Award-winning best-selling writer Zadie Smith said she was “nervous” ahead of the world premiere of her first work.
But the author told the BBC in her only interview in the UK that writing the obscene comedy The Wife of Willesden, which opens on Wednesday, was “joyful.”
Smith adapted the tale of The Wife of Bath from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, translating a salacious 14th-century medieval text, written in rhyming couplets, into a contemporary story set in North West London, where she was born and raised. .
She is the author of five novels, including her award-winning debut White Teeth, about postwar multicultural Britain.
Her third novel, On Beauty, won the Orange Prize for Fiction. He has also written numerous essays and a children’s book.
But at the age of 46, dramaturgy is a new departure. The author says it is “slightly overwhelming”.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working alone and being used to being responsible only for myself, so I’m not a great team player,” she says. “I’m a little allergic to responsibility.”
However, he adds that it was wonderful “not being the only brain in the room”.
“It can get pretty depressing, 20 years in a room writing books,” he explains.
So working with 10 actors and director Indhu Rubasingham was “like a life force,” he says. “I felt happy to have colleagues.”
“It was wonderful to see people doing something collectively,” he says, and “humbling” to see them bring his words to life on stage.
But the show was born by chance. Smith describes it as “a strange story, an accidental adventure”.
When Brent made his bid to become London Borough of Culture 2020, Smith cheerfully agreed to attend. “I guess I didn’t immediately imagine that Brent would win,” he admits.
But he did, and under increasing pressure to come up with an idea (“it got a little heavy”) and in a growing panic, Smith looked at his bookshelf and noticed a copy of The Canterbury Tales.
On impulse, he suggested translating a short one-page “monologue” from The Wife of Bath’s Tale, “because that’s what everyone remembers”, which could then be published in a local magazine.
However, as he was flying to Australia, a press release was sent announcing that he was translating the entire The Wife of Bath into a play.
Smith was troubled to say the least. “And once it went out into the ether, I felt compelled to do so.”
But now, looking back on the project, he believes it “was a gift”.
“Once I got over the shock and stopped trying to get out of the situation, all kinds of fruitful things came out of it.”
Compare the writing of the play to “homework”, observing: “I answer homework very well.”
Smith had translated Chaucer into contemporary English when he was a student at Cambridge University.
“A blank page is so much more terrifying and I’ve never dealt with a blank page. I’ve always had these handrails from Chaucer, which was amazing. They’re the best handrails you could ever want.”
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories told by a group of pilgrims on their journey from London to Canterbury Cathedral.
One of the pilgrims is called Alyson, or The Wife of Bath. In the prologue to her tale, she reveals that she has been married five times and shares her views on sexuality, consent, and contempt for class privilege.
The Wife of Willesden explores the role of women in society and tells the story of Alvita, a British woman of Jamaican descent in her fifties, who has also been married numerous times. It touches misogyny, slut shame and domestic violence.
“They are literally in the original,” explains Smith. “I honestly think Chaucer is radical. I think people forget what’s inside.
“Even while I was translating it, I thought, I can’t say it. But then I thought, well, if it was said 600 years ago, if they could get it then, then maybe they can get it now.
“It’s very, very obscene. It’s incredibly rude. It’s very, I guess you’d call it sex-positive. It’s very unrepentant.”
As much as she enjoyed working on The Wife of Willesden, Smith doesn’t think she’ll write another comedy unless she has “an incredibly good idea.”
“First play, probably last,” he laughs. “I have too much respect for real playwrights to jump on that bandwagon.”
However, she admits that she came out of the plays before the final curtain.
“I have the idea that I don’t get more of my money by being miserable for longer. It was a feeling I had in the theater.”
What if people walked out of his show? “I’d be really sad,” he says. But “I should defend the freedom of art lovers of all kinds”.
On the contrary, Smith believes you should always finish reading a book.
Mystery writer Mark Billingham told the Cheltenham Festival earlier this year that if a novel didn’t catch it within 20 pages, then he would “hurl it angrily across the room.” He added that he gave up five out of 10 books because “life is too short” and “there are so many great books out there.”
Smith says, “No, I don’t read that way. I insist.
“All respect for Mr. Billingham, but a lot of literature would be lost if 20 pages were all that could be given.
“Of course there are books sometimes that I don’t finish, but it’s rare. I think maybe I’ll select myself a little earlier to avoid books that I know I’ll get bored or hate.
“But no, I’m always interested in this immeasurable relationship between me and this unknown author. It’s something I want to get into when I’m reading, I don’t want to break away.”
Now that Willesden’s Wife has been written and staged, he can return to work on his new novel, which turns out to be a historical work set in North West London in the 1830s.
“I’m halfway through, so I hope to finish – at some point.”
The Wife of Willesden is at the Kiln Theater in North West London until January 15th.
“I owe all my life to libraries”
- August 30, 2012
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