White Teeth author Zadie Smith took part today in a writer’s interview series at the New York Public Library and your friendly neighborhood rat was in attendance. She was interviewed by Kurt “I’m Snarking as Fast as I Can” Andersen. It was an interesting match up — a writer who strives for truthful realism in her work being interviewed by a man who has made a career standing at an ironic remove from the world he lives in.
These “The Writer Speaks” things are always a little anti-climactic if for no other reason than the fact that writers are interesting for the things they write — invariably when you see them in public what you get is just a person, who stumbles over their thoughts, expresses doubt about their talent and seems unsure of just how they do what they do. Ms. Smith showed those qualities, but also persevered through some inane questions (“Will you always write books with just two words in the title?”) to offer interesting insights about herself. For example, she grew up loving MGM musical comedies, has always wanted to join her loves of writing and music, and is working on an operetta about Franz Kafka set to Kurt Weillian tunes. She loves rap music and is not frightened by its violent imagery because she likens it to the boasting of the heroes in Classical epic poems (okay…).
There was one great moment when Andersen, discussing her history and that of her characters asked if self-reinvention is a particularly American foible. “And is it a good thing?” This from a man engaged in his own [futile attempt] at reinvention. She took him down a peg two ways. For those who are outsiders, she said, we have no choice but to reinvent ourselves if we want anything like a decent life (and by so doing pointed up the class and race blindness of his question). Her only regret was that, in becoming someone new in the larger world outside of her culture, she had to give up things she loved. She opined that those who come from privilege and have to take on new qualities probably aren’t forced to make the same painful choices. Zing.
He didn’t pursue the matter.