A Night Discussing The Fraud: Zadie Smith at the Aratani Theatre
I got to the theater almost an hour early because, much to my surprise, Smith was doing a signing after the event, and your place in line was determined by how early you checked in. So many authors that have big, ticketed events at theaters just pre-sign books for attendees, which is totally understandable, but it was cool to see Smith take a different approach. There were pre-signed books at check-in, and it being Los Angeles, most of the audience went with the option with the fastest exit.
When the theater lights dimmed, Smith came on stage with David Ulin, a USC professor and writer, who was her conversation partner for the evening. The beginning of the conversation focused heavily on Smith's newest book, The Fraud, which is a historical fiction novel built entirely around real people Smith fictionalized (including many famous writers). While Smith has mostly written contemporary fiction, the differences of dipping into historical came up a lot.
Particularly, she noted that the feeling of writing this book was different than in the past. Smith talked about listing to authors like Toni Morrison speaking about writing on this spiritual level of the book being given to you as if through a seance. She made a joke about not getting this take at all before admitting that this novel opened her eyes to what they might have been talking about. She said that it felt like these spirits were talking through her during the writing process, which likely had something to do with the fact that she was crafting characters out of real people.
She took the research process and the gravity of these people's actual lives very seriously, including spending lots of time in graveyards visiting many of the people that are buried in walking distance to where she lives now. Eliza's grave, though, gave her trouble. She told a funny story about managing to locate the grave once but because of changing seasons and weather conditions, she was never able to find her way back.
Another significant part of her research was reading the works of many of the writers she included in the novel, particularly Charles Dickens. While she did read biographies about him, she admitted that most of her portrayal came from getting a sense of who he was from his work, though she rushes to say that no one should analyze her or think they could know anything about her based on her novels. Though this got a good laugh, Ulin did push her on this point, getting her to admit that there's definitely more to glean from fictional texts about the person behind it than anyone would like to admit. She mentioned that many of the writers she's met haven't surprised her in their demeanor when she'd already read their books. It always checks out.
There's lots more conversation about Dickens over the course of the evening. Smith pushed back against England's remembering of Dickens as this cozy, Christmas figure that obscures his activism and advocacy. She notes, though, that despite doing a lot of good, he faltered in having sentimental politics, only focusing on the issues that personally and emotionally resonated with him. Smith also talks about his flaw as a writer and as a person of wanting to control his characters so tightly. She mentions he tried to do the same with his actual children, casting them into archetypes he expected them to live by and being baffled when it didn't work out that way.
Smith admitted that she's also been known to be that way to her characters, but she's trying to, "unlearn the habit of controlling everything." The audience laughed in agreement at this quest we all fail at over and over again. One writing moment where she relinquished control came with the character at the heart of The Fraud, Mrs. Tochet. She didn't expect this woman, who's hardly even evident in the historical record, to play a large role in the novel, but Smith recounted how when she sat down to write the first page it was Mrs. Tochet opening the door and that she just didn't want to exit the scene. It struck me that because there was the least amount of available information on her, it was natural for Smith to gravitate to telling the story through her because there was the most leeway to experiment with her as a character.
In an interesting easter egg, Smith revealed that she'd been thinking about the Tichborne Trial at the heart of the book for a long time. She recently found an email with a deleted scene from NW where the characters reference it.
Then the conversation turned to London and Smith's move back during the pandemic. She thought that England gained a fourth dimension during the pandemic as she researched this novel and went back in time, despite the events being located in the very neighborhood she was living in. She makes a joke about the joy and trauma of returning to the street you were born on finding "intense layers of memories" and having to face old parts of yourself. How the kids that bully your kids are the offspring of the people who bullied you as a child. How you know everyone as you walk down the street. It feeds Smith, however, as she sees herself as a local writer with little interest in going global.
Ulin also asked her about her relationship to time in her work and how she has an objection to common sense narratives that neatly unspool on a singular timeline. Smith pointed out that though we've been trained that stories should be presented in this fashion, that's not how we experience life. She maintained that no one experiences time linearly. We're always bouncing from the present moment into some random memory from five years ago, moving through time in our minds in a different fashion. To this end, all of her books are "interested in a different kind of chronology."
Towards the end, Ulin and Smith discussed her essays as well as the Internet. Smith is still confused at Americans being impressed with her essays that she found to be basic, British school level essays like the ones she wrote when she was fifteen. Though she never found her writing particularly special, she notes that now the essays might stand out because her voice isn't influenced by the typical Internet writing voice. She doesn't read much online writing, so it doesn't influence her final product, and that might make them feel more unique. She discussed the importance of taking a step away from the Internet to detox from its often singular voice. Though, despite all its flaws, Smith claimed that the whole digital mess was worth it because we got the Lil Nas X "Industry Baby" music video.
Getting away from the hive mind also has a higher sense of importance given Smith's view of the job of the writer. She sees it as not telling people what to think but being instructive in how to think and approach the world. Similarly, when I asked her during the Q&A portion what advice she'd give writers, she joked that she pretty much had to stop teaching because the advice was so painfully simple that it left everyone wondering what they were paying for. And that is that the only key is reading. Reading anything and everything. Reading new novels and old ones and reading internationally as well.
Another question that stuck out from the Q&A was about how Smith knows an idea is ready to become a book. She pointed to two almost contradictory points. One requirement is a fullness to the idea, and the other is a sense of not being sure.
It was a really lovely conversation and evening, and I was shocked that I didn't even have to wait particularly long for the signing. We got called to get in line by groups which kept it organized and moving along faster, and it was so nice to watch how people in line started chatting with one another and sharing their enthusiasm for Smith's novels. When I got to the front of the line, she was incredibly warm. I got to tell her about reading her work in class and that sending me further into her catalogue, and she enquired about the class and my professor. As she was finishing up with my last book, I asked which of the three titles of her's I bought – On Beauty, The Fraud, and NW – I should read next, and she replied On Beauty without hesitation.
It was a really lovely evening, and my heart definitely felt lighter as I dashed off into the downtown LA night, carrying the three books in my arm all the way home.
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