8th Jun 2010
Zadie Smith at Free Word Centre
Tuesday evening. The rain was apocalyptic, I had a cracking headache and was lost on the way to the Free Word Centre. If it was any other event I would have hot-footed it back home where dinner and dry clothes awaited. But Zadie Smith, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2006 and my favourite living author, was doing a reading from her latest book Changing My Mind. No question about it, I had to be there.
I’ll try to keep fangirlish ramblings to a minimum but it must be said: I heart Smith’s writing with a stalkerish passion. There’s not an article, story or essay by her that I haven’t read (or at least attempted to read). So this was a Big Deal.
Whilst waiting for the reading to begin, I worked on trying not to pass out with giddiness with a spot of people-watching. A multiracial audience is to be expected of a writer who regularly features non-white characters in her books, but the age difference was conspicuous too. I can’t remember the last time I was in a room that held so many generations.
After apologising for the reading being so “long and unfunny” Smith began reading from extracts of her book. As much as I love the book (which we recently reviewed), it was interesting to note the audience’s reactions throughout. We went from academic chin-stroking during the Nabakov and Barthes essay to nervous giggles as Smith described typical English politeness found in Brief Encounter, something we all recognised.
The reading ended to rapturous applause and we moved on to the Q&A section of proceedings. Though it was lovely to attend such an intimate session, the answers weren’t as illuminating as a proper interview. Blame us, the star-struck audience who asked dull and predictable questions about her feelings on book covers (“I don’t really give them much thought”) and favourite contemporary authors.
Thankfully a few of us managed to ask some interesting questions – a particularly good one being Smith’s thoughts on how long it’ll be before fiction with non-white characters is considered mainstream and not merely ‘multicultural’. Smith said that the glaring omission of black people in English literature was part of her reason for writing On Beauty – “a book that I wanted to read growing up”.
I won’t bore you with details of getting my book signed and the lovely chat I had with Smith after the Q&A – truth be told I’ve only just recovered from the excitement – but I’ll certainly be making more of an effort to attend book readings in the future. Think of them as the literary equivalent of ‘Behind the Scenes’ clips you find on DVDs. They’re not at all essential to the enjoyment of the book, but if you’re slightly obsessed with an author or novel then they shouldn’t be missed.
Post by Alex Sheppard