In a lot of the chick lit, depicting women slightly older than me, the sexual maturity is that of a nine-year-old, maybe. The sex is just this giggly and ridiculous activity one is subjected to in order to make a man stay in your house and marry you. There’s no honest expression of female sexual desire, the kind you find even in those old cheesy feminist manuals like Our Bodies, Ourselves
. We’ve gone backwards.
I was fascinated by the idea of an English novelist writing such serious, metaphysical, almost European prose as this. … “Apparently,” said my friend knowledgeably, as we watched McEwan swing his new wife around the dance floor, “he only writes fifteen words a day.” This was an unfortunate piece of information to give an aspiring writer. I was terribly susceptible to the power of example. If I heard Borges ran three miles every morning and did a headstand in a bucket of water before sitting down to write, I felt I must try this myself. The specter of the fifteen-word limit stayed with me a long time. Three years later I remember writing White Teeth and thinking that all my problems stemmed from the excess of words I felt compelled to write each day. Fifteen words a day! Why can’t you write just fifteen words a day?
The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?
… sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously. … [A dangerous] joy, for many people, is the dog or the cat, relationships with animals being in some sense intensified by guaranteed finitude. You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness.
At a certain point, you have to leave childish things behind, like the sense wow-I-can-draw, or in my case, wow-I-can-read, until you have what is called a talent. But as you become an adult and if you have to make things, you have to kind of give up the idea of processing the talent otherwise you would have spent your life painting beautiful fruit bowls and I would have certainly written stories that sound exactly like Agatha Christie. You have to move from facility to something else.
The writing is an explosion of 18 years of reading.
8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
10. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
For four hundred years we’ve seen this constant widening of the circle of ethical concern: first black people become ‘people’ – and claimed the rights that are assigned to ‘people’ – then women, then the variously disabled, and the sexually ‘deviant’. It doesn’t seem at all unlikely to me that two hundred years from now – if we make it that far! – the current arrangement of relationships between animals and humans will be considered a kind of monstrosity.
That’s what a novelist is: someone who does the same thing every day while things decay around them. In their pyjamas.
Only two hundred years ago it was physically impossible to see yourself doing something you had done yesterday, that is, to see it in three dimensions, speaking and moving. It’s a miracle! It’s really unprecedented. The ancient myths thought that if we stared at ourselves in this way too long we’d fall in the water and drown. The myth preceded the technological reality (as seems to happen), but now we’re really here, relating to ourselves as objects. My daughter takes it completely for granted that the day after we go to the park I can show her a video of herself in the park. Two hundred years ago she would have thought she was having a dream, or losing her mind. Four hundred years ago she would have screamed and wept, denounced me to the elders of the village as a witch and dedicated herself to the Lord …
I think it’s an enormous power and advantage women have, this understanding of time and mortality. It’s only a shame that we often do everything we can to abandon or deny this natural advantage. I always think of the menopause: what a gift it is to women to have, in their own bodies, this piece of time-keeping which allows them to fully understand, in their bodies, that death is coming. They’re not very good managers of time, men. Men don’t have that – you see so many men heading towards their deaths in utter shock and incomprehension because right until the final moments they thought they were going to be given some kind of reprieve. Or all those powerful men who make terrible fools of themselves in old age with girls a quarter of their age … They’re not very good managers of time, men.
with Zadie Smith about her new novel, NW.