In Artful, novelist Ali Smith bends the possibilities of form and fact for an altogether riveting reflection on art and life. Originally presented as a series of lectures, the book both considers and challenges traditional aspects of storytelling.
How did you decide to deliver these “lectures” in this way?
I’ve never been very interested in or convinced by any mono-voice authority, so these were never going to be authoritative in the usual lecturey way. When St. Anne’s College in Oxford invited me to give these lectures, I knew they’d probably open into dialogue, if not multilogue, both via the things I’d talk about and the forms I’d use to talk about these things. I think, too, more and more, that dialogue is the place where art happens—the coming together of different things always creates something new, something else, and in this I’m thinking about the great Grace Paley, who knew and who said (and who showed in her stories) that dialogue is always [the] deep source of life, including the life in art.
Throughout the book, you present snippets of novels and films and poems to illuminate specific aspects of craft. The juxtapositions feel both fluid and precise, at once free jazz and symphony. Can you describe the development of your assembly?
As long as we use improvisation in the Duke Ellington way, i.e., to mean something that can only arise out of discipline, I love the musical allusion. At the start, I thought it’d be a good use of some notebooks I’ve been keeping over the years. I piled these notebooks on the desk and started reading through them. This idea lasted for about two minutes—well, for about half of the first draft of the first lecture. Then things, ideas, moments, began producing themselves by osmosis or chance or serendipity, and I understood quite quickly that I had to trust to that serendipity. I was also intrigued by rereading Oliver Twist as I wrote, parallel with the writing; again it seemed both right and serendipitous to do what the main character was doing and let the book (just as Dickens was publishing an episodic work in progress as he wrote [it]) and the life develop consecutively together.
How did writing these lectures affect you?
It definitely freed me up, in all sorts of ways, but especially to trust even more than I already unknowingly did the place where human instinct and art instinct meet.
In the final section, “On Offer and on Reflection,” you write, “art is always an exchange.” Do you have any thoughts on the consequences of transferring what had been delivered in person and through speech into a book?
I hope it connects. I hope it works as a book and that it gives its reader as much as—no, more than—it takes.