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A UK Exclusive Q&A with Zadie Smith and Nick Laird on Weirdo

Posted on 12th April 2021 by Mark Skinner

Zadie Smith and her husband, the poet Nick Laird, have teamed up with exciting new illustrator Magenta Fox to produce their debut children's picture book Weirdo - all about a guinea pig with rather unconventional taste in attire. In this UK exclusive Q&A, Zadie and Nick discuss the idea behind the book, their writing process and juggling literary demands with homeschooling.    

Maud is a judo suit-wearing guinea pig. Can you tell us about her story? 

Zadie: Well, she’s a guinea pig who goes her own way. She’s into judo in a house full of animals who aren’t that into judo. Maybe they’ve never seen a guinea-pig in a judo suit? I don’t know. But they’re a little negative about it. They think she’s a bit weird. So, Maud is subject to a certain amount of ridicule, and to be honest she gets a bit down in the mouth about it… But then she meets an older woman, a neighbour, who’s a bit odd herself, called Emily Brookstein – and she seems to get Maud’s vibe a bit more. They have tea together, and Emily’s example gives young Maud the confidence to go back home and explain that she’s a judo-suit wearing guinea pig and that’s sort of her deal and she’d appreciate it if everybody got over it. Which they do.

Why did you decide to write a children’s book?

Nick: Zadie emailed me Magenta’s drawings one day, and said if we ever do a children’s book we should approach her, and I replied, Actually I’ve a few outlines for kids’ stories in a folder on my laptop. And I sent them back to her. We worked for a bit with Magenta on one about Alex, a terrifically annoying rabbit, but when I saw a sketch Magenta had done on Instagram (I think it was a birthday card) of a guinea pig in a judo costume dangling from balloons, I started thinking about how that guinea pig got there, and that became Weirdo. Magenta’s sketches are impossible to resist – they’re already full of narrative. Also, in our house lots of different kinds of writing are always happening: poems, essays, lectures, stories, novels, scripts. I think to us it’s all ‘writing.’ Different ways of having fun with the same medium: language.

Zadie: What he said.

Why is the book called Weirdo and what does that word mean to you? 

Nick: It struck me as an arresting title, and one that asks a question. I want to know who’s calling who a weirdo, and why. The definition of the word in the dictionary in front of me is: “a person whose dress or behaviour seems strange or eccentric.” What’s not to love? Also, I am one.

Zadie: It’s true, he is one. Me, too.

How did you (Zadie and Nick) work together to collaborate and write the book? 

Nick: I wrote the story, and then Zadie reworked the dialogue, and then we sent it back and forth for a while, arguing, editing, changing lines. We’re used to collaborating on film and TV scripts and it wasn’t that different from that process. 

How did you discover the illustrator Magenta Fox? And what drew you to her illustrations?

Zadie: Shamefully, I was Googling myself, and I found these tiny little illustrations of authors that Magenta had done, and one of them was of me. Then I looked through her images on-line, of animals and imaginary people, and the drawings immediately reminded me of Raymond Briggs and John Burningham. There was the warmth of Shirley Hughes in them, too. These were the illustrators I loved as a child. I really felt they should be seen by a lot of people. 

Nick: They make you feel like a kid again. They’re magical. 

What was the process of working with the illustrator? 

Nick: Virtual, because we were in America when we began the process, and by the time we came back to England we were in the middle of a global pandemic. So, it was all done on email, more or less, sending text and images back and forth, and it was really collaborative. 

There are a lots of colourful characters in the story, have these taken any inspiration from your life? 

Nick: We stole some names, here and there. And Maud the guinea-pig shares some DNA with our own Maud, a very old pug, who is surpassingly weird and unwilling to change for anyone.

What one message would you like families and readers to take away from the book? 

Zadie: I would like the message to be that children should not be burdened with the idea of taking single messages or morals or arguments from the books that they read. That is the preoccupation of adults. I would like them instead to delight in small details: the way Maud grips the balloon strings; the joy with which Emily Brookstein washes up; the pleasure Kit takes in hugging her newest pet.

Nick: That cats are not to be trusted. 

What is your normal writing process? How do you like to write? (either children’s or adults)

Zadie: All my concerns are practical. My writing process amounts to: do I have four hours alone? If that can be managed, then I write. If not, I don’t.

Nick: See above. We split the day from 9 to 1, and 1 to 5, so we each get four hours when we aren’t home schooling or child wrangling. If I can get my teaching and admin out of the way, I’ll get an hour or two to write.

How does writing a children’s book differ from writing books for adults? 

Zadie: It is much, much shorter. And for me there is something sacred in it, because it’s the children’s books I read that made me a reader in the first place. It’s extraordinary to think I could have some role in that process myself.

Nick: Yes, it’s certainly shorter and so you have to move much further quicker. But since you have illustrations the writing can just be a hook for all of Magenta’s details.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to any aspiring writers?

Zadie: I don’t know any advice except for: read everything. Or read everything good. Of course, it’s figuring out what’s good that is the tricky part…

Nick: Getting the first draft down is the hardest part. You need to just begin. And then continue.

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