Willesden Green in northwest London, England.

Willesden Green in northwest London, England.

Twelve years after the publication of her award-winning first novel “White Teeth,” Zadie Smith returns to the racially mixed, multicultural northwest sector of London where she grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. Her newest novel is titled simply “NW.” It took more her than seven years to write, and she has likened it to a “problem play.” The plot revolves around four people in their 30s who come from the same subsidized housing project. Through their eyes, she explores the complexities of the class system in London and how people from similar backgrounds can come to have vastly different destinies.


  • Zadie Smith Author of "White Teeth," "The Autograph Man," and "On Beauty.


  • 11:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Twelve years after the publication of her award-winning first novel "White Teeth," Zadie Smith returns to the same setting. Her fourth novel is titled simply, "NW." That's the postal code for the northwest area of London where Smith grew up. It took more than seven years to write, and she's likened it to a problem play. Zadie Smith joins us from a studio at the Radio Foundation in New York. Feel free to call us with your comments, questions, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, Zadie, thanks for joining us.

  • 11:07:52

    MS. ZADIE SMITHGood morning, Diane. Thanks for having me.

  • 11:07:54

    REHMZadie, it's good to see you again, and I should tell listeners that though you're in a studio in New York, I am looking at you via Skype.

  • 11:08:09


  • 11:08:09

    REHMAnd Zadie Smith has on a beautiful pink head scarf, she has on a pink spotted scarf and she looks absolutely beautiful.

  • 11:08:22

    SMITHOh, thank you.

  • 11:08:23

    REHMThe last time you and I was talked was in 2005 on your novel, "On Beauty."

  • 11:08:31

    SMITHYou're right.

  • 11:08:32

    REHMAnd now you've said that "NW" is like a problem play. What do you mean?

  • 11:08:43

    SMITHWell, I guess I was thinking of plays like a favorite play of mine "Measure for Measure," which is somewhere between a tragedy and a comedy, no. The thing about those problem plays of Shakespeare's is that you aren't sure how you feel at the end, or at least all the work is left to you to ensure the manner in which you feel, and I like that idea. I like the idea of having to sort yourself through a work of art. In a tragedy you know you're going to cry, and in a comedy you know you're going to laugh. But in a problem play, issues of the piece are kind of turned outwards towards you, you know. It's a kind of self-interrogation, and I like that idea.

  • 11:09:23

    REHMDid you do that kind of self-interrogation as you wrote?

  • 11:09:30

    SMITHI suppose I did. It was such a long process and, you know, in seven years you change a lot, so it's a different self that's being interrogated. But, um, I just really wanted to try and capture different kinds of human experiences I was writing, and this experience of being unsure or of being uncertain was something that I was really interested in.

  • 11:09:52

    REHMSo "NW" is focusing on this area of London where you grew up...

  • 11:09:59


  • 11:10:00

    REHM...and where these four individuals come from. Tell us about your characters.

  • 11:10:08

    SMITHWell, they all went to the same -- well, they grew up in the same housing project, we'd say counselor stay in England, and they live in the same streets but widely separated. I guess the ends are very different from their beginnings. One of them, Natalie, is a very successful barrister. Leah works for the state. She works in a kind of charity commission. Felix is a kind of odd-job man. He has been a drug dealer. He's trying to make his life better. He's now a car mechanic.

  • 11:10:37

    SMITHAnd Nathan, I suppose has in some ways completely lost his living on the streets, has a heavy drug problem. But these are kids who once would have known each other fairly well running through the same building complex.

  • 11:10:51

    REHMNatalie was formerly Keisha. Why does Keisha change her name to Natalie?

  • 11:10:59

    SMITHWell, I think in Natalie's case, she's a black English girl. Her parents are both Jamaican, and she has a sense that in order to succeed in the world she's chosen, which is a very particular kind of world, the English law is, you know, it's not just a profession, it's a kind of culture. You have to have dinner with lawyers, you know, 12 times a year. You have to dress like them, think like them, speak like them, and I think in her mind she thinks that her name doesn't suit her profession. She changes it for that reason, slightly sad reason, but that's why she does it.

  • 11:11:33

    REHMAnd she is married to a very successful man. They live in a quite lovely house, still in that NW area, however. Is that correct?

  • 11:11:49

    SMITHYes. I mean, I guess a striking thing about London neighborhoods is the way it's entirely possible to live in a two million pound house opposite a housing project or around the corner from a squat. People live genuinely cheek by jowls in London, and the kind of schools the kids in this book went to where you have 1,000, 1,500 kids from sometimes quite different backgrounds, it's sometimes inevitable that you're going to find the child you held hands with when you were five is the person you walk past in the street not wanting to stop 20 years later.

  • 11:12:22

    REHMAnd in addition, you have Leah, who is very envious in some ways of what Natalie has, but she's not sure she wants it for herself. Natalie also has two beautiful children in addition to this husband who apparently adores her.

  • 11:12:47

    SMITHYeah. I suppose I was interested -- as you get older, as a woman, you grow with up with other women, you see this kind of strange problem that I think women often have of dealing very much in comparison, and always thinking that their lives have to either be like their friends or the opposite of their friends or, in a way the -- it seems to me, the men, who have many of their own issues, but operate differently.

  • 11:13:10

    SMITHFor women, it's very important that they either the approval of their friends or their lives in some way compare to their friends, to the point I think sometimes that it's not clear if you were yourself in a vacuum what it is that you actually want, not to impress your friends or to get one up on the next person, but what you genuinely want for yourself, and I think Leah is caught in that bind, a kind of existential problem. She doesn't really know what she genuinely wants.

  • 11:13:37

    REHMAnd Leah gets caught in another kind of bind early in the novel because she is confronted by a woman who says she needs her help badly. Tell us about that scene.

  • 11:13:56

    SMITHWell, I -- that was really the beginning of the book in my mind, and it ended up being the beginning of the novel. I thought there was something fascinating about the idea of when people ask for your help, you know. It's a very basic, almost biblical, situation. Someone comes to you desperate, and you have a choice to make in that moment, and I've always noticed that different religions have different attitudes about it. For example, in the Jewish faith there's a sense that one should give and just give without thinking too much, without agonizing over it.

  • 11:14:26

    SMITHIt should just be an act, not a kind of internal struggle, and with Protestants there's more a sense that you should want to do good in your heart. You know, it has to be all the way down which can create the kind of self-consciousness about the idea of charity. So I think Leah is from that tradition. If someone comes to her door, she wants to help. She worries about whether wanting to help is in some sense patronizing or wrong, but she wants to help, but the twist is that the girl is not sincere, or that this is some kind of a con, she wants not money not to help her mother who she says is ill, but to buy drugs.

  • 11:15:01

    SMITHThat happens all the time in my neighborhood, but of course the problem that's folded into it is if someone's desperate enough to come to your door and make up such a story than they are desperate. The desperation is real. So trying to decide what the act is there just seemed to me a tiny microcosmic example of decisions we have to make every day about what the good thing is.

  • 11:15:23

    REHMBut, you know, if that young woman who came to Leah's door had actually been sitting on the street asking for money, do you think Leah's reaction would have been different?

  • 11:15:41

    SMITHThat's such a good question, and that's an even deeper point in this sense of responsibility of what you owe to the people you grew up with, what you owe to the community you're a part of, whether such a thing as a community exists, you know. There was a very famous line said by ex- ex- ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that there was no such thing as society. She was very firm on it. The only thing that exists are families and individuals, and that attitude is held by many.

  • 11:16:07

    SMITHLeah doubts it and wants to believe in this thing, community and this idea that she has a responsibility to the people she grew up around and the people who are within her sphere of care. But that's another problem, isn't it? A very modern problem, how wide is your sphere or care? One always has to decide, no? Does it just include you and your partner, or you and your children or your neighbors or the people in your church or the people in your school? Trying to decide where that limit is drawn, that's one of the great political and personal questions for everybody.

  • 11:16:34

    REHMAnd that's why that person on the street comparison is made to someone who comes face to face with you and knocks on your door.

  • 11:16:47

    SMITHYes. In that situation, the bond is impossible to ignore. Now, you have to deal with it one way or another. You can refuse it, but you still have to make a decision. With a person on the street, it's possible to allay the decision, just walk by.

  • 11:16:59

    REHMZadie Smith is on the line with me from New York. Her newest novel is titled "NW." Zadie Smith is the author of the novels "White Teeth," "The Autograph Man," and "On Beauty," and the essay collection "Changing My Mind." If you'd like to join us, call us 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. You can follow us on Facebook or Twitter. What does "NW" signify to Londoners?

  • 11:17:47

    SMITHWell, I suppose in the very practical sense, it just means the northwest corner of London. Personally, kind of intimately when I was writing the book, I thought of it also as meaning nowhere and that this was kind of an existential idea that there's always a place in every city that's northwest, you know, slightly off to the side, slightly ignored, not considered central, not completely important, but significant to the people who live there, and sometimes representing the real energy of the city, you know?

  • 11:18:18

    SMITHBecause after all, in the very center of the city where you get things like your Washington Monument or Big Ben, that's not really where the heart of a city is, you know, in those formal places.

  • 11:18:28

    REHMBut it is in northwest. We'll take a short break here and when we come back, we'll talk further to Zadie Smith and take your calls.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMZadie Smith is with me. We're talking about her new novel "NW." Names are so important and your name, Zadie, actually was Sadie. Tell me why you changed it to Zadie.

  • 11:20:26

    SMITHYou know, the reason is so childish and embarrassing. When I was first published I kept on seeing people writing -- I guess they had assumed that I had changed my name to be more exotic, which is a very strange aim in life I would say to change your name to be more exotic. Or I didn't know what they thought it was for. But the boring and very honest truth is that when I was about 14 I was in love with a boy whose name began with a Z and, I don't know, I can't explain the logic of that but when I was 14, it seemed like a good idea. It was like a tattoo or something...

  • 11:20:56

    REHMBut now...

  • 11:20:56

    SMITH...and now I'm stuck with it.

  • 11:20:57

    REHM...I thought there was some relationship to Zora Neale Hurston.

  • 11:21:03

    SMITHNo. I mean, that would be lovely if it was true. It's a name that I adore but no, Zora was not connected. It really was just a boy who didn't like me very much.

  • 11:21:10

    REHMYour boyfriend.

  • 11:21:13

    SMITHNo, he didn't like me. It was an attempt at love. It didn't really work.

  • 11:21:17

    REHMAnd of course, I ask you that because, as you said earlier, in the book Keisha changes her name from Keisha to Natalie. There is a dinner party at Natalie's house and Leah sort of feels very out of place. Is there a point in the book that you would like to read for us, perhaps that particular section or some other that you might choose?

  • 11:21:56

    SMITHYou know, I think it would take me a moment to find that section...

  • 11:21:59

    REHMThat's all right.

  • 11:21:59

    SMITH...but I do have a few marked -- I have one -- I quite like this best.

  • 11:22:04


  • 11:22:05

    SMITHIt's towards the end actually.

  • 11:22:06


  • 11:22:07

    SMITHIt's good that I quite like one bit.

  • 11:22:08

    REHMThat's fine.

  • 11:22:09

    SMITHIt's about that moment -- I don't know if any of your listeners have had it -- when you lose your child for a moment in a crowded space.

  • 11:22:16

    REHMAh, yes.

  • 11:22:17

    SMITHYeah, it's an unpleasant -- when I wrote this, it had never happened to me. But it happened to me like a few weeks ago as a kind of a lesson in real life experience. But I wanted to try and get that on the page of how I imagined it would be. So this is Natalie in a pet shop towards the end having lost her children for a moment. And the context is that earlier in the book she had considered committing suicide, leaving the earth. So this is in her mind as she's looking for her children.

  • 11:22:47

    SMITH"She raised her head from her newspaper. She called out. Nothing. She walked to the fish, the lizards, the dogs and the cats. Nowhere. She reassured herself she wasn't an hysterical type. She walked at only a slightly faster pace back around the circuit she'd just completed calling their names in a perfectly reasonable tone. Nothing nowhere. She abandoned the buggy and moved quickly to the counter. She asked two people a very simple question to which they replied with an infuriating lack of urgency. She went back to the fish and the lizards shouting.

  • 11:23:21

    SMITHShe understood that her children were not kidnapped or murdered or likely to be further than 50' from where she was presently standing but running through this logical series of statements did nothing to halt the falling away of everything that now happened inside her. She peered over into the pit that separates people who have known intolerable pain from people who haven't. Instantly, she was sweating all over her body.

  • 11:23:45

    SMITHA man in an apron came over to tell her to calm down. She pushed past him and ran out into the street and thought, it was into this pit that I so nearly placed my husband, my children, my mother, Leah, anyone who ever cared for me. She took a step to the left and stalled. It was a direction instinct for some reason rejected. She reversed course and ran into the next door warehouse and down another ramp into another cavern filled with faceless mannequins in hijab, in great sways of black silk folded and arranged in many square piles on long shelves.

  • 11:24:19

    SMITHShe ran without any design around the racks of fabric and scarves and embroidered gowns and then back into the street and back down the ramp into the pet shop where she spotted them at once, sitting on the floor right at the back in front of the rabbit hutches. She fell to her knees and gripped them with both hands. She kissed them all over their faces, an offering they accepted without comment." That's it.

  • 11:24:43

    REHMI can feel the perspiration rising.

  • 11:24:47

    SMITHIt's awful, that moment, isn't it? It's so terrible.

  • 11:24:49

    REHMJust awful. So tell us what happened to you.

  • 11:24:54

    SMITHOh, mine was only a few weeks ago. I was in a very ridiculous place called Pet a Pig World which is kind of theme park for an English TV show. And it's the usual thing. I turned around and she was gone. And we fell into a complete panic, my husband and I. But what interests me about that feeling, why I put it in the book, is that -- well, there's an old Chekhov line, which says that every happy man should have an unhappy man behind him looking in the cupboards to remind him what unhappiness is.

  • 11:25:24

    SMITHAnd sometimes it's hard to remember, you know, when your life is going well and everything seems fine that everybody's moments away from something which could be terrible. And trying to retain that pity and empathy for people who are already in that situation is hard. It's so easy to forget pain when you're not in it, physical pain, emotional pain. It disappears. So I wanted to place it in the book. It's the same point about the kind of circle of care, whether you can keep in mind when you are not in difficulty the others are in difficulty.

  • 11:25:57

    REHMBut what's extraordinary is that you imagined that situation so incredibly well. And then having written it you experienced it.

  • 11:26:13

    SMITHThat happens to me all the time. That seems to be the way my life works out. Maybe it's just a writer thing. A psychiatrist said to me once, it's a way of making the future safe. It's maybe a thing that writers do as anxious children. They imagine how things will be so they don't have to deal with things when they finally arrive. You know, you've already pre-prepared yourself in some way or another.

  • 11:26:36

    REHMBut I'm sure you were perspiring no less.

  • 11:26:40

    SMITHWell, that's the thing. That's the thing that does not help life at all. It doesn't make it easier anyway.

  • 11:26:46

    REHMExactly, exactly.

  • 11:26:47

    SMITHIt's such a con. Oh, what a scam.

  • 11:26:50

    REHMYeah, exactly. Both of your female characters, both Leah and Natalie are ambivalent about motherhood.

  • 11:27:04

    SMITHYes. I would -- this was really just something I notice more and more, both in my life and the life of all my friends. And I -- you know, I'm not a sociologist -- I can't -- or historian. It's very hard to put your finger on what has changed, but certainly something about the lateness of childbirth now, the general lateness. And it's also worth remembering that, you know, if you read an Austin novel, someone my age having a baby at 35, it's close to science fiction. You know, it's somebody quite on the far edges of what Austin would've considered a woman -- a young woman in the position to have a baby.

  • 11:27:42

    SMITHSo what's become completely normal to us was strange then. And the -- it must come with cultural change and it must come with differences of attitude. And I do think perhaps that that very -- that instinct that one has to have children at 20 or 21, well, I don't think -- I suppose I don't think it really was an instinct. It was just a kind of cultural necessity one way or another. So then when women no longer had to have children at 20 and they wait as I did, and you -- the culture tells you, you are meant to have this strong instinct but you don't seem to have it.

  • 11:28:16

    SMITHI think for a lot of young women it was a kind of crisis in my generation though. And it's like something of a shock that we were also not only meant to be women with careers and women who took care of ourselves and were intelligent and self reliant, but we were also meant to be in some way animals that did something else, that reproduced. That was really news to us.

  • 11:28:39

    REHMBut, you know, today happens to be our wonderful son David's 52nd birthday.

  • 11:28:52

    SMITHOh, wow.

  • 11:28:53

    REHMSo I'm thinking about the idea of ambivalence and it seems to me that young mothers of my generation were perhaps no more, no less ambivalent about motherhood...

  • 11:29:13

    SMITHI totally agree.

  • 11:29:15

    REHM...than your generation, giving birth at 35 is (unintelligible) .

  • 11:29:19

    SMITHI completely agree. I think the ambivalence is absolutely constant. I think the difference is that my generation thought they were meant to feel something very strongly. And that's what threw them into this loop. They looked at their mothers and thought, they must have really wanted those children at 19 or 20. They must have had a great maternal passion. They looked at their mothers with kind of fear and anxiety because they felt, well I'm not like that. What's wrong with me?

  • 11:29:40

    SMITHBut of course any frank conversation with one's own mother reveals it was often not a great...

  • 11:29:45


  • 11:29:46

    SMITH...enormous maternal passion but necessities of various kinds...

  • 11:29:49


  • 11:29:49

    SMITH...the cultural pressure. And so I think a lot of it is a misunderstanding that when women don't talk to each other honestly, which to me is the most useful thing in the world is when two women sit together and speak honestly about their experience. It solves so many problems, so many anxieties and unsaid things.

  • 11:30:07

    REHMI don't know what I would do without my friends.

  • 11:30:12

    SMITHYes, well, me neither.

  • 11:30:12

    REHMYou must feel the same way.

  • 11:30:16

    SMITHMe neither. I think particularly as women get older it becomes an absolute necessity. And certainly the kind of usual joke is as women get older they get more and more friends and their poor husbands have fewer and fewer. They have maybe one friend or two friends.

  • 11:30:32


  • 11:30:32

    SMITHIt seems so terrible. I always advise my husband to get as many friends as possible 'cause it's such a support and necessity.

  • 11:30:40

    REHMHow long...

  • 11:30:40

    SMITHI think with Natalie and Leah it's -- sorry, go.

  • 11:30:42

    REHMSorry. How long have you and he been married?

  • 11:30:47

    SMITHWell, it was our anniversary yesterday, eight years.

  • 11:30:50

    REHMHappy anniversary.

  • 11:30:51

    SMITH(unintelligible) that time.

  • 11:30:52

    REHMAnd during the nearly eight years it took to write this book, your father died. And I'm just wondering what kinds of feelings that death brought into your writing.

  • 11:31:12

    SMITHI think just the comprehension of death, which is another thing the characters in this book -- it's slightly alien to them. Again -- once again, if you go back 300, 400 years in English life a woman of my age would have known a great deal of death, you know. Maybe one of my children would've died. Certainly one of my brothers or sisters would've died, family members, friends. People dying of something as simple as a broken leg because an amputation isn't done correctly, death was an everyday matter.

  • 11:31:42

    SMITHAnd then you fast forward to 1975 and you have a generation born who could easily get to their 40's without knowing a single death. To me, that must be -- I mean, it must have an extraordinary influence on the way we think about life and the way we exist. So my father was really the first person I knew intimately who had died. So then you're kind of invited into I suppose -- I don't know if it's an unhappy club, but the human club -- the human reality of what death is and it's finality and what it means.

  • 11:32:14

    SMITHI think it can't help but make you a different person, the person who sees life in a different way from a different perspective. And from my writing it was just -- I guess you become even more nostalgic and also full of love for things of the past, which I always find a useful feeling when you're writing.

  • 11:32:34

    REHMWere you very close to him?

  • 11:32:38

    SMITHWell, no, not as a child or a teenager. It was one of those relationships which was always very awkward and stilted. And I suppose I had a lot of anger when I was a teenager. But then I'm sure, as many of your listeners have had this experience, as your parents get older it becomes slightly absurd to have all these grudges against them as they need you.

  • 11:32:56

    SMITHAnd the relationship changes and you are filled with --this word gets such a bad press these days -- pity. It used to be a very beautiful word, now it sounds patronizing. But pity is a lovely word really, the idea of understanding someone and appreciating them for what they were rather than constantly judging them. So as he got older I think we had a much better relationship.

  • 11:33:17

    REHMZadie Smith. Her new novel is titled simply "NW." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850, your questions and comments for writer Zadie Smith. First to Frank here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:48

    FRANKOh, good morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call...

  • 11:33:50


  • 11:33:50

    SMITH...and congratulations. Zadie, on your new novel. I'm dying to read it. I grew up in...

  • 11:33:57

    SMITHThank you, Frank.

  • 11:33:57

    FRANK... in Northwest.

  • 11:33:59

    SMITHYou did?

  • 11:33:59

    FRANKI live in Washington, D.C. but I grew up in Cricklewood, walked through Willesden, went to school in Kilburn. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the enormous transitions of this area. When I grew up there were five synagogues in the area.

  • 11:34:17

    SMITHYes, that's what I was about to say, yeah.

  • 11:34:18

    SMITHIt was a very, very Jewish area. The school I went to Kilburn grammar school no longer exists. The Willesden Scout House no longer exists. It seems to me that it's an incredibly transitional area and perhaps you could comment on that because I think it's one of the fascinations actually, certainly about your first book.

  • 11:34:41

    SMITHMy brother went to that Willesden Scout House literally before it closed. You're absolutely right. Obviously it was an incredibly Jewish area. And as I've started writing I've met old Willesdeners, people like Simon Schama, Oliver Sacks were both from Willesden when it was a Jewish area. And when I was born there was still a fair Jewish presence and there was a Jewish school. But it had been for -- overrun really by Jamaicans and Irish, which is kind of my background one way or another.

  • 11:35:11

    SMITHAnd now it's changed again to an incredible mix of Africans of all kinds, Russians, Polls. It's really extraordinary. One of the things you notice about London when you meet -- if you live there, if I say I'm from Kilburn, everybody will say, oh, I lived in Kilburn for a while. It's a place people live before they go somewhere else. It's a kind of transitional spot.

  • 11:35:33

    REHMWhat does it look like, Zadie?

  • 11:35:36

    SMITHWell, it looks like a 19th century village in some ways if you squint, because the tops of all those ratty hairdressers and shops are really quite pretty, red brick, 19th century villas that were built when Willesden was still country. You used to be able to, in the turn of the century, take your sheep from Willesden all the way up to Oxford Street. Impossible to imagine now. It got bombed a fair bit so there's some strange protrusions of architecture. There's a lot of tower block. There's a lot of kind of 1950s large villas which were made at another point in Willesden's history when it seemed that people would have money.

  • 11:36:15

    SMITHBut there's no planning to -- you know, it really is a hodgepodge of things that have happened in England over the past 150 years. I'm such -- sorry.

  • 11:36:22

    REHMHow much has it been gentrified?

  • 11:36:26

    SMITHWell, parts of it are extraordinarily gentrified because of those Victorian buildings which are, in fact, very beautiful. There are a lot of people who come up from -- I suppose the more familiar to Americans -- the neighborhood of Notting Hill, which really is a millionaire's enclave. But it's become so expensive because some people in London became so rich in the '90s. I mean, a kind of money which was so out of proportion with normal London life that Notting Hill really became a place not to some millionaires but billionaires. So people who were only millionaires moved up into my neighborhood.

  • 11:36:57

    SMITHSo there's a little corner that is very rich indeed but it -- the rest of the neighborhood is unchanged. So it's a very stark -- the place of stark contrast.

  • 11:37:07

    REHMAnd you're still living there?

  • 11:37:10

    SMITHI live in New York most of the time and back in Willesden some of the time. I do still live there but I'm aware of becoming one of those grumpy residents who's always complaining about everybody new who's moved in.

  • 11:37:22

    REHMZadie Smith. She's the author of several novels. Her latest is title simply "NW." Short break here and we'll be right back.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, novelist Zadie Smith is with me. She's on the line from New York, but I have her on Skype so I can see her perfectly. And it's really kind of fun having this kind of conversation, so it's not just on a line, it is eye to eye. I'm going to go back to the phones, but then Zadie is going to read a little more for us. Now to Wichita, Kan. Good morning, Larry. You're on the air.

  • 11:40:45

    LARRYGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:40:46


  • 11:40:46

    LARRYI love your show.

  • 11:40:47

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:40:48

    LARRYI listen to it daily. In regards to Zadie Smith, I am looking forward to reading your novel.

  • 11:40:55

    SMITHThank you.

  • 11:40:55

    LARRYI think that it is -- it's something that we all need. As she spoke of empathy toward others, I think that's something that we in this day and age unfortunately are not grasping as we should. And if we're able to do so, I believe, and help others as she has alluded to, that we can gain much warmth and even monetary gain as a result of it, as I have done in my own self. I just -- that's really about all I have to say.

  • 11:41:28

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:41:28

    LARRYI look forward to reading the book. And, again, I love your show and thank you very much for hearing me.

  • 11:41:32

    REHMThank you, Larry. Zadie, not all of your characters behave with empathy and sympathy toward others.

  • 11:41:44

    SMITHNo. I think it's really hard to behave well, isn't it? That's one of the things I was trying to get at. I think a lot of times when we read one of the things we like in the books we read is that the books are telling us what good and empathetic people we are, but it's not always true. And sometimes the reflection you have of yourself in fiction is a flattering one, but one doesn't feel it to be entirely accurate.

  • 11:42:11

    SMITHSo I wanted to try and get more at some of the things which hold us back, the feelings of envy and of uncertainly and fear a lot of the time, and fear of difference. I wanted to try and speak honestly about those things 'cause I think people understandably do much to disguise those feelings inside themselves, but they are real and they are from the product of genuine confusion.

  • 11:42:39

    REHMIt's interesting that you choose to tell Natalie's story in a series of numbers and tiny chapters. Tell us why you did that.

  • 11:42:55

    SMITHYou know, when I was writing, I was really thinking about the idea of people like me, black women, black men in fiction, and for obvious reasons a lot of fiction concerning people of color has been about identity and about the strong sense of gaining an identify or holding onto an identity. And all that fiction has been very important to me and I have loved that history. But it did occur to me that one of the things about the 20th century is that there's been a feeling of existential crisis now that people often don't know who they are or what they are. And black people are not exempt from that feeling.

  • 11:43:32

    SMITHSo quite often in fiction you would read images of black women, in particular, who always seem, you know, strong and confident.

  • 11:43:40

    REHMPut together, yes.

  • 11:43:42

    SMITHYeah, and put together. And there are many black women like that for sure. My mother is one of them, for example. But not all of us feel like these, you know, great, wise, nothing, brilliant, always confident, entirely certain of our identity type people. And I guess when I was starting the book, I had a little idea in my head. What would a black existential novel look like? What would it look like to write a book about people who though they may be of color also have the same doubts about self and about identity that everybody felt in the 20th and 21st century? So that was one of my little thoughts.

  • 11:44:17

    SMITHSo when I was doing Natalie, I thought, well, I could write it as a very kind of consistent, flowing narrative as I've written before, and I love to write like that, but it really wouldn't be accurate as to the way Natalie thinks about herself. She's a very disjointed person, a personality which is almost disassociated from itself for various reasons. And she's always thinking about what comes next in the future and getting ahead as much as possible. And the more I thought about it, I thought I'd like to see her race. Like, I'd like to see her life as she sees it, as a kind of race of episodes one after another. And so that's the starlight shows.

  • 11:44:55

    REHMI think that is one of the brilliant aspects of this novel that each of these characters is able to tell the story from inside out, rather than having a God like voice of love telling the stories.

  • 11:45:19

    SMITHYeah, I absolutely wanted to allow them the reality of their own narrative. It could all have been a completely different book, smoothed out, told from above with a narrator who judges fiercely and separates the good from the bad, but I felt the urge to be more honest about what it is to write. And writers are not great judges or Gods of their characters full of wisdom. They also have no idea what's going on, just as their readers most of the time have no idea what's going on. So I wanted to choose a narrative for each character which suited them, which expressed the way they saw the world, because we don't all see the world in the same way, and certainly not from the same perspective.

  • 11:45:59

    REHMIndeed. Let's go to Syracuse, N.Y. to Karen. Good morning.

  • 11:46:06

    KARENOh, good morning. Thank you. I've been -- I've listened to you for years, but I've never wanted to call until I heard Zadie Smith's voice.

  • 11:46:12

    REHMWell, I'm glad you called.

  • 11:46:14

    KARENI've been a reader of hers for a long time. But my question -- including her essays. My question's about a recent short story she had in the New Yorker Magazine which I had read it and it was the same people. And I was absolutely blown away by your comment about the novel as a problem play because I felt it was a problem when I finished the story. It's the same characters, isn't it?

  • 11:46:39

    SMITHYes, no, it's from the novel. It's not really a short story. It's an extract, but the New Yorker doesn't allow you to say that in the magazine. They're very formal about that.

  • 11:46:46

    KARENOh, I was so curious about that.

  • 11:46:47

    SMITHSo it is a bit of -- it is a bit of the novel. And it was an extract we chose. It's a very hard novel to extract from because none of it is kind of self contained all by itself. But I like that extract. It's a good representation of the Natalie section of the book.

  • 11:47:03

    KARENOh, well, thank you so much. And I did love it. And it was a problem.

  • 11:47:07

    SMITHThank you.

  • 11:47:09

    KARENAnd you -- yes, it was. I would encourage anybody to read that story. It was, I can't remember, a few months ago perhaps.

  • 11:47:16

    REHMWell, I hope you'll go on from there and read the novel as a whole. Thanks for calling, Karen. Would you, Zadie, read for us?

  • 11:47:30

    SMITHWell, this is a little section from that bit with Natalie. And it's about Natalie and Leah who are now in their 20s, about how they feel about what's happening around them in terms of their friends. "Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell were 28 when the first emails began to arrive. Over the next few years their number increased exponentially. Photo attachments of stunned looking women with hospital tags around their wrists, babies lying on their breast, hair inexplicably soaked through. They seemed to have stepped across a chasm into another world.

  • 11:48:08

    SMITHIt was perfectly possible of course that her own mother was arriving at the houses of these new mothers with their health visitor name tag pinned to her apron, pricking their baby's feet with a needle or sewing up the new mother's stitches as they lie sideways on a couch. Marcie must've seen one or two of them by the law of local averages. These were new arrivals in the neighborhood. Mother and baby doing well, exhausted. It was as if no one had ever had a baby before in human history. And everybody said precisely this. It was the new thing to say. It's as if no one ever had a baby before.

  • 11:48:44

    SMITHNatalie forwarded the emails to Leah. It's as if no one ever had a baby before. In fact, many things that had seemed to their own mothers self evident elements of a common sense world now struck Natalie and Leah as either a surprise or an outrage. Physical pain, the existence of disease, the difference in procreative age between men and women, age itself, death. Their own materiality was a scandal. The fact of flesh."

  • 11:49:20

    REHMSo interesting that you talk about Leah and Natalie in their 20s. That's the other fluidity in this novel. Time, we're not...

  • 11:49:34


  • 11:49:34

    REHM...quite sure where we are in time.

  • 11:49:39

    SMITHOne of the things I notice, it's a very banal observation perhaps, but it just interested me, when I talk to my friends, the common theme that came up that people felt that time was speeding up, that is when they were children, they felt that they were children for a very, very long time, intensely long time. And now that they were 28, 29, 30, the years seemed to be going by. You'd blink and summer was gone and here was your birthday again. And it kept on happening. And I thought it's interesting that in narrative, we hardly ever replicate that.

  • 11:50:09

    SMITHThere's a bit of (unintelligible). But the idea that time is relative, it doesn't move in this very regular way, chunk by chunk, chapter by chapter. Depending on how you feel, it can speed up. You can feel terrified sometimes that your age is going so quickly, it seems not enough time to exist. So I thought, well, how can I -- how can I create that feeling in the reader, this feeling of almost suffocation that time is moving faster than it was before?

  • 11:50:38

    REHMLet's go now to Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Good morning, Chris.

  • 11:50:45

    CHRISGood morning. Thank you, Ms. Smith for reading the passage that you just did. It makes my question even more important to me. What is your favorite work and why? And I'll start with that.

  • 11:51:05

    SMITHMy favorite work...

  • 11:51:05

    CHRISI've never read you.

  • 11:51:06

    SMITH...of mine?

  • 11:51:07


  • 11:51:08

    SMITHOh, gosh. You know, I guess most writers always say the thing they just wrote, you know, because it's the thing which is freshest and you haven't had time to really hate it yet. So that might the right answer, the book I just finished. But I don't know. The books, they're like -- I suppose everybody says they're like children. It's true. They're different in different ways and there are little bits I like of each one, you know. But I always think when I meet a reader I know which of my books I like you to like more. So I find it hard to recommend one.

  • 11:51:39

    CHRISIf any one of them has observations similar to that, which as well put as what you just read, that's the one for me.

  • 11:51:47

    SMITHWell, that's the new one "NW."

  • 11:51:50


  • 11:51:51


  • 11:51:51

    SMITHI hope you like it.

  • 11:51:53

    REHMI hope you will enjoy it. Thanks for calling, Chris. Let's go to Dallas, Texas. Russ is on the air. Good morning.

  • 11:52:04

    RUSSDiane, can you hear me?

  • 11:52:05

    REHMSure can. Go right ahead.

  • 11:52:06

    RUSSOkay. I have a couple of questions for Zadie. Zadie, I read "White Teeth" a long time ago when I was in grad school and really, really enjoyed it...

  • 11:52:14

    SMITHWell, thank you.

  • 11:52:14

    RUSS...especially the character of Archie. But did you take any English classes when you were in school? Do you have an English degree? And have you been influenced by any American writers like William Faulkner or British writers like Virginia Woolf for instance?

  • 11:52:31

    REHMA lot of people have compared this to "Mrs. Dalloway," one of the characters.

  • 11:52:38

    SMITHWell, I -- to answer the first part, I did take an English degree. That was my degree in college. And as far as Woolf goes, it's a funny thing because I really did not give Woolf a second thought when I was writing the book, but when I finished it and read it over, it became obvious that she must've been in my mind somewhere, even just as a model, because she was such -- so good at doing formally interesting things on the page while retaining the sense of humanity, of interest in her characters. I love Woolf. I guess what I take from her much more often is the stuff in her essays. Her essays have been really important to me.

  • 11:53:16

    SMITHFaulkner is my embarrassing American blind spot. And you've made me have to say it on the radio that I've not read much Faulkner. And I really should read some Faulkner.

  • 11:53:24

    REHMWhy not?

  • 11:53:26

    SMITHI don't -- you know, maybe this is being unfair, but when I was in university, Faulkner did not come up very much. We had a course which was very -- had a massive European bias basically. And if you wanted to concern yourself with American fiction, you had to take a separate part of the course. But since I got out of college, I've been fascinated by American writing and it's had such a enormous influence on me in so many ways.

  • 11:53:51

    SMITHParticularly people like to know who I loved. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker when I was very young as well. There are a lot of American writers that meant a lot to me. But Faulkner is my -- I feel guilty now. Thanks. I should read him.

  • 11:54:05

    REHMYou're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Does that answer it, Russ?

  • 11:54:11

    RUSSThank you.

  • 11:54:12

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. And to Winchester, Va. Good morning, Macarton (sp?).

  • 11:54:20

    MACARTONHi. Just want to make a comment. I was brought up on the other side of the river in southwest London, in Stockwell, Brixton, (unintelligible) area.

  • 11:54:31

    SMITHYeah, sure.

  • 11:54:32

    MACARTONAnd when I was brought up, the street I lived in, in a sense, was highly -- and because of the immigrants from Eastern Europe then because of the Hungarian uprising, the (unintelligible) and people like that, we were real multicultural little area. And by the way so privileged that we had so much, you know, interaction between the children and in a sense the parent tended not to integrate, but the children did. I mean, we'd always be around each other's houses eating. And I'm just wondering -- I have lived in London for 25 years. But I'm just wondering with the news of immigration ways coming in, does the same situations occur with the children or do they tend to be a little bit more separated?

  • 11:55:21

    SMITHI see you haven't lost your accent by the way.

  • 11:55:24

    REHMHe certainly hasn't.

  • 11:55:25

    MACARTONI'll never lose that.

  • 11:55:29

    SMITHIt's interesting. I completely agree with you. When I was a kid, for instance, my best friends were Bengali and African and Pakistani. My parents certainly never went around to the houses of those parents. We spent our times in each other's houses. I'd break Ramadan with my friends, though I'm not a Muslim, but just to get some of the food. The food is awesome. So we're always in each other's houses, but our parents would not have been friendly, so I think that is the normal way of things. And then the most beautiful thing of course is 30 years later you see these kids grown in pubs sitting together, genuinely mixed groups of friends who grew up that way.

  • 11:56:06

    SMITHBut the thing which is stopping or changing that situation is the schools. There's been a massive rise in England of religious schools and private schools that separate children by money and culture. And as long as that happens, then children are not likely to mix. Though, in my neighborhood, even though there are enormous religious schools, enormous Jewish school, enormous Muslim school, there are still a lot of parks, there's a lot of street and we still do meet each other on the street and kids still do hang out with each other. So it's still there, but it's made more difficult.

  • 11:56:38

    REHMAnd certainly in this country the same is true, wouldn't you say?

  • 11:56:45

    SMITHI mean, the answer is always in the schools.

  • 11:56:47


  • 11:56:47

    SMITHIt really isn't a matter of race. I think constantly of where my husband comes from, Northern Ireland, where everybody is white and where the differences in religion are, you know, tiny and yet they will not be in the same schools together. They do not mix. It doesn't take much.

  • 11:57:03

    REHMZadie Smith, her latest novel is titled "NW." Thank you so much for joining us. It was a real pleasure.

  • 11:57:14

    SMITHI really enjoyed it. Thank you.

  • 11:57:16

    REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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