Ali Smith – One of Scotland’s Finest Writers – 16th August 2015.
To say Ali Smith’s How To Be Both is a revelation in narrative would be an understatement. Beyond winning awards like the Goldsmiths Prize, Novel Award (Costa Book Awards) and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, she’s managed to push the boundaries of the physical book with her pair of narratives distributed in differing orders across bookshelves. Not only does it change the reader experience, it makes the same book at the same time two very different books. That does make sense, honest.
“You can’t have finality without lasting,” explains Ali. Each represents one way of reading her book, and this is why she insists that it simply had to be both, not one narrative over the other. ‘Last’, in particular represents this perfectly: it’s both the end, and the act of surviving.
She got about two thirds of the way through writing Francesco del Cossa, when George came in. “Book are kind if you listen to them” she says. She asked her friend was her kids did to revise and was told her daughter made up songs to remember facts for exams. That made it into the book, but the rest was down to her. “It’s our job to imagine.”
Within that imagination must be something that can bore it, though? “Everything is endlessly interesting. How could anyone be bored?”
What really sets How To Be Both apart is the surprise in order that readers face; has she considered a book with each cover being a start, where the reader can choose the order? “Why is it people writing narratives have a sequence?” Life isn’t like that, she explains. It’s like a painting over a painting: which is first – the one you perceive first, only to discover its past later, or the one first in history? It’s these notions she sought to toy with. “It’s chance,” she explains, and she wanted to bring that to the reader.
Interestingly, this didn’t work in digital. To update a digital text means it’s replaced on all devices automatically, meaning that they had to offer both versions separately. She had inadvertently found a real barrier of digital in more innovative approaches of publishing.
“Our relationship with books is a glorious thing,” she continues. “They change us.”
And with this in mind, it’s the reader who really makes a book, not the author. “We make books when we read them,” Ali continues, and that response is really what can shape a book most of all. She talks effortlessly throughout, with every thread of thought being colourful and enthralling, whether it be the solace of writers and handling book publicity, to holidays in which she saw the works that inspired her.
Looking to the future, she talks about her upcoming short story collection, with Public Library and Other Stories. In the space of time in which she wrote those stories, over 1000 had shut. Closures are being passed off as ‘changing to a community library’, which really means that no one is getting paid to run it any more. “It’s about democracy of reading, and a democracy of space. It’s important and needs to be talked about.”
“We know that books made us,” she continues. “Why would we not stand up and yell at a culture that takes that away from us?”