A Waterstones Exclusive Interview with Zadie Smith
In that piece I tried to explain: it’s mainly a case of attitude. A dancer takes a certain attitude to a piece of music, to their body, to the world. When I’m writing this is also the first question. Not ‘what happens?’ but ‘what tone is this in?’ Just as it’s possible to be in a Fred Astaire mood or a Gene Kelly mood so writing has it’s individual moods and colours.
The novel’s title, Swing Time, refers to the famous film (starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) as well as swing dance more generally but it also seems to gesture towards the idea of the pendulum swing of time itself. To what extent do you think dance, in common with the act of writing or reading, is a mode of time-travel? A way of connecting with other people in another moment?
I think dance carries across time well. If you see a kid doing the shim sham in some early 20th century footage, you feel the echo in your own body, in contemporary pop videos, in the dancing people do in the club. It is perhaps the art form least imprinted by fashion: it takes a long time for a dance to look antique. And even when it is, some element is always recognizable.
Many of your novels focus on characters, often women although not exclusively, who have a particular presence, a captivating beauty, poise or power. Swing Time has several such characters, are you particularly drawn to characters with their own brand of magnetism?
I suppose I must be. You learn these things only by writing, and carrying on writing, and then finding the similarities between books. Even Millat is like that: he’s a star, though a schoolboy still. I am very drawn to charismatic people at the same time suspicious of them I suppose. I think charisma is an outward facing virtue that can hide a lot of internal sadness. In its extreme form you get the figure of the ‘diva’ and that is a person I have always been attracted to. Drag Queens, Liza with a Z, Judy, Billie Holiday. I loved these types of figures as a child. I still do.
Parent and child relationships play out in many of your novels and Swing Time presents a variety of examples of different kinds of parenthood. What interests you about that complicated power struggle between parents and their children?
That isn’t chosen. Other writers are engaged with absolutely the opposite relationship – romantic love. The relation you choose. I have never been interested in that as a subject. I don’t know why. I think these instincts in writers are so fundamental it’s hard to know where they come from.
Exploration of the effects of poverty and the gap between extreme wealth and chronic privation is an important issue in this novel. How is fiction useful as a way of exploring poverty, on an individual, local and global level?
I don’t say it’s useful. I don’t think of the uses of fiction much. I think about the experience of it, and it’s important for me to try and get people to reimagine their relations in the world. To imagine not being themselves, not having their particular set of conditions….That may be useful later as they re-enter political and social life but I don’t think any writer can count on it. The Nazis were very well read.
At one point one of the characters in Swing Time says ‘I always wanted life – movement’ to what extent do you think the characters in this novel are constantly battling their own fear of inertia and stagnation and struggling to feel themselves moving forwards in their lives?
I think my novels are about human capacities. A celebration of them and sometimes a sort of mourning, which concerns the fact that many people find their capacities consistently wasted because of such contingencies as postcodes, skin colour, wealth bracket. A beautiful young person, filled with possibilities, thoughts, talents, energies, directions in which he might go, who finds himself instead unrecognized, uncared for, uneducated, unemployed, unable to use the gifts which which he has been naturally endowed – this is the person who haunts my novels.
The book makes mention of several famous dance sequences; do you have a favourite dance sequence that inspires you?.
I am always overwhelmed to watch Gene Kelly and Donald O Connor dancing on two chairs and singing of Moses.