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[OT] Touching up Zadie Smith

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  • Brent Wodehouse
    http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/06/27/1056683898453.html Touching up Zadie Smith By Zadie Smith June 28 2003 Contrary to the ideas of your average male
    Message 1 of 3 , Jun 29, 2003
      http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/06/27/1056683898453.html

      Touching up Zadie Smith

      By Zadie Smith

      June 28 2003


      Contrary to the ideas of your average male Master of Fine Arts student,
      fiction writing is not really about power. Properly executed it becomes
      the exact opposite of worldly power. It neither hurts nor heals in any
      material sense; no phalanx of soldiers will broach borders for it, no one
      will lose or gain employment as a result, and no babies will be birthed.

      Its sublime bloody uselessness - here lies its attraction for this
      particular novelist. For even if I am very bad at it, nothing too bad will
      come of it. I am a bit like my Archie Jones that way; the less practical
      effect I have in this world, the happier it makes me.

      I tell you this to give you some idea of what it was like to discover, one
      glacial November morning in West London, about 500 people freezing to
      death in various extremes of 1970s costumery (hot pants, halter necks,
      wind-sock caftans), as a direct result of my first novel, _White Teeth_.
      With a clutch of school friends, I had turned up to be an extra, to play
      one of those people who pass through the novel without comment or
      dialogue, and I was appropriately dumbstruck. Look at all this! Twenty
      lofty white vans lined the suburban street like a snow bank; people were
      filling in pay slips, searching for the pair of their platform shoe,
      enviously counting one another’s lines. Somehow, all this was my fault.
      And pinned up on a wall were photographs of all my characters, but this
      time with unscripted, real faces that were nobody’s but their own. I think
      this is what is called, among young Americans, "a trip".

      We noticed immediately how good-looking all these actors were in
      comparison with their semi-biographical originals. The past had been
      upgraded, made taller and thinner and given the most glorious hair.
      "That’s telly for you," my friend Hannah said as we glumly studied one of
      the main actresses, the sort a cannibal would reject as a stingy hors
      d’oeuvre. Yes, that and much more is telly. Most noticeably, telly takes
      forever. Telly is waiting around in buses for hours listening to people
      talk about the telly they’ve done before. Telly is watching a creative
      idea make its excruciatingly slow progress from scriptwriter to producer
      to actor to third and second assistant directors to the director himself
      to the cameraman, to that poor maligned fellow who must hold the huge,
      furry gray Q-tip up in the air if anything is to be heard by anyone. Telly
      is group responsibility. But having not written the script, not
      participated in the production and not shared my vision with the director
      (I had no vision), I was free of responsibility and so repaired to a pub
      until officially required.

      In the pub, my friends asked me the questions I should be answering in
      this article. Didn’t I want to be involved? Wasn’t I worried what they
      might instructed them not to touch and if they touched my bits, would I
      mind? The answers to which are, no, no, no and no. Why shouldn’t my bits
      be touched, and often? I have needs, too - just like anybody.

      Besides, by this point I had come to realise that my White Teeth was about
      a hundred pages too long and suffered from a calamitous ending, dragging
      at the rear like all unnecessary tails. The truth is, it could do with
      some touching up. If it were a perfect piece of statuary, then no, one
      wouldn’t want anybody’s grubby fingers upon it. But it’s not; it’s more
      like a fat, messy kid who needs help. This is what I said to my friends
      and they did not believe me. This is what I had said to Nick Brown, the
      producer, four months earlier, and he didn’t believe me either.

      He came to see me in Kilburn in the dazzling summer; I remember we sat
      outside of one of the Irish bakeries; he was very charming and dressed in
      the Englishman’s July wardrobe of white shirt and khakis, as if
      accompanying Dr Livingston. In fact, the first 10 minutes of our
      conversation were strongly reminiscent of an Englishman’s encounter with a
      new tribe. He seemed uncertain whether I was going to offer him some
      rolling tobacco or shoot him with a poison dart. This gave me some idea of
      the writers who had come before me and Nick was generous with his horror
      stories. It seems that in the business of adapting a novel for the screen,
      there might even be a saying: When going to see the writer, carry a
      10-foot pole.

      For they come in many forms: the writer who must be obeyed; the writer who
      must have a speaking part; the writer who thinks she understands
      cinematography; the writer whose record collection is perfect for the
      soundtrack; and, of course, the writer who likes to talk to good-looking
      actors. For hours. On set. When they’re needed elsewhere. Of these crimes
      against film, I was most tempted by the idea that Britain needed to hear
      my early-’90s collection of seven-inch trip-hop records, broadcast on
      national television with supplementary moving pictures. I remember Nick
      dutifully making a list of the titles I gave him and I remember none of
      them appearing in the final product, which is a mercy to all involved.

      By the end of our tea, Nick had laid his 10-foot pole on the floor, and we
      were beginning to enjoy ourselves. I felt that I could, without fear of
      seeming unreasonable, make my one demand. It was not a big thing, but I
      realised I felt it with a ferocity that signified I must, after all, have
      written the book and that I did still care for it. Simply, I wanted
      Willesden Green, the north London suburb, in there.

      I wanted it in all its glory, lit with kindness and photographed with
      love. The clunky unlovable postwar architecture, the mile-long strip of
      back-to-back kebab and fried chicken takeaways, the halal butchers and
      grocers. The two imperious, turreted Muslim schools in Queens Park (from
      which, at 3.30 every afternoon, a thousand Muslim children in traditional
      dress pour out into the street and pack into the sweetshops, queuing for
      ice-pops and candy), the psychedelic, multicoloured Hindu temple, the
      crumbling nunnery at the end of my street, all the schools that look like
      Victorian prisons (especially the one I went to), the grubby poolhouses on
      the Finchley Road and beautiful St Gabriel's church, a remnant of the
      country parish Willesden once was, and a church I visited devotedly
      throughout my childhood, though only to smoke fags around the back of it.

      Nick, whom I discovered had once lived in the area, was 100 per cent
      behind me on this. He told me he was 100 per cent behind me and I told him
      I was 100 per cent behind him, but I'm certain that both of us had that
      feeling that infects all negotiations concerning television and cinema:
      that no matter who was behind whom, the thing was never going to happen
      anyhow. Not in a month of Sundays. I certainly didn't believe it until I
      was on the set - and *in* it, as it were.

      The scene they put me in occurs at the beginning of the book, the moment
      when Clara Bowden meets Archie Jones. It is 1975 and they are at a huge
      party. He is old and white and unhappy, and she is young and black and
      unhappy. She is also excessively beautiful. She comes down the stairs, he
      sees her. Some time later they marry. This story was a highly bastardised
      account of the day my parents met, as given to me by my half-sister,
      Diana, who happened to mention it casually one day, ending 20 years of
      fervid speculation on my part.

      This was the initial creative spark of _White Teeth_. It took her about 30
      seconds to tell the story and it took me about two years to write it. And
      now, with four friends I had known since I was 11, I was *in* the party
      where my parents met, surrounded by fake hippies and fake dope and fake
      red wine, and a dancing Chinese girl with no top on and a conga line of
      four pretty black girls bouncing through the hall.

      I was caught in that 30-second sequence - at the very moment my mother
      walked down the stairs to meet my father - again and again and again, all
      afternoon. The Chinese girl kept on dancing, the black girls went back to
      their starting positions, my fake red wine was infinitely replenished, the
      same song played and my mother came down the stairs to meet my father once
      more.

      To tell you the truth, it was sort of a spiritual experience. As a rule, I
      try to avoid those, but this one smacked so insistently of the eternal
      return (they made me and then I made the book and then I made them and
      then they made me), and of the generative power of the creative act, that
      goddamn it if I wasn't crying by the end of the 27th take.

      Possibly this is the reason they cut me out. In the final version, my
      mother claims you can see the top of my head for a second, but this is
      only visible to the attuned maternal eye - normal sight is insufficient.
      You can, however, see many members of my family, all of whom I instructed
      not to go near the production, only to find them peering out at me from my
      telly nine months later.

      Highlights include my Uncle Andrew, who is the Rastafarian young man in
      the Jehovah's Witness prayer circle scenes (he had to tie his dreads back
      for obvious reasons). Also, my 18-year-old brother, Luke, plays one of the
      KEVIN brothers. He would have me tell you that he is the especially
      handsome one. An ex-boyfriend, a girl I went to college with, a girl who
      went out with my friend's brother - it took all sorts of Willesdeners to
      make _White Teeth_ the novel, and all sorts turned out for the auditions
      as well.

      Many of them got the parts. And so when I watch the show, its personal
      nature is far more intense than the novel has ever seemed to me. Real
      people and places I have loved are everywhere. I don't mind being cut out
      because so much was left in - particularly Willesden, as promised.
      Willesden never looked so good. Honestly, it looks so damn good you would
      be forgiven for thinking it isn't Willesden, and in places it isn't -
      South London was used often. But it was hard to get mad about this
      ultimate betrayal when somehow they found streets that seemed more
      Willesden than Willesden, if you see what I mean.

      As for the film itself as artwork, it is readers who have occasionally
      complained to *me* about the lack of fidelity to this or that bit of the
      novel - I have been told off by those who think I should have exercised a
      little more of the power I spoke of earlier. But to me the cuts were
      necessary to make the fat and messy kid presentable, and at least one of
      the changes is inspired. The attentive viewer will note a difference in
      the manner in which Samad sends one of his sons to live in Bangladesh. A
      cut has been made; a motivation inserted and an artistic clarity is the
      result. The moment I saw it, I gasped - this section of the novel would
      have been so improved had I thought of the same strategy.

      It is this kind of cutting and pasting in the film that I most enjoyed; it
      taught me a lesson. In a novel, one scrabbles in the dirt for motivation
      or stretches for decorative language to hide the lack of it. In film, no
      such disguise will be tolerated by the viewer. When we watch a man do
      something on screen, our guts much more than our brains tell us the truth
      of the gesture, the action. It cannot be fudged. Fiction can learn from
      film here, or at least, mine can.

      I'm pretty much finished now, but I'd like to say a quick rapturous word
      concerning something else that my fiction cannot do and film can: faces.
      Nothing disappoints more in fiction than the description of people's heads
      and faces - their shocks of red hair and tediously broad foreheads, their
      wide even teeth or small pointy ones, their large noses, furrowed brows,
      dimpled smiles and on and on.

      Good facial description is too rare. Although Dickens left you in no doubt
      concerning Mr Gradgrind's visage and Nabokov's Pnin and his Lolita possess
      two of the only faces in modern fiction that I remember, what of the other
      great characters? Anna Karenina, Elizabeth Bennet, JosephK, Janie
      Crawford, Rabbit Angstrom - what do they look like? Having absolutely no
      visual sense, my Archie and Samad were completely blank from the neck up
      in my mind. I knew everything they thought, but nothing of how they
      looked. Here the TV show gave me something remarkable, made me exquisitely
      powerless and grateful. I could write another 2000 words on the faces of
      Om Puri (Samad) and Phil Davies (Archie). The terrific, deeply ridged
      apple-pathways and pockmarks of Puri's ennobling beauty (he makes things
      around him become beautiful). And Davies' exemplary Englishness: an open,
      plain, unassuming face that releases devastating emotion on a drip feed.
      I'm glad I had neither of their faces in mind when I wrote; they are so
      *there* I would have lost all the power I have, which is to do a little
      scribbling about what is *not* there, and never will be, unless I make it
      flesh.



      - New York Times
    • ravenadal
      ... was about a hundred pages too long and suffered from a calamitous ending, dragging at the rear like all unnecessary tails. The truth is, it could do with
      Message 2 of 3 , Jun 30, 2003
        --- In SciFiNoir_Lit@yahoogroups.com, "Brent Wodehouse"
        <Brent_Wodehouse@s...> wrote:
        > http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/06/27/1056683898453.html

        > Besides, by this point I had come to realise that my White Teeth
        was about a hundred pages too long and suffered from a calamitous
        ending, dragging at the rear like all unnecessary tails. The truth
        is, it could do with some touching up. If it were a perfect piece of
        statuary, then no, one wouldn't want anybody's grubby fingers upon
        it. But it's not; it's more like a fat, messy kid who needs help.
        This is what I said to my friends and they did not believe me. This
        is what I had said to Nick Brown, the producer, four months earlier,
        and he didn't believe me either.>>

        I believe her. This was my impression when I first read the novel
        and I told everybody I knew (who read) what a bloody mess of a novel
        I thought "White Teeth" was. I am still astounded that Smith was
        able to get it published and, more so, that it was the international
        success it was. Don't get me wrong. The girl has talent. She can
        write. She just can't edit to save her life. And still, the amazing
        thing is NOBODY ELSE seemed to want to edit the bloody thing, either!

        ~rave!
        ___________________________________________________________________
        The Black Prince. The Black Church. A State of Mind.
        http://www.theworldebon.com
      • Brent Wodehouse
        ... This was the strongest single impression, I believe, left in the minds of most readers this side of the Pond after reaching the novel s end as I gather
        Message 3 of 3 , Jul 1, 2003
          "ravenadal" <ravenadal@...> writes:

          >--- In SciFiNoir_Lit@yahoogroups.com, "Brent Wodehouse"
          ><Brent_Wodehouse@s...> wrote:
          >> http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/06/27/1056683898453.html
          >
          >> Besides, by this point I had come to realise that my White Teeth
          >was about a hundred pages too long and suffered from a calamitous
          >ending, dragging at the rear like all unnecessary tails. The truth
          >is, it could do with some touching up. If it were a perfect piece of
          >statuary, then no, one wouldn't want anybody's grubby fingers upon
          >it. But it's not; it's more like a fat, messy kid who needs help.
          >This is what I said to my friends and they did not believe me. This
          >is what I had said to Nick Brown, the producer, four months earlier,
          >and he didn't believe me either.>>
          >
          >I believe her. This was my impression when I first read the novel
          >and I told everybody I knew (who read) what a bloody mess of a novel
          >I thought "White Teeth" was. I am still astounded that Smith was
          >able to get it published and, more so, that it was the international
          >success it was. Don't get me wrong. The girl has talent. She can
          >write. She just can't edit to save her life. And still, the amazing
          >thing is NOBODY ELSE seemed to want to edit the bloody thing, either!

          This was the strongest single impression, I believe, left in the minds of
          most readers this side of the Pond after reaching the novel's end as I
          gather from print and my family's reviews - like you say, loads of writing
          talent but not a lick of editorial ability. 'Rambling' my younger sister
          describes it. One older sister was much more impressed by the PBS
          production, and re-read it again for detail, and not so much for fun. But
          we all enjoyed the story itself, behind the words, and wanted to like it
          so - desperate to give her the benefit of the doubt no matter what - her
          first novel, definite promise in the telling, Black Brit, etc. - and
          apparently, her editing fellow countrymen felt rather the same way. So now
          she has to really make up, bowl us all over with less, as it were. But
          don't let this put anyone off the novel. Buy the book, read it, then watch
          the screen rendition, and come to your own final analysis.


          Brent

          >~rave!
          >
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