On September 27th 2012, NYU Creative Writing MFA faculty and celebrated author Zadie Smith gave a reading from her new novel, NW, to a packed house at NYU’s Kimmel Center. She read two passages, one from the “Natalie” section of the book and one from the “Felix” section. The Natalie reading, “On the playground,” tells the story of a group of residents of Northwest London’s council estates confronting a young man smoking outside a playground. The passage captures myriad voices from different cultures as they treat this confrontation as both necessary and entertainment.
The Felix section deals with a young man breaking up with his older lover. Again, this time in a scene with just two people in it, Smith’s writing and reading illuminated the backgrounds and differences between these two characters, the way they talk to and past each other. This section was more poignant than the first, but not without her usual incisive sense of humor. A Zadie Smith reading is always a treat, a wonderful way to experience her work, because of her ability to portray accent and character in her delivery as well as her words.
After the reading, she took questions from the audience, which mostly had to do with her writing process. Some highlights…
- She captures different voices by having confidence, being willing to make mistakes, and remembering that characters don’t have to carry the whole weight of their culture. She credits having a varied life and having different kinds of friends with her ability to evoke these voices in prose.
- When writing a non-fiction article, especially about a curated experience, like a sponsored trip to Liberia, or the Oscars, she likes to focus on looking where her tour guides are not telling her to look. In the case of the trip to Liberia, she focused on the NGOs themselves, not their showcases of local people, and at the Oscars she focused on the agents and deal-makers rather than the actors.
- Writing a novel about London while living in New York was not as hard as one might imagine. Being away from a place makes it easy to be nostalgic.
- Coming back to novel writing is always challenging—criticism is easy; writing a novel is hard. Creating the illusion of life, sparks of life, on the page, is what brings her back. An essay can make a writer sounds smart, but doesn’t capture life.
- She famously writes a novel from beginning to end, re-reading what she has written each day, editing as she goes before adding more, which means that it takes a long time to complete, but at the end she has a draft ready for submission.
- Reading criticism can be paralyzing, and some critics seem to hate writers. If you’re a writer, find critics to read who are sympathetic to creative art.
Zadie Smith is a Senior Faculty member of the NYU Creative Writing Program. This reading was part of the Creative Writing Program’s Reading Series.
Linnea Hartsuyker, Assistant Web Editor