Welcome to our new regular Book Club spot – The Daily. Actually, it’ll only be weekdaily, but I’m sure you’ll allow us that licence. It’s a mini-blog in which we’ll be pointing you in the direction of interesting further material to enhance your reading of each month’s book choice. (By the way, when I say we, I mean me and the Judy to my Richard – don’t get that? Go Google – Megan Dunn of Booksellers New Zealand.)
Today, a few of the quotes that didn’t quite fit into the Zadie Smith interview with which we kicked off this month’s book, NW. (As you’ll see, Smith’s not a woman to suffer foolish questions gladly. Not a woman, in short, you’d want to interview via email, where foolishness is far more exposed than on the phone – and answers can feel far more withering.)
Could you also say a little about the titles of the sections of the novel (“Visitation”, “Guest”, “Host”, “Crossing”, “Visitation” again). I feel to say something about that would be to unpack the novel and explain it, which always seems a bit of a dull thing, both for me and readers. I’ll say what’s fairly obvious: that the struggle between guests and hosts is one of the oldest debates in ethics.
What aspects of the novel were starting points for you when it came to writing it? I started with that first page. I read that quote in an interview with some American TV star: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.” I can remember thinking: what a horror! What an indictment of blah blah blah. In that very sloppy, self-righteous way we have when we’re judging other people. And then I thought again and realised: wait a minute – that’s also essentially the first principle of existential thought. So it’s funny how the same sentence can be the perfect example of a kind of post-modern narcissism and simultaneously serve as a description of a philosophy that tried to save us from narcissism and despair. So the novel started to spin around those two poles.
Were there people in your past or present you drew on for the characters of Leah, Keisha and Felix? The only person who is drawn pretty directly from life is Phil Barnes; everybody else is just an accumulation of all the things I’ve seen and heard and said and experienced, as always.
Is there anything of yourself in Leah and Keisha? If so, what? I’m sure there is. I work hard, like Keisha – too hard sometimes. And I’m fundamentally ambivalent a lot of the time, like Leah.
Keisha’s name change to Natalie is a significant step – could you say a little about that, please? I’m in novelist rehab. I’m really trying to judge my characters a little less than I used to. So I didn’t say anything about the name change in the book and I’m not going to say anything about it now. It’s just a (fictional) fact of her life, and it’s for readers to unpick whatever significance they see in it. My one hope for this novel was that it would work like a little mechanism that you enter and you have to decide for yourself which exit to choose.
Finally, I love your epigraph from John Ball: “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” What does that mean to you and what inspired you to use it here? The peasant’s rebellion of 1381 was a radical economic rising of an underclass. That seemed pretty pertinent to recent events!
And that is today’s The Daily. See you back here tomorrow – and daily thereafter.