"It is bizarre," she freely admits, drinking beer in the kitchen of a friend's house in the Barbican. "I was in the middle of my exams at King's when I got a letter from a man who had read a short story published while I was at college. I was playing around with this idea for a book, so I quickly wrote two chapters and sent it to him. He wanted to publish it, but he didn't, because then an agent became involved and an auction started and somebody else got it. Which was a bit horrific. It was awful."
Awful? Can we really be hearing a first-time novelist regretting a lucrative bidding war between publishers? "I just felt extremely guilty. I was teaching, and trying to get the rent in, and I found it all a bit ridiculous."
So what has Zadie got that everybody wants? A glance through the winsome manuscript reveals the beginnings of a decent story, about two men - one from Bangladesh and one from England - living in London during the 1970s. It is (or will be) an ambitious book, set in several decades and continents, but the opening takes place in Willesden, where Zadie grew up before going on to Cambridge and a First in English. The writing is a little breathless and overdone - "a gang of the local flying vermin swooped jet straight on the muggy air, scuddering Archie's windscreen" - but the story is lively enough. Whether it's worth all that money is a matter for debate, and for the editor allegedly prepared to pay it, Simon Prosser. He insists he signed her "purely on the strength of the writing", and because so many people in his office read and loved the sample chapters.
The truth is that in the present climate Zadie Smith is extremely marketable. She is young, intelligent, attractive and half-Jamaican. Black is definitely beautiful to editors right now, according to Nicholas Clee, deputy editor of the Bookseller. "Over the last four or five years, publishing houses have woken up to the potential of black writers, and to the fact that there is a large audience for books among black readers. It was bound to happen sooner or later - and I have to say that now is late rather than soon."
There are several reasons for this change in attitude, says Clee. One is the success of the Saga Prize, set up in 1995 by the American author Marsha Hunt (who now lives in Dublin) to unearth new black British talent. To win you must have been born in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland and have a black African ancestor, plus an unpublished manuscript in the drawer. This year's winner was Judith Bryan Edwards, whose novel Bernard and the Cloth Monkey will be published by Flamingo next year. However, the prize will be discontinued after 1998 says Sandra Vince, who administrates it. "By the end of next year there will be four new writers who have been established. Mainstream publishing companies are taking notice of talented people who are young, British and black. The prize has done its job, and Marsha is looking around for new ways of encouraging talent."
The winner in 1996 was Joanna Traynor with Sister Josephine (Bloomsbury), and in 1995 it was Diran Adebayo, who is now writing a screenplay of his winning novel Some Kind of Black for the BBC. Diran is the brother of Dotun Adebayo, co-founder of the XPress, whose success in publishing pulp fiction by black writers made the major companies take notice, according to Clee. Victor Headley's novel Yardie sold more than 35,000 copies before it was signed up by Pan Macmillan, and other titles, including Cop Killer and Moss Side Massive have also been successful.
Diran did not offer his novel to XPress. His approach is a more literary one, and he refuses to be constrained by popular expectations of what a black man should write about. It is an attitude shared by Zadie Smith (whose editor says she could have been from any one of the ethnic backgrounds mentioned in her book, for all he knew) and a number of other emerging writers. They include Mike Gayle, a freelance journalist whose debut novel My Legendary Girlfriend will be published by Hodder next year. Last month Gayle, who has worked as an agony uncle for the teen magazine Bliss, signed a two-book deal for "a significant six-figure sum". "What is interesting is that here we have a 26-year-old who doesn't feel his race or colour is the most important thing he has to write about," says the agent who landed the deal, Jane Bradish-Ellames of Curtis Brown. "We pointed out that the race of his characters is never specified, and he said, `So what?'"
Such big-money signings should not necessarily be seen as an indication that the battle for black equality in publishing is over, warns Nicholas Clee. There are still no black senior commissioning editors in mainstream companies, and no big-name agents. He is also surprised by the decision to stop the Saga Prize. "I would have thought there would be a rationale for carrying it on. Against a background of 100,000 books published in Britain every year, I don't think two or three deals constitute a trend. Publishers are looking for young, promotable, talented authors, whatever their background. It may be that young black and Asian writers are easy to promote at the moment."
As for Zadie Smith, she has decided to move to Cambridge to escape the seductions of the literary circus. "I have to get back to the idea that this is just something you're writing in your room, and not a big thing that people's hopes and reputations are riding on. That's really not my business. When the auction first started I was taken to various literary parties. I met people I never dreamt I would meet, like Rushdie and Kureishi, heroes of mine. I was in the middle of one of these parties recently when someone I'd never met before, a middle-aged French woman, came up to me and said, `For God's sake, leave. Get out of here and go and write your book. If you stay here, you'll never do it.' She was absolutely right. I'm off."Reuse content