From a 2013 interview with the author
NW was her attempt to write an ‘existential novel’, to channel her reading of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre into a modern, black, female setting. ‘Women often have a great need to portray themselves as sympathetic and pleasing, but we’re also dark people with dark thoughts. I wanted to have that on the page, as horrible as it might seem,’ she says.
Her father Harvey died in 2006, prompting what she describes as a long bout of reflection. ‘My family’s very noisy but my father was the quiet part of it. I miss that quietness.’ Then, in 2009, she became a mother for the first time, which informed the book’s ‘subconscious’ theme of fertility as well as its more overt concern with mortality. ‘There’s suddenly no one between you and death. My father’s dead, so there’s a direct route now. A few days ago, my three-year-old was messing around, saying, “One day I’ll be six and one day I’ll be seven and one day I’ll be 28.” I realised I would be 65. Me and Nick were like, “Oh my God.” This child is eating your life.’
However, despite its darker shades, NW’s warmth makes it a pleasure, much like an afternoon in a London park. The four central characters, Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan, are all supposed to have grown up close to where we meet: Leah does similar social work to Smith’s mother Yvonne; Natalie goes to a good university, just like Smith. ‘We always felt very fortunate,’ she says of her own upbringing. ‘Rich, lucky. It was only when I grew up that I realised we weren’t rich, but it was fine. We were on a nice estate, not much trouble. My school was nice. My friends were nice. My parents separated, but they managed it well.’
Now, Smith says she has all she could want as a writer and as a mother. She lives on campus in SoHo, where her fellow parents tend to be astrophysicists and economists. ‘My playground conversations are mind-blowing. I walk in and see the neuroscientist mum and think, “Oh, how embarrassing, I don’t know anything.” ’ Above all, she has the ‘higher headspace’ she needs, and an academic routine reminiscent of her time at Cambridge. [Read More]
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