She only had one hour with us, but Zadie Smith packed it full of wonderful insight and advice!
The Q&A session was held at the University of Toledo, in the Student Union building, and at least 30 people were in attendance. The campus bookstore was also on site with Smith’s books for purchase, but because of her tight schedule, she didn’t really have time to sign any afterward. No worries though, I was just excited to sit in the front row and listen to her writer-ly wisdom!
She answered a couple of softball questions:
What’s your writing process like?
She admitted that with limited time at her disposal (being a creative writing professor at NYU with two kids) she finds time to write whenever she can. If she can space out at least four or five hours to write, that’s good enough for her.
Favorite books growing up?
Smith believes that the most influential reading a person will do, is between the ages of 9-15. She especially enjoyed reading:
- Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Jane Eyre
What kinds of themes do you tend to write about?
Class: “Class is a bubble, very hard to think your way out of. “
Zadie grew up in Northwest London, an ethnically diverse working class area of the city and her writing
usually reflects that.
Food: “I’m a big fan of food, obviously,” Smith said in response to the question of food in her writing. She explained that the cultural ties in her books, are at times. best illustrated with food. When she was in school, she particularly enjoyed eating meals with the Muslim students, since “they always had the best food.”
Advice for young writers?
READ MORE! Smith could not have emphasized this enough. “Writing is the boring part, it’s the reading that matters.” She advocates not only reading whenever you can, but catching up on old literature too.
She says that her students are so worried about being original, that they forget to read the literature that came before them. But Zadie stresses that’s it’s imperative to know about the writers that came before you. She was concerned about “the tolerance students have for the past” being “quite small and quite frightening.”
GO TO COLLEGE! Learning about literature and writing, from other students and from professors is probably for the best. However, the author does admit the “block” that occurs in America. In England, she was able to go to school for free, but she knows this is hardly the case now.
She said that she felt lucky that, during her freshman orientation, a young black female student led her group. It was nice to know that some like her had done it before her. You can always tell that privilege and access is always in the forefront of Zadie’s mind. She admits that every year, she sees new groups of black high school students taking tours in the NYU library, but laments that she never sees them in her classroom.
Writing Essays Vs. Novels
I was very interested to know what Smith’s ideas were on essay writing. She equated essays to small pieces to rhetoric, which is what I teach my own students. Her next piece will be written about the weather and how she wants to “express the sadness” she felt about climate change. And then she gave us a great piece of insight into her writing: “I try to write from the perspective of the idiot, which is me. I write about banal topics as clearly as possible, breaking through the noise with some common ground.” Especially because climate change is such a politically charged topic, with two sides shouting at one another.
Essays were a genre that she called a “controllable area.” They are tight, concise and have endings that aren’t as ambiguous as novel endings. Surprisingly enough, Zadie revealed that she would never her own novels. She described the act as too personal and embarrassing.
On to the next engagement. . .
Zadie has other engagements that evening and had to get going. But as quick as the session went, I think everyone in the room got a lot out of it. Smith was incredibly honest and thoughtful about all of her answers. She devoted a lot of time to each question, making each person feel as though they were being listened to and educated (natural teaching instincts). I learned quite a bit about my own writing and the things that I should work on for future essay writing. All in all, I was extremely motivated and refreshed by the experience and can’t wait to incorporate her advice. Thanks for hanging out in Toledo, Zadie!