Novelist discusses approach to writing
London-born novelist Zadie Smith began Wednesday night’s “Writers at Rutgers Reading Series” by describing a situation she said audience members might be familiar with.
“You have been going out with someone, but you meet somebody else, and you have to dump the person you were previously going out with. You know that situation,” Smith said.
The event, held in the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue Campus, was co-sponsored by the Department of English and the Office of the Vice President for Undergraduate Education, among others.
For the series, the University invites acclaimed authors to read excerpts from their works aloud for the purpose of fostering an exchange between well-known authors and the Rutgers community, according to the event’s website.
Mark Doty, director of Writers House, introduced Smith as an awake, compassionate and vital internationally beloved writer.
“Her books bloom and bristle with life … [her books] bring into focus and contention not only voices, but deeply conflicting and various points of view,” said Doty, a professor in the Department of English.
He said her books resonate with readers because her characters and their worlds are “recognizably ours.”
“That’s what the novel is used to offer us: a model and mirror of the world, a theatre in which we might both see ourselves and look beyond to the lives of others,” Doty said.
Smith read from her most recent novel, “NW,” which follows the life of Felix, a young ex-drug-dealer-turned-car-mechanic who tries to make something of his life.
She said Felix wants to break up with his on-and-off girlfriend of five years, Annie, to be with Grace.
“Me and that girl Grace, it’s serious. I ain’t gonna be coming around her no more,” Smith read as Felix. “We got a lot in common, like just a lot of things.”
Smith’s reading provided insight into Felix and Annie’s relationship. He told Annie he was ready to move up in the game of life, a game he compared to a video game.
“I had a good time at this level, but come on Annie,” Smith read as Felix. “I’ve completed the level, and it’s time to move to the next level.”
Felix told Annie he could not take her to that next level because she did not want to go.
“Yes, yes, I’ve grasped the metaphor, you don’t have to keep repeating it,” Smith read as Annie. “Life’s not a video game, Felix … there isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is everybody dies at the end.”
Smith said when she begins a book she does not plan very much at all. Instead of intricately planning out characters, she plans out the feeling she wants each character to emanate.
“It’s a term that I’m thinking about, and then I fill in the gaps as I go along,” she said.
“NW” is much more melancholy than some of her previous works. Smith said she tries to do something different each time.
“You need to find something that works for you as a kind of carrot that pushes you on to the next thing,” Smith said. “For me, it’s ‘what can I do differently with this form each time I come to it?’”
Smith said she is only ambitious about writing.
“I don’t have any ambition to be on TV or on the Internet or on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” she said.
Novel writers feel less instant satisfaction than journalists, who she said could be rewarded for their work in the form of “4,000 [Facebook] ‘likes’ every day.”
“It’s a very slow, drawn-out process in terms of pleasure, but it’s what I signed up for,” she said.
Smith said she notices young writers are excessively using the first person and present tense.
“[Writers] have absolutely no confidence that they could ever talk of anybody else apart from the ‘I,’” she said. “They can never talk about any other moment apart from the one that they’re in.”
Young authors fear their approach to seem authentic, but Smith said she ignores that.
Dylan Vetter, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said she enjoyed the way Smith read the story.
“The way that she did the different accents, they were just so subtle that I just got really absorbed in who the characters were,” she said.