In Essays, Author Zadie Smith Reveals Her Process In the new collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, author Zadie Smith explores her writing process and the people who have influenced her. Smith tells NPR she doesn't write every day, though she wishes she did — and that she used writing as a way to mourn her father.
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In Essays, Author Zadie Smith Reveals Her Process

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In Essays, Author Zadie Smith Reveals Her Process

In Essays, Author Zadie Smith Reveals Her Process

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Author Zadie Smith has admitted that early literary success has not always been a blessing. She was 25 when she published her first novel, the widely praised "White Teeth." Since then, she's written two other novels, but she's also experimented with literary criticism, movie reviews and political writing.

And she's compiled some of this work in a collection titled "Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays." Zadie Smith joins us now from London to discuss a few of the many topics she explores in her book.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. ZADIE SMITH (Author): Thank you. Hi.

NORRIS: It's so good to have you with us.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you. It's good to be here, kind of, from England.

NORRIS: One of the things that I thought was so interesting, reading the essays - and they do really run the gamut and you cover all kinds of things - but you talk about how you write. And for people who have really enjoyed your books, it's really wonderful to get inside the writing process and see it from your perspective, from the writer's desk.

Ms. SMITH: Right.

NORRIS: And you say that you spent a great deal of time on the beginning of a novel. You have to have all the pieces in place before you sit down and start writing. What is that part of the process like for you?

Ms. SMITH: I mean, this is in my memory, because it's a long time since I started at the beginning of anything. But as I remember when I'm writing novels, I mean, there's a huge amount of self-consciousness that you begin with. I think for anyone writing anything that's true. It's very important to try and get the first part right. And it can be very obsessive, that process, I think.

For me, it's quite extreme. Maybe 80 percent of the time I spend on the book is spent on the first 50, 60 pages.

NORRIS: Eighty percent on the first 50 or 60 pages.

Ms. SMITH: It feels like. It felt that way with "On Beauty."


Ms. SMITH: Not as bad with "White Teeth," but with "On Beauty," definitely, and then the rest came pretty quickly.

NORRIS: What are you doing in that time? Are you trying to make sure that you understand all the characters before you begin the journey?

Ms. SMITH: No, that would be wise. I should do that more. No, it's more about tone, I think, and that is established in the sound of sentences. The perspective is a very obvious example, first person or third person, something which I agonize over a lot, even though I never seem to make any different decisions on that front.

Yeah, I think it's just hoping; it's the hope that you might write something different. And then often, the realization that you get on that you're writing something the same.

NORRIS: In one of your essays, and you talked about the middle of the writing process and by the time you get to the middle, everything has changed. And I could go on to describe this, but you described it beautifully on page 104. And I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind reading a bit of that.

Ms. SMITH: (Reading) In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical center of the novel. By middle of the novel, I mean whatever page you're on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children are food shopping and dog feeding and reading the Post.

I mean, when there's nothing in the world except your book. Even as your wife tells you she's sleeping with your brother, her face is a gigantic semicolon, her arms are parentheses, and you're wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle.

NORRIS: Why is the middle so magical?

Ms. SMITH: I think personally because you're under a delusion that things are going really well. That's what usually happens in the middle of a novel. You just become convinced that everything's great. The beginning is so painful, the end is torturous, but in the middle, you're writing a lot of words per day, youre feeling very productive, and you get carried away. That's the point where a very good editor is extremely useful.

NORRIS: Do you write every day?

Ms. SMITH: No, I haven't written at all for about - I mean, fiction - for about three or four years. No, I don't write every day. I wish I did more than anything and I wish I have that compulsion. But I guess in my defense, I think that novels should be should feel very necessary to the people who write them. I just realized quite early on that I'm not going to be the type who can write a novel every two years. I think you need to feel an urgency about the acts, otherwise when you read it, you feel no urgency either.

So, I don't write unless I really feel I need to. And that's a luxury, because I can do other things and read and take time. But it works for me better that way.

NORRIS: If I can ask you a personal question - I hope you don't mind - but toward the end of this book, you write about your family. And you particularly write about - with great candor and with great love - about your father, your father, Harvey. And he was the subject of two of your essays. Why is he so much the focus of your writing? We don't seem to learn as much about your mother.

Ms. SMITH: I know my dad would say, because I'm dead. That would be the correct answer. I dont I wouldn't write about people who are living and who are close to me because I think it's a very violent thing to do to another person. And any time that I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific. So, it's something that I would avoid.

With my father, writing about him was just genuinely a kind of act of mourning. I didn't realize that I would be the kind of person who would use writing in that way because I suppose I often think of my writing as quite impersonal. But it turned out, when my father died, that writing was exactly what I wanted to do. And I wanted to make him more solid as well because he was a very difficult man to pin down. Whereas, I think maybe with the rest of my family, they're much larger than life. You dont - there's no trouble in pinning them down. My father was a little more elusive.

NORRIS: So, it's a way of holding on?

Ms. SMITH: Yeah, I suppose so. Though it's also a betrayal once you write about someone who's died. What remains is what you've written. And it begins to replace your memories the way that photographs replace real things. So I think it's a dangerous act. I don't think I would ever write a full memoir for that reason; it seems to over sleep reality with something else.

NORRIS: I'm not sure how many of your readers know this: but I'm talking to you at a moment when you are about to give birth.

Ms. SMITH: Yes, folks, I'm very close.

NORRIS: Do you think that that has changed you, will change you, the way you write, the way you look at the world?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I dont know. We'll have to see. I remember sitting in Edinburgh a while ago with some young male writers, my peers, and I was just recently pregnant and there's a lot of talk of prams in the hall and all that kind of scaremongering. And I thought I should try some scaremongering backwards. And I was saying to them, aren't you terrified that you're going to go through all your life as these sexy young bachelors without children? Aren't you worried that you might be missing something vital?

I managed to get quite a bit of fear into them by the end of it. But, you know, in reality the fear is usually the other way around. Know that children will stop the work or slow the work or I dont know. I dont know. I think in the past for a female writer, when you look through the history of these Anglo-American letters, there's not a lot of women with children there. It was impossible to do that work and to do the children as well. Now, the hope is that times have changed. But we'll see.

NORRIS: I have a feeling that you're going to be a very apt juggler when that time comes.

Ms. SMITH: I hope so.

NORRIS: Zadie Smith, it's been a pleasure to speak to you. All the best to you.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: That was Zadie Smith. Her new book is called "Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays." At, you can read a review of the book and an excerpt from an essay about Zadie Smith's father.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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