DATE October 17, 2005 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"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
To introduce Zadie Smith and her new best-selling novel, "On Beauty," let me
quote from Frank Rich's front-page review in The New York Times Book Review.
He wrote, "`On Beauty' is that rare comic novel about the divisive cultural
politics of the new century likely to amuse readers on the right as much as
those on the left," unquote.
"On Beauty" is set in a fictional New England college town called Wellington.
It follows the parallel stories of two families. The Belsey family is
liberal. The husband and father, Howard, is a radical art theorist who
teaches at the college. He's white; his wife is African-American. Their
three children each deal differently with their biracial identity. Howard's
rival, the black Christian cultural conservative Monty Kipps, has just moved
with his family from England to Wellington where he's been invited to teach.
"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" begins as one of the sons of the liberal Belsey family has fallen in
love with the daughter of the conservative Monty Kipps. The son had briefly
lived with the Kipps family in England while he was doing research.
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. Here, 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 ideologies.
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
had 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
GROSS: 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 I'm married, I see how it happens.
GROSS: You know, your novel, "On Beauty," is in part about the culture of
campus life, and Howard, the father in the Belsey family, he's a radical art
theorist. So he sees art through this deconstructionist theory. So, for
instance, in class, he wants his students to question whether we should see
artists as special, as geniuses or as something else. So he says to them,
`What we're trying to interrogate here is the myth theme of the artist as
autonomous individual with privileged insight into the human.'
Ms. SMITH: Yeah.
GROSS: `What is it about these text, these images as narration that is
implicitly applying for the quasi-mystical notion of genius?' Pfew!
Ms. SMITH: Yeah.
GROSS: When you were a student, were you exposed this kind of, like,
hyperintellectual obtuse thinking about art?
Ms. SMITH: I mean, I was that type of person, and actually I don't have
anything against postmodern theory or deconstructionist theory but I guess I
do have something against bad theory, and Howard's the kind of theorist that I
was in college, just not a very good one, very full of himself and very
illogical and very dramatic. I always took things to extremes and I--and my
sources weren't always clear to me, and I was one of those English students
who throws off quotations from Hagel without ever having read Hagel from
cover to cover. And Howard's similar. I guess Howard's the kind of character
where you pour in some of your dislike for yourself into him, and there's a
lot of me in Howard, more than there should be probably, but that's what I
disliked. He's terrified. He's trying to keep his position, and he has a lot
of ambition, and part of that is to muddle his sources, disguise facts, lie,
cover himself up, and I was very prone to that when I was in college. I
wanted to be thought a serious person. So I often created seriousness where
there was none.
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 as
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 been 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 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 experience.
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, 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 who 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 kind of 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 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 to the next street 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--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: Is he still, now that he's older?
Ms. SMITH: No. I think--I never know what the status of his faith is. I
don't think so. He still seems to stick with ...(unintelligible) rules but I
don't know if he's still religious. I can't tell.
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. Like, 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.
GROSS: My guest is Zadie Smith. Her new novel is called "On Beauty." We'll
talk more after a break.
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(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Zadie Smith. Her new novel, "On Beauty," reflects on the
culture wars by following the families of a liberal and a conservative
Transformation is one of, like, the great themes of all American art, you
Ms. SMITH: Absolutely.
GROSS: ...books, but at the same time, there's, like, this inconsistence on
authenticity, and in a way, you could argue that the two are really at odds
with each other.
Ms. SMITH: Yeah, they are, but they always travel hand in hand, and that's
what I love about "Howards End," the book that inspired this book, that in the
character of Leonard Bast, who's kind of a working-class hero, you would call
him now, that that would be anachronistic at the time, but he's aspirational
for what he considers to be a middle-class life, full of conversation and
books. And the middle-class people he's aspiring towards are very nostalgic
for an idea of Leonard as farm boy, Leonard back in the land, Leonard, you
know, moving cows around. So they're at odds with each other. They want
different things, and they have different ideas of what would be authentic.
And I found that very easily translatable into contemporary life. It hasn't
changed that much.
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, and 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, 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 voice.
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
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 stuck me about spoken words
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.
It 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 ...(unintelligible) 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. I feel quite alienated by the idea of
a single voice just shouting at me a lot, though that's exactly what I'm doing
on the radio right now.
GROSS: No, it's not. You're responding to my sensitive and probing
Ms. SMITH: OK. Good.
GROSS: ...of your work.
Zadie Smith is the author of the new novel "On Beauty." She'll be back in the
second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, more with Zadie Smith. Journalists often comment on her
beauty, but she says she used to be heavy. We'll talk about body image and
identity. Her new novel is called "On Beauty."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Zadie Smith. Her new
novel, "On Beauty," is a best-seller. So was her first novel, "White Teeth."
"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's mother is black, her father white. She grew up in
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: She doesn't seem to have a lot of self-disgust, though. She's--she
Ms. SMITH: No, not at all.
Ms. SMITH: I mean, I also do think that has been true. Maybe it's changing
in the black community, but the bigness is not a repulsive thing in the way it
seems to be in the white media and all the mainstream media. And in my life,
there were always big women, and I was never given the sense that they were
bad news. But in my school where, you know, a lot of people were white, I did
feel that I was some kind of monstrosity. I think you are made to feel that.
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 I love the character in the book, Victoria,
who was extremely beautiful, you know, at 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 about it.
GROSS: You said in an interview that black women are lucky in not having, so
far, an enormous beauty industry to hound them.
Ms. SMITH: They have----well, it's two things. That's not quite true
because the hair industry, in terms of money, is something like 15 times what
the white hair industry is. So we have the hair issue in many, many books and
essays, and discussions have been had about black hair. We don't have to
repeat them here. But I do think in terms of mainstream beauty culture, black
women, by being ignored--and my feeling was that I was fortunate. I was glad
there were no magazines for black women when I was a kid because I didn't want
to read that stuff. And when I read a lot of women's magazines, I just feel
very depressed and very alienated and very sad. So I was glad not to have
At the same time, you understand why black women would want the same things
that white women have. But I don't--the idea of being publicly represented,
even though it's been such a big physical idea in the '80s and '90s, I think
every representation is a generalization, and I'd rather be my particular
weirdo self than have a magazine called--I don't know--`Mixed-Race Girls.'
I'd just like to be my own mixed-race girl. I don't really want advice on how
to be a mixed-race girl.
GROSS: You know, a lot of articles about you comment on how beautiful you
are, about your cheek bones. 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.
GROSS: My guest is Zadie Smith. Her new novel is called "On Beauty." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Zadie Smith. Her new novel, "On Beauty," reflects on the
culture wars by following the families of a liberal and a conservative
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 the enforcers, more specifically,
"Howards 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. And, for instance, in Cambridge, I don't think I read a
contemporary novel. It just--there was never any time, and they weren't on
the reading list. So it never happened. So I think when I left college I was
tremendously excited to find out there were all these people not so much older
than me writing novels, some of them incredibly brilliant.
But I do have that thing as a reader that there's a lot of dead people I
haven't read yet, and I have to finish them off before I move on to young,
vibrant, living people. Of course, that--if you think that, then you never
get done, and I do never get done. 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
GROSS: Who are some of them?
Ms. SMITH: I would say--I always say David Foster Wallace because it's true
I--there are few writers that write today that I consider as great as George
Eliot, as great as Austin. I do think of him in that way, and I probably--I
don't know how many other people feel that way, but I think it might be an
opinion that gains rather than lessens over the next few years. And then
people like Michael Chabon I really, really love. I love Roth and, I guess,
you've got to think of him as a very young writer, but to me people like Roth
and Updike were news because I just hadn't read them before I left college.
So those kind of people.
GROSS: What surprises you most about being an author as opposed to
daydreaming about becoming an author, which I'm sure you did when you were
Ms. SMITH: I guess what surprises me is, as much as I love it, if you--if I
had a choice between never reading a book again and never writing one again, I
would go with being allowed to keep on reading. I love to write, but it has
never surpassed my love of reading. And I don't know if that's true of all
writers, but it's the reading which I love, reading other people. And the
writing is kind of a boon on top. But I can never write the books that I
really admire. I just can't seem to do that. Maybe it will come later in my
life. So the writing has--always tends toward disappointment, where the
reading, because you're allowed to read what you like, and you can just go
around reading geniuses--You could spend the rest of your life doing
that--that's where I find the most enjoyment still.
GROSS: When you were growing up and you were a reader, did you have a lot of
friends who loved literature as much as you did?
Ms. SMITH: No. It's like--well, no. It's--you have a few other nerds who
you hang out with and you talk about books with. I had a quite nice posse of,
like, middle-class English girls. We all played a musical instrument and we
liked to sing in the choir, and we liked to talk about books and films a lot.
And that was, I guess, my first--my only book group, and it was very
enjoyable. I never felt--I was never made to feel that reading books was a
strange thing, like the way you see in those American high school movies.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Ms. SMITH: So I don't think that really exists. In fact, it seems to me that
being a nerd is extraordinarily cool and has been for about 15 years. I don't
believe those movies anymore.
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 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? We 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, the kind of relationship you're describing in your family is
not unlike what happens in the Belsey family during part of the time when
they're officially married but only in the technical sense and they are still
Ms. SMITH: Absolutely. I mean, the Belseys, like, in every detail are very
different from my family because they're so much more upscale and everything.
But in terms of the--what it feels like to have three almost-adult people in a
house talking with their parents, the kind of conversation you have over
breakfast, the fact that nobody can finish a sentence, that very much is my
family. That is inspired by them, and it's because of having all of their
voices in the house that maybe I have an ear for that kind of thing.
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 not 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'd like to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. SMITH: You know, it's a pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Zadie Smith is the author of the new novel "On Beauty." This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Fiona Apple's third album, "Extraordinary Machine"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The history of Fiona Apple's new third album, "Extraordinary Machine," has
been widely written about. It was originally produced by Jon Brion, an LA pop
rock musician whose worked with Aimee Mann and done soundtrack work for
director Paul Thomas Anderson. Initial reports said that Apple's label
rejected the results as not commercial enough. Versions were leaked on the
Internet. Fiona Apple tells another story in interviews that she wasn't
entirely satisfied with the results and re-recorded much of the album with a
new producer. In any case, rock critic Ken Tucker says Apple's first release
in six years is certainly extraordinary.
(Soundbite of "Red Red Red" from "Extraordinary Machine")
Ms. FIONA APPLE: (Singing) Don't understand about complementary colors and
what they say. Side by side, they both get bright. Together they both get
gray. But he's been pretty much yellow, and I've been cryin' blue. But all I
can see is red, red, red, red, red now. What am I gonna do?
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Fiona Apple has--and rarely has this verb been more accurate in a pop music
review--crafted a collection of songs that evince a truly impressive amount of
nerve, self-absorption and anger, all of which I intend as compliments. This
is one heck of a piece of singer/songwriter art. "Extraordinary Machine" is
one of those albums that exists out of time. It could have been recorded
during any decade of rock history. The song I just played, "Red Red Red," for
all its simmering quietness, spews '70s punk fury. And the title song is a
gorgeous piece of autobiographical art pop, much like Van Dyke Parks and early
Randy Newman, circa the late 1960s.
(Soundbite of the title song, "Extraordinary Machine")
Ms. APPLE: (Singing) I certainly haven't been shopping for any new shoes,
and I certainly haven't been spreading myself around. I still only travel by
foot, and by foot it's a slow climb. But I'm good at being uncomfortable, so
I can't stop changing all the time. I notice that my opponent is always on
the go, and won't go slow so as not to focus, and I notice he'll hitch a rid
with any guide as long as they go fast from whence he came. But he's no good
at being uncomfortable so he can't stop staying exactly the same. If there
was a better way to go, then they would find me. I can't help it. The road
just rolls out behind me. Be kind to me or treat me mean. I'll make the most
of it. I'm an extraordinary machine. I see...
TUCKER: That tune wouldn't be out of place in an early Stephen Sondheim
musical, all prancing, ironic, cock-eyed optimism about how, despite the fact
that Fiona is prone to, quote, `seek a new disaster every day,' she always
bounces back through her art. The title phrase, "Extraordinary Machine," is
how she describes herself, and it's no mere cute boast. Apple's 1996 debut
was a triumph of 19-year-old soul-baring, a songwriting binge that resonated
with at least 2.7 million souls. She's both matured and, more trickily,
remained the same. That Apple accomplishes this by venting against predatory
men while pushing an image that's half Sylvia Plath, half Ally McBeal, makes
her continued viability all the more impressive.
(Soundbite of "Get Him Back")
Ms. APPLE: (Singing) One man, he'd disappoint me. He'd give me the gouge
and he take my glee. Now every other man I see remind me of the one man who
disappointed me. Wait till I get him back. He won't have a back to scratch.
TUCKER: Notice the way Apple's piano makes stabbing chords that jive with
sentiments such as, `Wait till I get him back. He won't have a back to
scratch.' Apple goes into a lower register to put a frown in her voice on a
he-done-me-wrong song such as "Get Him Back." But she can also settle into a
gorgeously languid croon on ballads like "Parting Gift."
(Soundbite of "Parting Gift" from "Extraordinary Machine")
Ms. FIONA APPLE: (Singing) I opened my eyes while you were kissing me once,
more than once, and you looked as sincere as a dog. Just as sincere as a dog
does when it's the food on your lips with which it's in love. I bet you...
TUCKER: Equating your lover with an adoring dog, then calling him a, quote,
"silly, stupid pastime of mine, always good for a rhyme" is one cold way to
delineate a love affair that's gone wrong.
Throughout "Extraordinary Machine," you find yourself laughing with pleasure
at Apple's wordplay, catching your breath at her ferocious bitterness or
sarcasm and then getting swept up in the swirling musicality of the scenarios
she creates. She has an expansive vocabulary and a penchant for pastiche.
Sometimes she makes it difficult to tell whether she's angry or satirizing
singer/songwriter anger. This is by now one of many tools that she wields
with dextrous strength and accuracy. After lo these many years spent
tinkering, it turns out that her "Machine" is all heart and soul.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Fiona Apple's new album, "Extraordinary Machine."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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