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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ali Smith: ‘Hope is a tightrope across a ravine’ | Ali Smith

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Ali Smith, 58, is one of our most mind-stretching, energetic and playful novelists, and her seasonal quartet of novels, which she has described as a “time-sensitive experiment”, is a literary, historical take on our troubled age. Autumn (2016), written pre-Brexit and shortlisted for the Booker, was followed by Winter (2017), then Spring (2019) and Summer (2020) – out now in paperback.

How did you feel as you completed Summer and your phenomenal, four-season marathon?
I felt the usual failure (it always feels like a failure at the end of a book). Knackered. Curious as to whether the book would hold water, and as for the series: no idea. Hope, despair. All these feelings passed in the 30 seconds it takes to toast something that’s done with a single measure of single malt, then I emerged from my room into the very real, visceral confluence of hope and despair happening to us all in life in Covid lockdown.

Did writing to the calendar surprise you?
All four books surprised me – from their unexpected characters to their osmosis structure, in which I had to have a blind faith. They never did what I’d imagined they’d do. They formed their own connections, unearthed their own structures. But I’ve always felt that a book’s already written, whatever it is we’re writing. Our job is to unearth it without breaking it or doing damage in the digging. And meanwhile, they earthed – and unearthed – me through a time when our time shook, from Brexit to Trump to Covid.

Summer has been dubbed “the first coronavirus novel”, but in style you’re the least locked-down of novelists… Was Covid problematic to include?
It surfaced in January as I began the book, so I was writing about it concurrently as its impact grew. The book was also concerned with other lockdowns: internment of “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man in the 1940s, and internment of refugees here and now in the UK (which opened up, ironically, and temporarily, because of Covid urgency).

How has your lockdown been? What are your strategies for getting through?
I’m very lucky. I live with my partner, Sarah Wood [artist and film-maker], in a small street in Cambridge and we have a garden, and our neighbours are all good pals. These things helped immensely. Winter was toughest. In the long middle of the night what really helped was Airs, an album of ancient Scottish tunes made new by composer Mhairi Hall… meditative, consoling. For the mornings: Boccaccio’s The Decameron; I’ve never laughed out loud as much as at these stories, written in the 1300s and set in a parallel plague lockdown in 1348. And for winter evenings, box sets: Spiral, Call My Agent!, It’s a Sin.

Critics salute your optimism. But doesn’t hope sometimes feel self-indulgent or unsafe?
When I say “I can’t be a pessimist”, I think of James Baldwin’s “I can’t be a pessimist, because I’m alive”. Optimism and hope aren’t the same: optimism’s a state we can consciously bring about; hope… there’s nothing bunny rabbit or self-indulgent or sparkly about it, because its obverse is despair. Hope is a tightrope across a ravine between a here and a there, and that tightrope’s as sharp as a knife blade.

Your 16-year-old character, Sacha, says: “We will treasure our freedoms and we will fight for them.” Do you see hope in young people?
That’s a direct quote from a card from a 16-year-old friend (she gave me permission to use it). I’d asked what it felt like for her in lockdown. I’ve great optimism about her generation, their climate wisdom, an energy that won’t be fleeced or diverted by the selfishness of the generations ahead of them.

How likely is it that Boris Johnson – whose strategic dishevelment you assess brilliantly – will get re-elected?
There’s great entertainment value – and divisive rhetorical persuasion – in the antics of a union-jack-the-lad. But people aren’t that gullible. The abysmal death statistics we’ve endured, and the way the government has treated our key workers in and beyond the NHS, are evidence enough to sober even a Dickensian judge, and these terrible circumstances are the visible tip of what’s happening now in the UK, where we’re in new Dickensian times, from foodbanks glorious foodbanks to consider yourself… well in.

What does it mean to seize the moment creatively – would Summer be a different novel were you writing it now?
Yes and no. Thank God for Biden and Harris, for scientists, for vaccines. But novels are always about what Virginia Woolf called life, death, et cetera, and most likely it’d still be about these, and what a single summer means in time, whatever that time’s contemporary pressures are, with all the other possible summers past and future circling it like rings in a tree trunk.

You grew up in Inverness, in a working-class family – and I’ve read that you imagined growing up you’d become a refuse collector… Would you have been any good at it?
Yes. I love thrown-away things. And no. I’d have got the sack for scavenging. So I’d have been a good scaffie in more ways than one – scaffie, the Scottish word for refuse collector.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
I read everything in the house – including what my older siblings had in their school-book cupboard. When I read Joyce’s Dubliners at university for what I thought was the first time, I recognised a book I’d read when I was eight.

What book might people be surprised to see on your shelf?
Basic Tap Dancing by Diana Washbourne.

Who is your favourite literary heroine?
Fleur, in Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent. “Everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.” And Defoe’s excellent thief, Moll Flanders, for whom nothing was lost and wonders never ceased.

And your favourite season?
In Inverness, a summer day could be spring-like, autumnal and wintry in a single day. Then there were the rich blue-yellow days, Highland summer days, like nowhere else. So, summer – in all its seasons.

Summer by Ali Smith is published in paperback by Penguin (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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