The Waterstones Interview: Ali Smith
To celebrate the publication of Summer, our wonderful booksellers Molly, Jonathan and Euan from Edinburgh West End Waterstones spoke to Ali Smith about the process of completing the Seasonal Quartet – her extraordinary literary project that captures the state of the nation with breath-taking immediacy.
In this exclusive interview, Smith reflects on her writing process, the nature of language and narrative, and why storytelling is one of the best ways available to us to speak the truth.
How do you feel now that Summer is about to be published? John Berger once said if he was a storyteller it was because he listened. What do you hear?
What a good question. The publishing process with these books, and with the novel I wrote before these ones, How to be both, has been so speedy and lightsome on its feet that each time it’s still felt very close to / part of the writing process – more usually it takes at least 9 months, sometimes 18 months or more, between a writer finishing a book and that book being a finished object out in the world, but with these books the finished book's been in my hands each time about 6 weeks after final proof going to the printer.
I’ve actually come to love this vitality, and love as well as admire the publishing expertise, the committed and focussed energy it takes to be able to do such a thing. It makes the writing process even more visibly communal.
And I don’t know if I’m a storyteller, but I know I’m listening – especially right now, now that the world knows a whole new definition of the notion of isolation – for the places people connect, and for what happens when we do, and don't, and for the places where that connection’s being or getting blocked, and what’s blocking it, and why it is.
Daniel Gluck is “a man for all seasons”. Connection is paramount to the Seasonal Quartet – from what stage was there a conscious decision to include characters that could be glimpsed throughout each of the novels? In Summer, why do we find out and not them?
Ah – there was never a conscious connection. I went with what the books suggested to me and each time I started a new one I had no idea what that book would bring or want to do, beyond that it would be “about” the season in which it was set via its title. I was amazed when the first character in Winter announced herself as a person who’d had a tiny moment in Autumn, a character I’d completely forgotten about myself (though my unconscious / subconscious clearly hadn’t). I was interested that one of the main characters in Spring revealed himself as connected back to someone in the earlier books quite late on in the process of writing Spring. And I had no idea at all who’d turn up for Summer, or how. At one point I thought Summer would be a totally disconnected book from the others.
Which also sort of answers your second question here. There are connections working away in us and all round us all the time, whether we notice or we don’t, and these can be both slight and profound, and the only thing we can do is honour the connective process with everything we’ve got, if we don’t want to miss out on our own pasts and futures, or on what forms us and how we’re forming what comes after us.
We meet brother and sister Robert and Sacha for the first time in Summer. We are also taken back to the 1940s and the story of another brother and sister. What can you tell us about the inspiration to set some of the most moving scenes of the book in another tumultuous time period?
Only that yet again this arose from a few throwaway words in an earlier book. As lockdown settled round us I was writing about lockdowns that happened what seems like – but isn’t at all – a long time ago. In reality it’s a blink of the eye ago.
Things change – and can change – round us very fast. A different world overnight. We’ve had a lot of that, this past four years.
But what really inspired me about the lockdown Daniel finds himself in, in Summer, as an Englishman in an internment camp with his German father for a time in the early 1940s, was that I gathered while I read various accounts of the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ in the UK in the first and second world wars that there was a marked difference in the UK populace’s and eventually the politicians’ take on divisive and politically expedient racism, between those two world wars last century.
In the first war here virulent racism meant that people designated ‘enemy alien’ by the state were locked up for 6 years in dreadful conditions. 20 years later the people of this country, wise to what war means and the cost of it, treated the old racisms very differently, and thousands of people who’d been interned – when they were clearly not fascist and in fact had mostly come to the UK to escape fascism – went through a relatively speedy and humane release process, compared to the first war.
Even so, that period of lockdown was inhumane.
But that things can change – and above all that they‘ll change for the better, when we wise up to what’s really at stake – that gave me unexpected hope.
Sacha and Robert – two teenage characters but very different, finding common ground but reacting to the uncertain world in different ways. Your previous works have also been written from the perspective of children – Brooke in There but for the, Astrid and Magnus in The Accidental, etc. What do you believe a child’s eye view brings to the narrative?
I’m always interested that people are drawn to the child’s eye in the books I write. Actually children or young people in my books take up pretty much proportionately the same space as they do societally, though society traditionally doesn’t easily grant young people much voice or space to effect difference.
But right now, that the young people are the people demanding so clearly and loudly that things change, whether it’s environmentally or politically, well, that doesn’t surprise me. Look at the school strikes against climate damage. Look at what’s just happened about the exam results. Who owns the future? Who filters the present morally, philosophically and urgently, through the promise of that word future?
The story of Lorenza Mazzetti is extraordinary, when did you learn about her life/work and was it immediately clear that she would feature as the artist at the very spine of Summer? What did Mazzetti's films evoke for you?
Last year a writer called Paul Bailey who is a great friend (and a great writer, if you haven’t read Paul) told me he’d been reading a book he knew I’d love. London Diaries, by Lorenza Mazzetti. I knew a little about her already because of her involvement in the Free Cinema movement and I’d seen her quite amazing film, Together (which you can watch for free on the BFI site). But I hadn’t known anything else about her life, didn’t know her other writings. I found everything I could track down in English (there’s a lot in Italian that hasn’t been translated yet) – a couple of novels translated in the 60s. The novels were eye-opening and incantatory, and I loved them, especially the one called Rage, and I was amazed at her life story, its uncanny connecting to Einstein, the terrible war-loss at its core, and at her own versatility in all the forms of art. Via the kindness of friends I managed to see a rare copy of Mazzetti’s first film, a really astonishing and vivid short version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, called K. The image of the man balancing against the odds, carrying two suitcases and haring along the thin edge of a very high building sank into me like a split-open seed.
Readers who love your work have come to revel in the playfulness of the language you use. This playfulness becomes bilingual at times in Summer. Was it fun or challenging to dip your toe into another language? How important is translation to your own work, as well as your enjoyment of books more generally?
I love language, which means I love languages, because all the languages are family, and there’s no language that exists in isolation from the others or from the laws of linguistics that produce them all. I love how meaning works in syntax at its most subtle and versatile and multiple level, as well as in the slippage between words and silence. I love how words hold and release, both at once, their histories. And I don’t think a book properly exists in the world till it’s been translated into another language from its original.
I mean language in all its forms, too, worded and wordless, the twitch of the ear on a creature, the call of a bird or the shunt of a passing train or the hum of a fridge in the kitchen. Human language, concerned with the everything and nothing and rifeness and spareness and fertilisation and barrenness of meaning, is what we use to describe ourselves, and when we’re living in reductive times, times that work – quite methodically, mechanistically – to reduce our worlds to slogans or tweets and reduce everything from our health records to our children to lucrative or expedient data and algorithm, we have to answer back, use what voice we have, with all of language’s fused brilliance of directness and multiplicity, so as not to lose or forfeit our own dimensionality – in other words what we mean.
What did you find most difficult about the process of grappling with a certain moment and distilling it down to one book, as each volume of the Seasonal Quartet does?
Once you’ve chosen to see what’s happening at ‘a certain moment’ – i.e. news or contemporary history or the furious glut we face every day on the information speedway – as narrative, then it becomes story, one of our best conduits to truth, especially truth it’s hard to articulate or understand – and narrative, ancient and contemporary, has always helped us to understand what’s happening in our own lives whenever and wherever we live them, by being a giver of contemplative space, by placing the human at the core of the happening, and by reminding us that everything, even seeming chaos, has a structure and that structure can be analysed, understood, seen for what it is to us.
Autumn was called “the Brexit novel” but covered a lot more than just that topic. Summer, written, postponed and published during the COVID-19 pandemic, refuses to be defined as a one-issue novel. Was this to encourage readers to see the connections between different forms of calling for political change?
Yes but there’s no such thing as an issue novel. It won’t be a novel, if it’s about an issue. It’ll be a something else. Autumn was never about Brexit. It’s about people, and time. The novel form is always, unfailingly, about the mesh of time and society, and people caught up in both, one way or another, and the revolution or progress of its own form, which is the distillation of all these things into an aesthetic structure that lets its readers both live it, while we’re in it, and perceive our own and others’ lives structurally, temporally, societally, and humanly, as we pass through it.
The seasons are cyclical. What do you think this Autumn will look like?
Heh. Well. Those leaves on those trees? They’re turning, and look – now they’re falling.
You have always been a writer who challenges form and format. There have been whispers of all four novels being rolled into one volume. Is this something we are likely to see at some point? Would the format differ? What's next?
That’d be telling.
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