SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Zadie Smith says that writing a novel is like a marathon. She ought to know. She's written five of them, beginning with her debut, "White Teeth." Now she's publishing her first collection of short stories, an eclectic mix called "Grand Union." And while some of the stories in it have appeared before in The New Yorker and other magazines, she's also written 11 new ones. Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Short stories can be like little gems, tightly packed narratives that come to a conclusion which leaves the reader satisfied instead of wanting more. But that is not the kind of story Zadie Smith likes to write.
ZADIE SMITH: What I like is a kind of existential shock that you don't know what's coming next, and you don't know where it's going to take you or why.
NEARY: Zadie Smith says it takes a lot of willpower to stick with a novel, whereas writing short stories gives her the freedom to experiment with new ideas and to think about the world in a different way.
SMITH: I know that there is a kind of fashion for short story collections that come all from the same place, from the same sensibility, from the same voice, sometimes with the same characters - for consistency, basically. But I am just fundamentally an inconsistent person. And I - and fiction, for me, is, at least in part, voyeurism - being in different places, different minds, different situations. It's like a continual what-if.
NEARY: In Smith's "Grand Union," she experiments with form, with style, with genre. She moves from realism to dystopia, from traditional narratives to stream of consciousness. Some of the stories barely seem like stories at all. "Parents' Morning Epiphany," for example, parodies a workshop on writing that was handed out at her child's school.
SMITH: I just was given that one day at a parents' morning in New York. And I wanted to think about it as a found object. Could you make art out of this thing that I was given, which explains to 6-year-olds how to write fiction? It was a very deeply philosophical piece of work - two-page instruction from the DOE, so I used it.
NEARY: Smith's wry sense of humor is often on display, but there is tragedy in these stories, as well. "Mood" is a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes. Smith says she was trying to explore how many emotions a person can experience each day as technology brings us into constant interaction with the often-tragic stories of people all over the world. Here she reads an excerpt.
SMITH: (Reading) To separate an unpotty-trained 4-year-old from its mother at the border and place it in confinement with several other children of similar age in a crate of Pampers as if you hope the children will figure out how to change themselves and then to walk past the visiting nurse and social worker with lowered eyes as you three pass each other at the tent flap because none of you can quite stand to look at each other - to perform this action, it is essential that you have phlegm and are phlegmatic in general so that you can be good at generalizing ideas or problems in the world and making compromises.
NEARY: A number of the stories draw on news events from both the present and past. In "Kelso Deconstructed," she imagines the last day in the life of a young black man killed in a racially motivated attack in 1950s Britain. Smith says she thinks more people should know about this murder.
SMITH: The story of Kelso Cochrane should be one of the founding stories of modern British life. As stories of racial terror in America have become front and center - Emmett Till is a story known to all Americans, I should think - the fact that these stories in England are obscure or forgotten or unknown, not just outside the country but within it, is distressing to me.
NEARY: Perhaps no story is as timely as "The Canker," a kind of fable about an island where people misguidedly, as she describes it, put a destructive leader known as the Usurper into power.
SMITH: We have plenty of usurpers right now. It doesn't take an idiot to pick them out. They're all over the planet. But I was just interested in the idea of the bully - particularly the masculine bully, who cast his shadow over a people. And I wanted to try and imagine that world in its bare bones.
NEARY: Smith says she doesn't think of herself as political as in belonging to a particular party or getting actively involved in working for a cause. But writing, she believes, is unavoidably political.
SMITH: I think that all philosophy, all fiction, anything that tries to process the world is political by definition. I mean, a writer writing in 2019 who doesn't experience (laughter) the political is not alive. I mean, that's impossible, I should think. But I don't find myself any more political than the next citizen. I'm experiencing this with the same shock and awe and terror as everybody else with no higher purchase on it.
NEARY: Now that she has finished the story collection, Smith is not quite ready to plunge back into writing a novel. Instead, she plans to do a lot of reading. Reading, she says, is her main profession. It gives her joy, and it's where she finds the inspiration to write.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.