Scottish writer appears at 2011 Edinburgh Book Festival
Both important and impish, the books of Ali Smith are loved by countless readers. Brian Donaldson hears from the Scottish writer about celebrity culture and human sponges
There can be few more anxious experiences for an author than turning to the literary section of a newspaper as the book they have slogged over for possibly years is taken apart by a faceless critic. One national paper gave Ali Smith the fright of her life as she spotted a review of her latest novel, There but for the. The name Isobel Murray may not have meant much to the casual reader, but to Smith, it brought back a flood of memories from way back when. ‘She was my tutor from Aberdeen,’ says the Inverness-born, Cambridge-based writer, recalling her days as an English literature student at the Granite City’s university. ‘It was much better not to know that she was going to review the book. From what I remember, she was always furious at me for not using semi-colons. It was a bit close to home to have your 20-year-old self being graded once more.’
But sometimes it can be an eye-opener in different ways to hand a completed novel over to a dispassionate reader who may make surprising connections that the author, perhaps being too close to their own work, may not have consciously observed. ‘When I gave the book to a friend to read, they said, “well, it’s Middlemarch isn’t it?” I haven’t read that since I was 18, but it is there: Miles’ second name is Garth and Brooke is in it too. When I opened Middlemarch again, I found this thing about lives being quietly lived. I was astonished but I know that every single thing you’ve read influences you at some level; human beings are very porous and what we take in will come out. The importance of quiet lives in celebrity culture looks like an anathema but they’re not because the removed and private person will be the most fascinating to the most number of people.’
For Smith, this celebrity culture is both a fascination and a distraction, with its perpetual focus on the surface of things, aided and abetted by the internet which has turned swathes of individuals into collective skimmers, flicking through pages and dashing from image to image in search of the somehow perfect visual trope. ‘For all of us in the world, the internet is a fantastic encyclopaedic help; it’s a new way of sourcing things but we have to always enquire about its truth. Our brains are changing and as a species we have become much more surface. But I have a comic optimism and faith in the human cleverness to use all sources for the best as well as the worst.’
The book is riddled with these kinds of concerns, opening with Miles leaving his seat at an awful dinner party and heading upstairs where he will trap himself in a spare room for months, wilfully cutting himself off from civilisation, like the hordes of addicted internet-users in their airless chambers. Eventually, rather than getting a locksmith on the case, panicked hostess Genevieve contacts the press to try and solve this existential puzzle. Meanwhile, each of the four lengthy chapters (entitled ‘There’, ‘but’, ‘for’ and ‘the’) looks at a different individual who has some connection with Miles (eventually, inevitably, he is dubbed ‘Milo’ by the gossip hacks).
There is a wonderful playfulness about the book which swarms with puns and jokes and layer upon layer of cunning references, particularly in the chapter which belongs to nine-year-old Brooke, a precocious aspiring writer who is obsessed with the concept of time. ‘I don’t think you can strive to be playful, otherwise you end up looking like a children’s TV presenter from the 1960s pretending you were ten,’ warns Smith. ‘People have complained about the number of puns in the book but I think playfulness is a door into understanding our species and the sensitivities and the connection points that go beyond our simple existence. It’s not surprising to me that people have come to call theatre “plays”; the root of drama is a kind of playfulness. There’s a real sense of lightness or a comic form even in the darkest of places.’
But that kind of darkness is something that Smith is well-aware of, having thrown herself into the writing of There but for the as her dad became gravely ill before eventually dying. ‘All hell breaks loose when someone dies. I’m actually still astonished there is a book; I hold it in my hand and I don’t remember where it came from. It’s a revelation to me that something keeps us going even when we think we’ve just completely stalled.’
For critics, readers and bookish judges, Smith’s literary exploits have continued to move forward at a frighteningly impressive pace. Her 1995 debut was the Saltire-winning short story collection Free Love with her full-length debut, Like, arriving two years later. Since then, acclaim has been more or less universal for her theatre work (The Seer), non-fiction (The Book Lover) and novels (including Whitbread winner The Accidental).
The twice-Booker nominated author has spoken before about the purpose of cultural consumption: ‘Do you come to art to be comforted, or do you come to art to be reskinned?’ she asked in a 2003 interview with Jeanette Winterson. This reskinning is at the heart of Ali Smith’s literary philosophy. ‘Like the sponge nature of being human, books are also organic things; they are formed of tree while the spine originally comes from the leather-bound spine of an animal. I’ve got nothing against Kindles or digital reading, it’s fine by me that all these classics are being read on the train. But books don’t have a battery, they’re a throwback to our own organic existence. Art should help to reproduce, and find a new version of ourself’
Ali Smith, 14 Aug, 11.30am, £10 (£8).
Extract: There but for the
there was no more talking out loud now, and there wouldn’t be neither, not for any money, not for anybody.
May Young was old. You’ll always be ‘young’ now you’ve married me, Philip had whispered in her ear at the altar, June 7, 1947. But she was no fool, she knew exactly how old she was. She knew it was January. She knew it was Thursday. She knew very well who the prime minister was, thank you very much. She knew plenty, no thanks to them. And here she was, in a bed that wasn’t hers, now don’t go getting ideas, she didn’t mean anything funny by it, ha ha. She looked down and saw the thing, plastic bangle-shape thing round her wrist. 13.12.25. No date for the other yet. So there we are, chum. Proof. Still here.
But oh dear Jesus Mary and Joseph, was that thing there really hers, that old woman’s rough raw wrist there, coming out of the end of the sleeve of a nightie May didn’t know? Well, not intimately she didn’t. Imagine not knowing the very clothes you’re
in. Finding yourself in pink when you wouldn’t be seen dead in pink. Finding yourself in a colour you’d never’ve said yes to in a million. Not even if you’d been in the dark. Old age doesn’t come its lone: old saying of her long-gone mother up with the angels since October ‘64. Well, no, mother, old age didn’t come its lone, for look at this, it brought a whole other person with it, a stranger whose wrists were old, who wore pink when you’d never have chosen pink and anyone who knew the first thing about you would never have put you in pink.
Well, but it was sore enough, that wrist on the bed, to be her own wrist, no stranger’s wrist after all, there where the plastic bit into it. That’s how you knew it was you and nobody else, then, was it, when things were sore? She lifted a hand. Or, an old hand that looked like it belonged to some other body, an old body, lifted, and it nearly did what she asked of it, it wavered, it took its time about it, it felt its way, missed its target, came at it anew, if at first you don’t succeed, and in the end it got one of its raw old red fingers in between the plastic that had her date on it and the skin under it and look! look at that! it was so tight! there was hardly room for a finger between this here and that there.
So it was no wonder it hurt like it did.
She did not say any of this out loud. She said it within the confines of her head.