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Keeping It Real

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The undergraduates have yet to return for the next academic term, and Cambridge is asleep. On the sunny ten-minute walk from the station to Ali Smith’s house I pass barely a soul. So it’s good that Ali has emailed clear instructions. ‘Turn right up a tiny road,’ they conclude. ‘It looks like a driveway. It’s our street.’ In fact, when you reach it, it feels neither like a driveway nor a street, but more like a small enchanted world – a terrace of little cottages on one side, tiny gardens opposite. Ali and her partner, Sarah, live in one of the cottages and work in another, and it’s in the working one that Ali’s waiting for me, in a room full of towers of books and old LPs. I sink into a low sofa, and across the rush mat opposite me Ali, small, dark and bright-eyed, settles cross-legged on a large cushion. Her black and white cat weaves to and fro between us.

As a child growing up in a council house in the Scottish Highlands, Ali says, she was ‘shy and outgoing – both at once’, and perhaps this is true of her still. Reading her books, and meeting her in person, you can’t but feel warmed by her generosity, her bursting desire to share her enthusiasms and insights, and her appetite for life. But at the same time she’s ambivalent about the public personae writers these days are obliged to adopt. ‘You have to develop a means of surviving it,’ she says, ‘and either that becomes a performative self or for me it’s meant devising a self who can still be the real self talking about real things, like I am now to you.’ Speaking on stage at festivals is exhausting, she says, and she doesn’t really enjoy it. ‘But I’ve developed a means of dealing with it. I used to just get angry. I’ve trained myself to stop being annoyed that I’ve got to be in public.’

It’s fifteen years since Ali’s second novel, Hotel World, won the Encore Award and was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker, propelling her into the limelight. Four years later, in 2005, The Accidental was shortlisted for both those prizes again and won the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award. Then in 2014 How to Be Both swept the board – shortlisted for the Booker and winning the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Folio Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel Award. It’s a joyful, energetic, deeply moving novel which plaits together the stories of a Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, and a twenty-first-century Cambridge schoolgirl, George, and it’s a very hard act to follow. But, when we meet, Ali is riding high on the critical success of a new novel, Autumn. At its heart is the friendship between Elisabeth, an 11-year-old whom we follow into adulthood, and her wise and wonderful next-door neighbour, Daniel, who lives to be over 100. It’s both playful and deadly serious, and bubbling through it are the stories of Christine Keeler, the Pop artist Pauline Boty an

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The undergraduates have yet to return for the next academic term, and Cambridge is asleep. On the sunny ten-minute walk from the station to Ali Smith’s house I pass barely a soul. So it’s good that Ali has emailed clear instructions. ‘Turn right up a tiny road,’ they conclude. ‘It looks like a driveway. It’s our street.’ In fact, when you reach it, it feels neither like a driveway nor a street, but more like a small enchanted world – a terrace of little cottages on one side, tiny gardens opposite. Ali and her partner, Sarah, live in one of the cottages and work in another, and it’s in the working one that Ali’s waiting for me, in a room full of towers of books and old LPs. I sink into a low sofa, and across the rush mat opposite me Ali, small, dark and bright-eyed, settles cross-legged on a large cushion. Her black and white cat weaves to and fro between us.

As a child growing up in a council house in the Scottish Highlands, Ali says, she was ‘shy and outgoing – both at once’, and perhaps this is true of her still. Reading her books, and meeting her in person, you can’t but feel warmed by her generosity, her bursting desire to share her enthusiasms and insights, and her appetite for life. But at the same time she’s ambivalent about the public personae writers these days are obliged to adopt. ‘You have to develop a means of surviving it,’ she says, ‘and either that becomes a performative self or for me it’s meant devising a self who can still be the real self talking about real things, like I am now to you.’ Speaking on stage at festivals is exhausting, she says, and she doesn’t really enjoy it. ‘But I’ve developed a means of dealing with it. I used to just get angry. I’ve trained myself to stop being annoyed that I’ve got to be in public.’ It’s fifteen years since Ali’s second novel, Hotel World, won the Encore Award and was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker, propelling her into the limelight. Four years later, in 2005, The Accidental was shortlisted for both those prizes again and won the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award. Then in 2014 How to Be Both swept the board – shortlisted for the Booker and winning the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Folio Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel Award. It’s a joyful, energetic, deeply moving novel which plaits together the stories of a Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, and a twenty-first-century Cambridge schoolgirl, George, and it’s a very hard act to follow. But, when we meet, Ali is riding high on the critical success of a new novel, Autumn. At its heart is the friendship between Elisabeth, an 11-year-old whom we follow into adulthood, and her wise and wonderful next-door neighbour, Daniel, who lives to be over 100. It’s both playful and deadly serious, and bubbling through it are the stories of Christine Keeler, the Pop artist Pauline Boty and Brexit. ‘I’d been writing since the beginning of last year,’ she says, ‘and already the book was about how you cross divisions, how you cross seas into other countries, how you exist as a being with an identity in a world becoming ever more bordered.’ Then in May she began to suspect that the vote would go for Brexit, and ‘in June I realized it was getting very close . . . And then suddenly it had happened!’ She snaps her fingers. The book was to have been delivered in late June, but she asked her editor, Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton, to give her an extra month ‘to allow what had happened to percolate’. This may not have been comfortable in terms of publishing schedules – most novelists have deadlines a year ahead of publication and Autumn was due out in October – but it enabled her to produce what Prosser describes as ‘the most contemporaneous novel I’ve ever read’. She spent the rest of the year promoting it, as well as ‘doing some library stuff’ (she is a passionate defender of public libraries, and is appalled by the numbers closing). Then in January she battened down the hatches to get started on Winter, the second in her four-book seasonal cycle. Does she research hard before starting, I wonder? By way of a reply she tells me about a dinner party some years back at which she was seated next to Tom Stoppard.

I told him I’d been in The Real Inspector Hound when I was 14, and he told me that he was working on a piece about the early work of Pink Floyd. So I said, ‘Are you going back into the archives to research stuff?’ And he stopped me and said, ‘No! Never do that! Whatever you are doing never go so far into it that the imagination is lost. If there’s a piece of evidence from a time, say it’s a letter, don’t go back and read the letter, just lift the envelope a bit and peek in, otherwise you’ll just reproduce the letter, and what’s the point of that?’ In other words, allow your imagination to work with what comes at you tangentially. What a wise person!

Ali believes in serendipity. Like Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader, she feels that the best way to read is randomly – ‘just to pick up a book off a pile’, and then to allow it to spark connections. And when she’s not reading but is out and about in the world she tunes into what people are saying around her, and how they are saying it. As readers of her novels will know, she is intrigued by officialese.

Back in 1995 I went up to Hebden Bridge to do an Arvon guest appearance, and in the middle of the night we’d all gone down to look at Sylvia Plath’s grave. It was a frosty night; we walked down with torches. Next morning I got on the train, and I had a piece of stick with me that I’d picked up near Plath’s grave. In one carriage of the train everybody was speaking a language that I hadn’t realized was being spoken which was businessese. And I stood with my stick knowing I was from another time. It was a realization of the Kafkaesque, of the absurdities in the ways we use language to create systems. I’m fascinated by that.

The front door is open as we chat, and outside a white van has drawn up with ‘Paul Bailey Flooring’ emblazoned on its side. Ali has a good laugh imagining her dear friend Paul Bailey the novelist and critic in a new incarnation as a carpet-layer, before we move on to talk about her childhood. She was born in 1962, the youngest of five children, to parents who had, through poverty, been forced to leave school at 13. ‘Both my parents were fiercely intelligent,’ she says; both had scholarships that they weren’t able to take up. At 14 her mother became a conductor on buses travelling up and down the coast of the Moray Firth, while her father became an electrician. Ali remembers his shop as an Aladdin’s cave where he could always find exactly what was needed. He was honest and good-humoured – both qualities he has passed on to his youngest daughter. ‘When I was very small we went to visit a dying neighbour,’ Ali says. ‘He was sitting in the front room and everyone around him was like this’ – she pulls a long face – ‘and my father said, “What’s this Andy, not dead yet?” and the whole place erupted with laughter, most of all the dying man. And I realized then my father’s power to say the thing that had to be said: to make things better and to be truthful at the same time.’ Her mother, meantime, was ‘very proper and very mischievous’, both at once. Saturday night was bath night – ‘the immersion heater went on and we had our baths before church on Sunday’ – and after her bath her mother would sit her on her knee and become different characters. ‘She would just drop out of herself, I mean as if in a trance, and it was terrifying, absolutely terrifying.’ Ali was seven years younger than the next sibling up – so ‘there were four kids ahead of me. They certainly gave me a hard time, but they also protected me absolutely. It was a very stable and lovely way to grow up. It meant I could inhabit my own world and at the same time know about all sorts of other worlds and be part of them.’ Family lore has it that when she was 3 Ali taught herself to read by scrutinizing the labels on her siblings’ records. ‘I’m presuming there’s some truth in it. What I do remember is the first time I recognized the word “exactly”. I clearly remember seeing the word and realizing it was the word “exactly”, and the lightning point of marrying up a word with its written version, and the charge of energy you get when that happens.’ After their Saturday-evening baths, Sunday morning meant church for all the family. Ali’s mother was a devout Catholic and had persuaded her father (‘God knows how’) to convert. When it came to the sermon, Ali developed a way of going to sleep with her eyes open, allowing her mind to wander. Yet although she has long since stopped going to church, she’s not sure that she’s given up Catholicism – ‘I’m not sure that you can give it up. And it’s given me this gift: the gift of the reality of metaphor. You cannot avoid the reality of transubstantiation. So it’s given me that particular present – the present of the present as it were: a moment at which something can be itself and yet be something else.’ Meantime she’s now moved and impressed by Pope Francis. ‘Truly, if I think of the statespeople at large in the world today going out of their way to make the world better rather than to make it more cordoned off and money-producing for the very rich, I think of Nicola Sturgeon and Pope Francis! They’re, I don’t know, echt, the real thing.’ Both of Ali’s parents were determined that all five children should go to university, so from school Ali went on to Aberdeen, then to Cambridge to do a Ph.D., then back north to a lecturing job at Strathclyde. It was 1991 and ‘the universities were flooded with students so that there weren’t enough seats, and students – whom we were told to call clients – had to sit outside and watch lectures by video link-up. I’d come through a system which had been one-to-one, and the seminars were now forty people and the tutorials twenty people, and the notion that I couldn’t remember the names of the people I was teaching – well, I found it a very unhappy experience.’ In the midst of all this her mother died, and Ali was knocked sideways – ‘we live in a society that doesn’t prepare us for grief, or for the whirligig of time’. Diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she moved back to Cambridge and started tentatively to write stories – partly in order to get her hands and arms to work again. Her first collection, Free Love and Other Stories, was published in 1995, and won the Saltire First Book Award. She was launched. Outside Paul Bailey is packing up his van when his mobile goes off. The ring tone is the theme tune from Steptoe and Son, and Ali creases up with laughter again. I have a last question: has writing got harder or easier? Does she relish or fear the blank page? ‘You don’t get a choice,’ she replies without hesitation. ‘For me, anyway, the first line just appears. And then you’re off.’

 Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 54 © Maggie Fergusson 2017


About the contributor

Maggie Fergusson is Literary Director of the Royal Society of Literature and has written biographies of George Mackay Brown and Michael Morpurgo.

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