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Providing a piece of her young life

Zadie Smith, who burst onto the literary scene five years ago, proves she's no one-hit wonder with 'On Beauty.'

November 25, 2005|Jennifer Frey | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Zadie Smith is tucked somewhere back in the corner, in the children's book section, behind a microphone that is lost in the sea of people who have flooded this Olssons store for a Wednesday night reading. The crowd is multicultural, young and old, in business dress and student slob. Bodies fill the aisles, blocking access to literature, fiction, health, sports.

The lines twist through the store, running so deep that those in the back can make out only phrases here and there as Smith stands behind the microphone -- somewhere back there, they assume, because they can't actually see her -- reading an excerpt from her new comic novel, "On Beauty."

She is a literary rock star, Zadie Smith, all of 30 years old and spoken about in the same breath as fellow Brits Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Martin Amos ("a postmodern Charles Dickens," the Washington Post declared her). She is used to the comparisons by now -- after all, they started five years ago, upon the publication of her critically acclaimed first novel, "White Teeth" -- though she finds them somewhat surreal. Surreal, like the fact that Rushdie and McEwan, authors whose books she devoured as a student, are actually her "contemporaries," men she sits next to at literary events, where they exchange chitchat about their work.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Martin Amis -- An article in Friday's Calendar section about author Zadie Smith misspelled the last name of British writer Martin Amis as Amos.

"Well, it's not like it's me and Ian and Salman having tea every Tuesday," Smith says, laughing, over mineral water at the Topaz Hotel a few hours before her book-signing.

"I see them at festivals, but we don't hang or anything." Smith is, after all, a working-class girl from the multiethnic north London neighborhood of Willesden Green. She grew up in a tenement flat, the daughter of a white father and a Jamaican mother. She had to beg her way into Cambridge. She is a master of self-deprecation.

"What experiences did you draw upon to develop your characters?" a serious-looking middle-aged man asks at her reading.

Smith laughs.

"Oh, I haven't been anywhere!" she says, and the audience chuckles with her. "That's the beauty of writing fiction. I get to make it up!" Her world, she explains, is that of the books that populated her childhood and continue to be the greatest pleasure of her adult life. Vacations, travel? Her family's idea of a "trip" was a jaunt to Cornwall. "I've never been to Africa or India or anything like that," she says.

Her biggest journey, thus far, was her first American book tour, for "White Teeth" -- one that was a kaleidoscope of bad room service, cookie-cutter bookstores and too much self-criticism for her publicist's taste.

"The first time out of the gate, she was a very young woman who had not really had an exposure to the public, or to reading [in public], or anything," says Ann Godoff, Smith's American editor at Penguin Press. "People were saying, 'Here's the next new thing.' She had spent a long time writing a book, sitting quietly in a room doing that, and this piece of it -- the public face of authordom -- was completely new and alien."

Back for her second American book tour, Smith is more relaxed, playful. She recently celebrated her one-year wedding anniversary with poet husband Nick Laird, who has accompanied her on this book tour, making, as she puts it, "all the difference." "He's off looking at the White House now," she says, and there's a wee bit of jealousy there.

But she has an interview to do. "My mother says I'm the worst interview in the world!" she moans at one point, dropping her head into her hands. Her hair is up in a head wrap, giving more prominence to her gorgeous cheekbones and wide eyes. She is talking about reading. Or, more to the point, not reading -- at least at the moment. So far on this trip, she's managed all of two pages of Us Weekly, discovered in the seatback pocket of the car that retrieved her from the airport.

"I have absolutely no idea what it was about," she says of the magazine. "Obviously, I know movie stars. But a lot of it is about localized American celebrity. It's quite mysterious. It's like reading a novel or something." She did bring tons of novels with her on the trip -- and has been collecting more as she goes along -- but, to her chagrin, there has been little time for that. She pines for them, though. Reading, she says, "is what fills me with stuff."

"That's the one thing that was absolutely true: I was able to read since I was very young," she says. "That's really my only distinguishing characteristic. I can't add. I don't understand basic science. Or anything else. But I can read anything. I've always been able to, and I've always liked to. Even if I didn't understand it, I liked to."

By begging, she says, she got into Cambridge despite all her mathematic and other shortcomings, and there she embraced literary theory and devoured every book she could.

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