A good (recent-ish) conversation between Eleanor Watchel and Zadie Smith here (Podbay dates it “Dec 21, 2014”). I wanted to transcribe a few bits from the latter half of the interview about Smith becoming a parent and its effect on her life as a writer. Though Watchel and Smith refer mostly to the years surrounding the composition of NW (2012), Smith’s answers do seem relevant to thinking through the relations between groups of parents and children in White Teeth (as well as generational, locational, national, historical, religious, idiomatic, and racial/cultural difference). As I mention here, I’m teaching White Teeth this summer, so I have Smith on my mind.
Here we go:
Watchel: Zadie Smith, you began writing NW five years before the birth of your first child and finished two years after. How has being a parent changed how you see your work?
Smith: There’s some funny things about it. Like we were going past a stall of books in New York just near NYU recently in the sunshine, and we stopped to look at books and then my almost three-year-old picked up a book and she was like, “Mummy!” I was on the back of the book! She was really, surreally freaked out by that experience. What are you doing on . . .? And then for a few weeks every book she picked up, like, “Are you on the back of this book?” I was like, “No. Only some of the books. Not all of the books.”
[. . .] You know, the thing about having children, obviously parts of life become kind of unbearably filled with emotion and sentiment. And that’s interesting because you have to bring it to the writing but also not let it overwhelm the writing. [. . .] The awful thing about children is, is that—I mean, they’re lovely as well—but your focus on them, your idea that your child is the most interesting thing in the world is clearly mistaken, so putting that into fiction, I think, would be a disaster. So it’s an interesting example of trying to tap into this wonderful feeling but also control the overpowering sentiment, which is likely to come with it.
It’s great, actually, to have something to go to at the end of a working day. I remember before when I was writing, anyone who writes in the audience knows after you’re finished you’re kind of wired slightly. [. . .] You need some way to come down. [. . .] You’re thrown back into life in a very violent and immediate way, and I think it’s healthy. I think it’s useful. I think of Dickens with those 10 or 11 children or whatever crazy amount he had and how warm his work was as a result and how filled with life. I like that. But then again, I don’t know, George Eliot: no children. What could be warmer, broader, more interesting than George Eliot? So, I wouldn’t over-exaggerate the effect of The Child.
Watchel: Your fiction has almost always had family and friendship at its center, but belonging to family and friends isn’t necessarily easy, and in a short story called, “Hanwell, Sr.,” one character says, “I will do anything for my family except see them.”
Smith: You have no idea how many people email me about that line, saying, “I know exactly what you mean!” It seems to have resonated very deeply. Yeah.
Watchel: Has the idea of family changed for you over time?
Smith: No, I think the funny thing about having children is that you almost got out of this nightmare which is your family, and then they drag you back in. That line is literal! Just as I get out, they drag me back in. That’s what it’s about. That’s what it means. You start the whole horrific process again, but this time with, often with the idea that somehow your version is gonna be so much better. That’s what so comic about it. People are so convinced that they’re not going to make these terrible mistakes. They make a whole new breed of mistakes.
The thing which I hope, you know, the thing I feel strongly, andI feel it in my fiction, and I hope I can bring it to my life is that parents have this idea, I think they have this idea that they have enormous influence and control over their children’s lives. That everything they do has some consequence in their children’s lives. But to me, at least growing up in a city, I just think parents have very little influence. It’s everybody else! It’s all your friends. It’s where you go. I just feel like parents massively overstate their importance in their children’s lives, and I hope to try and remember that as she gets older, because I really feel, looking at my brothers and me, we’re all so different, and it’s our friends who are to blame for that or to have the credit. The parents are a kind of steady, they feed you and clothe you, but your imagination in the end is fired by, by everything else. Everybody else.