Has Art Anything to Do with Life?: A Conversation with Ali Smith on “Spring”

By Amy E. ElkinsSeptember 3, 2019

Has Art Anything to Do with Life?: A Conversation with Ali Smith on “Spring”
YOU’LL HAVE A DIFFICULT TIME describing the work of novelist Ali Smith without using analogies to the other arts: a wordsmith, hammering out new shapes of the novel form; a collage artist, making texts that cut and paste across history, medium, and personhood, revealing the edges between things; a sculptor chiseling our contemporary moment with its fractured landscapes of identity into glaring relief. With her Seasonal Quartet of novels, she is a latter-day, Scottish Vivaldi, sounding out the cycles of our lives with unnerving, musical beauty.

The third out of four planned novels in a Seasonal Quartet, Spring takes its readers on journey over the Scottish border, following characters in their most intimate, devastating moments. During this crossing, readers see themselves in the warped mirror of the 21st century that leaves you thinking, “How did we get here?” It is a deeply humane book, one that intervenes in today’s most important questions about the treatment of refugees, mental health, national identity, and feminist allyship. Smith began the seasonal cycle of novels in 2016 with Autumn, publishing one novel each year. Her work has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize four times, and she has won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize, and the Costa Novel of the Year Award.


AMY E. ELKINS: Paddy, a character in your new novel, Spring, is this brilliant person who shows herself to be a next-level researcher and archivist. The novel is full of archives — books, postcards that cross and connect the novels in the quartet, a little girl’s backpack, and the art book “full of people’s lost photos, which this artist had found in fleamarkets or junkshops,” screenplay drafts, emails, and the digital collection of fake obituaries including objects, such as a “picture of a bicycle or a guitar that had ‘belonged’ to a ‘dead’ person.” To what extent are collections of objects important to your creative process?

ALI SMITH: I was originally tempted when I read this question, dear Amy, to say they’re not important at all. I don’t collect anything, I thought to myself. But then I realized that was nonsense, really, since the space where I work is peopled with talisman-like objects, anything from the palm-sized wooden angel’s wing, fallen off some discarded church decor, that I picked up in a market in Ferrara for €3, to the bits of stone or twig I’ve picked up on whatever walk.

Plus, while I’ve been working on these books named after the seasons, the long wall of my study has pretty much by itself become a collage space for anything and everything I think it’ll be good to have in my sightline for the book I’m working on. I’m just about to take that collage apart to make space for whatever Summer might like up. I think what I like best is how objects and images resonate on their own. Then when you put them beside other objects or images, they do what narrative does when two things come together in it, they make a third, they cocktail together to produce their own new thing or narrative.

Also, my partner [Sarah Wood] is an artist, among other things a found-footage filmmaker, and writes a lot about the notion of archive. So it’ll be in my bones for sure.

It sounds like both the visual layers of the writing process — on a very literal level — and your collaborations with Sarah run central to the ways your novel collects and assembles the world. One of my favorite moments in Spring is when you realize that parts of the text you’ve already read — really political, experimental passages — are from the journal of a young character, Florence. She calls her journal the “Hot Air book.” This textual layering creates a kind of post-collage, where you only realize that fragments of another text have made their way onto the page after you’ve already encountered them. And especially in Autumn, the medium of collage transforms storytelling itself through a brilliant recovery of Pauline Boty’s work. I’m curious to know if you’ve experimented with collage art in practice. It enters your work conceptually, but also in a very direct way.

Ha — see above. But I’m not in any way a visual artist. Not consciously (though I’m quite a good photographer). My mother actually used to laugh out loud when I showed her any art I’d tried to make. She’s been safe in heaven dead for 30 years now and upstairs I have a book, on the inside cover of which she tried to teach me, aged six or seven, how to draw ladies, houses, and horses, that’s a talisman for sure. I love that kindness of her hand now. You could say, visually I’m like Woolf’s common reader, I like a true coinciding. And I more than like, I love the places where the different arts meet and fuse together, cross into each other. Collage is a gift to a novelist, I know after Autumn, like fresco structure was too, I knew after writing How to Be Both. The arts are family; they share DNA. To apply the formal workings of one form to another it’s endlessly fruitful, and revealing, about how we live, the forms our social, personal, and power structures take.

“The arts are family” — that’s an incredible way to put it, and in your work those familial bonds emerge in such powerful ways. I love your writing on women artists, such as Lee Miller, Tracey Emin, and Leonora Carrington, and it was through your work that I discovered the sublime art of Rachel Kneebone, Sarah Pickstone’s arbors of poetry, and now, through Spring, Tacita Dean’s clouds and filmy-films. Can you talk about the process of recovering the work of women artists?

Recovering the work … hmm. It’s only recovery because for whatever insane, or careless, or societally blind, or ideological patriarchal infuriating canonical reasons, it’s more often women’s work that falls off the back of the canon and gets lost to time. The story of what happened to someone like Ethel Walker fascinates me; she turns up for a moment in Winter, a book whose structure is blessed by the great Barbara Hepworth. Walker was a hugely famous artist here and internationally at the start of the 20th century, a rare female Royal Academician, a portraitist and landscape painter so well known that every municipal collection held at least one of her paintings. One summer, in her northeast English coastal summer retreat she painted a young woman. A hundred years or so later that painting turned up on eBay, bought by a collector of inexpensive paintings, who looked at the title on the back, Portrait of Miss Hepworth, and wondered who Miss Hepworth was, whether she’d ever been anybody, and when he looked the name up online, wondered if she’d been anyone to do with the museum in Wakefield called the Hepworth, and got in touch to ask. And Tacita Dean, one of the most brilliant figures in visual arts of the last hundred years, with her three exhibitions on simultaneously in London last year while also showing in Switzerland and Scotland at the same time … what’ll become of her, in this lineage, which also includes Boty, who fell away into forgetfulness and near-lostness almost as soon as she died far too young, having been a trailblazer and galvanizing pioneer in not just art but thought too, as well as energy, and gender analysis (and also includes all those women who happened to be artists in the Renaissance who, I suspect, will have found a way, one beyond conventional gender constraints, to practice their arts regardless).

Across the first three novels of the Seasonal Quartet, we get this increased focus on border politics. Spring grapples in a really direct way with the Irish and Scottish borders. Could you say a little about how borders animate your thinking and writing?

I love crossing them. I love the magic line they draw between different places, which then becomes a threshold to new places, possibilities, multiplicities. The way human beings are using borders right now, all across the world, as if their purpose is a kind of prison architecture, is heinous, deeply dishonorable, self-defeating, useful to powerful politicians and demagogues as a divisive tool, expedient for a politics of mass paranoia and neurosis. It goes against everything good in us, and we know it.

Absolutely. This reminds me, the artist Sarah Sze has said, “I think the role of the artist is to disrupt and reveal,” and some of my work looks at how Sze and other makers cross the borders between media forms to disrupt and reveal. To my mind, your Seasonal Quartet engages in the project of disruption and revelation, but especially Spring, where much of the novel focuses on the brutality and inhumanity of indefinite immigration detention. There are so many moments when the reader wants the central character, Brit (or Britannia, as she is sometimes jokingly called), to make the humane, better choice. How do you see your novels making an intervention into how we might one day understand Brexit in a historical sense?

I don’t. I’m writing these books instinctually, to a deadline, trying to allow the moment to pass through me and them like we’re a porous skin surface, with the novel form itself — a revolutionary and ever-hopeful, ever-socially-analytical form — as the mast to which we’re tied through the storm. Culture is porous like us, and it enters us as much as we make it. I’ve no idea how these books will read in 10, 20 years. I can’t think about it, I can’t even consider it. The books began as an experiment, a project, an attempt to ask, 1. why the publishing industry generally waits so long to publish a manuscript after it’s finished, and 2. why we don't allow the novel more to be what it says it is, novel, the latest thing, which is where it gets its name from, and is what people thought of it when the form first appeared. The project arose because I handed in a novel called How to Be Both really late to my publishers and apologized for missing their deadline. But you haven’t missed it, they said we can still publish this book to meet our deadline. And they did in six weeks, making even a book with a complex physical structure easily and beautifully available. The structure thing: In half the editions, one half comes first, in the other half, the other comes first, so its readers encounter the story with a random chance, when they pick up the book, of one half, the earlier in time, coming first, or the other, the more contemporary. A gesture to the ways in which we do encounter stories or narratives through time — at least this is the stipulation in the contracts that every publisher has signed when they contracted to publish this book, though I’m pretty sure they don’t all meet this stipulation as rigorously as I’ve asked.

So I sounded out my publisher here in the UK, Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, about writing some books named after the seasons, linked but discrete novels very much about time, and writing them to time so that they’d be available to readers as close to their time of being written as possible. He checked with everyone at Penguin, the copyeditors and the proofers and the publicity people and the admin/printer connections, everything from editorial to distribution, and amazingly they all said they were up for it, though it asks an intense amount of full-on energy from everyone, not once, but four times in the course of four years. They’re the most amazing team. I’m beyond lucky. It’s more proof of the notion of the book itself as a communally made thing at every level, begat by all the other books that went before it, produced as an object by many, many expert people.

So I started the first, Autumn. Then Brexit started to happen.

Again I realized that the books we write aren’t chosen by us, they choose us. I’d been planning to write four books about the seasons since I started writing, more than two decades ago. But they chose to happen now.

I’m going with their momentum.

What an amazing process! I found myself thinking a lot about John Berger when reading Spring, a writer also so committed to the momentum of making books, to the tension between movement and capturing something on the page, the screen, or the canvas in a particular political moment. Your novel explores those spaces between ethics and morality, between action and recording. How did you conceive of these ideas, and what do you hope your readers carry with them?

That’s good to know, and makes me happy — Berger means a lot to me. I love his writing, I miss his presence in a world that could sorely do with his clarity, his inclusive understanding and his articulacy. The last time I saw him speak, not long before he died, he gave the clearest definition of fascism I’ve ever heard; he said fascism is what happens when one set of people decides that it has the right to decide about and exclude another set of people. I think all art is political, since everything is political, it just is, and that anyone not responding in their aesthetics to a time of immense political ferment and speed-of-sound change and regression like this one we’re living through is acting every bit as politically as anyone who is. Has art anything to do with life? They’re the same thing.


Amy E. Elkins is a scholar, writer, and artist who teaches at Macalester College. She specializes in visual art and literature, modernism, and feminist approaches to the archive.

LARB Contributor

Amy E. Elkins is a writer, scholar, and multimedia artist. She is an associate professor of English at Macalester College and the author of Crafting Feminism from Literary Modernism to the Multimedia Present (Oxford University Press, 2022). Her scholarship and art appear in such places as Modernism/modernity Print Plus, PMLA, Contemporary Literature, Inscription, and Post45 Contemporaries. In addition to interdisciplinary collaboration and leading community arts events, she lectures on experimental and feminist approaches to pedagogy and archives. Her research on late 19th-century to contemporary literature focuses on visual culture, queer theory, and everyday practices of well-being, community, and cross-cultural activism. You can find her at amyelkins.net.


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