredibly aggravated by the
idea that something that I considered beyond my control spoke for me. And
then--and I had various ideas as a 14-year-old girl about what it would be
like to be thin. And then when I became thin, I found all those things were
true, and I was even more infuriated; that people are nicer to you, that you
do get more attention, and that disgusted me even more. So I think a lot of
that was put into Kiki, the sense that your face speaks for you and that it
sometimes says things that you don't want it to say.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit more about the differences in the way you
think people saw you when you were heavy and then when you lost weight?
Ms. SMITH: I think--I mean, my mother was a model, so she was very, very
beautiful when I was very, very big. And I always--I, you know, part of being
big is to be invisible a lot of the time. But then again, I was always quite
grateful for my invisibility because I got lots of reading done, for example.
And I got a lot of work done. And another character in the book, Victoria,
who was extremely beautiful, you know, age 17, I think that's a scary place to
be. You don't even have time to become a person because the person you are is
already projected onto you every day. So I'm glad I was the person I was when
I was a kid because I had my own world and nobody bothered me. I liked that
GROSS: You know, a lot of articles about you comment on how beautiful you
are, about your cheekbones. And, you know, having felt that you were heavy
before losing weight, how do you feel about when people single out your looks
for praise when...
Ms. SMITH: Well...
GROSS: ...they're writing about you as a writer?
Ms. SMITH: ...I know you're meant to be complimented, but every woman knows
it's a diminishment. It's a deliberate diminishment. It always has been, and
it always will be. If you're a model, that's a different thing. It's your
business, and the discussion of your beauty is a daily matter, and I--that
seems to me a kind of a nightmare, but honestly, people want to do it and want
to be models, and that's fine. But for the rest of us who work in different
industries which don't rely on our face, to be reminded of your face is kind
of a pain.
On the other hand, my mother always says, you know, it doesn't last very long,
so just be happy while you have it. But in the context of work, you know, I
do find it insulting, and I--it's depressing to read, as I read several times
when I was first published, that I was only published because my manuscript
was sent with a photo of myself. Now nobody says that about men no matter how
pretty they are, and there's a lot of pretty male writers. And I don't think
that's meant as a compliment. I think it's meant to suggest that I don't have
any ability or what ability I have has been boosted by my face. So in a way,
I hope and I will on my enormous weigh gain and age--because when I'm 65 the
question will be: `Is the book any good?' `Did she write a good book?' And
that's all that has ever mattered to me.
BIANCULLI: Zadie Smith speaking with Terry Gross last year. We'll hear more
of their conversation in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Bianculli, sitting in for Terry
Gross. Let's return to Terry's interview with Zadie Smith. Her best-selling
novel "On Beauty" is out in paperback.
"On Beauty" reflects on the culture wars by following the families of a
liberal and a conservative professor. The liberal professor is white, his
wife is black and their three children respond differently to their own racial
identities. Smith is the child of a black mother and white father. She grew
up in London.
GROSS: You know, early in your novel when one of the sons, Jerome, is staying
in England--and he's the son in the liberal family, but he's staying with a
conservative and Christian family in England, and this family is black and the
father is from Trinidad. So the attitude in that family is that being black
is not an identity; it's just an accidental matter of pigment. Where in
that--where did you fit in, in thinking about your racial identity in that
scale, somewheres between just a matter--accidental matter of pigment to an
Ms. SMITH: I don't know. It's hard to say. I think of myself as black and
English, without any ambiguity and as a simple fact. But I'm not sure that I
understand the concept, for instance, of being black and proud. I'm not proud
of things that I didn't do. I think the idea of being connected to people you
don't know and have never met by this one thing is strange, but I also think
that identities are chosen and fought after, and I have an interest in black
culture, and I have an interest in English culture, and I'm black and English
to that extent. But I get kind of, like, people who claim themselves to be
nationalists or incredibly English, these are the kind of people who normally
haven't read "Henry V," for example. So I never claim anything unless I've
pursued it, and I've pursued an interest in black culture, so I feel black to
that extent. And I've pursued an interest in English culture, so those two
things are part of me. But if I just sat around being black and English, I
don't know if I would call that an identity.
GROSS: You said you have pursued an interest in English culture, and I'm sure
part of what you're talking about there is English literature. And your book
is very much inspired by writings of E. M. Forrester, more specifically,
"Howard's End." In your life as reader, how have you balanced your interests
in more classic fiction with contemporary fiction?
Ms. SMITH: Well, my first love is, I guess, dead people. That's true.
They're the first people I read, and for a long time my education was very
traditional. But I fit in contemporary fiction, and I enjoy an enormous
amount of it. I find it very intimidating, because a lot of it is very good
and I guess they're my peers, and it's scary when your peers are that good.
But a few writers I've read in the past 10 years have joined the ranks of my
most favorite writers, and I think that's wonderful when that happens.
GROSS: Your novel, "On Beauty," is largely set in a university town, and much
of it is set actually on the campus. And looking at the marriages in this
university community, for the most part they are not doing very well...
Ms. SMITH: Yeah.
GROSS: ...for a lot of reasons, and there's also, you know, affairs between,
you know, teachers and students. And I think, you know, this is not the first
novel that has affairs between teachers and students.
Ms. SMITH: No.
GROSS: You've been at universities in the states and in England. I wondered,
how much of that have you actually seen?
Ms. SMITH: You know, I don't--I really didn't mean to suggest academics are
any worse in a marital sense than anybody else. It was much more my fear,
because I was just about to get married as I started this book, and because of
what I do for a living, a lot of my friends are, you know, 25 to 30 years
older than me, and you can't help but notice that a lot of people, either
their marriage is falling apart or they've been divorced twice. And getting
married seems to be a kind of insane act, given the context when you can't
even find one couple still married. So I think writing the book for me was
kind of a writing through of that fear.
And also, the thing that I guess I learned as a young adult which I didn't
realize when I was a kid--because my parents were working class and
uneducated, got divorced very young--and I thought, you know, if only they'd
had more education or been more sophisticated, maybe they would have had a
happier marriage. I guess I was thinking of the Cosbys or something. And
then as you get older, it becomes obvious that it makes no difference what
kind of class you are, what kind of person you are. And often the more
sophisticated you are, the more horribly complex and emotionally disastrous
the divorce can be. So that was a shock for me, because I always thought that
the whole point of me becoming, you know, posher was that my life would become
easier, and it's not true.
GROSS: Right. So you were pretty young when your parents divorced?
Ms. SMITH: I was 11. Eleven, 12? Yeah. I mean, I'm the oldest child, so
my brothers were quite a bit younger when it happened. But, yeah, I was 11.
GROSS: Did you stay with one parent or the other?
Ms. SMITH: I stayed with my mother, but because there wasn't enough money to
have a proper divorce, my father just stayed in the house for a long time.
GROSS: You're kidding.
Ms. SMITH: He lived in the spare room. My mother lived upstairs, and they
weren't married, but we were still a family. And actually, that's very true
to our experience still. Like, even though with a 30-year age gap, even with
a divorce that's been done for whatever it is now, 15 years or longer, my
mother texted me on my phone a few days ago to remind me it was my father's
birthday. There's not a great deal of animosity left. There's nothing to
fight over anymore, I think.
GROSS: Was that awkward for you as a daughter to have your parents divorced
but living in the same house?
Ms. SMITH: It was strange, you know, to have to knock on my father's door to
tell him when it was dinner. It was pretty surreal really. But then again,
it didn't seem to be--what was the other option? He couldn't like move into a
country house. We had to deal with the reality. It was strange, but both my
parents had a--they're very realistic about family, and they always said
family's not something you can escape. Divorce doesn't get you out of family,
just as me being married doesn't get me out of my original family. It's for
life. It's a prison sentence, and you just have to deal with it. And I think
we've always been quite good at that.
GROSS: You know, as a novelist, I'm sure you want admission--you want a
ticket to seats where you can observe different classes, different races,
different religions, different genders, so that you can write about all of
that convincingly. Do you feel that your background has helped give you such
Ms. SMITH: I think there's a few accidents of my birth, not just my family,
but even more so my school, which is kind of, you know, a normal public school
with an incredible mix of people in it who were both street-wise--they're just
savvy. And whenever I meet kids from my school, I know that if they went to
Buckingham Palace, they would get on as well as if they went down to the
streets of Brixton. They have a way of talking to people, and I think that's
true of a lot of people who went to my school. I noticed about them. They're
not stuck in their class. And, for instance, when I went to Cambridge and
you'd meet a kid from Eaton, they're lovely kids, but they have no way of
communicating other than the one that they were given at Eaton. And they find
it tough. They have to make a leap. And in my school there were so many
different types of children and so many middle-class parents that put faith in
their kids going to this not particularly wonderful school that we were all
mixed up and you got used to talking high and talking low and just
And I still have that, I think, but things have changed. My life is more
rarified. I meet a smaller group of people. I talk about books all the time,
which is not a very healthy way of living, I think. So things have changed,
and now I feel it's like my younger brother, Ben, who's much more able to move
easily. I'm more likely to feel awkward walking down a street now and seeing
a gang of boys walking towards me. You know, I might cross the street the way
my father would. Things do change.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. SMITH: It's a pleasure. Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Zadie Smith's novel "On Beauty" is now out in paperback. She
spoke with Terry Gross last year.
Coming up, "Little Children." Tom Perrotta talks about his novel, now a film
starring Kate Winslet.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Tom Perrotta discusses his book "Little Children"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Tom Perrotta's satirical novel "Little Children" is about a young woman named
Sarah, who is married, raising her child in an upper middle-class suburb.
Sarah can't understand how she wound up in the life she's living. But she
believes she's found some meaning in her life when she meets Todd, a father at
the playground who seems to be as alienated as she is. They begin an affair
and think they are falling in love.
A film version of "Little Children" opened last week to critical acclaim. It
was adapted for the screen by Todd Field, who also directed "In the Bedroom."
Perrotta's other novels include "The Wishbones" and "Election," which also was
made into a movie.
Here's Perrotta reading from the beginning of "Little Children."
Mr. TOM PERROTTA: (Reading) "The young mothers were telling each other how
tired they were. This was one of their favorite topics, along with the
eating, sleeping and defecating habits of their offspring, the merits of
certain local nursery schools and the difficulty of sticking to an exercise
routine. Smiling politely to mask a familiar feeling of desperation, Sarah
reminded herself to think like an anthropologist: `I'm a researcher studying
the behavior of boring suburban women. I am not a boring suburban woman
BIANCULLI: That's Tom Perrotta reading from his novel "Little Children."
Let's also hear a scene from the new film adaptation. Kate Winslet stars as
the ambivalent mother Sarah. In this scene she flirts with the hunky
stay-at-home dad, played by Patrick Wilson, at the playground.
(Soundbite from "Little Children")
Ms. KATE WINSLET: (As Sarah) (Whispering) Come here. Psst. Come here. You
see those women over there. You have to--don't look. You know what they call
Mr. PATRICK WILSON: (As Brad) What?
Ms. WINSLET: (As Sarah) The prom king.
Mr. WILSON: (As Brad) Oh, God! Really?
Ms. WINSLET: (As Sarah) They mean it as a compliment. You're a big
character in their fantasy lives.
Mr. WILSON: (As Brad) Wow!
Ms. WINSLET: (As Sarah) So one of them bet me $5 I couldn't get your phone
Mr. WILSON: (As Brad) (Laughs) Five bucks, huh?
Ms. WINSLET: (As Sarah) Yeah.
Mr. WILSON: (As Brad) Hmm. Could we split it 50-50?
Ms. WINSLET: (As Sarah) It could be arranged. It doesn't have to be your
Mr. WILSON: (As Brad) Oh, well, yeah. In that case, sure. You got a pen?
Ms. WINSLET: (As Sarah) Great! Oh, no, I don't.
Mr. WILSON: (As Brad) Well...
Ms. WINSLET: (As Sarah) No, wait just--wait. You know what would really be
funny, if you gave me a hug.
Mr. WILSON: (As Brad) You think?
Ms. WINSLET: (As Sarah) Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. WILSON: (As Brad) All right. Come here.
(Soundbite of Kate Winslet sighing and laughing)
Unidentified Woman: Oh, my God!
Ms. WINSLET: (As Sarah) Do you want to really freak them out?
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: That's a scene from the film adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel
"Little Children." Terry Gross spoke to Tom Perrotta in 2004 when his novel
TERRY GROSS, host:
The main characters in this novel are kind of living the wrong life, like
Sarah, the main character who you were just reading about. This is not the
life she wanted. She didn't plan on being a mother living in the suburbs. In
college she had been bisexual, she had an affair with a woman, she was
immersed in critical gender studies, she worked at a rape crisis hotline, she
was hoping to be a feminist film critic. I think a lot of people feel that
they ended up in the wrong life. How did she get there?
Mr. PERROTTA: Well, I think she got there the way a lot of people get where
they end up. The years after college were particularly lonely for her. She
was directionless. She tried graduate school, was very excited for a while
but then didn't like teaching very much; worked at Starbucks, had some
affairs. And somehow there was a man at Starbucks, an older guy, who was also
a little bit lost, who found his way toward her. And, you know, they fell in
love, so she thought, got married and suddenly found herself in the exact--I
mean, she didn't have a profession. He did. Basically, there was a kind of
economic determinism to it that's almost 19th century to her.
I also think there's something about the generation, that's my generation, of
people who went to college in the '80s and '90s when feminism was still, I
think, a really dynamic force in American culture. And, you know, we, in our
minds, imagined a whole different set of social arrangements and family
arrangements. And something happened, you know. I mean, when I was first a
parent and at the playground, I was suddenly surprised to find myself often
the only stay-at-home dad. You know, I wasn't a full-time, stay-at-home dad
but I was doing about half-time child care. And if I took my kids to the
playground during the workday, I was usually the only man there. And I think
that in the same way that I probably felt surprised by that and a little bit,
you know, like, `What had happened? Where was the world that we thought we
were entering?'--I think someone like Sarah, who was, you know, really in the
vanguard of this sort of thing, probably felt it quite a bit more acutely than
GROSS: In the acknowledgments to your new novel, "Little Children," you end
it by saying, `Mainly, though, I'd like to thank Nina and Luke for letting me
tag along at the playground.' So I assume that Nina and Luke are your
Mr. PERROTTA: Yes, that's right.
GROSS: ...and that you spent a lot of time taking them to the playground and
using that as inadvertent research for your novel. You have a really funny
paragraph about what the few men who come to the playground with their
children are like, what they look like and how they behave. I'm going to ask
you to read that paragraph for us from "Little Children."
Mr. PERROTTA: OK. (Reading) "Most of the men who showed up at the
playground during the workday were marginal types: middle-aged trolls with
beards and pot bellies, studiously whimsical academics who insisted on going
down the slide with their kids, pinch-hitting grandfathers providing emergency
day care, sheepish blue-collar guys who wouldn't meet anyone's eyes, the
occasional cooler-than-thou hipster with a flexible schedule."
GROSS: Were you the occasional cooler-than-thou hipster with the flexible
Mr. PERROTTA: I was somewhere between the hipster with a flexible schedule
and the studiously whimsical academic. But there was some part of me that was
also the sheepish blue-collar guy who wouldn't meet anyone's eye.
GROSS: All right. What was it like to be one of the few fathers regularly at
the playground with your children?
Mr. PERROTTA: You know, probably some women who were at the playground would
deny this, but I was actually, I thought, made to feel somewhat unwelcome.
There was just some sense of, you know, `What is he doing here?' And if you
tried to strike up a conversation, sometimes there was a little bit of reserve
But what did happen and I think is something I tried to use in the novel was
that occasionally there would be a woman who, for some other reason, was not
part of, you know, this sort of the core female society, the core mother group
of the playground. And, occasionally, I would get into conversations with
these women who, for whatever reasons, were also outsiders. And that's the
dynamic, I think, between Todd and Sarah. They both feel somehow excluded
from this core maternal clique at the playground, and it creates a kind of
instant bond of intimacy between them.
GROSS: There's a section in which Sarah goes shopping for a bathing suit, and
she wants to get a bathing suit that makes her look really attractive, which
was difficult. And I think most women agree that buying a good bathing suit
is a real challenge, and it's something a lot of women are particularly
self-conscious about. What kind of thinking did you do to try to write that
scene from a woman's perspective?
Mr. PERROTTA: You know, I think for men, it's very interesting the point
where you realize how, you know, nervous and anxious women get about these
things because, of course, for most men, I think the idea of a woman in a
bathing suit is, you know, kind of a very exciting thing and--you know, the
fact is women are probably much harder on themselves and their bodies than men
are at a certain point. So I think that--again, it seems like a pretty
pervasive thing. I mean, I read some catalogs, you know, and--for instance,
if you read, you know, the Lands' End catalogue, there's a very kind of--you
know, the voice of the catalogue is, you know, `This is coverage, this is
going to, you know, save you from certain embarrassing issues, it will conceal
the problem areas.' I mean, you know, it was really just right there in the
forefront. And maybe, you know, I was reading something that men don't
normally pay attention to. You know, we're just supposed to look at the
pictures, but it was, you know, right out in the front, you know. And I've
certainly heard women, you know, talk about the bathing suit dilemma.
GROSS: Do you want to read that paragraph?
Mr. PERROTTA: Sure.
GROSS: In this paragraph, Sarah is shopping with her young daughter Lucy.
And while she's, you know, trying to find a good bathing suit, she also has to
keep track of where her daughter is.
Mr. PERROTTA: That's right. And I should say that Sarah is hoping to go to
the town pool and reconnect with Todd after their first intense flirtation, so
she's given this a lot of thought.
(Reading) "When she finally made her selections, she dragged Lucy into the
fitting room and told her to stay put while she tried the suits on over her
generously cut gray cotton panties which kept poking out and spoiling the
effect. Not that there was much to spoil. The first suit hugged her hips and
waist perfectly but looked about three sizes too big on top. The second fit
nicely across her chest but drooped off her ass like a tote bag. She thought
the third suit looked OK. It was a black one-piece, daringly low-cut with a
series of oval cutouts traveling up the side. But when she left the fitting
room to consult with the saleslady in front of the three-way mirror, the woman
hesitated for a long time before answering. `I wouldn't,' she said finally."
GROSS: Yeah, I love that. You know when the saleslady, who needs to sell you
clothes, thinks something looks bad, it really looks bad.
Mr. PERROTTA: I know. Usually, she'll say she would. OK.
GROSS: Thanks for reading that. Did you talk with your wife a lot about
certain things, you know, before writing the book or while writing the book,
just to get--you know, just again to get into a kind of female point of view
Mr. PERROTTA: I think, you know, when you live with somebody, you get their
point of view...
GROSS: Good point.
Mr. PERROTTA: ...kind of around the clock. I'm sure I had to ask her
certain questions and she'd be very happy to help me if I did, but I think
it's more like, you know, a steady stream of information that I get from her
and from, you know, other women friends.
BIANCULLI: Tom Perrotta speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. His novel, "Little
Children," has just been made into a movie starring Kate Winslet.
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on the new movie, "The Queen."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Film critic David Edelstein reviews Stephen Frears' new
film, "The Queen"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Dame Helen Mirren has been highly praised for her performance as Queen
Elizabeth in the new Stephen Frears' film "The Queen." The story is set at the
time of Princess Diana's death, when the clash between the modern Diana and
the monarchy became so apparent. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: Here's the story at the heart of "The Queen." A pretty
and vulnerable young woman marries into a stuffy royal family and runs afoul
of the chilly matriarch, who's the enemy of spontaneous emotion. It's the
standard fairy tale princess template except in this case, it's upside-down
and inside-out. The princess is Diana, Princess Di, and word of her death
comes near the beginning of the movie. The protagonist is actually Queen
Elizabeth II, the icy monarch who tried to muzzle her and who can't even bring
herself to make a public statement of grief. Talk about a challenge for a
The triumph of this sublime comedy of grand manners is that it gives us a way
into this cold, lacquered, seemingly inhuman woman to the point where we come
to admire her. It helps that she's played by the marvelous Helen Mirren.
Even as a monarch whose features barely bestir themselves, Dame Helen has one
of the screens most expressive faces. Shortly after Diana's death, Elizabeth
watches the princess sniffle through an old TV interview, and it's uncanny how
many emotions bleed through Mirren's regal mask: distaste, horror, pity,
regret. And perhaps something else: envy.
The director, Stephen Frears', and the screenwriter, Peter Morgan, prime you
to scrutinize Mirren's face for signs of tension between the woman and the
sovereign and to marvel at the will it takes to keep up appearances when
everyone on earth thinks her both scarily heartless and laughably out of
touch. We all did, of course. We might have been divided on the subject of
Diana's saintliness, but there was no disagreement about the royals'
cluelessness. Listen to Mirren's Elizabeth firmly state her position on the
matter of public mourning to the new prime minister, Tony Blair, played by
(Soundbite from "The Queen")
Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN: (As Prime Minister Tony Blair) ...coming down from
London, at the earliest opportunity. It will be a great comfort to your
people and would help them with their grief.
Ms. HELEN MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Their--grief? If you imagine I'm
going to drop everything and come down to London before I attend to my
grandchildren who've just lost their mother, then you're mistaken. I doubt
there is anyone who knows the British people more than I do, Mr. Blair, nor
who has greater faith in their wisdom and judgment, and it is my belief that
they will, any moment, reject this--this mood that is being stirred up by the
press in favor of a period of restrained grief and sober private mourning.
That's the way we do things in this country. Quietly, with dignity. That's
what the rest of the world has always admired us for.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: If "The Queen" is the story of Elizabeth and Diana's
catastrophic antipathy, it's also a wry portrait of Liz and Tony's lucky
symbiosis. At one point, Blair gazes heavenwards and cries, `Will someone
please save these people from themselves?' And that someone turns out to be
Blair, the young and studiously informal Labor Party leader with the
anti-monarchist wife. Strange bedfellows. Michael Sheen is more
chipmunk-like than his real-life model, but it's hard to imagine a more
generous portrait of the soon-to-be ex-PM. And as his spouse, Cherry, Helen
McCrory, makes a deliciously impudent foil. Frears' is generous towards all
his characters, except James Cromwell's Prince Philip, whose exclamations are
unfailingly snobbish and dull. Even Charles, played by Alex Jennings, is more
to be pitied than censured. He's always piping up about changing times and
the need to be flexible, and you see him through his mother's eyes. Not so
much flexible as backboneless.
Frears' often makes films in which people chafe at being trapped in roles to
which society has assigned them. In "The Queen," he finds it in himself to
revere a deeply unimaginative woman who accepts her assigned role and even
fights to maintain it. The director invests the surroundings with genuine
elegance instead of empty ostentation, and he shows us a different side of
Elizabeth amid the mighty crags and rolling hills of her family's 40,000-acre
Scottish estate. She sets out paper plates for a picnic, she tries to fix her
own jeep, and she has a mystical, emotionally charged connection with a
magnificent stag. That said, when she finally makes her grudging statement of
grief, it's not a stand-up-and-cheer kind of climax. It is, however, a
momentous one, because it marks for Queen Elizabeth II the passing of a more
dignified, more orderly world. She knows that Diana, the princess of the
modern celebrity culture, has won, but this cheeky yet reverent, not to
mention absolutely delightful movie makes you happy she surrendered with
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.