Ali Smith: ‘Hope is a tightrope across a ravine’

The celebrated author talks about writing to the calendar, our new Dickensian age, and how she once imagined she’d become a refuse collector

Ali Smith, 58, is one of our most mind-stretching, energetic and playful novelists, and her seasonal quartet of novels, which she has described as a “time-sensitive experiment”, is a literary, historical take on our troubled age. Autumn (2016), written pre-Brexit and shortlisted for the Booker, was followed by Winter (2017), then Spring (2019) and Summer (2020) – out now in paperback.

How did you feel as you completed Summer and your phenomenal, four-season marathon?
I felt the usual failure (it always feels like a failure at the end of a book). Knackered. Curious as to whether the book would hold water, and as for the series: no idea. Hope, despair. All these feelings passed in the 30 seconds it takes to toast something that’s done with a single measure of single malt, then I emerged from my room into the very real, visceral confluence of hope and despair happening to us all in life in Covid lockdown.

Did writing to the calendar surprise you?
All four books surprised me – from their unexpected characters to their osmosis structure, in which I had to have a blind faith. They never did what I’d imagined they’d do. They formed their own connections, unearthed their own structures. But I’ve always felt that a book’s already written, whatever it is we’re writing. Our job is to unearth it without breaking it or doing damage in the digging. And meanwhile, they earthed – and unearthed – me through a time when our time shook, from Brexit to Trump to Covid.

Summer has been dubbed “the first coronavirus novel”, but in style you’re the least locked-down of novelists… Was Covid problematic to include?
It surfaced in January as I began the book, so I was writing about it concurrently as its impact grew. The book was also concerned with other lockdowns: internment of “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man in the 1940s, and internment of refugees here and now in the UK (which opened up, ironically, and temporarily, because of Covid urgency).

How has your lockdown been? What are your strategies for getting through?
I’m very lucky. I live with my partner, Sarah Wood [artist and film-maker], in a small street in Cambridge and we have a garden, and our neighbours are all good pals. These things helped immensely. Winter was toughest. In the long middle of the night what really helped was Airs, an album of ancient Scottish tunes made new by composer Mhairi Hall… meditative, consoling. For the mornings: Boccaccio’s The Decameron; I’ve never laughed out loud as much as at these stories, written in the 1300s and set in a parallel plague lockdown in 1348. And for winter evenings, box sets: Spiral, Call My Agent!, It’s a Sin.

I’ve always felt that a book’s already written, whatever it is we’re writing

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