What a cool lady. I turned up at the beautiful RIBA building having heroically made my way through the crowds from Oxford Street with very average levels of expectation. I’d booked to see Zadie Smith with London Review Bookshop thinking my friend (who works for a books charity) would be able to join me. But it sold out so quickly she didn’t get a ticket. So there’s me, £30 for a place and a first edition copy of Swing Time. I’m just mildly excited. The room is echoey and I’m awkwardly alone.
Nothing prepared me for how terrifyingly, embarrassing fan girl I would get.
It’s probably because I hadn’t actually read anything by Zadie before turning up. I had every good intention of speed scanning my Oxfam Bookshop copy of White Teeth or at the very least watching the BBC series of NW. But it’s been a busy few months in which I’ve been tearing through My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier and all the plays in our new season at the Bush. (Join my reading adventures on Goodreads). So I’d heard she was pretty cool – bestseller at 21 and all that kinda stuff. Casual.
But in person. I can’t quite explain how cool it is to find an author so wholly able to enthral you with their ideas in person. Authors and words – yes you expect those to go together – but author and words out loud? Not so often. As Zadie said, she only comes out once a year or so for book talks and launches and events. The rest she’s writing writing writing out of the public eye.
— Helena Wadia (@Helli_W) November 21, 2016
Yup. She’s total goals. She describes writing in the first person – as she does in Swing Time – as like a long process of acting. I totally get that. But imagine having to sustain that character for years as you write. And Zadie perfects as she goes. She’s not one to go back over huge swathes of writing.
“I don’t write first drafts. I kind of obsessively do each sentence, each paragraph, each page over and over again. It comes from insecurity. I have to feel like the reader. I try to get as close to the perspective of the person reading.”
So she also “acts” when she edits. She spoke about her process of final edits as trying to imagine herself as a first time reader. It’s something she realises, now, that she can never achieve (though she used to). But it helps her to be critical.
“I think of myself as a domestic, comic writer. bBut the times make strange writers of everyone.”
Things got topical in the light of the American election, which she feels “immense sadness” about. And all the other turmoils of our times. (More on that in the Standard.) I think “domestic” and “comic” are totally accurate descriptors of her writing (now that I’ve actually read some.) Friends who’ve read more of her, though, say that this makes many of her novels feel quite similar. She revealed that, though famous for her novels set in North London, she wouldn’t be writing any more there. At least for the time being. Perhaps that will help her escape that criticism. And this is clearly quite a big deal.
Omg also zadie smith said she wasn’t writing anymore books set in NW??!!! Isn’t this NEWS? History?
— Yara RodriguesFowler (@yazzarf) November 21, 2016
The thing I loved most though was her narration of growing up in London as a Jamaican-English girl with a nose that looked Egyptian/Middle Eastern. She spoke about her awareness of people projecting their assumptions onto her as she was growing up as a creative experience. I’ve never heard anyone describe developing racial identity in that way before and it’s really stuck with me.
And there were just all kinds of feminist goals quotes throughout the evening.
“Romance is boring. Work is much more important.”
She watches Mad Men. She named her 5 fav rappers.
1.Biggie 2.Kendrick 3.Tupac 4.Jay Z 5. Nas
So by the time I got to (the endless) queue for her to sign my book I was pretty signed up and definitely a bit terrified of meeting this amazing author. I was really hoping to scuttle on past and be like “hi/bye”. I had my post-it note written out with “Rebekah” so she knew how to spell my name. The plan was to give her my book, she’d sign it and then I would run away to gather my cool again.
Zadie had other plans.
“What’s happening, Rebekah?”
I freeze. She’s asked me a question. I have to say something. THINK. THINK. What thing can you say to this SUPER COOL LADY.
“Hi. Er, yeah, thanks for this evening. I really liked what you said a…”
Z: “You’ve read the book already?”
“Oh, no, I just mean in the talk tonight. Right. Yeah how you said writing in first person was like acting.”
Z: “Oh are you an actor?”
“I mean I work in theatre just not an actor.”
She finished signing. I stride. I stride all the way to Pret and sit down with a tuna baguette and yoga bunny and immediately read 50 pages of amazingness.
— Rebekah Ellerby (@rebekahellerby) November 21, 2016
Featured image: Stylist