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How to be Both by Ali Smith - Shortlisted author interview

How to be Both by Ali Smith - Shortlisted author interview

J.B. Priestley commented that “I sometimes feel I am more of a writer than a human being.” Is this an occupational hazard?

Not for me, not really. “Practise anonymity”, that's Virginia Woolf's good advice. Self-consciousness of the writer-self is of no real use, ever, to any book. And anyway, I'm drawn to what the great Brazilian writer of and experimenter with all sorts of forms, Clarice Lispector, says – I'm paraphrasing here, she says it much more elegantly – that the life always comes first. (In fact, what she says is that she thinks no book worth the life of a cat or a dog.) I agree. It's all a matter of life. It's never a matter of anything else. Without the life, at all its levels, from micro-cell up, no book.

Did the book emerge just as you had imagined it or is it a different beast altogether?

It started as quite another book, though I had in place already, before beginning anything, a sense that the structure would be twofold and reversible, that the fresco form could hold this for me in terms both formal and thematic, and that the conundrum of how we live with and address and write about our simultaneities would be paramount. A hundred pages in (that's quite a lot of pages for me) I began to wonder why I kept waking up feeling bad, and whether I wasn't maybe writing the wrong book. One clear winter's day a new first line, all voice, very punchy, quite other, hit me and I knew there was nothing for it and I'd have to restart.

So I deleted all but about three pages of that first work and began again, and while I was working on this quite unexpected new half of the book the rest simply slid into place.

Books won't be hurried or coerced. They're their own form of life or lifeforce, I reckon; they'll come when they're ready, and only on their own terms, that's the beauty of it, and the nature of the beast.

Your painter, Francesco del Cossa (a real-life figure), left his home town of Ferrara for Bologna because, as he complained, he felt he was being paid the same as “the worst dauber in Ferrara”. Do we make art for itself or for the rewards it brings, or for both?

There are so many ways to translate that colourful line of del Cossa's in the letter he really did write to his commissioning patron, Duke Borso d'Este, in 1470. In it he asks, politely and bullishly both, to be paid more money than all the other artists working on the same commission, and says that if the Duke persists in paying him only ten bolognini (about tenpence) per square foot the same as the jobbing junior workshop artists, regardless of how he's already invested about half a year's salary in buying good colours, how he's already got a good name and some fame for his work beyond Ferrara, how he's serious, studious, and good with this advanced form of fresco then he'll be being judged, treated and dismissed “al più tristo garzone di ferara”, as the worst dauber, the most pathetic apprentice, the saddest lad of g.

This letter is a fascinating document, a glorious piece of farce in itself, lit up by its idiosyncracy, a fragment of live voice caught in its own syntactic and idiolectic amber. It also happens to be the first extant document we have where an artist demands his worth. Or the first extant document where an artist reveals his vanity. Or both.

More, after Del Cossa died, he was lost to history, he completely disappeared. Vasari, the great recorder of the lives of the Renaissance artists, got his name wrong and he simply vanished from human knowledge for 400 years, till the whitewash fell off the walls over these frescoes in the old tobacco barn the Palazzo had become, and the faces painted 400 years ago looked out again, and everybody got excited at the discovery of a great lost work by well, by whom? Thy decided it must be by Cosimo Tura, the most famous of the local early Renaissance painters. Then, 50 more years after this, near the start of the 20th century, the art historian Adolfo Venturi found a letter in the Modena archive from a painter to a Duke (“io sonto francescho del cossa”) asking, Oliver-Twist-like, for more.

If the Duke didn't have much give in the end, the art makes up for it. The faces on those 500 year-ago walls are right this minute still shockingly fresh. The life of the story when it comes to notions of faces and vanishings, worth and existence, history and lived lives, loss and rediscovery, art, the materials it's made from and its relation to this very material world is a multilayered, kaleidoscopic, whirligig-of-time reward in itself.