Ali Smith: How I Write
The British writer, whose new book, Artful, is an intoxicating mixture of lecture and ghost story, talks about what makes her cry and the places that inspire her.
Where did you grow up? In Inverness, Scotland, in a small house in a street parallel to the Caledonian Canal.
You are a member of the Royal Society of Literature. What does membership entail? Are there robes and fireside chats with goblets of sherry, that sort of thing? No, ha, nothing quite so effete. It's a body of people which organizes exciting events about books and schools of thought in national and international literatures, digs up funding from under unexpected stones, and acts as a focal communal body for people working in or interested in literature—important for people in a job that is by nature solitudinous. There's a perk you'll be interested in, though, if you're interested in goblets of sherry: if you are elected as a fellow, you get to sign the fellow register with a pen which belonged to Byron or Dickens (you get to choose which). If you imagine the range, the versatility in form and tone arcing between those two writers, and apply it now to, then magnify it by, contemporary literatures, interests, demands and needs—that's the RSL. Not a sherry glass in sight.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours? Cultivating privacy in a world now unused to it. And sniffing instead of blowing my nose. My partner gives me quite a hard time about it, but not as hard a time, she says, as I'm giving my nasal tubes.
What is your favorite item of clothing? I really like jackets, and tend to buy them to the detriment of my need of all the other items.
Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers. The three novels I've most recently really loved: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck and The Gold Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani. The first is a debut, the second is a recent-ish German novel, the third is a 1950s Italian work, and all three are about how history and the novel, when these concepts meet—history at its most brutal and the novel at its most uncompromising—can be transformed by fusion with each other into a legacy of human understanding.
Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you? I'm blessed in my good friends, and some of them happen to be writers, though that's almost never what our friendships are about. And every writer I've ever read, living or dead, has in one way or another helped and inspired. I have a feeling it’s important not to mix the two up.
What is a place that inspires you? Anywhere in the sun, anywhere under the old blue sky. And, more specifically recently, the church of San Clemente in Rome, where Masolino's magnificent fresco of St. Catherine is just the upper layer of a building that goes down for centuries, an experience of time and stratification which echoes everywhere in Rome, and was, I thought, a bit like standing in a place straddling the conscious and the subconscious.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow? It's really a time where articulation and articulacy come under a particular pressure, I mean a pressure very particular to whatever the book that's waiting to be written is. It's a process of allowing yourself not to know, and to lose or shed your customary articulacy, then allowing yourself to see (hear, sense, all the senses) by different means. It's the opposite of public. After that, it's a case of instinct and edit, we need them both.
You write short fiction and novels (as well as plays). Does your approach differ from one format to the other? No. They all need the same attention, and the balance between instinct and edit.
I’ve recently embarked on a project to read a short story a day, and write a response essay to each. Could you name three great short stories that I should read, but which are not on everyone’s hit list? It is exciting to me that you'd work on a project like that, and also that people have “hit lists” of short stories. Chekhov's tiny story, “After the Theatre;” George Mackay Brown's story, “Witch;” Muriel Spark's story, “The House of the Famous Poet.” That covers life, death, and afterlife (I think the short story form is pretty much always concerned with all three).
What is the difference between American and British literature? How about between English and Scottish literature? I could say a lot of words here, like enthusiastic and metaphysical and class system and political and invisible and Presbyterian and experimental courage and Caledonian antisyzygy. If you hold a seminar, tell me, and I'll come and speak at it, if you want.
Consider yourself invited! I should design a seminar just to have you come speak at it.What I know most is that the difference between us is what makes us interesting and attractive and problematic and exciting and vital to each other. Give me difference over indifference any day.
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them. I use pencils. Not very mysterious.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? No, it's just a desk, with the stuff I’m working on all over it. It looks out on to the tops of trees and then sky.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh? Harpo Marx. Gracie Fields. Being tickled.
What is guaranteed to make you cry? I can never tell. It's quite exciting. For instance, the other night I watched a 1920s short film called Regen (Rain), a Dutch film about—yes—rain, a day of rain over Amsterdam, and it was so beautiful, pivoted between its pasts and its futures, and at the same time so like rain will always be, that there was an image of a cloth pegged and blowing on a line in black and white nearly a hundred years ago and I was moved to tears.
Do you have any superstitions? Yes, I've got them all. If anyone knows of any obscure ones, tell me.
What is something you always carry with you? An extra pair of glasses in case, and in a case.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why? I'd ask them to give Katherine Mansfield some of the years she never got to have.
What is your favorite snack? Fruit in almost all forms. Happy with apples.
What phrase do you over-use? "That's interesting." (But only because things are endlessly interesting.)
What is the story behind the publication of your first book? I had a job, I got ill, I left the job to get better, and while I was getting better, I wrote some stories. I sent them to some publishers and the fifth one who replied said they'd take them. Then they went bankrupt. Then that bankrupt publisher got bought by a bigger firm. Story: in the end is the beginning, and in the beginning is the end.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author? I hope never to have such a moment.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day? I'm happy to have nothing, so long as I'm sure I've been working.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising. I'm quite good on the harmonica, and can get a tune out of most musical instruments, so long as the tune is “Oh Susannah.”
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.I met an internationally esteemed writer at a literary party being given in her honor. She was wearing a beautiful pink flouncy frilly dress. I complimented her on it. She said, "Ach, it's my nightgown. I couldn't decide what else to wear."
What advice would you give to an aspiring author? When it comes to words like “leap” and “faith,” you need a word like “of.”
What would you like carved onto your tombstone? I don't want a tombstone. You could carve on it "She never actually wanted a tombstone."
What is your next project? I hope it's a book. (Leap. Faith. Of.)