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'Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays' ()

In Essays, Author Zadie Smith Reveals Her Process

Nov 11, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Author Zadie Smith admits that early literary success is not always a blessing. She was 25 when she published her first novel, the widely praised White Teeth. Since then, she has written two other novels — On Beauty and The Autograph Man — but she has also experimented with literary criticism, movie reviews and political writing.

Now, she has compiled some of that work in the collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

Throughout the essays, Smith reveals a bit about her writing process. She reveals how she writes — and the people and literary works that have influenced her.

Smith says she spends 80 percent of her efforts on the first 50 or 60 pages of a book — and the rest comes "pretty quickly." She says she does that to get the tone — the perspective — the way she wants it.

"It's the hope that you might write something different — and then often the realization that you're writing something the same," Smith tells NPR's Michele Norris. "The beginning is so painful, the end is torturous, but in the middle you're writing a lot of words per day. You feel very productive, and you get carried away."

While she gets carried away midbook, Smith admits that she doesn't write every day.

"I wish I did more than anything, and I wish I had the compulsion," she says. "But in my defense, I think that novels should feel very necessary to the people who write them. I just realized quite early on that I'm not going to be the type who can write a novel every two years. I think you need to feel an urgency about the act. Otherwise, when you read it, you feel no urgency, either. So I don't write unless I really feel I need to, and that's a luxury."

Two of Smith's essays focus on her father, who died in 2006. Smith says she wrote about her father as a way to mourn him. (Read one of the essays, "Dead Man Laughing," below)

"I wouldn't write about people who are living and who are close to me, because I think it's a very violent thing to do to another person," she says. "And anytime I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific.

"With my father, writing about him was genuinely an act of mourning. I didn't realize I'd be the person who used my writing in that way. I suppose I often think of my writing as quite impersonal. But it turned out, when my father died, writing was exactly what I wanted to do."

Smith says her father was difficult to pin down, and she wanted to make him "more solid."

"I think maybe with the rest of my family, they're much larger than life. My father was a little bit more elusive," she says. But "it's also a betrayal once you write about someone who's died: What remains is what you've written. And it begins to replace your memories the way that photographs replace real things. So I think it's a dangerous act. I don't think I'd ever write a full memoir for that reason — it seems to over-slick reality with something else."

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Book Review

Reviewer Heller McAlpin calls Zadie Smith's essays about her father the "real payoff" of Changing My Mind.

Read The Review.

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