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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