Ali Smith: "The real human currency is not money; it's language

The writer, who won the Premi Llibreter in 2020, is considered one of the UK's brightest voices

Ali Smith (Inverness, 1962) set herself a literary challenge in 2015: to write four novels - each for one season - and to publish them as soon as possible after she had finished. The first two parts of  the Seasonal Quartet arrived in Catalonia between 2019 and 2020 with the novels Autumn and Winter, published by Raig Verd, who will launch Spring on 8 February and Summer on 30 August. With this quartet, Smith captures the fleeting nature of time and immediacy, while reflecting on Brexit, the migration crisis, post-truth and fake news. Autumn won Smith the 2020 Llibreter Prize, which is widely endorsed by critics and readers alike.

What motivated you to write Seasonal Quartet?

It began as a kind of challenge, even a game, with the very notion of the form of the novel. In English the word novel also means new, the newest thing, and the literary form is called the novel because it was named for the notion that it’d always be about, or something to do with, the most recent or newest thing happening in the narratives round us (from the old French in etymology, nouvel).  
    Of course the irony is, as soon as it’s written, it’s no longer the newest thing! I think the novel form is always about time, and about human society held in the context of passing time.
     In 2014 I had handed in a novel (called How to be both) very late to my UK publisher, about a year past my deadline, and when I apologised for its lateness my publisher said, don’t worry, we can still bring this book out to our own deadline – and they did; six weeks later I was holding in my hand finished copies of this novel (and this was quite a feat, because the novel had a complex structure and had to be published in two simultaneous forms, different versions). Usually the publishing of a novel takes between 9 and 18 months. So I was amazed and energised by the fact that it’s possible to publish something so close to its having been written, it made me think of the great Victorian novelists, like Dickens, who published what he wrote as soon as he wrote it, in pieces which then developed organically into larger structures as time itself formed them.

And this encouraged you to set out on a project where books would be published as soon as possible.

I asked my publisher if we might try a sequence of novels I’d been thinking about writing for nearly 20 years, based on the seasons, one a year, publishing them as soon as I handed them in. He checked with the whole publishing team – it asks a lot of a team’s energy and expertise to publish that fast – and they said an enthusiastic yes. So at the end of 2015 I started writing Autumn. Just months later, in 2016, the world shifted seismically, in the UK under the shadow of the brand new word, Brexit, and internationally as a presidential election shook the US, and the rest of us too. 

When Autumn was published, some said it was a book about Brexit. What role did you want to give to the referendum in the book?

I didn’t. I’d begun the project in a jeu d’esprit about time and the novel, a project which would look at how narratives work in real time, from their surfaces to their depths, and Brexit was one of the sudden narrative shapers of this time. It’s a book – they all are, all these novels – about time and times, and how these make us and unmake us, and above all how time passes, both linear and cyclic, through us, and us through it.

In both Autumn and Winter the idea that truth changes and it is not fixed prevails. Why did you want to talk about truth and fake news? How are these ideas articulated in a novel, which is fiction and therefore a lie?

Fiction is the opposite of lies. A lie exists purposely to subvert truth. Fiction exists so that we can come closer to truths that are difficult to express or articulate. Fake news has an agenda. Lies have an agenda. Story’s agenda is only story, the entertaining of us (in other words the holding, if we go to the etymology of the word entertain, which contains notions of holding  and stretching, a kind of elasticity that sustains us), so that we’re supported, opened, informed, and at the same time made less fixed and more versatile.  
     Also, the more we encounter, think about and understand the structures of narrative and the ways that story matters so much to us, the more adept we become at understanding the narratives that our histories (and those who'd like to control the narratives of our histories) land us with.
     I don’t think truth changes. I think one of our ancient sources of truth has always been fiction. I know for sure fake news is as old as the hills, and always happens because someone somewhere wants power and money or territory. But fiction alerts us to and reveals the structures of power, place, identity, worth.  

In Autumn Elizabeth's mother says she's tired of the news because it's always made up. Are you tired of the news too? How do you see the media today?

News is just the same as it always was, except much much faster, which can make all the kinds of media a tool good for human discombobulation, for distraction and persuasion, for the people who control it and want to control us. (I’m not talking about journalism, which we need more than ever at a time of such powerful simplifications of what’s happening round us.) Now we all carry the news and various media very very personally, very close to us, right there in our pockets, in the palms of our hands, in the form of a small screen. This suggests to us something untrue: that the world is small, that global’s the size of a pocket, that everything happening round us is the size of a small screen, and that time is nothing but the impact of the next news story knocking the last news story (a week, a day, 5 minutes ago) into oblivion.
     These are persuasive misapprehensions that belong to our time, and it won’t be long before we learn this and remember what time really is and what the word global really means. We’re learning it now, under pressure from an angered climate system, from an old plague-companion in the shape of a new, real and utterly cataclysmic virus. All of this is revealing to us how the structures humans have put in place to ‘run the world’ can change overnight if we need them to, and how they will have to change, and how we have to work to make sure that this change is for the good of us all.

Fences and walls often appear in novels. Why is the world obsessed with closing territories?

People who want power over other people know that one of the best tricks to the getting of that power is the act of dividing and ruling – how one of the fastest routes to the getting of power is to apply the us and them fallacy.  In reality, there’s no them. There’s only us. All the arts blow human sized holes in the fences and the walls.    

The refugee crisis is also present in the books and some of the characters see it as a pervasive threat. Why is there still this rejection towards people coming from outside? What interested you about this issue?

This is truly the story of our time, when more people than ever before have found themselves homeless and crossing the surface of the earth looking for somewhere safe, because of war, political division, poverty. How can anyone tell the story of this time we’re in if they don’t tell this story?   

In your novels we often see language games and experiments. Why are you so interested in language?

Language is our best, most versatile, simultaneously most complex and most simple means of communication.

There’s language in everything. There’s language in every silence.  

Translation – which I think of very broadly, as the coming together of language and meaning – is at the root of everything, every exchange. Language means we’re not alone. Verbal language is a revelation of family since no language exists in singularity and every one of our verbal languages has been produced by a fusion of other languages. Plus we’re born not with a passport intact, say, but with a readiness and keenness for the brilliant structures of meaning to ignite us, our brains are longing for and equipped to be adept at all the languages of all the possible kinds.  
     When words mean, we all mean. This is why language relates directly to worth. (In English the phrase goes: to tell a story, and the word tell is also the word used for counting money, for bank tellers.) The real human currency isn’t money. It’s language. 

In the UK the books came out right after you wrote them, but in Spain Autumn was published last September. How do you think readers will read them, now that there has been a pandemic in between?

I don’t know. It’s the risk they run, these books, that they belong to a passing time. And this has been a time of what we might call increasing blatancy, distraction, numbness, and real urgency, in the narratives we’ve all been living. I’ve no idea how they’ll read. I can’t worry about it. I was doing what the project asked of me.  
     But with the luck that naturally comes with the telling of old/new stories, something in them will transcend their time. That’s what the seasons do too; they’ve all happened before, been and gone, and at the same time every time they happen it’s for the first time.  

Since the release of 'Autumn' Boris Johnson has become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Donald Trump has lost the presidency of the United States and we are experiencing a global pandemic. How do you see the future?

Leaves, bare branches, buds, new leaves. Meanwhile, we continue to do what humans do while we’re here and alive: working out what means what, and what’s worth what, all over again, for the first time.

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