Interview with Ali Smith: “puns and wordplay are ceremonious”

Let's force the locks of life, boldly, cunningly, 
As befits our youth. 
No lies or half-lies for us. We want 
Nothing but the truth.

This was the poem Ali Smith left our interview on. As thoroughly as I searched, I could not find it anywhere online. Although Ali attributed it to Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a Russian Soviet poet, I wondered why a poem concerned with truth was so difficult to find. Perhaps she is saying truth is difficult to find. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the Soviet Empire. Perhaps she wrote it herself and I was being tested. Perhaps I am projecting her elusiveness and overthinking her writing like when I first studied it.

If you study Literature at UEA, you undoubtedly will have oversimplified and overcomplicated her work in an attempt to hear whispers hiding in the voice of the narrative, as I did a year ago with Autumn in the Reading Texts module, and as I’ve now found myself repeating a year later. Since beginning with Autumn, the four seasons came full cycle last year, concluding with Summer becoming the first UK book produced entirely during lockdown. I asked how much of her fiction was inspired by her personal life.

Photo: Jim Gell

“There’s very little that’s autobiographical in my fiction,” she told me, and I was surprised her characters aren’t inspired by real people, considering some character types appear in her novels under different names: sharp-witted children, neglectful adults, wise older men who prefer solitude. “The characters just appear, (it’s always a great relief that they do, especially if you’ve signed a contract with a publisher and the deadline’s looming) and they bring their circumstances with them.”

I suppose they must be real; they pre-exist her conscious conception and arrive at the gates of her imagination, asking for permission to exist in the world outside her head, like a statue in a block of stone waiting to be carved.

“Only very rarely have I tried to write autobiographically,” she continues, “and it comes with very different responsibilities.  But take Daniel Gluck. When I started writing Autumn, I’d thought it would be a novel about quite other characters, based round people who ran a junkshop; but I had this very old very dapper man sitting very still and waiting at the back of my head, I kept telling myself he wasn’t anything to do with this book, he’d be there for something else.  But he was tenacious.  He stayed at the back of my head exerting gentle pressure till I realised I was blocking him, God knows why I was. Because when I stopped doing that, the book began.”

Interestingly, Ali told The Guardian she imagined she would grow up to be a ‘scaffie’ – the Scottish term for a refuse collector – to satisfy her love of scavenging thrown-away things. The characters and events may not be autobiographical, but her infatuations in transforming trash into treasure are apparent in her novels and recycles language in a similar way.

Photo: Pixabay

Smith in both Ali and Word, her pun-of-a-kind writing style takes words by the hand and puns away to the playground, returning them more joyful and rosy-cheeked than before the page turned. When I asked where this energetic style came from, she explains she inherited it from her parents.

“One of the things I keep on my writing desk is a series of postcards they sent me when I was in my 20s and at university in Aberdeen and they were on a rare holiday abroad, in Malta. They each took turns to write me a postcard a day, things dashed off at the end of a day spent in the sun telling me, in short, what they’d been doing.

“But when I read them now, see their handwriting, recognise each of their voices distinctly, I see something I didn’t ‘know’ about them, took for granted just as being them: their cards are full of wordplay, in their different ways; these little throwaway moments are the places where words literally light up, and every place this happens is a moment of expressed but unforced and undemanding affection.

“I’ve long known that puns and wordplay are ceremonious; in the earliest writings that human beings made, the places where wordplay happens are the places where something especially important, often sacred, is being signalled. But this affection. This glancing warmth. So it’ll be natural to me because it’s all through my folk, and presumably all the folk who made them, and the folk before them who made them, and back and back and back.”

Photo: Pixabay

An archaeolinguist excavating fossils from the thesaurus, an interseasonal gardener replanting word roots, Frankenstein raising the dead through elec-locution; whichever role you assign her, Ali’s sentiment for wordplay surpasses momentary entertainment. It reveals the bubbles of energy lying dormant underneath the surface of everyday language and bursts them. With respect to the “folk” who came before us, I asked if it’s also important to exhume past authors through epigraphs, a feature often adopted in her novels.

“It’s not that I feel it’s important, or that you can set out with the agenda to do this. It’s that it’s just a fact that it’s artworks that produce artworks, books that beget books, and that artworks and books all have lineage just like members of families do.” Using Ali’s metaphor, what would artists say in response to the future generations of offspring their artworks produce?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I asked Ali to choose a dead author to necromance or séance (whichever comes easier or cheaper) to read her quartet. “A question with spirit!” She exhumorously puns, before nominating the late Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, both of whom appear in Spring, “because in real life they shared time in the same very small town in Switzerland, both there simultaneously at pivotal times of their writing lives and though they seem never to have met *must’ve* passed each other on the streets or in the hotel where she was staying and he often ate supper  –– think of the near miss of this not-meeting of two of the greatest writers ever. Or maybe they DID meet, without knowing quite who each other was. We’ll never know. That not-knowing. It’s electric with possibility.”

Finally, I asked Ali for her favourite season. “I like them all,” she said. “I know that sounds like a cop-out answer, but I do. I realised I first liked all the seasons the first year I fell properly in love, way back at the end of the 1970s. I think something about the way we go beyond ourselves, like we do when we’re in love, say, lets us understand time’s spatial and cyclic qualities differently.”

Already, I find myself searching online for how old Ali would have been at the end of the 1970s, who she would have met, what kind of love transcends one beyond themselves and which dating app will help me find it. Inspiring us to search inside our imaginations for characters waiting for us to write them, transforming our linguistic tunnel vision into punnel vision, or seeing the past as a source of possibility for the future, Ali’s work boldly, cunningly, forces the lock on a youthful yet truthful perspective.

Listen to Ali talk more about finishing her seasonal quartet and watch an exclusive film produced by her and filmmaker Sarah Wood at the UEA Live event on 5th May.

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Jim Gell

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June 2022
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