BBCNSSA Shortlist 2014
Zadie Smith was born in north-west London in 1975 and now lives in New York. She is the author of the novels NW, White Teeth, The Autograph Man and On Beauty; a collection of essays, Changing My Mind; and a short story called 'The Embassy of Cambodia'.
She is also the editor of The Book of Other People. White Teeth was the winner of the 2000 Guardian First Book Award, the 2000 Whitbread First Novel Award, the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and a Betty Trask award, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2001. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2005 and won the Orange Prize 2006. NW was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2013.
How does it feel to have been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2014?
Really nice. I never thought of myself as a short story writer and it's only recently that I've felt more comfortable writing them. The few I've written I've worked on for a long time, and you always worry that you're spending the better part of a year on something that might not come off at all.
Can you give us a bit of background to your shortlisted story? What inspired you to write it?
New York! You can't hear those voices every day without eventually wanting to try them out yourself, on the page. And I suppose I was thinking obliquely about the complicated, intertwined history of Blacks and Jews in New York. But mostly I just wanted to get Miss Adele down. About a month after the story was published I was walking down Broadway and a six foot middle-aged Black drag queen not unlike Miss Adele shouted over: "Liked that story Miss Zadie!" That's about the best review I've ever had.
The unique element of the BBCNSSA is that your story will be read by an actor and broadcast to Radio 4 listeners. Have you thought about what your characters' voices might sound like/do you have a particular voice in your head?
I always do have a set of very particular voices in my head and I like reproducing them myself. The trouble with my stories is there are always a lot of different voices in a small space, so it's got to be somebody hammy who likes doing a lot of accents.
How does writing short stories differ from writing full-length fiction, and what do you enjoy about writing in the genre?
It's very precise. It's for some reason very tiring to write in the present moment - I mean to keep very close to the characters and not resort to back story, generalization, general chatter. But you have a chance of doing it in a short story. James Joyce does a perfect job of it in Dubliners - it's not really possible to improve on what he did there. Anyway, that's what I like about short stories - the possibility of staying in the present moment for a whole piece of work. In a novel that would take a huge amount of energy and skill.
Which short story or collection by another author have you recently discovered and would recommend?
It's not a recent discovery but George Saunders' Tenth of December is pretty astonishing. Also a little Penguin miniature by Robert Musil called Flypaper. The first story is one of the greatest things I've ever read. It'll take you about four minutes to read.
Photo courtesy of Dominique Nabokov