Interview

Zadie Smith: 'Adult friendships seem hopelessly diluted'

Zadie Smith's Swing Time is about the divergent fortunes of two childhood friends who dream of becoming dancers. We talked to the author about how our friendships shape our identities

Swing Time is about two girls who are childhood friends, and the different courses their lives take as they get older. To what extent do you think people’s lives and personalities are shaped by their friendships?

A good deal. To me friendships represent choice over birthright; they have a special kind of impact exactly because they’re not inevitable. Friendship means conversation, and it’s vital to my life, because it’s hard for me to have thoughts or even feelings independently: I need to talk things through. I rely on my friends.
 

Do you think the friendships we have as children play a different role in our lives to those we forge as adults?

Adult friendships seem to me hopelessly diluted and weak. They’re forged in such mild circumstances. You like the same books. Your husbands are friends. You meet at work. Compare that to: “We were 15 and we sat in a graveyard and ate magic mushrooms and talked about the meaning of existence until the sun came up over Tescos.” You can’t compare them.
 

When it comes to exploring aspects of our identities – like what it means to be of a particular class or racial background - do you think there’s something we get from our friendships that we can’t get from family relationships?

In friendship the peculiarities of birthright can be a kind of offering. I used to break fast with muslim friends in school under no stronger compulsion than “I do this: want to see what it’s like?” That all gets so much more complicated if you’re a mother passing tradition down to a son or a suitor looking to marry and so on. Then every difference is fraught. But in friendship nothing is hanging on it and we can be ideally generous and open.


To me friendships represent choice over birthright; they have a special kind of impact exactly because they’re not inevitable

A lot of the pairs of characters in your books are opposites – or at least they feel like them! Why is it so important that your characters have people in their lives who are so different to them?

I wouldn’t blame that on my characters! I have that sort of mind. I’m not proud of it. It’s like there’s a Hegelian triangle in the DNA of my thought: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.  I can’t help it. The essays work that way and the novels too. A boring Freudian would point to my biracial heritage which is of course the synthesis of ‘opposites’. And maybe it is as simple as that.
 

Are there any of your own friendships that you think have had a strong influence on shaping your personality, and your life?

Many, though some of them break the rigid separation of friend and family. My brothers – which I consider a friendship. My husband, Nick. And my best friend from childhood, Sarah Kellas.  Those seem to me to be people largely responsible for whoever it is I am. Later friendships are more about a transformation of ideas. Darryl Pinckney in New York is a ‘late’ friend and a dear one who has changed my mind about so many things. He has been my great guide in America – so much so that I placed him unchanged into a novel just for the fun of it.

More about the author

Swing Time

Zadie Smith

LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017

'Smith's finest. Extraordinary, truly marvellous' Observer
'Superb' Financial Times 'Breathtaking' TLS 'Pitch-perfect' Daily Telegraph
'A tale of two girls who meet in a West London dance class... A page-turner that's also beautifully written ' Glamour
'There is still no better chronicler of the modern British family than Zadie Smith' Telegraph

SHORTLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARDS 2017
Mumsnet Book of the Month for July 2017

A dazzlingly exuberant new novel moving from north west London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty

Two brown girls dream of being dancers - but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, black bodies and black music, what it means to belong, what it means to be free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten either.

Bursting with energy, rhythm and movement, Swing Time is Zadie Smith's most ambitious novel yet. It is a story about music and identity, race and class, those who follow the dance and those who lead it . . .

Related features

.