Interview

Ali Smith: ‘I knew a book about autumn would be about the shortness of life’

Ali Smith speaks with Eric Karl Anderson aka blogger, LonesomeReader about her moving and inventive new novel, Autumn

Ali Smith: Hello Eric ! How are you? Thank you for asking me these good questions, and it's a big pleasure to try to answer them for you.
 

Eric Karl Anderson: Autumn is the story of Elisabeth Demand who visits her extremely elderly friend Mr Gluck while he's in a care home. Their relationship is bound by stories they read and the stories they make up together. In the time following the controversial decision where Britain voted to leave the European Union, this novel considers the past while capturing the state of the nation we live in right now. It states the importance of art and literature as a means of communicating when dialogue between different factions of society comes to an end.

You've ambitiously written this novel as the first in a series of four books named after each season. What's your overall conception for this quartet?
 

AS: I've been thinking about writing a seasonal series of books for about 20 years now, and in 2014, after finishing How to be both, I realised it was time to start.

 This might simply be because I knew now it was possible, after Hamish Hamilton made such a beautiful finished book-form for How to be both in a matter of weeks (!), to turn a book around quite speedily compared to the usual time it takes, and this excited me about how closely to contemporaneousness a finished book might be able to be in the world, and yet how it could also be, all through, very much about stratified, cyclic time.

The way we live, in time, is made to appear linear by the chronologies that get applied to our lives by ourselves and others, starting at birth, ending at death, with a middle where we're meant to comply with some or other of life's usual expectations, in other words the year to year day to day minute to minute moment to moment fact of time passing. But we're time-containers, we hold all our diachrony, our pasts and our futures (and also the pasts and futures of all the people who made us and who in turn we'll help to make) in every one of our consecutive moments / minutes / days / years, and I wonder if our real energy, our real history, is cyclic in continuance and at core, rather than consecutive.

And since the novel as a form is always about time, and since the name we've given to the novel form also means new, something new, something so new it's news – I suppose I'm interested in asking structural questions of the form.

We'll see what happens. I have no idea how the reality will meet the conception. I'm looking forward to finding out.
 

EKA: The novel so accurately and beautifully articulates the conflicted post-Brexit mood of the country. Was it difficult to write about something so topical within a series of books you've been planning for many years?


AS: No – I found, as Brexit started to happen round us all this past summer, that what I'd been writing was already about divisions and borders and identities and, yes, slightly more historic parliamentary lies. So it more or less fell neatly into place. But as it did, as it unfolded, I was right up against my promised deadline for Hamish Hamilton, so I asked my publisher, Simon, if I could have an extra month, because I knew the book had to (and I had to, too) square up to what was happening if the notions of contemporaneousness in it were to mean anything at all. (It's a real testament to a truly brilliant publisher that the finished book is such a beautiful object in itself).

 

I knew a book about autumn would be about the shortness of life – there's no avoiding Keats, after all, and too right there isn't

 

EKA: When Elisabeth is a girl she develops a special friendship with her much older neighbour Daniel Gluck. Her mother protectively becomes suspicious about their bond, but she persists in seeing him anyway. What is it that draws her so much to Mr Gluck?
 

AS: Hmm. Well. When she walks past his door, music is always playing. His house is full of art. Love and the imagination are connected. And he's different from anyone else she's met. And she already sees him for what he is, past appearance, and that's how he sees her. And a hundred other tiny details. But above all, she, like he, knows somewhere at core as soon as they meet that they're about to be the lifelong friends that they'll become – I have a theory that we do know our lifelong friends, we intuit it as soon as we meet them. It's something about recognition. And love takes all sorts of forms that the cliched archetypes of love don't habitually leave much room for.
 

EKA: Like in many of your other books, trees play an important factor in this novel. There are descriptions of trees changing, people dressing up as trees and transforming into trees. What significance do trees have for you?
 

AS: Trees are great. Don't get me started about how clever they are, how oxygen-generous, how time-formed in inner cyclic circles, how they provide homes for myriad creatures, how back when this country was covered in forests the word for sky was an old english word that meant tops of trees ... The sweetness they create. The things they help us create. The pollenation they make possible, their utter (mellow) fruitfulness. Their gestural uprightness plus bendiness, their suppleness in all weathers. Their shelter. Their ingenuity with colours, and with looking after themselves seasonally. Their organic relation to books. Like I said, don't get me started. And of course, autumn – the fall – the lifecycle of leaf, the leaf-cycle of life. 'He who has kissed a leaf / need look no further' – William Carlos Williams. There's a Norwegian poet who everybody knows in Norway, he's like Burns is in Scotland, like Wordsworth in England, his name's Wergeland, and when he died, quite young, one of the last things he said before he went, was 'kiss next year's roses for me.' That's just the tip of what I feel about trees.
 

EKA: Your previous novel How to be both featured a young person's fascination with a somewhat forgotten artist. In this novel Elisabeth actively researches Pauline Boty, Britain's only female Pop Artist, who is now somewhat obscure. What drew you to writing about this artist and the character's preoccupation with her?
 

AS: I knew a book about autumn would be about the shortness of life – there's no avoiding Keats, after all, and too right there isn't. And when I happened on a Boty picture, so full of brightness and vivacity, and then learned her life circumstances, and looked at more and more of her extraordinary and vital work, and saw how she went about demolishing the borders and divisions and given limitations for a young woman of her time, I knew she'd figure one way or another. When I saw how she asks questions of the image, of the replication of the image, and our relationship with the image, it felt even more true to now; she saw it all – worked on and with the skills we need right now in a world blasted by image – fifty years ago, and when I sensed her skill too for incorporating what she called the 'nostalgia for NOW' into her work – and how her contemporary originality was so troubling that after her death she disappeared, just vanished, pretty much overnight, from the culture she'd not just embodied but helped to make possible – and then how she'd re-emerged, against the pretty tragic odds of her own short life – it was a cyclic story in itself. The cyclic structure, I'm beginning to realise, is a comic structure, I mean comic as opposed to tragic. It's about renewal. It'll always be about revitalisation.

So I think I knew to trust to such a serendipity. And I'm so unbelievably happy to have her kick-ass presence, her grace, her boundary-cancelling creativity and energy, that sheer joyous vitality, in a book so much about the divisions, locally, nationally and internationally, that we're facing both literally and rhetorically right now.

 

Autumn

Ali Smith

A breathtakingly inventive new novel from the Man Booker-shortlisted and Baileys Prize-winning author of How to be both

Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. That's what it felt like for Keats in 1819.

How about Autumn 2016?

Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer.

Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever.

Ali Smith's new novel is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. This first in a seasonal quartet casts an eye over our own time. Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearian jeu d'esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s Pop art: the centuries cast their eyes over our own history-making.

Here's where we're living. Here's time at its most contemporaneous and its most cyclic.

From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves.

Here comes Autumn.

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