Ali Smith

March 11th, 2004
ali smith

Photographs by Mykel Nicolaou.

The personal life. She has nothing to hide, but she believes that ‘there should be no person between the reader and the book.’

Does this make Ali Smith hopelessly unaware of how the media operates, or recklessly high-minded enough to try and do things her own way? At least I can promise her that I won’t be nodding sympathetically, and saying ‘No, no, let’s just talk about the books’, before I rush off after the cuttings file like a demented butterfly collector.

Ali Smith is not media-shy, but she won’t compromise what she is. At a
time when authors are expected to sell their books the way evangelists sell God – the tour, the TV, the newspaper column, Smith has no ambition to be known outside of her work. ‘Once your book’s finished and out in the world, it has to stand on its own. I can’t hold its hand, and anyway, I look like a
troll. I’m not going to be a media celebrity.’

She doesn’t look like a troll, but she has warned me that she always breaks the photographer’s camera. Somewhere in the interview, I leave her alone for twenty minutes to pose for The Times, and when I return, she’s holding a lens in a bit of kitchen roll, and saying gleefully – ‘Look at that – a hundred quid!’

The truth is that Ali Smith can’t be captured easily. Her ambition is to shatter the way we usually see things. She doesn’t want the obvious frame, the arranged picture. Her work is not a pose. Difficult then, to pin her down to a photo opportunity.

She tells me not to worry about the facts of her life – they are simple and there is no scandal. She was born in 1962, one of five children from a Scottish working-class family. She studied at Aberdeen, and then at Cambridge, for a PHD that was never finished. A stint of working as a lecturer at Strathclyde in 1990, convinced her that she could never cut it as an academic. ‘I’d stand up to lecture and I’d feel sick – physically sick.’ She gave up trying to teach other people’s work and started to do her own.

‘I’ve always written – poems – bad ones, play, good ones, I think, and that’s how I met my partner, Sarah Wood. She was an undergraduate at Cambridge, and I was doing my PhD, and there was so much money around that anyone could say, ‘hey, I’m writing a play’, and you could get it put on.’

I ask her why she doesn’t write for the stage now, and she says she would love to do it again, but only in the right circumstances. What would they be? ‘Art and not money’ she says. ‘I’d have to be paid but I don’t want the thing to turn into money -that’s why I’m not interested in working for film or television. It’s all about money, and I’m not.’


Photographs by Mykel Nicolaou.

She is wary too about the effect of film and television on our appetite for difficult, challenging art. ‘Some films are great, but most are too easy, and most of what we watch – and we watch things all the time – is too easy. That makes us expect simple solutions, closure, a beginning, middle and an end. It doesn’t fit us for experiment or risk.’

So she won’t be turning her Booker short-listed Hotel World into a script? ‘Never never never’ she laughs, ‘And who would want to film it anyway?

Her amusement is genuine. This woman had no expectation of Hotel World making the 2001 shortlist, and when it did, she didn’t bother to prepare a speech because she knew it wouldn’t win. ‘The gay girl from Scotland? No!’ She didn’t buy a fancy frock either – though her black punk gear has already had her turned away from a ceremony to award her £10,000 from the Scottish Arts Council, for her first novel, Free Love.

When I invite her to Glyndebourne with me this summer, the first thing she wants me to know is that she won’t wear a frock. That’s fine. We’re going anyway.

The open face and ready laugh is matched by seriousness about her work that has no affectation in it. She loves reading books, she loves writing books, but she sets high standards. ‘Do you come to art to be comforted, or do you come to art to be re-skinned?’

Re-skinning is not a popular pastime. Few of us want to be flayed from our ease. In Hotel World, Ali Smith went for the big themes, love and death, and made us confront them differently. ‘The big themes are never finished. You begin again for each generation.’ Her particular beginning again is, of course, the voice, authentically hers, and a refusal of sentimentality at a time when we are drowning in the stuff. From adverts to happy endings, we risk losing tough emotion – call it real feeling. Soap operas and reality TV, popular novels and trendy politics depend on the sentimental gene. Smith’s genius is an antidote to this. She pushes us into a situation and gives us no way out. Her work is cathartic because it is painful in the proper sense. Our feelings are engaged, measured, challenged, and released. This is what art is supposed to do, and still does, far away from phoney violence or bathos.

Her new collection of short stories The Whole Story, is an extended play on how none of us ever can know the whole story. We see by glimpses, feed on fragments, and our love-affair with narrative is a kind of self-defence. There is no narrative.

Ali Smith doesn’t experiment by refusing us our stories; she tells them vividly, beautifully, but without letting us fool ourselves that the shape made is complete. The stories in her new collection defy the rules of closure; their endings open into an unknown landscape.

I have to confess that I love Ali Smith’s work because she is so ambitious for the form.

There is little British fiction that tries to push the boundaries of prose writing. Most novels are content to tell the story in much the same way as it has always been told, and without a commitment to language. Ali Smith finds the short story form particularly seductive because it has to be so tight. There is no room for the endless slackness of ordinary prose. The form itself demands resolution, but it can be of an unconventional kind. She laments the fact the publishers are wary of short stories, and she laughs when she tells me that her publishers offered her a third more money if she would write a novel instead.

‘But if we all have the attention span of a gnat, shouldn’t short stories be big business? I ask

‘No, because they are hard’ says Smith. ‘They are closer to poetry in their demands. The easiest thing in the world is to read a blockbuster – you can skip and skim in a way that is impossible if every word counts.’

What does she think about the BBC’s Big Read? She sighs. ‘It’s good if it sells a few more books, but it’s bad because it asks us to make lists and simplify. It doesn’t matter how many times the nation votes ‘If’ as its favourite poem – what matters is that new poems are being written and read. These huge promotions aren’t about new work.’

Yet, it was the huge promotion of the Booker Prize that put Ali Smith on the map. She knows that, but the lottery feel of prizes makes her nervous. ‘Art is not a competition. It’s not about winners and losers. That’s just horrible’.
Does she think about herself as posterity material? ‘I don’t care’ she says. ‘Look, I’m living the way I want to live, doing the work I want to do, and I’m being paid for it. What could be better than that?

But has she really no ambitions for her work? ‘I want to make a book so strong that you can hit it with a hammer and it doesn’t fall apart. That’s all.’

Well, she is very ambitious then, because the present trend of volume publishing will turn out to be like the little pig’s house of straw. Most of it will soon be gone, succeeded by the next new young young new writer.

Ali Smith isn’t worried by either the noise or the silence. She is listening to her own voice, and thank God, so can we.

I booked a couple of LimoBikes to take us to lunch – the motorbike taxis that I adore. Ali is thrilled. She loves bikes. She loves food too, and when we get to Alastair Little in Soho, she raises a glass to Life.

‘I’m in love with life’ she says, and you can feel it; in the writing, in the thought, in the thing that can’t be manufactured or hyped. The real thing. That’s Ali Smith.

Ali Smith Interview appeared in The Times on April 25th 2003