review page logo
Ali Smith
In THE ACCIDENTAL there is a sense of ambiguity about the woman who arrives to expose the instabilities and hypocrisies underlying her target family. In many ways she seems like an avenging angel, someone on a broader mission than the suggestion of her criminality entails. How would you describe your relationship with that character and her mission?
She was quite a revelation to me - all the characters were, actually, which is I suppose a very good thing, since writing anything is at core, when it's working, a live and surprising dialogue. I'd thought, originally, that she'd be an outright liar, a simple trickster, but she tricked me too by always demanding that no, she'd be telling the truth. My relationship with her ... i think she's terrifying and brilliant, both. It's a bit like the relationship each of the characters has with her - she slips away every time you try to pin her down, or make her up, or corral her, or have her. I also think she's a pure fictional construct, by which I mean she does something best described by a story told by my friend bernard mac laverty, who once went into a class of 12 year olds and asked them to define fiction, and a girl put her hand up and said, please sir, it's made-up truth. Brilliant definition. There's always something of artifice about Amber, but something about artifice that's about truth, because it's a novel, i think, about our very human relationship to narratives, artifices and truths - and about ourselves, and about how and where and by which stories we live.
Michael is a bit of a smarty-pants. Were you getting something off your chest here?
Ha! I think Michael's getting something off his own chest! I'm very fond of him. & I'm very interested in the workings, and the insider hierarchies, of learning and education and what's called the canon, and how it gets made, and so on. But i love most to think of poetry turning its theorists inside-out, infecting sonnet experts with the urgent desire - and it is about desire - to write, rather than to know about, sonnets and the glorious sonnet form. What's a sonnet? it's a love-argument, an argument with the self. It's a formalising of dialogue. It's a making-things-rhyme, sometimes against their own determined force not to. Order, chaos, art, desire. It's all about form and its place and its workings and its uses and how things get made, and what happens when form takes us over as opposed to the other way round, I reckon.
Films are a constant reference point in the book, as a way of framing a period of history as well as defining a particular means of coming to terms with the world. Could you say a little more about your interest in film and its particular place in this story?
It strikes me that we, all of us, grew up as a near-brand-new species, the children of the western world phenomenon of cinema and tv narrative. There's an early piece of writing by D H Lawrence about cinema where he comments on how now that there's the movies, every chambermaid(as he puts it) knows what it means to slam a door - how to respond emotionally, visually, in terms of jealousy or anger, in a codified way that's never existed on this level before. No humans before this last century have experienced quite so intensely the edited mirror-imagery of our own living, the narrative language, narrative editing, narrative visualisation, delivery of narrative and documentary and advertising and propaganda information, on anything like the massive scale we have. Our brains, and our expectations, and our belief systems, must have been remade, to some extent, by it. So what happens when you put this together with a very very old story, the fable with its roots in biblical, ovidian, fairy-story traditions, of the stranger knocking on the door of the houses to see who is kind? Personally I love cinema, I always have, I love what's layeredly possible with just the play of light and dark and movement through minute frozen images. My father was the local electrician responsible for the inverness cinemas (where we lived) when i was a child, which meant two things - that we had a free pass, so i went every week at least once, and that I spent a lot of my time there gazing not at the film but upwards, wondering how it was my father could get so high to replace bulbs in the giddily-high-above plush red ceiling, and when i wasn't feeling like this i was glowing in the sensation of being inside a huge warm mouth - which is what I remember thinking it felt like, the balcony like the gum ridge, the huge row of teeth of the whale, and us inside the mouth, on surreally velvety chairs, in the dark, on the tongue, looking out at the crash of colour of it.
Do you imagine an extended story for the mother beyond where you leave her at the end of the novel? If so, would you ever want to say what that is or is that tension too delicate and finely balanced to trample on?
It is good - and clever - of you to offer me delicate interpretation. Of course I can imagine Eve off out in the world, and I have a version of it in my head, but I do tend to think a writer has no business ever imposing an interpretation of a book on a reader. Once the book is finished, it's off out into the world itself, and is everybody else's to read, or engage with.
We have recently reviewed novels by Scottish writers such as James Meek and Agnes Owens. What are your views on contemporary "Scottish" literature?
I think I've been lucky to be alive at a time when the literature of the place I happened to grow up has been so versatile, democratically multi-voiced, courageous, original, full of every potential, politically alive, dimensionally vibrant and concerned with the margins of things - which is often where the stories are, after all - in other words, a literature in which anything - any story, any form - has been not only possible but encouraged, by experimentation, by visceral writing, and by the cornucopic, aggregative example of some of the most exciting writing in English (as it were) for many many years.
An obvious question but we like to know - who are your literary influences?
Oh god this is such a difficult question - because what influences you isn't always what you love, it can also be what you deeply abhor, or what you don't even realise. i think i'm influenced every time I read anything, to be honest, including the writing on the sides of pens, or buses, or packets of things we eat. i picked up a rubber in a shop the other day, it said on it MAGIC RUB. Brilliant. The box next to it was full of little green rubbers which said MYSTIC ERASER, But the writers I love - they change every day. Today I love Christine Brooke-Rose, who i just read for the first time two weeks ago, The ones I can myself sense influence in : a far too under-read Scottish writer called Lewis Grassic Gibbon, I'm sure I'm heavily made by him. The short story writer Grace Paley - she gives writers licence to write anything, so long as it's alive. The modernists, Woolf, Joyce, Wallace Stevens, the poetry of Yeats. Muriel Spark. I love Nicola Barker's books and short stories, though i wouldn't say she's an influence, but she must be, too.
Finally, how do you feel about HOTEL WORLD being liberated around the town of Brighton?
Very very happy. Apart from the fact that I've always rather loved wandering around lovely Brighton myself! - it's a town which seems somehow to lend itself to an open book. And what a wonderful scheme, to release books into the air, as it were, and let them find readers who do or don't take to them. But most of all in this I love the idea of books liberated (that good word you used) out of bookshops, in other words out of the market which decides the arbitrary worth of books, and waiting for readers to come randomly across them. I love, too, the inference of it all : it's as if someone peeled the roof back off a library and scattered books out into the world. It's as if the whole town is a kind of library, waiting to be read. Wonderful.
Ali Smith

Recommend this site to a friend

Find us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter