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 the truth is difficult to find. Perhaps she’s commenting on the Soviet Empire. Perhaps she wrote it herself and this was a test. Perhaps I am projecting her elusiveness and yet again erroneously overanalyzing her writing just as I did when I first studied it.

If you study Literature at UEA, there is no doubt you will have oversimplified and overcomplicated her work beyond recognition 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 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 entirely produced during lockdown. A seasonal quartet seasoned by contemporary events, 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 tells me, and my heart sinks under the news that Autumn’s Daniel Gluck does not exist. Not in the real world, anyway. “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 was surprised to discover Ali’s characters pre-exist her conscious conception, created elsewhere and arriving at the gates of her imagination with baggage already packed asking for permission to exist. It reminded me of Michelangelo sculpting, who “saw the angel in the marble and carved until he set him free.”

“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 said in a recent interview with The Guardian that as a child 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 she seems to approach banal 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, an acoustic artist reverberating lex-echo-ns from the past, Frankenstein raising her creature through elec-locution; whichever role you assign her, Ali’s sentiment for wordplay surpasses momentary entertainment. Reading her novels always makes me feel there are bubbles of energy lying dormant under the surface of everyday language, waiting to be burst.

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.”

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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May 2021
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