Zadie Smith: 'You have to write out of love'
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
"I never set out to become a writer connected to a geographic area," says Zadie Smith. "But when you write you have to write out of love."
The author, whose novels like White Teeth and NW are famously set around the "one mile radius" where she spent her first three decades, was being interviewed for latest ‘Brent Locked In,’ event, part of the 2020 London Borough of Culture.
Speaking to Kingsbury primary teacher, Savannah Mullings-Johnson from home - a stone's throw from where she grew up - she lovingly lists every location.
"Born in the Royal Free," "first flat on Christchurch Avenue.. it's about to be pulled down for more luxury flats," the move to the Athelstan Gardens Estate while she and her brothers attended Malorees primary. Then a flat near Willesden Library while she went to "Hampstead comp," "which was actually in Cricklewood".
"I remember an incredible, mixed school where 100 languages were spoken, The late 90s were full of civil wars and a new collection of migrant kids would come to our school. It was incredibly lively and interesting. I was very curious about what was going on in all these flats, going to a friend's house was like entering a different universe, different faith, different food, different ideas. Constant stimulation."
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Smith left the borough in her 30s to teach creative writing at New York University - and retreat from burgeoning fame.
"I was tired of the kind of attention I was getting. I just wanted to write. There was an intense celebrity culture, so intense it included writers. And with New York, it was love at first sight."
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Now she's back, her children attend a local primary, and her brothers Ben and Luc and mum Yvonne are up the road.
Smith describes her teen years as "free range". "Hanging around the neighbourhood exploring, going to the posh parts like Hampstead meeting private school kids, or the other way to West Kilburn or Harlesden. It was an adventure."
There was rave culture, smoking weed, clubbing in Camden, and seeing Neneh Cherry on TV "wearing our clothes and talking our language." "We thought we were cool," she smiles.
And there were lies about where you were going, "without mobile phones you had to organise it beforehand.. the lies were more complicated… you had to get to the phone before Mum did”.
Many of her peers "just wanted to be out of the house". Her own parents, Jamaican mum and English dad were going through "a horrible divorce through most of my adolescence."
But by 16 she had an epiphany: "I had to pull it back or everything was lost. and I pulled it back."
As a "voracious" reader she devoured everything from Roald Dahl to CS Lewis, the Brontes to Toni Morrison. There was an English degree at Cambridge, then early success.
2020 was supposed to see her first play - The Wife of Willesden, adapted from Chaucer's Wife of Bath - staged at the Kiln. She hopes Elvita, "a mid 50s Jamaican British Kilburn lady" will still see the light of day.
"I'd forgotten how outrageous she is. She makes Cardi B look like a nun. She's out of control, unashamed, sexually free."
Now, she's writing her first historic novel. Set where else? but Kilburn, in the 1830s, it will explore how far Brent's communities go back "rubbing up against each other, the endless tensions."
"This was famously beautiful countryside with fields and sheep. I felt it subconsciously. Other people saw urban streets but to me it was all beautiful. The walk down the hill from Hampstead to Kilburn, the sunsets and trees. This neighbourhood has been through such incredible change from countryside to city, to immigration and gentrification. It's the story of a country told in miniature."
She is 'though weary of the tag of authenticity which attaches to writers immersed in their community.
"What we do is fake," she insists, "it's like a magic trick. It's not authentic, but the whole point is it feels like it is”.
If she walks through Kilburn and hears a voice “it’s not that I think that is the real voice of the street but that person has an effect… and that’s what interests me. Can I capture that feeling?...give you the emotion, so when you read them, it feels right."
Besides, "Being authentic is a hiding to nothing, NW slang changes every three minutes," says Smith, whose party trick is telling whether someone is from "Wembley, Hampstead or Kilburn" from their accent.
Although certain elements of Northweezy slang persist. “You can still be a chief around here, and you can still traipse,” she insists.
She defines her term ‘Kilburnosity’, as that which “compels people to make a life out of whatever comes to hand, cheaply and creatively”.
It is a striving energy, "everyone is looking for a bargain, everyone is determined to express themselves."
Years ago, doing vox pops on Kilburn High Road for Time Out, she met a group of Somali, Dutch kids training to be 100metre runners for the British Olympic Team. “That’s the kind of story you get in Kilburn”.
But a recent visit to Hampstead High Street highlighted the huge differences between NW6 and NW3.
"Hampstead is beautiful but I don't feel anything when I am there. My radar isn't on, I don't hear any stories”.
She offers some final advice to budding writers: "Be interested in everything. Don't allow yourself to be limited. I have got a lot out of my voraciousness. That's a good thing for a writer."