She’s a prize-winning, bestselling novelist. He’s an acclaimed poet. Now, Zadie Smith and Nick Laird – who married in 2004 – have written a book together for the first time. Weirdo is also the pair’s first children’s book. Illustrated by “extraordinary young talent” Magenta Fox, Weirdo tells the story of a guinea pig named Maud who summons the courage to embrace her personality.
Speaking on the Penguin Podcast, Smith and Laird talk about working together for the first time, the questions they ask readers at author events and the wildlife in their garden. Here are the key things we learned...
Weirdo started with the drawings first
Smith discovered Fox’s illustrations and suggested to Laird they could inspire a collaborative children’s book. “Zadie showed me a picture by Magenta, and I thought, ‘Oh, how did this come about? How did a guinea pig in a judo costume get tied to some balloons?’ and then I went and did the first draft."
But is also inspired by Smith and Laird’s dog
“Original Maud” is the couple’s 15-year-old pug who has been given what Laird calls “a huge internal life and some prejudices” by the pair. Smith admits to being nervous to tackle a children’s book, but “the one qualification I felt we had was that we had been voicing a pug for 15 years. It’s a massive story, it’s longer than The Sopranos.” The pair are not unusual, they say: one of Smith’s favourite things to ask readers at book events is about their pets and their pets’ personalities. “People don’t pause, they immediately tell you these elaborate stories of their dogs’ political and their best friends. People have an amazing gift for this kind of fiction, and I love that.”
Working together doesn’t come naturally
Precisely because, Smith says, “you’re so used to working alone”. The couple worked on the book separately and then would take pieces of writing to the other’s desk. They also played to their strengths: “Nick is really good at your story, I'm better at people-speaking,” says Smith.
And they never know if they’ve written something good
“I think every time you sit down, it's always possible to write the most dreadful book,” says Smith. “That is just constantly possible, no matter how many years behind you, no matter how much you've read, no matter how much you've studied.” Laird agrees: “It’s like playing a new instrument each time. I don't think either of us would say that we'd know we're good at it."
The best writing scenario is distraction-free
“It sounds so miserable but when I'm writing I don't want a view, and I don't want to hear anything,” Smith explains. “I want to ideally just face a wall and it to be quiet because when I'm writing the page is all that exists. I can't really deal with anything else.” Laptops, she adds, allow her to “do that anywhere” as long as she has sound in her ears. “I just need to be focused on the Word 97 programme that I still write on.”
Laird loves a blue tit
The couple have six bird feeders in their north London garden. “The birds turn up every day. One of them, there’s a little blue tit who’s still got some of the fuzzy down on top of his head that never moulted off, and he’s hilarious. He looks like a little tiny punk.” The situation isn’t without discord, however. “I’m having an ongoing war with the rats from the railway line who get into the peanut feeders,” Laird explains, much to Smith’s surprise. “I didn’t know about this war!” she says. “It’s good to hear about it on this podcast!”
They disagree on the value of re-reading
Smith has been re-reading certain books every year for the past two decades as a teacher, but agrees with Nabokov that “real reading is re-reading”. “Every time you re-read you see something new,” she says. While Laird doesn’t read novels again, he does re-visit poetry constantly. “If you're reading for beauty and style and art then yeah, you're gonna want to re-read,” he says.
While Smith had a penchant for period costume...
While discussing who of the couple was more “weird”, Smith revealed that when she met Laird, at 18, she was “dressed in Victorian clothes. That was something I used to do.” Laird described it as “steampunk before steampunk”.
...she's nevertheless proud to be a ‘weirdo’
“All of the things I was called as a kid, particularly ‘nerd’, ‘freak’ or ‘weirdo’ I count as badges of pride”, Smith told Arthanayake. “I remember more than anything a kind of defensive pride, and also when people find their tribe, like the tribe of readers or the tribe of poets, you find with it a place of joy.”