NYU Alumni Connect

Zadie Smith Reads Work in Progress at 12th Speakers on the Square Lecture

Photo: Roderick Field

By Kristine Jannuzzi (CAS ’98)

Over 400 alumni and friends turned out to hear award-winning author and NYU professor Zadie Smith read from a new, unpublished novel at the 12th Speakers on the Square lecture on November 9. Smith read two contrasting excerpts, which she described as alternately melancholy and funny, from the unfinished novel that she has been working on for the past seven years. She said the main engine of the novel is encounters – a notion she later cited as an overarching theme in many of her works. “The idea of an encounter between two different people must be woven into my DNA,” she told the audience.

After the reading, Smith answered a number of questions about her writing process and her sources of inspiration. “I get inspired by other people’s writing. I rarely start inspired by real life instances,” she said. She went on to say that, as a writer, being obsessed with originality all the time is not necessarily a good thing. “The history of writing is an echo chamber across generations. Art works by influence and repetition – it’s not individual genius springing forth from the head of Zeus.”

Smith also addressed the relationship between politics and fiction. “You do have to believe that writing, in a more discreet and slow way, changes the way people that people are able to conceive of their world. Not one novel, for sure, but hundreds of novels and hundreds of writers in a communicative, metaphorical way.”

When asked how she sharpens her own writing skills, Smith said she seeks out new aesthetic experiences rather than employing specific techniques or writing exercises. “I read a lot, and I try to read outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself a little bit. A lot of this book came out of watching Antonioni films for the first time.” She added, “I just think you have to put yourself into the world and open yourself to new ideas. That’s what helps me most.”

Traci Brandon (CAS ’98) has been a fan of Smith’s since reading her award-winning first novel, White Teeth, and said she didn’t have to think twice about coming to see her at the Speakers on the Square lecture. “I'd read lots of interviews and articles about her, but I never actually heard her speak until last year when she did a talk at the New York Public Library. She was so funny and dry and British,” commented Brandon. “Tonight, I was struck by how great a reader of her own work she is. She really made the characters in her new book come alive for me. I can't wait to read it. I wish there had been a professor like her at NYU when I was there!”

Smith joined the faculty of NYU’s Creative Writing Program last year as Senior Professor of Fiction “to the delight of our entire community,” said Deborah Landau, director of the program. “Not every celebrated writer wants to teach, not every gifted writer can teach, and not every acclaimed writer cares to teach well. But even over the summer before classes began, Zadie initiated a dialogue with me over email about what it means to teach fiction with great integrity and deep concern for the students’ growth and well-being. It’s been a joy to have her with us to see that the same moral seriousness present in her fiction and critical work extends to her teaching.”

Smith is one in an impressive group of accomplished writers teaching students in NYU’s Creative Writing Program, including E.L. Doctorow, Sharon Olds, Jonathan Safran Foer, Yusef Komunyakaa, Darin Strauss (GSAS ’97), Anne Carson, and Lydia Davis. “So many writers are under the roof of the house, it’s kind of thrilling,” said Landau. The program is one of the most distinguished in the country – the graduate program receives 600-800 applications each year, and in 2011, only 35 students were accepted. Some 200 writers give readings that are free and open to the public throughout the year at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House on West 10th Street. In addition, many graduate students take part in a number of literary outreach programs serving underserved and marginalized communities. “They teach writing to hospitalized children, severely disabled adults, disadvantaged public school children in New York City, and recent veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” explained Landau. “They’re giving to the community, and they’re also getting incredible life experience. And we think it makes them better writers.”

For more information about NYU’s Creative Writing Program, visit http://cwp.fas.nyu.edu/page/home. For more information about Zadie Smith, visit http://cwp.fas.nyu.edu/object/zsmith.html.





Art works by influence and repetition – it’s not individual genius springing forth from the head of Zeus.

– Zadie Smith