A Waterstones Exclusive Interview with Ali Smith

Posted on 27th July 2017 by Martha Greengrass

"The seasons move forwards through the years, but also move in circles, in cycles, in a layered cycle of newness and repetition, so that we can feel them all through us."

Hailed as the 'first post-Brexit novel’, Ali Smith’s Autumn launched on a wave of rapturous critical acclaim in 2016. Now, a year further on and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017, Autumn resonates anew as a defiant hymn to life's fleet passing; a celebration of the season’s evocative poignancy in reflecting the human condition. As we eagerly await the release of her seasonal quartet’s second phase, Winter (published this November), in an exclusive interview we talk with Ali Smith about a novel swift in its making and what the seasons mean for her.

Author Image: Ali Smith by Sarah Wood

What inspired you to write a series of novels named for and based around the seasons?

I've wanted to write these novels almost since I began writing, certainly for about twenty years.  I think the novel form is at its core really about exactly that – the nature of time.  And I love the way that the seasons move forwards through the years, but also move in circles, in cycles, in a layered cycle of newness and repetition, so that we can feel them all through us, like a tree, if it were to feel, might feel the rings inside its trunk that form its body and mark quite physically the time it's taken to become itself.  They're layered into us. They carry memory.  At the same time, they're absolutely about the present moment.  

The novel is incredibly of the moment, set in the aftermath of the EU Referendum it feels both immediate and extraordinarily richly layered and textured. How difficult was it to write a novel like Autumn so swiftly? 

It was river-like and swift in its coming, and when that happens I've learned to trust it.  Novels, I've found, often take a long time to surface, then when they do they come with unexpected lightfooted liveliness. When that happens, well, thank goodness.  

This is a novel rich in language taking delight in ranging from the everyday to the poetic. At one point one of the characters, Daniel, says “Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about.” To what extent does this describe your own experience of writing?

Ah – see above.  More and more I think the process is close to something organic.  Stuff gets in the way, I mean life stuff, like dishes, griefs, lawnmowing, bills, changes, inertias, illness, dips and surges in confidence – but below it all the lifeforce that's in art holds steady and true.  We have to get below the surface, as it were, and ask of it.

Ideas of memory seem to be very important in this novel, particularly what and how people remember. How do you step inside another character’s memory, choosing what they might remember and what they might forget?

Characters tend to come very fully formed.  You just have to ask them, and listen properly to both what they're telling you and what they're not saying.  A lot of the telling is always happening in the not-said.

Love, too, is important here, but not, perhaps, the sort of love that is usually written about. Why do you think literature has tended towards chronicling binary concepts of love? What drew you towards writing about Daniel and Elisabeth’s relationship?

We are multifarious, multiple beings, and it's not surprising that love takes as many shapes as we do, as many shapes as we can, and as many as the imagination takes.   This is just a story we're less used to right now in time, since in this particular culture we tend not to value our elderly, and this is a kind of madness, because they're our source of wisdom, our source of communal memory, our source of experience – our literal source.  They made us.  

Instead, there's a relationship between what we're sold and what we're told, because capitalism loves the imitative, the repeated, the given fixed images to which we're all supposed to aspire, since they're what's most immediately pervasive and saleable.  But we're imaginative beings, we like to go beyond ourselves, and love is a shapeshifter, in itself and of us, and can and will surprise us in our lives as well as our stories.   

Autumn is a composite of images, dreams and imaginings; it is a very visual novel which features vivid descriptions of works of art. To what extent is this novel a painting with words, a collage of moments that come together to make a complete whole?

Well, I love that description of it.  I think it's also a novel about exactly that, the importance of seeing, of stepping back from the given images of us and where we are and what's happening, and being a bit objective, or looking again.

Certainly it knows in its bones the boundary-shifting and border-crossing that all art does.  I'm happy and blessed to have at its fictional heart the Pop artist Pauline Boty, a real artist, a real woman, who lived very briefly but very fruitfully, and in her art and her life both she knocked down the walls and blew down the barriers for all of us.  She knew the power of collage, colour, the art act, to make us reassess the perspectives of our perceptions, and vice versa, and she spent her short aesthetic life making extraordinary artworks out of the everyday images, and particularly of the images everywhere-replicated, –news images, political images, advertising images – so that if you apply this aesthetic to our own time, we can simply see what it is we're surrounded by, what it is that's bombarding us.  She knew life vitally, and that vitality comes through everything she said and did.  Here's to her.

What does autumn, the season and its associations, summon for you?

The shortness of life up against the harvest richness of it, the terrible beauty in the going, the coming of the dark, the ceremonies of wamth, the getting ready for winter. 

Autumn by Ali Smith is available now published by Penguin Books Ltd

The second book in the sequence, Winter, will be published on 2nd November 2017.

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"It’s hard to think of another contemporary writer so adept at splicing the ordinary and the marvellous" The Guardian

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In this second novel in her acclaimed Seasonal cycle - the follow-up to her Man Booker-shortlisted Autumn – Smith flips the action away from London to Cornwall; a family, fragmented by belief and circumstance, gather for reunion. Smith’s witty grasp of cultural history and political event gilds the proceedings with rich analogy, backed by her usual wordplay and humanity.
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