Ali Smith in conversation

Ali Smith in conversation

Event: Ali Smith in conversation

Venue: The London Review Bookshop 

Report by Sam Pryce

Ali Smith is a true original, a consistently unique writer with an output unparalleled in contemporary British fiction. She won the Bailey’s Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel of the Year Award for her 2015 novel How to be both, was awarded a CBE in 2015, and has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize (but somehow has never been crowned the winner). Her latest book, Autumn, takes place in post-Brexit Britain and is the first of her ‘Seasonal Quartet’ now in progress, in which each part will be named after one of the four seasons. In this talk at the London Review Bookshop, she spoke to Guardian critic Alex Clark about the work’s main themes and its inspirations – the nature of time, the shock of Brexit and the vivacious pop art of Pauline Boty.

‘I always get so nervous for these things,’ whispered Ali to a friend as she entered, seeing a sizeable crowd before her. However, those initial nerves seemed to quickly disintegrate once the interview was underway. If you have ever heard Ali Smith talk, you’ll know that she speaks much in the manner that she writes – with passion, warmth, scintillating intelligence and humour. The idea to write a seasonal quartet had long been in Smith’s mind as something to embark upon once she had become a successful writer. It’s a format that would allow her to explore ‘the relationship time has to us’ and the tension between the linear and the non-linear life. ‘We act like trees,’ she said. ‘We spatially become ourselves; we remember all the seasons on that linear path. But it’s not what it feels like to live.’

Timelessness

This non-linearity and distorted sense of time becomes apparent in the opening of her new novel Autumn, which begins with ‘an old old man’ called Daniel Gluck washing up on the shore, seeing himself as a younger man and unsure as to whether he is alive, dead or dreaming. We are plunged into a state of timelessness, of not knowing when or where we are. It is this sense of ‘exploded time and the non-linearity of living’ that Smith wanted to capture in this project.

The shocking result of Brexit had a significant effect on Autumn as it happened right in the middle of its composition. ‘The vote was something I didn’t expect. It’s changed things in ways none of us could have foreseen.’ When asked how far she had got by that point, Smith replied, ‘A book is more cunning and alive than that. It changed utterly but then lots of things stayed that I’d already written.’ A powerfully written passage in the book, with each rolling sentence beginning ‘all across the country’, shows us the extent of change that arose from the Leave vote, the divisions it caused:

‘All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.’

Influences

A prominent influence on Ali Smith’s writing was the pop art of Pauline Boty. Boty was the UK’s only female pop artist and a founder of the movement, but tragically her life was cut short at the age of 28 and was largely forgotten for 30 years, until her legacy resurfaced in the 1990s. ‘She stands for a point where divisions came down. She helped the ‘60s change. She made the space, she made the art of herself.’ Boty’s works are a blend of painting and collage and these artistic methods were applied by Smith to her writing style. ‘With collage, you have all the power of juxtaposition and changing perspective. Coexistence is exciting.’

It’s not the first time that Smith has been inspired to write by the form of an artwork. How to be both, with its two-part structure that came in a different order depending on the copy you bought, came after she saw a Fresco painting in a magazine. The jacket of Autumn boasts two artworks – on the front blazes an autumnal landscape painted by David Hockney and in the back endpaper, much to Ali’s delight, glows a work by Pauline Boty. ‘There’s such vitality in the work… I want this spirit and brightness up against the dark,’ said Smith, of Boty. It is this boundless enthusiasm and innovative approaches to art (both in creating it and thinking about it) that makes Ali Smith as compelling to listen to as she is to read.

Report by Sam Pryce

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