The Lenny Interview: Zadie Smith

Lena Dunham and Zadie Smith have an email correspondence about success, male versus female anxiety, and all the feels.

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It's easy for me to remember my friendship anniversary with Zadie Smith because we met for the first time the same night I went on my third date with my boyfriend. We met in a dark bar on Lafayette, and, for perspective, I was way more nervous about impressing Zadie than I was about making sure my new paramour liked me. So nervous, in fact, that on the way to see her I used Chapstick as deodorant. I don't think she knows that, and she will find out for the first time here. Ten minutes after leaving her presence I began to vomit. I vomited on and around my then-crush, now life partner. All I could think was, At least it wasn't with Zadie.

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But despite her luminous, lit-goddess persona, her throaty laugh, like a character tic Tilda Swinton would invent for a good witch, and her ability to make Asos look like Marni, friendship with Zadie is defined by lowbrow text humor, constant two-way concern, and a deep wisdom. That wisdom would be intimidating if she weren't so willing to share it and so thrilled to question her own right to give it. Zadie is the kind of friend you dream of having in ninth grade — she'll lick her thumb and adjust your eyeliner, but she'll also tell you exactly how the Parliament works. She's a genius, a ride-or-die chick, and the best emailer I know — case in point: this interview. Her new novel, Swing Time, is as soulful as it is crafty.

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Lena Dunham: When I talk about you or post a picture of you, readers tend to respond with things like #goals or YAS QUEEN. You're a person (like Beyoncé or Helen Mirren) they feel completely comfortable idolizing for both style and values. I don't mean to make you respond to this because it's embarrassing to be told you're "goals," BUT I think they would be surprised that you found your early twenties, even after finding success, to be a time of wild self-consciousness. It would be easy to assume that being celebrated at a young age or having very great freckles would have cured that. Can you talk a little bit about your experience of being a twenty-something?

Zadie Smith: Honestly, I remember my twenties as a time of work: I wrote my twenties away. When the books came out, I'd get this sense of being a certain kind of person in readers' minds, but it never had much to do with how I felt about myself. Of course, it's nice to be celebrated at any age, and those people who manage to write without any audience or a very small one I consider simply heroic. Writing can be hard, but to write and not be read is painful. So I am always grateful to be read. Still, the relations that really count for me are the intimate ones: friends, family, partner. The possible admiration of people I've never met is too abstract. I know someone can mistake you for #goals on the very same morning you say something unforgivable to your child, argue with your lover, get utterly stuck on a piece of work, cry on the sofa ...

LD: Swing Time is about many things, but one of them is motherhood — the gifts and burdens our mothers bestow. When I first met you, you had one child and seemed pretty pleased with that arrangement. You decided to have a second and make that look easy, too, though I know it's hard and cuts into your ability to Google memes and listen to new music, etc. How much has being a mother changed your experience of writing (and not in the obvious time-management/"Can women have it all?" way)?

ZS: Nothing would be possible without partnership. Nick is the reason anything got written at all, and I hope he would say the same about me. Motherhood for me was at first a kind of displacement. It forced me, at least partially, into a secondary position in my own life. Even the simple biological recognition that my daughter is on the way in and I am unavoidably on the way out. And time-wise, it made me very impatient of wasting any. Even my sentences have the stench of motherhood upon them. I haven't the time for elaborate metaphors! I want to get to the point — to be understood.

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Another aspect for me is a kind of powerlessness. I used to think, as a young woman, that life was something I was controlling and directing. Now I only think: What a mess we all are, with so many contradictory impulses, so many things about ourselves we'll never entirely understand. The child, too, picks up on this: every hypocrisy, every self-serving lie, every moment of cowardice. They see you very clearly, because at home there's no offstage. You are seen in the round. I remember how fearfully I judged my parents. And now I'm on the receiving end of that. So they're teaching you who you are, for better or worse, and that is certainly a useful — if painful! — perspective to write from.

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LD: I got an email from you last year saying you were in West Africa having a midlife crisis, and there is a West African section of Swing Time. Can you talk a little about that sojourn?

ZS: My family has always been drawn to that part of the world: my mother married a Ghanaian for a while, and my uncle, too, met a girl there and married her. I think Jamaicans often have that sentimental sense of a family connection. It was something I resisted when I was younger, exactly because I hated to think of "Africa" as a sentimental concept or mere symbol of homeland. I had this very strict line with myself that this was a continent of many complex countries with separate histories and I couldn't claim a connection with it just because I wanted there to be one.

But at the same time, I found excuses to go, work reasons usually, and each time I had a very strong reaction, because you see so many aspects of diaspora life echoed there, and I found tracing that lineage far more moving than I ever would have expected. After finishing Swing Time, I read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a stunning novel about the history of the diaspora — I think she started it when she was 21. And my main thought was: It's taken me twice as long to confront this history, not as an academic fact or a political argument, but as an emotional experience. So the crisis I felt on this latest trip was basically sadness about wasted time. All midlife crises are about that, aren't they? Like: Why didn't I do X, Y, and Z earlier?

LD: In your recent T Magazine interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, you said that as a young author, and even now, you "have a sense that a lot of male writers have a certainty that I have never been able to have." I think about this a lot too — how good male directors are at complimenting themselves, knowing they got the shot, moving on, accepting praise. Impostor syndrome, or whatever we want to call it, is something our readers and contributors talk about constantly. Is there some way you think it's actually served you? Living with a male writer, how would you characterize the differences in your angst styles? I wonder if you even see this split in confidence beginning in your kids, having a boy and a girl, and whether there's some element of inevitability to it — or can we coax it out of little girls??

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ZS: Men have plenty of anxieties. Men tend more than anything to dread being humiliated, while women fear being exposed as fraudulent in some way. That's a generalization, of course, but it's my sense of it. An important difference might be that humiliation actually has to happen to you, whereas the fear of exposure is omnipresent.

I have always thought that I should be doing things differently, or like someone else. But I feel that this can be in fact a form of strength. I also think this restless and comparative instinct may have deep roots in female experience. For example, not long ago I was leaving a kid's birthday party with my six-year-old daughter and a friend of hers. The friend wanted to know where we were going now and what we were going to do once we got there. Would we watch a movie at home? Read a book? Have ice cream? Go to bed at seven or eight? With juice or water? And when I answered all her queries, she cried: "Not fair!"

Now, if it were my son parting from another boy, I can't imagine him being quizzed in this way or quizzing anyone else. When my son leaves another boy, it's as if that boy has ceased existing. But my daughter, like her friend, is tormented by what might be going on elsewhere, in another girl's life. You can describe this as a kind of feminine problem, but looked at in another way isn't it an extraordinary gift? To be able to so thoroughly imagine what the girl who just left your presence might be doing, at any moment, and to so fully enter that imagining that you're infuriated by it? It's a form of engagement!

LD: You are married to another writer, a very good one. Without this turning into a lifestyle piece on how you find time for date night, what are the joys and challenges of sharing a home with a creative person (a poet!)? I'm interested in the way emotional space is divided, the emotional space needed to do what you do (I may or may not be asking for myself).

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ZS: Both of us have a very unromantic view of writing. The phrase emotional space would not appear in our household. We think only of time: of buying it, creating it, horse-trading for it, equally dividing it. My sense of it is that we have the exact same arguments as any other couple with young children. It's all about who has or has not been given time to do whatever it is they want to do. In our case it's writing, where for others it's fly-fishing or Pilates or woodwork or kickboxing. But the fundamental debate is the same. In a sense, us both writing makes it easier: neither person is offended if, the moment the kids are asleep, we creep off to finish the page we had to quit earlier to do a school pick-up. On the other hand, it can be hard to remember that we mustn't just write all the time. Proper jobs end at 5 p.m. (well, not in New York, but you know what I mean), whereas writing is like a gas that will fill up every corner of your life if you let it. Our challenge is not letting it. Our challenge is remembering that sometimes it's nice to go outside or go see an exhibition or just get on the floor and build Magna-Tile towers with the children. He is better at remembering this than me.

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LD: Something that thrills me about you is you're just as likely to write an essay about Jay Z or Key and Peele, or to email me a quote from New Girl, as you are to write about a super-specific Renaissance painting. You don't shy away from pop ideas or their relevance, even as you explore the ancient art forms. A lot of writers in your world seem almost resistant to the Internet and to the pull of popular culture, and you're not (though you have a flip phone and can't receive emojis, which is distressing for me). Your love of music, of film, and of art in all forms is all over Swing Time. Can you talk about the kinds of influences you allow to permeate you, and why you're just as likely to have the Solange album on repeat as you are to interview Karl Ove Knausgaard?

ZS: My mental split is between the good and the bad, not the high and the low. Before finishing this interview, I watched an episode of the sublime Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the one where it finally occurs to the main character that she might not be the hero of her own story. (She has this realization in song.) I'm not trying to be cute when I say that I could have written 5,000 words on it — I truly had what the Internet calls "many feels." This is what I am looking for in art: feels. Intellectual, emotional, philosophical, religious, existential feels.

But the feels have to possess a certain amount of vertical depth. It's like lowering a stone down into the well of yourself, and the further it goes the deeper it resounds. I am resistant to a lot of the Internet, not because I disapprove but because the feelings I personally draw from it seem to me shallow and don't lead me anywhere useful or pleasurable. A lot of the social platforms provoke feelings in me I simply don't enjoy. For a moment I am flattered, falsely puffed up, briefly amused, painfully hurt, or infuriated. I accept it feels different for other people, but I have to gravitate to the things that really interest and excite me while I'm alive.

It's totally selfish on my part. I'm in the middle of my life, and I just don't have enough years left to spend a large proportion of them inside an iPhone. For one thing, I know I would be an addict. I live inside my laptop plenty enough already. I don't have a moderate temperate with these things. If I were going to live to 150, perhaps I wouldn't mind so much spending half of every day online. But there's so many things I haven't read or seen or experienced. I want that vertical experience all the time — I'm very greedy that way.

Lena Dunham is confused about why Zadie Smith still insists on using a flip phone, but also impressed and vaguely aroused by it.

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