Zadie Smith studied English at King's CollegeAlexandra Cameron with permission for Varsity

Zadie Smith, an alumna of King’s College Cambridge, skyrocketed to fame after the release of her first novel, White Teeth. Now a household name, the book became a staple in the world of writing, navigating cultural identity and the politics of a multi-ethnic England. Smith has recently released The Fraud, a novel that delves into history and moves away from the clear-cut fiction writing that she has done before, exploring new genres.

Was becoming an author a lifelong dream, or a job you realised you wanted later in life?

I wanted to be involved with books if I couldn’t be a singer or dancer. That was my childhood conception.

At what moment during your career did you pause and look around, realising that you’d ‘made it’?

I try not to think like that. It really doesn’t help me when I’m at my desk. I don’t think there is any final version of ‘making it’ in writing. It always feels like an unfinished and unfinishable task.

What’s your creative process like? Do you feel that it is consistent, or do you have periods where you need to take a break and then come back to your writing?

I just don’t recognise the term. I don’t think it exists for me. The way I write essays and novels is the same. It’s the same way I did my degree or my school work. I have a task in front of me and I go to my desk and I complete it. The tasks are different now because I set them myself. That I guess is the ‘creative’ part. I set myself, for example, the task of writing about the British attitude to its slave colonies in The Fraud. To me, that’s a problem I’ve set myself that I then need to ‘solve’. Creativity seems a strange word for that.

When you write, do you do so with the intention of people analysing and dissecting your words, or do you write as it comes? As English students, we’re often so quick to pull apart an author’s words with the aim of finding some hidden deeper meaning. Do you feel you write with this awareness, or that you shape your prose to reflect this?

“The meaning of all my work is the style it is written in”

I think it’s better to think of style as meaning rather than this strange belief that the book has a secret you have to uncover. Susan Sontag speaks well about the fallacy of thinner and thicker ‘styles’, ie more or less hidden meanings. Style doesn’t have degrees in that way. The meaning of all my work is the style it is written in. It’s like a software program that goes through the CPU of your brain in a certain fashion. Or think of architecture. Some houses are designed in one way and encourage you to live in one way inside them. Other houses make you live in another way. Really amazingly designed houses suggest multiple modes at once. It’s a bit like that. It’s not about a piece of paper hidden under the floorboards with the ultimate truth written on it, if you see what I mean.

How did you first set about on your goal of writing? What were your first steps post-uni?

I don’t know. It’s not that interesting. I thought I’d like to write so I sent a CV to every magazine in England pretty much and heard nothing back. So then I flipped to: I’ll tutor kids so I can pay my rent, and while I do that I’ll start a novel. Then I got tremendously lucky because somebody wanted that novel. I find it difficult to talk about because I know it’s an unlikely thing. It just happened. And then I spent the next 25 years trying to prove worthy of that lucky break.

Did any of your experiences here affect your writing later? What was your biggest inspiration for your writing? Did you find yourself writing much during your time here?

I wrote a few stories in Cambridge, just for The Mays. I wouldn’t be a writer without King’s, but that is because it is at King’s that I studied 500 years’ worth of literature and that is what made me a writer.

Where would you say most of your creative energy comes from? Was it something that you suddenly discovered had been within you all your life, something you had to nurture and foster, or something that you were always aware of?

“I spent the next 25 years trying to prove worthy of that lucky break”

Again I have a problem with ‘creative energy’. But the desire to make things out of words is for some reason fundamental to me and both my brothers who are both hyphenated musicians/actors/writers. For various reasons, as small children we lived in a world of self-generated fantasy, in which stories from books, television and music played a large role, for much longer than perhaps they do in happier households. A kind of collective escapism I would call it, and we never grew out of it.

Where do you see yourself going in the next few years? Do you think you want to keep adapting your style and exploring new genres (like with your recent releases), or do you perhaps have a secret dream you’d like to explore?

I don’t think I’ll ever stop. Sometimes I wish I could or would. I am writing a film and two TV series, and a novel and book of essays and a kid’s book. If anything, I’m speeding up. I’m not sure why. Probably because I can see old age and death coming down the pipe.

What do you think you might’ve done for your career, had you decided not to follow this path? Did you have any other dreams or ideas for your post-graduation plan, or were you equally as lost as most of us English students are?

I think I was pretty clear. English teacher, journalist or academic. That was it. It’s presumptuous of me to say I would have been fairly happy doing any of them because at this point it’s a useless counter-factual, but I do think if books and reading were a daily part of my life, I would always have some measure of contentment.

Where in Cambridge did you spend most of your last-minute study sessions, or post-lecture frenzies?

In the library. Sometimes pulling all-nighters while taking those caffeinated pills they’d just started selling in sweet shops in the 90s. Terrible. I sat in a little corner that had a lot of Forster books in it facing a window, near Macaulay’s multi-volume history of England. But to say I was often in the library would be an exaggeration. My main college spot was the second booth of the bar, every night more or less for three years. I barely left the College except to go to London.

During your time at university, what was the best night out that you had?


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There were many to be honest. Most of what I did at King’s was party, until the last year when I got a bit more serious. We had a club night down at the King’s Cellars every Friday, which was a sweatbox, but amazing for dancing. I went every single Friday. Got trashed every time. But I was also going down to Hoxton some weekends to take pills and go to the Blue Note. You’d see Goldie and Björk there, and Asian Dub Foundation, and sometimes Alex from Blur coming into the ladies’ toilets to be mobbed and all that … It was pure Nathan Barley eye-rolling 90s business I suppose, but it was all new to me and sort of thrilling. I was a born and bred Londoner but had never stepped foot in east London until that moment. I think probably the best night though was when some friends of mine managed to get on the May Ball committee – usually in the control of the sort of people who liked Oasis – and used the money to hire one of the jungle DJs of the moment whose name I have now unfortunately forgotten. It was a surreal vision: a jungle rave in the middle of the quad. Completely ridiculous but I still remember it fondly. I think I put some version of it in a short story: Sentimental Education.