In a review of Autumn, her most recent novel, a New York Times critic declared, “Ali Smith has a beautiful mind.” That’s the impression she gives—that she’s genial, funny, and dazzlingly nimble—when she’s sitting perfectly still, one leg tucked under her, on the rumpled sofa in the cozy, agreeably cluttered living room downstairs from her study. She works in a small, two-story brick row house off a back street in Cambridge, England, a few doors along from a similar house, also small, where she lives with her partner, Sarah Wood. Smith talks quickly and softly with a mild Scottish lilt, a rush of words that seems often to end in a shared laugh. She wants to be in cahoots, to make conversation collaborative.
Born in 1962 and raised in Inverness, the youngest child in a large working-class family, Smith had an Irish mother, an English father, and a Scottish education (until she started a Ph.D. at Newnham College, Cambridge). In her late twenties, after a debilitating bout of chronic fatigue syndrome derailed her career in academia, she started to write. Now the author of eight novels and six short-story collections, she fashions what might be called experimental fiction if it weren’t easy, pleasant, and thrilling to read. She has become a darling of critics on both sides of the Atlantic. How to be both (2014), which won a handful of prizes, is printed in two vice-versa editions, one of which begins with a grieving modern-day teenage girl called George, the other with a gender-bending Quattrocento painter thrust into twenty-first-century London. Does that sound complicated? Smith made it simple and marvelously resonant.
This interview took shape over the course of a year, in three long sessions. The tape of the first session presented its Paris Review transcriber with a daunting challenge: how to make sense of the barely audible recording of Smith’s rapid, accented, and richly allusive patter. With the microphone placed much closer to the author, and the interviewer pausing where necessary to repeat phrases and spell out names, the subsequent recordings proved easier to decipher.
Trying to squeeze many hours of interview into the allotted pages caused considerable anguish. Impossible to cut a line like this: “The rhythmical unit of the syllable is at the back of all of it—the word, the phrase, the sentence, the syntax, the paragraph, and the way the heart moves when you read it.” Could it not be smuggled into the introduction? Yes, it could. Part of the beauty of Ali Smith is that she shows us how to flout the rules.
Were you pleased to see Autumn referred to as “the first serious Brexit novel”?
Indifferent. What’s the point of art, of any art, if it doesn’t let us see with a little bit of objectivity where we are? All the way through this book I’ve used the step-back motion, which I’ve borrowed from Dickens—the way that famous first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities creates space by being its own opposite—to allow readers the space we need to see what space we’re in.
Is it harder to write fiction in our “post-truth” era?
We are living in a time when lies are sanctioned. We have always lived in that time, but now the lies are publicly, rhetorically sanctioned. And something tribal has happened, which means that nobody gives a shit whether somebody’s lying or not because he’s on my side or she’s on my side. In the end, will truth matter? Of course truth will matter. Truth isn’t relative. But there’s going to be a great sacrifice on the way to getting truth to matter to us again, to finding out why it does, and God knows what shape that sacrifice will take.
What’s next, Winter?
It’ll be chronological. But all these books will be about other seasons regardless of what they’re called. Winter won’t really be about winter. You can’t have any of the seasons without the other seasons. All seasons exist within each season.