A portrait of Ali Smith

Ali Smith. Image: Getty

After five short story collections, eight plays, a couple of non-fiction works and 10 novels, Ali Smith knows a thing or two about writing. To celebrate the release of How to Be Both on audio, the Scottish writer and author appeared on the Penguin Podcast to tell Nihal Arthanayake about the book she’d save from a fire, her most beloved objects and what she thinks about when she writes. Here, we rounded up some of Smith’s most useful thoughts on putting pen to paper:

A book isn’t so much created as unearthed

“All I know is when I’m working on them, I have to try and find the way that it wants to be,” Smith says on the process of writing books. “When you’re writing, or putting together a book, I’ve heard writers say this before and I agree with it, it’s as if the book is already there and you have to find it. You have to uncover it. As if dig it up, and either piece it back together, or brush it down and it will hold together however it was conceived from beyond your ken.”

It isn’t always going to be easy

“Whenever I’m trying to write anything, you know the moment it becomes alive, which is when you begin to argue with it, and it begins to argue back with you. And then something starts to spark, which is about connection. And it becomes. That’s when you know you’re on the right track.”

No matter how many books you write, it will always feel daunting

“It’s a funny thing, to always feel like a beginner. And I do, I always feel like I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing with whatever the thing is that you start, and then you start.”

But writing can be like falling in love, too

“[When] it starts to happen, and it’s kind of invigorating. It means that time disappears, it’s the same as when you’re reading something that takes you out of time. It’s also very like love, actually. It’s one of those things where time disappears and you look at the clock and you’re like, what happened to the rest of that day?”

Aim for the new

"I’ve got a piece of paper on my desk, and it says, 'Write me a fresh book'. It’s something that one of my favourite writers… and I’m loathe to say who it is because it’s really personal to me, it’s an engine, and you don’t give your engine away. Someone once said to me, 'write me a fresh book', so I wrote them a fresh book! For me it means that note of spring or cut grass. Something that sensually feels alive."

You can listen to Ali Smith on the Penguin Podcast here.

  • How to be Both

  • Brought to you by Penguin.

    Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith's novels are like nothing else.

    How to be both is a novel all about art's versatility. Borrowing from painting's fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it's a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There's a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There's the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real - and all life's givens get given a second chance.

    WINNER OF THE WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION

    WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2014

    SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014

    WINNER OF THE 2014 COSTA NOVEL AWARD


    WINNER OF THE SALTIRE SOCIETY LITERARY BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014

    NOMINATED FOR THE FOLIO PRIZE 2015


    'Brims with palpable joy' Daily Telegraph

    'She's a genius, genuinely modern in the heroic, glorious sense' Alain de Botton

    'I take my hat off to Ali Smith. Her writing lifts the soul' Evening Standard

    © Ali Smith 2014 (P) Penguin Audio 2021

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