Writer Zadie Smith and graphic novelist and illustrator Chris Ware spoke at the New York Public Library on December 11, 2012.
Paul Holdengräber It is my pleasure to welcome back Zadie Smith for the third time. The first time she delivered just about the most remarkable Robert Silvers Lecture, "Speaking in Tongues," the second time I interviewed her here for her book Changing My Mind, and today she will speak with Chris Ware, who is LIVE for the first time at the New York Public Library, but I hope not for the last. The excitement for me tonight is great. And the sadness also is great, because whenever there is a season that ends I am very sad. But it’s mainly excitement, and the main excitement is I do not know what will happen. I really do not know what Zadie Smith and Chris Ware will do onstage. I will discover that with you and I cannot wait. For having the idea of bringing them together, I would like to thank Mariel Fiedler, who works on the staff here at LIVE from the New York Public Library. Mariel Fiedler, many many thanks. What I do know is that Zadie and Chris will converse and after the conversation will take some good questions. Questions take about fifty-two seconds to ask, I’ve discovered. Then they will sign books and help us bid farewell to the LIVE from the New York Public Library fall season till we start again at the very end of January.
For the past seven years or so, I’ve been asking guests, talent I invite, to give me a biography in seven words, and, for the first time, both Chris Ware and Zadie Smith declined my very kind and generous offer. (laughter) So I only have four words plus three to offer to you, which is Zadie Smith, Chris Ware Building Stories together. Please welcome them.
(Smith and Ware refer to old snapshots, projected behind them, throughout.)
Zadie Smith Can I ask you a few questions first, before we zip along?
Chris Ware Sure, if you want.
ZS I was just wondering about the way you drew as a child. I was thinking of that Crumb documentary and watching those boys obsessively go over the comic books again and again, almost instinctive copying, they don’t really add anything, they just do the same thing over and over. It’s interesting to see with the Crumbs, that Robert at some point pulls ahead in some way, or he’s able to move into a next stage, and the brothers keep obsessively copying and I wondered what your experience was.
CW Yeah, I just drew. Mostly it was like these weird kind of almost homoerotic drawings of just guys in tights with muscles and trying to get like the six-pack down, you know, and I don’t know what I was thinking, honestly, it was just repetitive, there was no storytelling to it at all. Meanwhile the cartoonist Seth, I don’t know how many people know his work, he’s a great Canadian cartoonist. I think he drew a thousand pages of comics until he was sixteen years old or so.
ZS Fully narrativized.
CW Fully narrative, really funny by adult standards, really, sentimental superhero stuff, but accomplished, you know. So I don’t think I drew my first story until I was maybe eighteen.
ZS So what do you think all that copying was about? That figure over and over again.
CW Probably just like the lonely kid trying to prove himself and hoping that some girl would come and look over my shoulder and see the drawing.
ZS Because they love that stuff, girls.
CW Yes, it’s guaranteed. So, I still am deeply ashamed at the clear confusion that I was working through under the muddled thinking. To this day, I’m probably still doing the same thing. Does that answer your—
ZS Yeah. Maybe the thing about college and university, like from the obsessive point of childhood, where you think you are the only person interested in this stuff or the only person who would be concerned with what you’re doing. Supposedly college, university is meant to be a great drawing out, no, a kind of release? Was it that way for you?
CW I guess a little bit, mostly it was just I felt really outclassed. I didn’t as a kid; I mean I went to the art museum and took art classes, but it seemed to me like art was something that had already happened, like it was over, basically, and that it was now—it was just all advertising and movies and TV shows and that nobody did that sort of stuff anymore. By the time I got to college, I’m exaggerating a little bit slightly here, but by the time I got to college, I was totally unacquainted and ill-equipped to deal with contemporary art, so it was kind of like a crash course in figuring out what had been happening for the past three hundred years or so. (laughter)
ZS But your first concern then was with craft, no? Making something small, beautiful, precise, it wasn’t with the ideas of art?
CW Yeah, I think so, definitely, and I guess that’s kind of continued and then that’s not exactly like—that’s not something that is looked upon favorably in art school, certainly not in the eighties or nineties. So I guess I’ll just keep going here. We’ll switch back—
ZS You look like a normal adult there, things have improved.
CW Yeah sort of, I guess. I went to the University of Texas in Austin, it was really, really, really, really hot there, so occasionally I’d go swimming with my friends. Referring to a snapshot Off to the right there is my friend John Keene, who drew comics for the student newspaper, as did I. We sort of influenced each other and bolstered each other—very, very, incredibly smart guy, sort of directed my thinking in a lot of ways and introduced me to a lot of earlier comics. My girlfriend and another friend there on the left. It was so hot I spent almost all my time just sitting next to an air conditioner drawing or making stuff. That’s actually me in my grandmother’s basement there on the right, where I used to sit as a little tiny kid and when I would go back and visit her I’d still work at the same table.
ZS So Quimby was already happening when you were in college?
ZS And was Quimby something from childhood, something that continued on?
CW No, it was just something I started drawing when I was about nineteen, twenty or so. Really self-conscious stupid art ideas. This is a big crappy painting that I spent a whole semester doing and I put Peter Saul to sleep doing the final critique, he was standing there trying to stay awake talking about it. I feel guilty about it to this day. These are just some life drawings. I did know about Renaissance art and life drawing and trying to actually see. And I really wanted to do that, so I still continued even through graduate school to take life drawing classes and to this day I kind of feel like they were the classes from which I learned the most, actually just looking at the human body.
This is a crappy painting I did, it’s about eight by twelve feet, of—when I was in school I think the painters who were most talked about and who I liked were David Salle, Robert Longo, and Julian Schnabel. I was trying to do stuff that had a sense of both the internal but also to try to introduce a little bit of embarrassment, maybe, and to get more in touch with my internal feelings and I thought, “Well, I’m going to do a painting about my grandfather, you know, it may not make sense to anybody,” and there’s a little doll there that I made based on a superhero figure, it’s a shelf, there, and then I made an animated cartoon that’s projected on it and that’s his hat.
And this is a kind of a sculptural painting with movable pieces on it, inspired by the artist Öyvind Fahlström who did these paintings called, I think they were called Movable Krazy Kat. I might have the name wrong, but it was just a great idea to make a painting that you could touch and move around. Then on the corner there is a little mechanical toy that I built: if you push the button it’s like a joke about Abstract Expressionism, it’s a painter who just makes a mark over and over again. (laughter) You know, kind of childish. This is again my grandmother’s house here, unlikely to mean anything to anybody other than me.
A photo of Smith as a teenager is projected
CW So how old are you there?
ZS I think I’m just about to go to college, actually, I’m just eighteen, probably singing “Wonderful Tonight” or something, (laughter) some great classic like that. I had the thing at that point I kind of had the same feeling when I’m talking to other artists, writers, who wrote a lot when they were teenagers, and somehow I didn’t do that at all. I maybe wrote four stories throughout the whole of my adolescence. They were perfect copies, that’s what I did—I copied a Agatha Christie story or a P. G. Wodehouse story, sometimes to the extent of typing out the story itself. And sometimes changing it in one way or another but for some reason that was my main instinct. The first thing I really wrote seriously was in college, two stories and then White Teeth, so there wasn’t a lot of—writing was not really a part of my life. (laughter) But the thing about that is that’s it’s reading that is the practice, it’s not writing. I was reading obsessively all the time forever, every day, and that’s I think where you learn to write, not in the actual writing. The writing was an explosion of eighteen years’ worth of reading all the time.
CW What—were you reading Keats when you were like fourteen or something like that?
ZS But you know, there was nothing unusual about it in the sense that that’s how the schools worked, you know, in a normal comprehensive school, the kind I went to—two thousand kids, total madhouse, but an English A-Level—they still had this idea that you’re going to learn eight books and they should in some way represent the history of English writing, so we did Keats, Milton, Austen—one book each, you understand, of each these people, a Shakespeare play, maybe a contemporary poet like Seamus Heaney, for example, but that kind of exercise, I mean, it’s incredibly useful, no? And it’s extraordinary to watch a load of fifteen-year-olds learning Antony and Cleopatra or Milton. You know, kids who have absolutely no interest in it really or never have an interest in it again, but it was just a training.
And then college, then at Cambridge, the summer before you go, which is kind of horrifying—this is another great hair episode in my life, flat iron—before you turn up they send you this list of books that you ought to read before you turn up. I mean, it’s scandalously long—it like starts at the Bible and ends conservatively around 1960, and there’s no way you can read them all, but I didn’t realize that you weren’t meant to—I tried as hard as I could over that summer to read all of them and that experience really is what—
CW You’re probably the only student in the history of—who ever did that.
ZS But it came out of ignorance, I didn’t know anyone who’d gone to university, really, I thought that was what you had to do, so I did it, and it was a good exercise, but almost all the training was not—I guess I want to talk to you about it later, was not this obsession with originality. Like, I notice with my students they’re very concerned with being original or their creativity. And that was just not my experience of coming to writing. It was more taking in the work of other people entirely, like swallowing it whole.
CW That’s interesting. I never would have thought that writers would do that, but I guess it makes sense.
Another photo is projected
ZS I thought that boy was very good looking at the time, and I was right, but I also thought I looked great, and I was wrong. (laughter) There was a delusion there halfway. Explains a lot of the reason he’s not even looking at me at that moment. (laughter) That’s just me thinking about Sylvia Plath as usual. (laughter) I was always thinking about Sylvia Plath. That’s White Teeth, which was just toward the end of college.
CW You said you wrote two stories and then White Teeth, so when you sat down to write those two stories, were you intimidated and freaked out and panicked or did you think, “All right! Here I go!” Do you remember?
ZS No, I wrote them for a reason. There was a competition in college where you could write stories and if they got through this process they would be published in this little book that contained stories from Cambridge and stories from Oxford. Like ridiculous elitist affair, really, but I desperately wanted to be in it. So that was my reason. I never would have, maybe I would have later in life, but I can’t imagine sitting down and thinking, “I’m just going to write for no purpose.” I had no reason to think that that was something that you would do.
CW Basically it was print.
ZS I needed to have a structure or to have somebody ask me for something. Even to this day, I don’t often sit down and just write an essay. I need someone to say, “can you do this and do it by this point?” I need some kind of restriction.
Another photo is projected
This is my mum and me at the launch of White Teeth, which happened in her flat in Willesden. Poor Mum. I looked agonized, I don’t know why. I think it was a mixture of the feeling of having your family life, this childhood existence, suddenly mixed with this professional life, which I found totally horrifying, you know, like a wedding when you wonder how your husband’s family and your family are going to get on. I couldn’t imagine my past life and this new odd thing that happened to me jelling in any way. Of course, everybody was perfectly happy. I was completely paranoid and in hell. My mother was delighted.
CW Defines my life, right there. (laughter)
ZS But it was a nice thing. Also—maybe we could talk about it in relation to houses later. It was that feeling of being in a place. I’d been in that flat since I was eight, I suppose, eight or nine. And you have these kind of layers of life in it. So weird to be a kid and then the adult, and then to have this adult thing happen in it. I’m always fascinated by people, for instance, who live in a flat as a child and then grow up in and then have children in it. I think it’s the most extraordinary to live in the one space. Our neighbors do that at NYU.
CW Happening less and less in America.
ZS So that’s me, uncomfortable with my mother. Professional life.
CW Also then, from there, then, like how—I’m just curious, and I kind of know, but I’m just curious to hear you talk about it—how then from writing those two stories how did White Teeth come to be, how was it published? It’s like, it just—
ZS It’s kind of—it’s not a very typical story because I didn’t really do anything for that—to make it professional. I was such a student and to me writing was something, which happened in classrooms and in university or at school. I was just writing. I was writing in my room and I got a letter. The story that I’d been writing for this thing, and this editor in London had read it and he said, you know, “It’s good, why don’t you—do you ever think about expanding it or doing something longer?” And it was that prompted thought, “Yeah, well, maybe I could do something longer,” and that’s what happened with White Teeth and then I brought it to him. He was actually about to buy it for a thousand pounds, and I was absolutely delighted, beyond belief delighted—
ZS And just by accident I went to dinner a few nights later with a kid from university who was a fancy family, academic family, writers and publishers, and I told them my amazing story, “I’m going to sell this book for a thousand pounds, can you believe it?” and they were like, “Oh, no, honey, don’t do that. (laughter) You need an agent,” which I’d never even heard of. And so that’s how it happened. I got an agent and then we sold it. And then I hadn’t finished it, so I was in this odd situation. I was completely broke, they hadn’t paid me anything, I was living in this friend’s spare room, I was collecting the dole, and I remember going to the bank, and saying, “Look, you’re not going to believe this, but I’ve written this novel and these people are going to pay me money, could you forward me a thousand pounds?” (laughter) Not a cent, they would not give me a brass cent.
CW Jeez, I wonder why.
Listen to Smith and Ware's complete conversation at the LIVE from the NYPL website here.