Seven Questions: Ali Smith
Interview by Sharlene Teo.
Ali Smith has been shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize for her 2001 novel ‘Hotel World’ and for her 2004 novel ‘The Accidental’ respectively. The latter went on to win the 2005 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award. Her most recent publication is ‘Artful’, a partly fictionalised meditation on art and literature. Her appointment marks the continuation of an association with UEA that began with her appointment as a Writing Fellow in 1999. In January 2013 she joined the UEA Creative Writing programme as this semester’s UNESCO City of Literature Visiting Professor.
Who are some living writers you admire the most and why?
Javier Marías, who is able to see the contemporary with an eye that reveals it for what it is. He can see, philosophically and anatomically, the layered narratives of the present, and where they come from, and where they’re likely to lead. (And in English translation at least, his novels have released a whole new peripatetic English prose structure, so if I’m talkingMarias I have to couple him with his English translator here, Margaret Jull Costa.) Toni Morrison, for always, with everything she writes, pushing the novel to a new shape and purpose, and always in conversation with the form’s own history as well as human history.
In 2003, you posited that the purpose of cultural consumption rested on whether “we come to art to be comforted or reskinned”- this ‘reskinning’ literary philosophy- has it changed in any ways, 10 years on, and what do you want your readers to feel first and foremost?
I think – and I’ve always believed – that the only responsibility the writer has is to the story. All a writer can do is work with language to get the story right. Full stop. & I’ve always believed that what readers feel is readers’ own business.
But art, regardless of things like philosophy and responsibility, goes its own way and will move us, shred us, heal us again, hold us, comfort us, madden us, shock us into pieces, piece us back together or leave us to do it ourselves, renew our senses, renew what matters to us, challenge our thinking and feeling processes, and most of all remind us at all levels what it is to be alive.
What comes easiest for you in the writing process and what takes the most work?
Nothing comes easy, ever, and I much prefer working on the edit. Which is probably why I edit all the time, from the first phrase onward; also this allows a text to produce itself by a fusion of open instinct and close editing.
You have an incredible command of voice. What is your best tip for invoking these distinctive voices?
My tip – really simple – is to listen. Voice tells you everything about itself, in itself – word, rhythm, syntax, what’s said, what’s not said.
When do you know a story is finished? (in relation to the composition and editing process)
When it stops niggling at you. (It may never.) Though I always bear in mind a Bernard Malamud short story about a painter who wakes up in the middle of the night convinced he’s got to add to something he thought he’d finished, and who gets up, adds to it, goes back to bed pleased – and when he wakes up again in the morning he’s ruined his work. So, general rule – it takes time. Give yourself and your work breathing space, go away from it and come back to it with fresh eyes and ears. Don’t be hasty.
What is the best advice you could give to new or struggling writers about writing for a living and the publishing world?
Nobody else can or will write the book that you can write. Keep going.
What has fascinated you the most lately? (this could be anything)
If I tell you it’ll give away the structure of my next book and the core of a story I’m about to write. Forgive me for not saying.