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An interview with Scottish author Ali Smith

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The Poetry RoundCulturecafebabel Scotland

Reading a short story or a novel by Ali Smith can seem like chatting to the best kind of polymath friend. You leave with a mental list of books you can’t wait to read (essays by Italo Calvino, or Muriel Spark’s Momento Mori), music to play in the car (from Gershwin to Beethoven) and curious facts you can’t quite believe. (Is that really how the music for The Wizard of Oz was composed?)

Walk­ing into the two-time booker nom­i­nee’s house is some­thing like walk­ing into one of those sto­ries. A guide to iden­ti­fy­ing but­ter­flies lies open on the table where we sit, along from a cou­ple of small, uniden­ti­fi­able sculp­tures. I bite back the itch to pe­ruse the stacks of films lin­ing the walls. And then there is the pas­sion and cu­rios­ity of Ali her­self, who is above all gen­er­ous and gen­uine in her en­thu­si­asm for other writ­ers.

'The "I" is now a question'

When the con­ver­sa­tion moves onto short story writer Kather­ine Mans­field, she ex­claims, ‘Now there was a writer who could float on the sur­face on one level while doing fif­teen things below that sur­face, hold­ing them all below the sur­face. As you read a Mans­field, some­thing three di­men­sional hap­pens. You are made to ques­tion sur­face, and you are also made to un­der­stand the ways in which things are said, and the ways in which things which can’t be said are being said at the same time. In a Mans­field story the reper­cus­sions and the res­o­nance are al­most ex­plo­sive.’ Later, when I rue­fully admit to hav­ing failed to fin­ish Lewis Gras­sic Grib­bon’s clas­sic tril­ogy A Scots Quair, she ef­fuses, ‘Sun­set Song is all about being se­duced, about being ado­les­cently, richly, ele­gia­cally se­duced, sex­u­ally and force­fully held.’

This pas­sion for lit­er­a­ture comes to the fore in her 2012 book Art­ful, a heady dose of fic­tion and essay orig­i­nally writ­ten ‘on the hoof’, as she puts it, for a set of lec­tures on Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at Saint Anne’s Col­lege, Ox­ford. The nar­ra­tive which starts as a love story—or is it a ghost story?—dips in and out of glee­ful, ex­u­ber­ant notes for lec­tures on lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy by way of Greek mu­si­cals. ‘If you stand in front of an au­di­ence and you speak and it’s a lec­ture, it’s as if you have some kind of au­thor­ity,’ ex­plains Ali, who ad­mits to being wary of as­sum­ing such au­thor­ity. ‘Com­ing in on a tan­gent with fic­tion al­lows you not to be there at the same time as being there. The “I”, as it were, is now a ques­tion. First of all, it’s ques­tion­able be­cause it’s fic­tion in a lec­ture and that was a very ex­cit­ing kind of dis­rup­tion.’ She chuck­les. ‘It re­ally sur­prised the first au­di­ence, they re­ally didn’t ex­pect that they were going to be told a story. When I went back with the sec­ond lec­ture I knew that I was going to be able to allow my­self any­thing I liked, be­cause the au­di­ence had gone, “Oh, okay then.” The au­di­ence had shifted in its own pa­ra­me­ter.

'I didn't have to be me; I could be anything'

‘It was an on­go­ing progress and process, know­ing the au­di­ence was going to be dif­fer­ent each time. Some­thing of that fed back into the thing I was writ­ing so fast. There was a great deal of,’ she pauses to take a breath, ‘lib­er­a­tion in it—I was al­lowed to be licit be­cause of it. There was a re­la­tion­ship be­tween me and the au­di­ence which meant that any­thing was pos­si­ble. I didn’t have to be me, I could be any­thing. They didn’t have to be them, they could come in and be any­thing as well. It opened the space up.’

This sense of en­counter, of open­ing up a lib­er­at­ing space, re­curs in Smith’s fic­tion; un­ex­pected (and fre­quently un­wanted) vis­i­tors are a re­peated, al­beit al­ways var­ied motif. ‘It’s not con­scious,’ re­marks Ali, ‘but I think it’s part of the place where writ­ing goes,’ she breaks off and glances at her half-empty cof­fee cup, ‘or comes from. Re­ally it’s an in­her­i­tance to have been born in a Scot­land which was on the mar­gins of things. On the mar­gins of a larger coun­try and to some ex­tent on the mar­gins of its own his­tory.’

'The most exciting cocktail of a place is the liminal'

She con­tin­ues more slowly. ‘The way that voice works most press­ingly, most en­gag­ingly, most con­nec­tively and most in­ter­est­ingly is from the edge. In Art­ful there was a whole chap­ter on ‘the edge’ and when I was writ­ing that very fast lec­ture, I re­alised that the most cre­ative, most ex­cit­ing cock­tail of a place is the lim­i­nal, where all of the things which are not sup­posed to meet can meet. It’s not the same as a bor­der. It’s ac­tu­ally a cross­ing-over place, which is cer­e­mo­ni­ously, rit­u­ally in­ter­est­ing to us as a species, where all sorts of un­sayables are said and can be said. So it’s some­thing about the force in art to go the place which holds every­thing from mad­ness to in­tense san­ity and can con­nect,’ she pauses to find the right words, ‘all the op­po­sites in us, op­po­si­tions in us which we work on all the time. The out­side force, the thing that comes in and dis­rupts—it’s just art. How could I not write about it?’

Per­haps it is this sense of the lim­i­nal which leads to a very open at­ti­tude to lit­er­a­ture from the writer, a re­fusal to pre- or pro­scribe. Does she be­lieve there’s any one thing lit­er­a­ture should do? ‘Every­thing,’ she states sim­ply. ‘Writ­ing should.’

She pours me an­other cup of cof­fee and gives a half smile. ‘Will that do?’

We fin­ish our cof­fee and talk about the roots of words, won­der­ing when the mean­ings of ‘penalty’ and ‘penance’ parted ways. I leave want­ing to learn Latin, to iden­tify but­ter­flies and to fi­nally re­turn to Lewis Gras­sic Gib­bon.