In this episode of The Archive Project, we feature Zadie Smith in conversation with New Yorker staff writer Parul Sehgal.
Smith is one of the preeminent fiction writers of our age. She burst onto the stage in the year 2000 with her debut novel, White Teeth. It was a huge bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, and signaled a bold new talent had entered the literary world. Since then, she has published six novels, two collections of stories, and three collections of essays in addition to dozens of book reviews and criticism in some of the most influential publications in the world, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the London Review of Books. She has become an important public intellectual and a voice for a generation that came of age around the turn of the millennium.
What is special about this episode is Smith does relatively few public appearances; the last time she was on our stage was more than twenty years ago. The occasion for joining us this fall was the publication of The Fraud. Her new book, a historical novel, is particularly notable as it is a big departure from her previous work, which has been primarily preoccupied by contemporary life. The conversation you are about to hear is remarkable for Seghal’s breadth of knowledge of Smith’s work, and for how this brings out a broad conversation about the power of novels to humanize and complicate the small ethical dilemmas we have every day and the big existential issue of our time. Smith also talks about how she was inspired to take on her first work of historical fiction, in part, because of the ways in which she feels history can often be too easily simplified or “flattened” by what she calls the “narcissism of the present.”
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Zadie Smith is a critically acclaimed fiction writer, essayist, and playwright, whose work includes the novel White Teeth, winner of the Guardian First Book Prize, and On Beauty, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her nonfiction has appeared widely in publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and her essay collections include Feel Free, winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. She was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002 and has twice been named a Granta 20 Best Young British Novelist. In 2022, she received The Pen/Audible Literary Service Award for her “unparalleled attention to craft and humane ideals,” and helping to “guide future generations of writers and readers to embrace and explore culture across genres and media.” Her sixth novel, The Fraud, will publish in September 2023. She is a tenured professor of creative writing at New York University and lives in London.
Parul Sehgal is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Previously, she was a book critic at the Times, where she also worked as a senior editor and columnist. She has won awards for her criticism from the New York Press Club, the National Book Critics Circle, and the Robert B. Silvers Foundation. She teaches in the graduate creative-writing program at New York University.