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26 February 2015updated 24 Feb 2021 6:49pm

“We are a selfish, idiot generation”: Ali Smith talks Scotland, politics, and why audiences want hard fiction

The award-winning author talks to Erica Wagner.

By Erica Wagner

Ali Smith, photographed at home by Felicity McCabe in February 2015 for the New Statesman.

Ali Smith’s house is tucked into a neat cul-de-sac about ten minutes’ walk from Cambridge station. It had been a couple of years since I’d last visited her, and so I’d had to ask for directions again. Better take a wrong turning once you’re in Ali’s company rather than before: she would ensure that any error became an adventure. But when I arrive at her door, a neatly written sign with my name on it, and an arrow pointing off to the left, is tucked into the frame, instructing me not to knock but rather to head to the next door but one. So I knock at No 2, instead of No 6, and there she is, the beaming, wise, sprightly presence that is Ali Smith, in a neat little house that is a mirror of the one I’ve been in before.

“Commander!” I say in greeting – she’s just been made a CBE in the New Year Honours List. “Oh, just call me Comma,” is the riposte. And that is Ali Smith all over, for in person she is as she appears in her books: modest and funny but fiercely intelligent and unfailingly able to find the right word – but not the one that you would ever find.

This is the office now, she tells me, as she makes a pot of peppermint tea. She and the artist Sarah Wood, her partner, used to rent it out; but since they started using it as a workspace she’s got two books written here in pretty quick succession: Artful, a collection of four imaginative essays that began life as lectures given at Oxford University, and How to Be Both, her latest novel – a book of two halves that may be read in any order. One half tells the story of George, a 21st-century teenaged girl wrestling with the loss of her mother; the other is narrated by Francescho, a 15th-century painter who happens to be, under his tunic and hose, female, and who is responsible for the extraordinary frescos that adorn the Palazzo Schifanoia, in Ferrara. Smith builds a sly, questioning portrait of the enigmatic Francesco del Cossa, the Italian artist who created this work. Each section is labelled “One”, and the books come with the sections printed in random order: you don’t know which you’ll get until you’ve got it, so to speak.

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Smith’s work has always been both narratively engaged and enticingly open-ended (many of her stories are told in the second person, as “you”, which leaves the gender of the voice undefined); How to Be Both takes that freedom, that desire to share the work of art with the reader, to the next level.

“The things in life which try to pin us down are the things we have to try to work against,” she says. “That’s what the novel can do, that’s what art can do. You never know what you’re going to end up with when you sit down to write something. At the end, if it holds, it can do this multifarious thing – which is to open things rather than close them, to make them bigger rather than smaller, to cross those divides which we live every day of our lives. Kafka was right: we have to break whatever is frozen inside us. That’s what books are for.”

How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (I was one of the judges who put it on that shortlist), and went on to win the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize, which rewards fiction that “opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. At the ceremony, Smith called the award, given in association with this magazine, “the thing closest to your heart if you work with the novel as a form”. But since then How to Be Both has also won the Costa Novel Award, generally seen as a much more cosy affair. It’s as good a demonstration as any of the way in which her work blends qualities of formal invention with a fireside storytelling skill. (She disputes this last quality: “If you say so. If I had kids, I think I’d be a rubbish storyteller!”)

The youngest of five children, Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. Her siblings were quite a bit older than she was; this made her practically an only child, she says. “I grew up completely alone but with all the comforts of knowing I had a cushioning family structure around me – and yet I could free myself from it.” She jokes that the firm way in which family rules were established just might have had an unanticipated effect on her sexuality. “All those rules were a bit of pain when I was 15 and wanted to go out with boys and my mum said no, because 15 was too young. My sisters, really early in the Sixties, had been too young for that – but now we were in the Seventies, and I said, ‘I want to do that,’ and she said, ‘You will not!’ So it’s all her fault!” She laughs. “There wasn’t even a language for that.”

From her first book, Free Love and Other Stories (1995), to the Booker-shortlisted novels Hotel World (2001) and The Accidental (2005), her work has found a receptive audience. But when I ask her if it might be harder, now, for a writer such as she is to get up and running, she says that for her “it was quite hard in the first place. I got quite a lot of rejections; I sneaked in, luckily for me. It might not have happened. I’d given myself three years in which I said, ‘I’m going to try to write something, and if someone will publish it I’ll carry on – otherwise I’ll stop and find another life.’ I was terribly fortunate, and have been all along.

“There’s a point at which we make our lives but we also take the path which is given to us. I have had great help. The coverage for books in this country relies upon those prizes, so that’s another reason those things are important. The coverage has been shrinking. And it often doesn’t meet readers’ adventurousness.”

But readers are adventurous; the popular and critical success of her novels shows that. Readers can feel that they are lit from within by Smith’s passion. As we discuss How to Be Both, she asks me if I’ve ever been to Ferrara to see del Cossa’s work. When I say no, she leaps up off the sofa to bring over a gorgeous picture book – which falls open, unsurprisingly, at the image that conjured her Renaissance story for her: a handsome, dark-skinned man, dressed all in white. His white clothes are rags but he is noble all the same, heroic and compelling. “Round his waist a double yarn-strand to hold him well,” Smith writes in How to Be Both, the long cord dangling between his legs amusingly suggestive. But in the past few days Smith has learned more about this haunting image. The rope at his waist is tied in a knot; and just recently she showed this same book to her fellow Cambridge resident Helen Macdonald, the author of H is for Hawk. “And she told me this is a falconer’s knot. Isn’t that amazing?” Smith gets up again to fetch a striped grosgrain ribbon hanging on the door to the kitchen. “She tied me a falconer’s knot to show me – here it is.” And, indeed, it is the very same knot. “So she says to me, ‘You can see he’s let the bird go: it’s about freedom.’”

Freedom has many meanings in Smith’s work. I ask her if I am right in thinking, however, that she kept pretty quiet last year when her native Scotland made its own bid for freedom. “I did keep quiet. I kept quiet on purpose – because I hadn’t got a vote. And partly, I was really miffed that I didn’t get a vote! But I don’t live there. I said to my sister: ‘Is this fair?’ And she said: ‘Well, you’re an expat.’ And I was like: ‘An expat!’”

She laughs, something she does often, not least when the subject is serious. “Suddenly there was a language in the air which I hadn’t heard since university, when people talked about how Muriel Spark had ‘run away’. There was this notion that she wasn’t a Scottish writer because she lived in Italy. But you cannot avoid Spark’s Scottish nature: it’s the essence of her work. The question of identity can never be cut and dried.”

How did she feel about the result? “My brother sent me a text on that morning, when the result came in, and he said, ‘I’m 54 per cent relieved and 46 per cent sad this morning.’ I felt the same. I felt it was a terrible anticlimax, but I also felt completely buoyed up by the electoral turnout. I think something happened which is the least cynical thing which has happened in politics in my lifetime: that’s the electoral turnout in Scotland. I think politicians, at the moment, are being idiots not to act on this – not to see the force of the engagement engendered when politics left personality and became about issue. Why wouldn’t they take advantage of the fact that people so clearly and passionately want to be engaged?”

She has been watching Question Time a lot over the past year, she says, as Ukip’s popularity – or at least public exposure for the party – has risen. “What I’ve seen is argument amongst the audience in a way that’s never happened before. I have a feeling that there is an engagement point for the whole of the UK about this, around what ‘United Kingdom’ means, what ‘united’ means. The audience is determined to speak: but there isn’t a forum for it. I don’t know what will come of that. But, for Scotland, that expression of a nation hasn’t gone away. It will need to be answered – but again, it’s about dialogue, not division.”

Perhaps there are some who would question, in this climate, the significance of art that doesn’t directly engage with such issues. But the overtly political or realist novel has never been Smith’s game. “Art’s the whole point,” she says simply. “It just is. It’s the place where things which are impossible to articulate become understood or articulated. It’s the place where things can be said in multiple form. We can say several things at once: which is exactly what we need to do now. We can’t simply say one thing or another. That’s the polarising factor, that’s division, and that division is happening now on a global scale. We have to be even more careful not to be polarised.”

But a title such as “Commander of the British Empire” might be seen as polarising, in an era when Britain’s imperial legacy is looked on rather less kindly than it once was. It is an odd fit for this down-to-earth woman with the radical fictional style. She confesses that when the letter first arrived she thought it was a very elaborate practical joke. She accepted it, she says, because she thought about her parents: her mother died when she was in her twenties, her father not long ago. “Both of them were incredibly intelligent. They left school at 13 and 14. My mum, in Northern Ireland, had won a scholarship at her convent school; and my dad in Newark, in Nottinghamshire, won an organ scholarship. But both had to leave school because their families couldn’t afford to let them take up these scholarships. I thought of the aftermath of that childhood: I went on . . . through uni on a grant system, which was a proper gift of education. We couldn’t have gone otherwise. My mum and dad put all five of us through tertiary education – which they didn’t have a dream of seeing for themselves in their lifetime.”

Then she frowns and her voice grows forceful. “Which is why it completely astonishes me that we are being such an idiot generation and taking this away from people. I do not understand, for the life of me, why we would do that to the generation coming up behind us, other than out of selfishness and short-sightedness and power-wielding. And a desire for class division, where we had once worked to overcome it.”

She shakes her head. “And so, I thought about them. And I thought, ‘If you want an empirical shift, that’s how you make an empirical shift.’”

That fluid move from “empire” to “empirical” is a perfect expression of Ali Smith’s engaged imagination. At some point in our talk, the subject of Mad Men comes up; we have been talking about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and she remarks that, in fact, seeing a character grow up on screen isn’t new; it’s been happening in soaps for years, and is particularly striking in the case of Sally Draper, Don’s daughter, in Matthew Weiner’s show. Our conversation makes me remark that it’s surprising to me that nothing of Smith’s has been adapted for the screen. How to Be Both would make a good box set: it wouldn’t matter at all if you mixed up the discs in the box. “I’d love to see what someone would do with these stories,” she says, “with those crossovers, that layering over each other. Imagine!” She wouldn’t be precious about her novel, either: “They could do what they liked. But one of the things they’d do is go to Schifanoia, and so we’d see those pictures all over the world.” The book of frescos is glowing on the sofa between us; and Ali Smith is glowing, too.

Ali Smith will be in conversation with Erica Wagner in London on 12 March and will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, in April:

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