Short-listed for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2001, Ali Smith’s Hotel World is the kind of novel that is as rare as good room service – giving a passionate, funny, serious and captivating glimpse into the lives of five people connected to one branch of the ubiquitous Global Hotel chain. We talked to Ali Smith about her early days as a writer, novels versus short stories, and which writers she most admires…
You first came onto the scene with Free Love, a collection of short stories, as opposed to a full-length novel. Do you find that you approach these modes of writing differently, or is your method of preparation the same?
A novel never leaves you alone; while you’re working on it, it never goes away. It takes years, regardless of how long the actual writing of it takes. For me, it’s a case of entering it in what’s a mixed state of blindness, trust and fear. Short stories are shorter, that’s for sure, though no less part of the same cycle of exhilaration and despondency that writing anything is. And the preparation for both never seems to stop. There are no holidays in this job!
Do you have a preference between novels and short stories?
I think they’re both equally hard and equally fulfilling. The great thing about stories is that generally (though not always) they’re over more quickly, and there are days, sometimes weeks, in between them where you can sleep without something tugging at your sleeve.
How did it feel when you found out that you had been short listed for the Booker Prize for Hotel World?
It was, surreally, a mix of delightful and horrifying. I don’t like having any attention paid to me at all, but I was delighted for my book. Though I wish it could have done all the publicity, photo calls, etc. by itself…
You’ve said that you are very interested in how popular culture affects the meaning and usage of language. Does this ever become a preoccupation when sitting down to write, ensuring that your ideas come across in the way you’ve intended them to?
No, I never sit down to write to ensure that an idea will come across the way I intend. It’s just not what happens. What happens is that I sit down, write something, then look at it to see what it wants to be. It’s a combination of instinct and edit. Edit comes after, when you tap its potential, and if you do this properly then both you and the writing will be doing what it should.
Which writers did you most admire growing up?
I read voraciously, but not the usual things – there was a cupboard above the bed full of the books my brothers and sisters, all older than me, were reading at school. So by ten I’d read all sorts of things like Joyce’s Dubliners and Orwell’s novels and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I was fascinated by the Struwelpeter and Lear’s Book of Nonsense, and, when I was twelve, I had a rather unsavory passion for the Jill pony books by Ruby Ferguson, all called things like Jill Has Two Ponies and Pony Jobs for Jill (these titles, by the way, have been changed since those – ah! – innocent days!).
Do you find that these have influenced your writing to any degree?
Ha ha – there’s a thought! Pony Jobs for Jill? Well, yes, helplessly – I tend to think that everything we ever read, good or bad, loved or despised or not even really noticed, influences what we write. Pony Jobs for Jill is in there too, for sure.
Were you ever given advice by another author, and did you follow it?
‘Eat carrots for re-hydration, and Powerbars, as they’re full of fibre.’ from Margaret Atwood, about being on the road, doing readings, staying in hotels, etc. Excellent advice, the best kind, practical, about looking after the self in the most basic way. I follow it. And from Joyce Carol Oates: ‘Ali, when you are sixty, and a young admiring good-looking man in his twenties comes to your door carrying copies of all your books and professing admiration – whatever you do, don’t let him in.’ I am not sure yet whether I’ll follow this or not.
That being said, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The book comes first. And, just write it. As James Joyce said, ‘in the writing, the good things will come.’