I was 15 minutes early for an interview with Zadie Smith when I spotted her in the corner of the hotel lobby restaurant, finishing a meal and working on her laptop. Even as I started walking toward her, I thought: What am I doing? I had read that Smith, 47, “hates” doing interviews, and that her schedule is packed – writing, reading, raising two children, being a literary superstar etc. Don’t interrupt, I thought as I continued to nevertheless approach. I introduced myself, and said I’d come back at the appointed time.
No, no, sit down, she said warmly, pushing her stuff aside.
Smith was on tour, speaking about her new novel, The Fraud, set in 19th-century England. “I did everything I could to avoid writing my historical novel,” she revealed in a New Yorker essay titled On Killing Charles Dickens. In other essays, she has written skeptically about time travel (”a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others,” she writes in On Optimism and Despair) and how limited time is in her own life. Her schedule is so packed, she wrote in her slim volume of early pandemic essays Intimations, that in the Before Times, during regular massages for back pain, she continued to work right through – reading, marking, editing an essay.
And yet, here she is literarily time-travelling with her historical novel, whose characters are based on real people, including Dickens. And making time for a multicity reading tour and media interviews.
And Smith has been having a fantastic time.
“It’s been really wild. Humbling. And unbelievable. Every night I’m reading to 1,000 people,” she said over a double espresso, not long after arriving from San Francisco, where she had an event the previous night. A few hours later, she would appear at a packed Vancouver hall. She was not feeling annoyance, but appreciation. “I can remember reading to four people in a Borders.”
She has also had an epiphany: Her assessment of her busy life was off. “I really operate on the principle of scarcity and I thought, I’m just squeezing in my work in between my domestic life and there’s never enough time and I’m always resentful. And then on this tour I’ve had to face the fact that that’s not true.”
The story she’s told herself is one of a hard-working mother writing in tiny gaps of time while her children are at school. “But that’s just not accurate. I have clearly written quite a lot of books in the time I had.”
When I asked Smith when she started writing, she explained that she began as a child by literally copying down a poem written by someone else.
Then, a story she submitted with a friend won a children’s writing competition. Alas, it was another copied story. Worse, Smith says she accepted the award on her own, not telling her friend. “Shamefully my literary career begins in ignominy,” she says. “I was 10, but already viciously interested in literary glory, apparently.”
For years, she continued learning by typing out other people’s stories. “I didn’t really write properly until college.”
Her “properly” is an understatement. She completed her first novel while at university (Cambridge). Published in 2000 when Smith was only 24, White Teeth was a bestseller and won multiple awards. Smith became an instant literary “it girl.” She has since published five novels, as well as short story and essay collections. After spending several years in New York, where she taught at Columbia and New York University, Smith is now back in London, with her husband, the Northern Irish writer Nick Laird, and their children.
Smith writes with precision, insight, humour and a deep intelligence. And sometimes with remarkable speed. She wrote her short story Two Men Arrive in a Village in a Calgary café in one shot, during a four-hour break between commitments. Writing The Fraud, on the other hand, took many years.
The novel is based on true events that came to be known as the Tichborne Claimant case. Roger Tichborne, heir to a British fortune, was presumed drowned at sea in 1854. His heartbroken mother, refusing to believe him dead, offered a reward for his return. A butcher named Thomas Castro came forward in Australia (where Lady Tichborne had placed ads), claiming to be Sir Roger. This led to a dramatic and elongated spectacle in the courts. A star witness, and the Claimant’s main defender, was Andrew Bogle. A Black man who had grown up enslaved on a Jamaican plantation, he was a former servant for the Tichbornes.
Bogle first made an appearance in Smith’s fiction in a draft of her 2012 novel NW, but didn’t end up in the published version. The idea persevered. Smith first wrote the last chapter of what would become The Fraud, then went back and wrote the novel from the beginning in instalments, the way Dickens worked.
Dickens is but a minor player in The Fraud. More prominent is fellow novelist William Ainsworth, whose books have today faded from memory. But the novel’s central character is Eliza Touchet, based on Ainsworth’s real-life cousin. Smith has gifted Eliza with a voice and three-dimensionality. And, finally, an ambition: to write.
That ambition follows a daring scheme – which becomes a story within the novel. Eliza attends the trial, seeks out Bogle, takes him out and gets his life story directly from him. Back home, she writes it all down.
The Fraud has a lot to say about the career, life, ethics and intentions of novelists. At the beginning, the weight of Ainsworth’s library at his new (diminished, along with his writing career) home has literally caused the books to crash through the ceiling. “Oh what does it matter what that man” – Dickens – “thinks of anything? He’s a novelist!” Eliza blurts, at another point. There is a chapter titled ‘I do not advise you to enter upon a literary career.’
Among Smith’s fascinations with the Tichborne case is that this widely publicized trial disappeared from common public knowledge. “It’s really interesting how something can … obsess the country and be a household name for at least 30 years,” she says, and then be forgotten. “It makes you think. In 80 years will you have to remind people who Trump is?”
In a literary coincidence, Bogle and the Tichborne Claimant also piqued the interest of Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan, inspiring her Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning and Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Washington Black. Edugyan had originally considered fictionalizing the case itself for a novel. But during her research, she became more interested in the inner life of Bogle. “I grew away from the material – Tichborne and all the crazy details of the trials and all the ridiculous larger-than-life figures. And I just kind of cast those aside and then went my own way,” Edugyan told me in 2018, the year Washington Black was published.
Her project transformed completely – Washington Black is not Andrew Bogle – but remained infused with the question of what it would be like to be born into slavery and then achieve freedom, unexpectedly.
When I mentioned this to Smith, she was shocked and amazed. “Oh, that’s wild,” she said. She had read Washington Black “ages ago,” thought it was great, but hadn’t been aware of the common thread. Smith speculated – correctly – that Edugyan had first learned about the case the same way Smith had, through Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, The Improbable Imposter Tom Castro.
Fascinated, I asked Edugyan if she could talk to me about this, but as chair of this year’s Booker Prize jury, she had to decline the interview.
Smith hasn’t been doing much writing while on tour; she’s catching up on her reading, now that she has the time. She is hungry – this feels like the right word – for books. When she noticed one in my bag, she inquired. On the plane that day, she had been immersed in Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. The woman next to her, meanwhile, spent the flight playing a game on her phone.
“So I can feel superior, right?” says Smith, ever self-aware, about the way she chose to use her time on that flight. She knows both she and her fellow passenger were seeking a similar experience: something to do with their time, to mediate the experience of life. “I suppose if you put a gun to my head, I’d rather it was Turgenev than Candy Crush.”