An interview with Ali Smith: “We are a selfish generation”

Ali Smith’s house is tucked into a neat cul-de-sac about ten minutes’ walk from Cambridge station. It had been a couple of years since I’d last visited her, and so I’d had to ask for directions again. Better take a wrong turning once you’re in Ali’s company rather than before: she would ensure that any error became an adventure. But when I arrive at her door, a neatly written sign with my name on it, and an arrow pointing off to the left, is tucked into the frame, instructing me not to knock but rather to head to the next door but one. So I knock at No 2, instead of No 6, and there she is, the beaming, wise, sprightly presence that is Ali Smith, in a neat little house that is a mirror of the one I’ve been in before.

“Commander!” I say in greeting – she’s just been made a CBE in the New Year Honours List. “Oh, just call me Comma,” is the riposte. And that is Ali Smith all over, for in person she is as she appears in her books: modest and funny but fiercely intelligent and unfailingly able to find the right word – but not the one that you would ever find.

This is the office now, she tells me, as she makes a pot of peppermint tea. She and the artist Sarah Wood, her partner, used to rent it out; but since they started using it as a workspace she’s got two books written here in pretty quick succession: Artful, a collection of four imaginative essays that began life as lectures given at Oxford University, and How to Be Both, her latest novel – a book of two halves that may be read in any order. One half tells the story of George, a 21st-century teenaged girl wrestling with the loss of her mother; the other is narrated by Francescho, a 15th-century painter who happens to be, under his tunic and hose, female, and who is responsible for the extraordinary frescos that adorn the Palazzo Schifanoia, in Ferrara. Smith builds a sly, questioning portrait of the enigmatic Francesco del Cossa, the Italian artist who created this work. Each section is labelled “One”, and the books come with the sections printed in random order: you don’t know which you’ll get until you’ve got it, so to speak.

Smith’s work has always been both narratively engaged and enticingly open-ended (many of her stories are told in the second person, as “you”, which leaves the gender of the voice undefined); How to Be Both takes that freedom, that desire to share the work of art with the reader, to the next level.

“The things in life which try to pin us down are the things we have to try to work against,” she says. “That’s what the novel can do, that’s what art can do. You never know what you’re going to end up with when you sit down to write something. At the end, if it holds, it can do this multifarious thing – which is to open things rather than close them, to make them bigger rather than smaller, to cross those divides which we live every day of our lives. Kafka was right: we have to break whatever is frozen inside us. That’s what books are for.”

How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (I was one of the judges who put it on that shortlist), and went on to win the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize, which rewards fiction that “opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. At the ceremony, Smith called the award, given in association with this magazine, “the thing closest to your heart if you work with the novel as a form”. But since then How to Be Both has also won the Costa Novel Award, generally seen as a much more cosy affair. It’s as good a demonstration as any of the way in which her work blends qualities of formal invention with a fireside storytelling skill. (She disputes this last quality: “If you say so. If I had kids, I think I’d be a rubbish storyteller!”)

The youngest of five children, Smith was born in Inverness in 1962…. READ THE REST AT THE NEW STATESMAN