EW checks in with literary star (and student) Zadie Smith. The author of the smash debut ''White Teeth'' is back with ''The Autograph Man'' -- in between classes at Radcliffe

By Troy Patterson
October 11, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
Zadie Smith Photograph by Nick Ruechel

The Autograph Man

EW Have you always disliked having your picture taken?

SMITH Do YOU like having your picture taken?

Zadie Smith, trapped in traffic, is petulant. She is en route to a photo shoot. The minivan creeps from her Cambridge, Mass., hotel to a South Boston bar, and she squirms in the backseat, wondering at these American roadways, chucking a stray ketchup packet onto I-93. At her worst, her low Londoner’s voice approaches a whine.

She gets to the joint and dithers — small-talking anxiously, sizing up Madonna on the cover of a magazine. She stands before the camera. The lounge plays Bobby Darin and she sings along between blasts of the flash. She coos ”Mack the Knife” quite sweetly.

The photographer tells her he hasn’t yet read her second novel: ”I’m still two-thirds of the way through ‘White Teeth.”’

Smith says, ”Quit while you’re ahead.”

The photographer asks her to sign a copy of her follow-up, ”The Autograph Man,” and she obliges, inscribing ”HOPE YOU CAN FIND SOME WAY 2 ENJOY THIS!”

She’s been eyeing her interviewer’s bag with suspicion. ”I’m quite interested in what you’ve got in this pouch.” So she picks through it. ”Oh, there are reviews of it already?… Oh, he doesn’t like it. That’s too bad. My dad doesn’t like it. Oh, well.”

Smith heads to the back of the bar. Seated with her back to a wall lined with four large iterations of Frank Sinatra’s face, she drinks her Jack-and-ginger very fast.

EW You once said, ”You turn writers into celebrities, you’re killing them.”

SMITH Yeah. Of course. I’m dead already. This is my corpse you’re talking to.

When, on Sept. 6, the AP reported Smith was leaving England for a year at Harvard, every paper from the Reno Gazette-Journal to the Kuwait Times picked up the news: ”The 26-year-old writer, who became an international best-selling author with her first novel, will attend the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.” With the 2000 publication of ”White Teeth,” Smith became, by critical consensus and calendrical fudging, the first best voice of the 21st century. What’s more, she had high cheekbones and a good back story: Girl from North London has a white British adman for a dad and a black Jamaican therapist for a mum. Girl goes to Cambridge University and publishes an eye-catching story in a lit mag. Girl signs a two-book deal.

The first book was a big burlesque concerned with roots, Islam, and the remains of the British Empire; ”The Autograph Man” is a comedy of media-age manners about the empire of signs, our symbolic systems of celebrity and cliché. Its hero, Alex-Li Tandem, is a half-Chinese, half-Jewish autograph dealer in search of a ’40s movie actress and, through the mystic branch of Judaism called kabbalah, God. Reviews so far suggest that the book is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition.

Smith, sitting in the Beantown bar, says imagining ”The Autograph Man” involved a year of rewriting and rewriting a rabbi joke. ”Then I saw a quote from Matthew Broderick, that great sage.” Broderick had told the British newspaper The Guardian something Marlon Brando told him about fame: ”I haven’t had an honest moment with a person in 41 years.” Smith stares into her drink and says, ”That’s where the book came from. It’s a stupid f—ing reason, but I thought it was the most chilling thing I’d ever heard…. I wanted to write about [celebrity] seriously. As a malevolent force.”

She knows the force firsthand. Last year, for instance, the U.K. edition of Esquire deemed her its 13th most eligible woman — below Kate Moss but well above Kylie Minogue. (Yes, she now has a boyfriend; no, it’s none of your business.) Her friend Arthur Bradford, the short-story writer, says, ”she feels like there’s too much emphasis placed on her looks.” Random House, Smith’s American publisher, denied her request to omit her photo from the flap of her new book in favor of a sketch. (”It’s those little things,” Bradford says. ”Then if you complain about it you seem like a prima donna.”) Last month, Fleet Street sent paparazzi to her doorstep and ran innuendo about her ”appetites,” prompting other papers to denounce the ”shameful sexist saga.” Smith refers to these events as ”a total meltdown.” Snickering, she says, ”I’m trying to do something vaguely literary, and I get written about as if I were a TV star. England’s changed.”

The cabbie driving her back to Cambridge is a hammy old hippie with long white hair. He asks where she’s from; she tells him. The driver references a line of Samuel Johnson’s, ”When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Smith volleys: ”I guess I’m tired of life, then.”

The Autograph Man

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