Ali Smith: The power and the story

Already a cult heroine, Booker-shortlisted Ali Smith dabbles in the mainstream with her new novel. Christina Patterson talks to her about politics and play
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The Independent Culture

Last week's Orange Prize - won, incidentally, by a woman with a man's name - rekindled the now-routine row about writing and gender. Does it help to write like a man? Or, as the winner, Lionel Shriver, wrote earlier this week, to think like a man? Can a man write like a man? And can't we just, for once, forget about sex and think about words instead?

Some cultural theorist is, no doubt, even now doing a PhD on the ebb and flow of this argument in the media as reflections of the cycles of wimmin and the moon. The most recent incarnation, they might be confused to hear, was three months ago, on the publication of the British Council's annual New Writing anthology. "On the whole" wrote co-editors Ali Smith and Toby Litt in their introduction, "the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking - as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell."

Their comments hit the headlines and triggered a flurry of furious responses, including the pronouncement from the novelist Jane Rogers that their "dissing" of women was a "tragedy". "You know that made me so mad," says Ali Smith, who has agreed to be interviewed about her new novel The Accidental (Hamish Hamilton, £15.99) , "it was such an out of context story. We had, Toby Litt and I, seven foot of unsolicited manuscripts and we were the only editors who read all seven foot. The things we were writing in the introduction were only about that seven foot. These are entries from people who aren't writers, who want to be writers. That's the context. I was disturbed and depressed," she adds "for about two weeks, but then I stopped worrying about it."

The wound, however, is clearly still raw. "I have a terrible urge," she tells me later, "to run away and live in a cave. Especially after the recent nonsense in the papers. It made me think well why the fuck would I be a public person at all? Why would I want to be? It makes no difference, people make up rubbish about you and it becomes true. I wonder," she muses, "if the only thing is to insist on context, or to remove yourself altogether".

Just what any journalist wants to hear, of course. Luckily, I already knew that Smith isn't keen on interviews. When you've read a clutch of them, all quoting her long-held view that "the work speaks for itself", you know that you're not going to be having cosy chats about the state of someone's love life.

In the light of this, Smith is remarkably hospitable. She has only had a few hours sleep - after arriving back, in the small hours, from a holiday in Greece - but welcomes me warmly and makes me tea. She lives, with her partner Sarah, in a book-lined artisan house in Cambridge. There's a tiny back garden but also, she shows me proudly, a bigger patch of green they rent from a neighbour across the road. It's a gorgeous mix of form and function: vegetables for food and flowers for beauty and colour.

If there ever was a writer who warranted the description that Smith and Litt so controversially put forward, it isn't Ali Smith. On a spectrum of "disappointingly domestic" and "the opposite of risk-taking", she would be an X, Y or Z to their A. "Innovative", "extraordinary", "original" and "playful" are the kinds of words that pepper reviews of her work. "Ali Smith's prose sizzles and sparks with energy and life," wrote the poet and novelist Jackie Kay in her review of Smith's Booker-shortlisted novel, Hotel World. Jeanette Winterson is a fan and so are Jonathan Safran Foer and Joyce Carol Oates. Smith is a writer's writer, but increasingly - as her sales and the size of her postbag indicate - a reader's one too.

Ever since the publication of her first book, Free Love, in 1992, it has been clear that her continuing obsession is with how stories work. Even her titles - The Whole Story and Other Stories, Other Stories and other stories - reflect this preoccupation, which is both serious and playful. It's reflected in the form of her work in narrative structures that are fragmented or circular, and in a self-reflexive seam that a certain kind of academic might call "a resistance to closure".

All of which is why The Accidental comes as something of a surprise. It has three sections, of about 100 pages each, entitled "The beginning", "The middle" and "The end". As this indicates, it offers a bigger than usual dose of conventional narrative satisfactions: a compelling story, for example, and strong characters. Was this a deliberate move?

"It wasn't conscious," Smith tells me firmly. "I suppose it's because it's a book about narrative structure, about how stories work." But isn't all her work about narrative structure? Smith smiles. "All my work is about books," she says. "It's all circular and it all comes back to books and what they do."

It is surely also, I say, a novel about film. The Accidental begins and ends in a cinema and has a leitmotif of cinematic allusions and symbols. "Yes, it is a cinema book," Smith agrees, "which is perhaps why it's more mainstream. I think it must be about mainstream narrative. It's about what stories we are being told and what stories we tell ourselves."

It started, she says, not with an image or an idea, but with a dream: "This is going to sound fey, but I woke up at 5am with a prose voice and wrote it down. Usually, if you do that, it will be shit. But the next day I looked at it and thought, it's alright. Then," she adds, "there was an image, which is of a house which is looked at from the outside - which is the perfect way to explore structure as well."

The house is, in fact, a holiday cottage in Norfolk. It has been rented for the summer by a London media couple in search of rural peace and charm. He is Michael Smart, an academic who regards the seduction of his students as a standard perk of the job. She is his wife, Eve, a writer who has made a name, and fortune, from appropriating the hidden histories of ordinary men and women. Her daughter, Astrid, prefers to see life through the lens of her digital camera, while her maths-whizz son, Magnus, broods in his bedroom, silent and unwashed.

A knock on the door from a beautiful stranger changes everything - at first for the better and later, dramatically, for the worse. Gradually, excruciatingly, we watch the family's lives unravel. It is beautifully done. Michael's own mini-breakdown, for example, is reflected in a sonnet sequence that ranges from the Eliotesque profound to the bathetically banal: "Did the heart fuck the mind with all its slummings?/ Did Shakespeare always become e. e. cummings?/ Was the end always sonnetary ruin?/ Did Shakespeare always turn into Don Juan?"

It is, in fact, a tour de force: a rare combination of ludic fun with form, page-turning plot and characters that are deliciously, deftly drawn. It is also, as Smith points out, "an old, old story, the story of the person who knocks on the door asking for help, or asking for water." Needless to say, this being Ali Smith, it is much more than a story. "When something comes from the supposed outside to the supposed inside," she explains, "you have the basis for primal narrative. What's happening right now is about who's inside and where the authority lies and what the structure is."

Aha. So now we're on to the real point - or at least the real point that Smith wants to make. "I think everything's political," she says. "I don't think it does writers any good to be 'political', but we can't help but be political, because we are human beings and we live in history... Where there's dialogue, things can progress. We're living in a time," she adds, "which is about monologue. I know that people will see this as a surface book, but I see it as a war book, because it's about that year where things were so surface."

A surface book? From a writer who believes that "public exposure does writers no good"? A writer who says that "books and money don't mix"? And that fashions in fiction are "fickle and brief"? Somehow, I don't think so. Ali Smith believes in the power of books and she believes in making things better. "I was at a design exhibition at the Barbican a couple of months ago," she confesses, "and someone had written on the wall, 'what's the point of making things if it doesn't make things better?' and I thought that was right. Why," she asks, with an impish smile, "would you make things worse?"

Biography

Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. She worked for some years as an academic before becoming a full-time writer. Her first collection of short stories, Free Love, won the Satire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award as well as a Scottish Arts Council Award. Her first novel, Like, was published in 1997. It was followed by a second set of short stories, Other Stories and Other Stories and a novel, Hotel World (2001), which won the Encore Award, a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the inaugural Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award. It was also shortlisted for both the Orange and the Booker prizes. Her other books are The Whole Story and Other Stories and now The Accidental (Hamish Hamilton). Ali Smith lives in Cambridge with her partner, Sarah, a film-maker.

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