Comic relief: Zadie Smith's passion for British comedy

Once a prodigy of fiction, Zadie Smith has grown into a writer, critic and teacher with an international outlook - and a lasting passion for British comedy. Boyd Tonkin meets her

As this decade sinks towards an end, its frothy beginnings now feel like a dream.

Did all that really happen? Did, for instance, a gifted, earnest and precociously erudite young writer able to ride the twin waves of fiction and criticism with the aplomb of a new Virginia Woolf find herself swept away on a rip-tide of hype that flung her in the public face as a sort of Willesden-bred Beyoncé Knowles with a talent for a yarn?

The record tells us it was so. And, after White Teeth in 2000 saw its 25-year-old author press-ganged into poster-girl duty for some merrily upbeat post-millennium, new-Brit zeitgeist project (a sort of Dome with brains, jokes and plot), Zadie Smith has had to spend much of the time since in recovery. Smith, who now finds the author of that effervescently comic family saga of London in its lurching flux "a different person", gave more proof of a mighty potential in The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005).

Then came a period not of silence but retrenchment. She chose to teach literature, modestly and seriously, at Harvard, Columbia and (from next autumn) New York universities. She moved to Rome with her husband, the Northern Irish poet and novelist Nick Laird, to learn Italian and escape the frenzy of premature fame. She read, thought and wrote essays of luminous insight, exemplary poise and deep, mature, unshowy feeling about the art – and life - that matters to her, from Franz Kafka to Katharine Hepburn, EM Forster to British comedy, Vladimir Nabokov to her late, much missed contemporary hero, David Foster Wallace.

Changing My Mind (Hamish Hamilton, £20), a harvest of those essays, lectures and reviews, bears witness not to a Greta Garbo-style withdrawal but a series of shifts in gear and direction. "The past three years, reading and writing, I just feel that I've changed my mind a lot," she says when we meet at her publisher's office. "The idea that certainty is the highest value you can have in argument, in politics, in art - I don't understand it. I don't feel that way."

The work that captures all these transitions bears only a partial resemblance to the heavy-duty volume of literary analysis, Fail Better, that many followers expected. It perms ebullient forays into canonical fiction with family memoirs, the odd travel piece (from Liberian dearth to Hollywood excess) and even film reviews from Syriana down to Date Movie. "One of the strange things about publishing a book like White Teeth is that it gives you a much broader audience than maybe you ever expected to have," she comments. "As much as possible, I'd like to brings people along. I think there are many of my readers who wouldn't be comfortable with a book that was nothing but literary criticism. And it wouldn't, for me, represent the things I like to write anyway."

Still as willowy and elegant as the newcomer who once caught the lens of hard-core paparazzi, she is also more than eight months pregnant. Her baby is due in the week that this interview appears. So fans who live in hope of a fourth novel must learn patience. Make 'em, laugh, make 'em cry, went the old adage from the British showbiz lore that Smith cherishes – but make 'em wait. "I've been vaguely beginning something for about three or four years. Then the essays got in the way and now, obviously, a child is about to get in the way. I feel that I'm not in any hurry."

No matter. Changing My Mind showcases the best of Zadie Smith: thoughtful but never pompous, agile but never glib, witty but never cruel, with heart and head sweetly aligned. Take the trio of elegiac pieces on her father Harvey, who died in 2006. When Smith landed in that cloudburst of media spangles, grumblers sniped that her CV (Willesden street cred, comprehensive school, King's College, Cambridge, "mixed race" heritage) sounded too good to be true. They didn't know the half of it.

Because Harvey from Bromley (but with East Anglian roots) had enlisted early and married his second, Jamaican wife, Yvonne, late (he was born in 1925; Zadie in 1975), the father of the author of White Teeth fought on the beaches of Normandy on D-day with the 79th Armoured Division. Later, he even helped to liberate the Belsen camp.

"He was so old," she says, "that I think I'd been expecting his death from about the age of seven or eight, in a constant state of tension". Writers, she says, use their work to rehearse these passages. "Part of writing is the making safe of the future. It always struck me... with On Beauty, that I'd only just got married and yet I was writing a book about people who'd been married 30 years... So I thought that as far as my father's death went, I was fully prepared, having had 25 years of waiting for it. But in fact nothing does prepare you''.

His daughter's essays tell how she tried to record this "ordinary man's experience of extremity" during the photographer-turned-salesman's last days in a Suffolk nursing home; they explore his affection for the lugubrious class comedy of Steptoe and Tony Hancock; and evoke the bittersweet mayhem of Christmas in Willesden. Each one is a jewel. Yet the writer who, in 2000, could write a scorching anonymous critique of her debut, scolds herself for the theft of a loved one's life. "It's a grim thing to admit to yourself: that these essays will end up being in my mind more real versions of my father than my father... I always think that every time a writer is born into a family, that family has reason to fear." Harvey's death may have "freed me to write about my version of our lives together. But it's certainly my version. I don't know that any of my siblings, my mother – or my father if he were alive – would agree with it. I find that if we get together and speak for five minutes about the past, we're completely at loggerheads."

Much of Changing My Mind depicts the intellectual drama of its boundary-busting author in combat with with the binary thinking – about books, culture, identity – that insists on an either/or response. Whether straddling English liberal humanism and Continental avant-garde theory, art-house movies and mass-market entertainment, the comforts of community and the delights of independence, she keeps her options ever-open. But then this champion of "the synthesis of disparate things" was raised to enjoy plurality. "What you're born into is obviously what's natural to you," she recalls. "It was always strange to me to go round to other people's houses, and everybody seemed to be the same colour."

From her grudging teenage acceptance that the African American novelist Zora Neale Hurston had a quality of "soul" that could speak to the black-female side even of this pigeonhole-dodging young Londoner, to her investigation of Kafka's lonely conviction that "the impossible thing was collectivity itself", several pieces turn on Smith's sceptical view of belonging. "I can't sign up to any collectivity which is immediate and unthinking," she insists. "There are communities of Buffy lovers [for her, the Vampire Slayer embodied a peak of televisual art], there are communities of people who adore Kafka. Those are real communities to me, which are motivated by care and interest and personal involvement.

"I can't assume a collectivity of feeling with millions of people I don't know on the basis of genetic indicators. I can't do that. I don't think white people are ever asked to do that – so they don't have to think about it so much!"

If Smith escapes every stifling box, she needs her readers to break free as well. "It is extraordinary how difficult it is to get people who are white to see plurality in people who aren't white," she frets. "It's not their fault – it's just centuries of a confident inculcation that you are the neutral human subject and that everyone else is in some way exotic or strange." She was often asked: "'Why do you keep on writing about all these multi-cultural people?' As if it were a marketing stunt! It's fascinating – the idea that if you write about non-white people it's an angle. You would have to be white to ask that question. It's not an angle. These are human beings just like you are."

Yet she will leave the missionary work to others. "There are people who devote their writing lives to banging away at that wall. I can't do it because there are too many other things I'd like to do." Those many other things include the appreciation of comedy: "one of things in English life that I've loved most, and think of as most English." This passion became personal when her younger brother, Ben, mutated into the stand-up "Doc Brown": "an unexpected turn of his life, and our lives". For his proud sister, it "made me think about what comedy had meant to us as children – and part of is definitely a kind of defence, if there's some question mark about who you are or where you fit in. Being funny was for both of us a way of smoothing over some rough edges".

She admires high-risk live acts such as Russell Kane, Richard Herring and Daniel Kitson: "Really great stand-up: I just adore it. There's an intensity to it: it's like a novel compressed". Such comedy, she notes, either never reaches mainstream TV or does so severely diluted. Meanwhile, her return from Rome to a TV nation in the iron grip of reality-show hysteria came as a rude shock. "There's almost a bullying in the culture, that if you don't involve yourself in these shows then you've somehow opted out of communal British life. I don't remember that. I don't remember the prime minister feeling the need to comment on The X Factor".

Italy, the land of the wannabe velini showgirls who queued up near her apartment for the chance to strip off on Berlusconi-owned TV, had pop-culture drawbacks of its own. "People call it the land that feminism forgot... It's a crazy, crazy place if you're female. But something is changing now. Berlusconi has taken them right up to the limits of their patience." But for Smith, Rome also meant the chance to change her mind by joining Europe. Not only did she acquire another language. She immersed herself in current Continental writing, surrounded by a thriving counter-culture of artistic rebels against "objectionable" ruling mores. "In England, you're always co-opted. In Italy, if you want to stay sane, you have to completely and utterly separate yourself."

That move abroad as a reader of fiction confirmed her in a belief that, in recent times, "The European tradition is so divorced from the English – we're at cross purposes at every point." An essay that contrasts the solid humanism of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland with the playful subversion of narrative and personality in Tom McCarthy's much more "European" novel, Remainder, allows Smith to expand on the yawning gulf that she perceives. "The young contemporary French writer thinks of the self as thing that is completely destroyed," she argues now. "So you pick up the pieces from the floor. And there are still these young English writers who write with the confidence of the early 18th century – that the self is this completely full thing".

It's clear that such obiter dicta belong as much to Smith's own change of course as a writer as to some abstract realm of critical distinctions. "There's a great positivism and common sense which rules the Anglo-American tradition," she says. "For myself, it's not that you abandon the tradition, but just to be mentally abroad is the most refreshing thing". A fear of becoming "entrenched" peppers her conversation. She bows to the 92-year-old Diana Athill as open-minded proof that "calcification" need not arrive with age. And she deplores the post-9/11 slide into "a decade of binaries", as a hopeless notion takes hold that "Difference can't be sustained – not just in politics and communities, but in the arts as well."

Zadie Smith, however she grows as novelist and critic, will surely keep that play of doubt and difference alive. The debutante thrust into celebrity as destiny's child for a new generation has chosen a subtler path. That megawatt glare diffuses into softer streams of light. "It's nice that as time goes on, you can just be a writer among writers and work at your own pace. And that's really what I wanted to do."

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