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Zadie Smith On The Met Gala And Her New Novel

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Photo: GETTY
You've seen countless images from Monday night's Met Gala. You might have laughed at Kanye West's shredded jeans and grey contact lenses. You were perhaps stunned by Claire Danes' fibre-optic, organza, glow-in-the-dark Zac Posen dress, and probably surprised by Beyoncé and Rita-I'm-not-Becky-Ora's public affection at the event. But one person you probably didn't expect to see among all the peacocks and paparazzi was British author Zadie Smith, rubbing shoulders with Taylor Swift.

Uncharacteristically, the low-key writer and professor attended the annual fashion event at the Costume Institute, and looked as much the part as the seasoned supermodels and conveyor-belt celebrities surrounding her, wearing a dress and trousers by Delpozo and shoes by Miu Miu. Unlike the rest of the attendees, however, Smith didn't snap a single selfie. The novelist famously eschews social media, opting instead for a flip phone.

Ahead of the release of her fifth novel, Swing Time, later this year – her first book since 2012's critically acclaimed NW – we caught up with one of our favourite writers and social commentators to discuss dipping her toe into the fashion elite's inner circle, splitting her time between NY and London, and living life in the digital age.

As someone who avoids the celebrity circus, what was it like attending the Met Ball and did you enjoy the exhibition?
I do usually avoid it, and when I was young I positively hated it. But now I'm 40 I just thought: I spent my 20s and 30s in a dark room writing – this year I'm going to put on a big outfit and go to a party. I love parties generally, love dancing and being drunk, but usually, yes, not in public. Also, frankly: The lure of Beyoncé. I wanted to get a glimpse. (I didn't.)

What I didn't expect was the beauty of the exhibition itself; beautiful Dior creations from the 1950s, wild, contemporary Christopher Kane creations. Clothes are a part of character for me: I was fascinated to see the way these men envision women. I did also get distracted by the Corinthian plinths – one with an amazing "head of a negro". And then at dinner I met another fish slightly out of water, the playwright (and actress) Danai Gurira who wrote that terrific play about Liberia, Eclipsed. So in the middle of all this celebrity madness we were trying to discuss writing!


Being based between New York and London, where do you find more anonymity and peace and what are your favourite things about each city?
I'm a writer: It's not like the paps are chasing me down the street in either town. London for me is family, green spaces and good food, actually... and old friends. New York is work, busy-ness, great light, a certain relentlessness and for sure a certain glamour.

With the prevalence of social media, we can watch events like the Met Ball as they happen, as celebrities incessantly upload to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Are you scared by the power of these channels, the self-obsession they promote and the impact they're having on the next generation?
I had a very surreal Met Ball experience in the sense I have no camera, no phone with a camera, no internet presence at all, and when the evening was over and friends wanted photos I realised I had literally no evidence I'd even been there. I quite like that idea of it just existing in my memory!

I try not to be scared about young people's choices. Everyone was paralysed over my generation's relation with television, but we figured it out. If you'd seen me at 13, you would have thought that, as an adult, I would have gone on to spend 13 hours a day watching television. But the smart kids work out how much of this stuff they want in their lives. I trust my children are smart. And I try to keep up a generational optimism.

On occasion though, like when you're alone at the Met Ball and everyone is on their phones, it can be hard to keep your chin up...

As we move further into the digital age and having been to the opening of Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age of Technology, are you excited for what the future holds technologically? Or are you nostalgic for the pre-digital age that is fast disappearing?
Both, I'm always both. I miss the past, always, and I try to stay open about the future. I don't always succeed – sometimes too nostalgic, sometimes too fearful – but I try to keep my mind open.

Can you give us any insight into what to expect from your forthcoming novel Swing Time?
Tap dancing, black women, money, poverty, sadness and joy!

Zadie Smith's new novel, Swing Time, will be out in autumn 2016.
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