Swing Time: Author Zadie Smith on her new novel, her process, and the power of language


On January 12th, Book People hosted a signing event at Central Presbyterian Church for Zadie Smith’s newest book, Swing Time. Zadie Smith has written several novels, including White Teeth, On Beauty, NW, and The Autograph Man, as well as several short stories.


After reading a short passage from Swing Time, Smith discussed various aspects of her book, her life as a writer, and her beliefs on process. Smith also touched on the effect of her early life.


“My dad’s job, it wasn’t even to design the content [of junk mail], but the folds,” she explains, mimicking the folded paper with her hands. “They folded in a certain way so you had to open them. That was his job, and one of the things he said to me… he said, ‘if you can avoid it, don’t sell anything.’ But here I am, hustling a book, I suppose.”


Smith makes light of the relationship between reader and author, referring to the close link between a reader’s position and an author’s.“It’s a magical thing, same as sitting in the theater,” she elaborates. “You have to buy it – you either buy it or you don’t buy it.”


“The content of a book, to me, should have this kind of freedom – I’m not trying to hustle you,” says Smith. ”The exercise of writing is trying to convince as many people as possible in the moment, but I find it hard to break it down into a science.”


While she doesn’t believe in extensive research, Smith says she believes perspective is important to take into while writing. She touches on times when she has used her own experience to create a scene, and how the authenticity is more meaningful to her than spewing facts.  


“Like, when I wrote the West African sections,” Smith details, “I was thinking about all the things, when I went to West Africa, that I didn’t understand. It’s like a series of confessions of not seeing things in clarity… When I’m writing, I suppose I choose that perspective, not of the expert or of the experienced novelist, but of the fool. The fool who enters into a new situation and has to try and understand what’s happening.”


Swing Time centers around two young “brown girls” and their growth together into adulthood. Smith talks about the themes regarding adulthood, racism, and stereotypes se faces with readers. Smith preaches the value of an open mind, and letting go of preconceived notions and misconceptions.


“I’ve got to make sure that the character I’m creating is seen, is seen not as a kind of argument or a concept or a stereotype, but is seen in their entirety,” Smith explains.“I’m always conscious of this secondary image around these characters which is not on the pages of the book…I’m more interested in people’s most intimate lives, I’m aware that there are political repercussions within their lives, but for me it’s a more intimate business.”


After reading an excerpt from the novel that taking place in West Africa, Smith discusses the language barrier her British narrator faces, but also the barrier she faced and how she used that to explore a more true-to-life experience for her character.


“Even when you’re in a room, surrounded by people who aren’t speaking your language…it struck me how you could still intuit the person’s sensibility through this linguistic block,” Smith explains. ”The way they move their hands, the undulations in their voice, the tone. It was clear, for example, who the funny girl was, the serious one, the one who preached too much – the one everyone dreads when she comes in the room. These things are transnational.”


Smith goes into her process and describes how her characters speak to her, quite literally, during the writing process.


“For me, the character is first and foremost a voice,” Smith says. “I have to hear the way they speak.”


One of the most discussed topics regarding Swing Time was the nameless narrator. The anonymous first person draws the reader in and led to many questions as to why the narrator went nameless and what that portrayed in Smith’s own mind.


“In this case, I wanted the absence,” Smith describes. “I wanted the sense of someone who is surrounded by far more interesting people, and a story about everybody else. There are people who are so strong in it, like the mother, for instance…but I wanted that to happen, I liked the idea of passivity of the narrator.”


The main theme of Swing Time is a conflict of power in the form of dance. Tracey, the narrator’s childhood friend, is a spectacularly talented dancer, while the narrator has an intense love for the movement and concept of dance that she carries through her childhood and career. The end result for the characters is a divergence of friendship, one having talent, and the other, talentless.


“I was thinking about talent as a kind of outrage,” Smith says. “It’s an outrage, you know, the fact that Aretha sings like Aretha and we sing like we sing… but then talent is an interesting one because where does it lie? Is it a birthright? Is it something that is created by work? All of those ideas of what is ‘natural’ to people, what they deserve, what should they get, with talent it’s an interesting place to begin. With Tracey, she has a vast amount of natural talent, but nothing comes to her from it… and I thought of the sadness of that, you know. In her situation, it’s her only hope.”


Smith describes her writing process, which begins as a percolation of ideas and concepts she finds most interesting. She touches on the amnesiac quality technology has on society, as well as some 19th century stories she hints at working on.


“I go through life, busy, and I have this kind of vague idea, a  vague scene or something,” Smith outlines.”I just sit around with it for a while. I don’t make any notes, I don’t Google it, I don’t go to the library… I let that go on for ages… submerged work, that’s something to call it, sitting around with something without talking about it. Sounds crazy but that’s how I work.”


Smith concludes with the importance of the voice in her stories, and how she knows when to take a step back from a piece. She describes editing as a long and drawn out “rather negative’ process, at the end of which is a final product that sings.


“You take a few pages and you remove the cliches, then you remove the unnecessary punctuation,” Smith says. “Then after all of that, what’s left is the good stuff. A lot like sculpture… trying to get a figure out of the mold. With a novel, [I] go over the first [pages] over and over again until the voice is the one that I was looking for.”
The conversation concludes with thunderous applause that echoes through the rafters of the church as Smith exits to the signing table.