Author Zadie Smith on family, freedom and facing the truth

Author Zadie Smith to give free public reading at Hopkins.

There's something about interviewing the author Zadie Smith that brings to mind Little Red Riding Hood's reaction when she finds the wolf in bed dressed as her grandmother.

You know the line — "What big eyes you have!" And you know the wolf's response: "All the better to see you with, my dear."

Not that there's anything particularly fierce about the woman on the other end of the phone with the refined British accent — nothing, that is, except for her intelligence. The author is so coolly observant, so amusing and penetrating, so adept at pinpointing things that the rest of us miss that it's not hard to feel a bit off-balance at the same moment you're being drawn closer.

That's apparent when Smith is chatting about tastes in interior design. ("A lot of American decor choices are quite incomprehensible to me. For instance, Americans seem to quite like curtains and cushion covers. There's some strange excess.")

And it's apparent when Smith, 40, who will give a free public reading Nov. 3 at the Johns Hopkins University, tackles intractable social ills.

"The American idea of freedom is that you can become successful all by yourself, but that's not really true," she says. "I was made by institutions and other people, and it's important that these institutions remain as open as they can. The fact that a child can be doomed to a second-rate education because of where he is born is a horror to me. So is the notion that someone can buy himself a better education."

Smith's talent for spotting small absurdities and huge inequities results partly from a life spent transitioning between races (her father is English and her mother Jamaican); between classes (she grew up in British public housing but vaulted in her early 20s into the literary intelligentsia); and between continents (she divides her time between her native London and New York, where she teaches fiction writing).

For instance, each time she returns to the United States she is struck anew with what she describes as "the American preoccupation with choice."

"In England, your doctor is whichever one lives closest to your house," she says.

"The idea that you would buy a magazine to help choose between doctors is a very comic idea in England. I grew up with the belief that doctors and teachers are generally qualified to do their jobs. When someone here tells me that they 'really love' their doctor, I want to say: 'Did he help you get better? Good. End of conversation.'"

Smith burst on the global literary scene when she was barely out of college. The unfinished manuscript for "White Teeth" sparked a bidding war and won the Whitbread Award for the best first novel published in 2000. Her 2005 novel, "On Beauty," was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, while "NW," which came out in 2012, was a finalist for the same award.

The novels are as sad as they are funny. They bring their audience along while exploring big questions about justice and mortality. They search for a certain kind of truth.

The tension that arises from shuttling between different worlds suffuses not just Smith's novels and short stories but also her nonfiction — and chances are that it will permeate her new novel, "Swing, Time," which will be released next September, as well as her 10th book, an essay collection-in-progress, "Feel Free."

Smith's prose is populated with characters facing situations seldom acknowledged by literature. Her characters are racially blended. Or they work at menial jobs where their ambitions for a better life are thwarted.

The novels frequently are set in Willesden Green, the working-class London neighborhood where Smith grew up. The author herself has noted that Archie Jones, the depressed blue-collar Brit who's the main character in "White Teeth," follows the same trajectory as Smith's father — down to their decision to marry much younger Jamaican women.

The author clearly loved her father deeply; her son, Harvey, is named in his honor. (Smith and her husband, Nick Laird, also have a daughter, Katherine.)

In "Dead Man Laughing," an essay that ran in the Dec. 22, 2008, issue of The New Yorker magazine, Smith wrote about how she and her father bonded in the months before his death over their mutual obsession with stand-up comedy. Listening to classic routines together became a way to talk about matters that neither wanted to think about.

"For my father, there was no happy ending," she says. "I was 31 or 32 at the time, and I really didn't want to deal with the concept of a life lived in complete sadness. The least you can do for someone who is dying is to listen to them tell you the truth about their life."

The whole truth of Harvey Smith's life may in fact be difficult to characterize. Despite his difficulties, he and the author's mother, Yvonne Bailey-Smith, managed to raise three extremely high-achieving children.

Zadie's brother, Ben, is the stand-up comic Doc Brown. His routines have received rave reviews at such prestigious gigs as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and he's been championed by the famous British funnyman Ricky Gervais. The author's other brother, Luke, has performed at music festivals as the rapper Luc Skyz alongside such superstars as Beyonce, Jay Z and Alicia Keys.

Didn't Harvey Smith get pleasure from being the father of three such remarkable children?

"He did talk about that," Smith says. "It wasn't nothing. But it wasn't everything, either. Children are so vain they think they can redeem their parents' lives."

Paradoxically, it's the circumstances of the author's upbringing that some might consider to be a hindrance that Smith thinks drove herself and her brothers to succeed.

"One thing about being lower-class is that you've got so much to prove that you work really hard," she says. "Everything is given to rich kids. They don't have to fight for things, and they tend to be lazy."

It was at school that Smith told her first story — though in a manner that once again brings to mind Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.

When she was 9 years old and had few friends, the author says, she made up a story about a young woman living in a tower who was in love with Superman.

Most of Zadie's classmates, uncharacteristically, were entranced. There was just one skeptical girl who declared that she would tell everyone that the tale was a lie. Zadie responded by chasing after and tackling her tormentor.

"Storytelling is a magical, ruthless discipline," Smith said in a 2014 speech that she delivered in New York.

"Part of my anxiety about storytelling is an awareness of that monomaniacal part of me that is willing to wrestle a little girl to the ground in order to preserve the integrity of a story. I know that part of me exists, but I really try to suppress it, because I want to find an accommodation between telling stories about life and living it well."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

The novelist Zadie Smith will read at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, in Hodson Hall, Room 110 on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, 3400 N. Charles St. Free. hub.jhu.edu/events/2015/11/03/arts-culture-student-life-writing-seminars-zadie-smith-reading.

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