Ali Smith Q&A: “Heroism is a daily and communal matter”

The author talks Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal, and incompetent governance. 

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Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. As a teenager, her jobs included waitressing and lettuce-cleaning. She is the author of five short story collections and ten novels.

What’s your earliest memory?

Morning light coming through the curtains of my parents’ bedroom window. I’ll have been in the cot, still, over in the corner, so this must be a very early memory.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, I thought Charlotte, the spider in EB White’s Charlotte’s Web who learns human language and writes in her web to avert the slaughter of her friend the pig, was terrific, radiant and humble. Now, if the Covid era is teaching us anything, it’s that heroism is a daily and communal matter. In an incendiary and isolated time, here’s to the people defying isolation, the good force of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Italian movimento delle sardine, and everyone similarly protesting racism, exclusion and political toxicity.

What book last changed your thinking?

I’m thankful for the truth and the hope, both, in Arundhati Roy’s essays, in Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal and Philippe Sands’s The Ratline. Also, Led By Donkeys’ visuals and language

Which political figure do you look up to?

Jacinda Ardern. Nicola Sturgeon.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Butterflies.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to have seen something of the Renaissance. I’d have liked to have worked in the early days of silent film. But really I’d just quite like to start my own life over again, from scratch, in 1962, to see my family at all our ages one more time.

What TV show could you not live without?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Who would paint your portrait?

Elizabeth Peyton and Julie Mehretu.

What’s your theme tune?

“Daphné” played by the Quintet of the Hot Club of France.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Twenty years ago a great Canadian writer friend loaned me one of her own friends for a morning. Her friend was a coach and physio for Canadian Olympic sportspeople, and she taught me how to stretch all my muscles and told me always to do it “while your coffee’s brewing on the stove first thing in the morning”. Which I do. Every day. I’m grateful to them both.

What’s currently bugging you?

Incompetent, shambolic, bad and cynical governance.

What single thing would make your life better?

A more serious meditation habit.

When were you happiest?

Sitting on the sloping roof of a small hotel in Chania in Crete, if I can get there, on early summer evenings, the smell of supper rising from the harbour and the swifts diving expertly all round me.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A sociable anchorite/ornithologist/cat whisperer/busker/master soup maker/refuse collector.

Are we all doomed?

No. But a great number of us are, unless we sort better governance fast, and work with nature right now to halt climate damage and try to repair what we’ve done. 

“Summer” by Ali Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton on 6 August. Ali Smith will read from “Summer” and be joined in conversation with Alex Clark for a Cambridge Literary Festival virtual event on 13 August. Tickets are available here.

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special

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