Books, love and a few lies

IN THE opening of one of the short stories in Ali Smith’s new collection, a character asks, "What do you need to know about me for this story? How old I am? How much I earn a year? What kind of car I drive?" The answers, in her own case, are 41, not as much as you’d think and a second-hand Rover.

What else do you need to know about Ali Smith? She was born in Inverness, went to university in Aberdeen, lives in Cambridge. She’s an academic-turned-writer who has published two previous collections of short stories and two novels, all making it onto at least one major prize shortlist. Her last novel, Hotel World, sold 100,000 in Britain, 50,000 in America and was shortlisted last year for the Booker and the Orange prizes, it was also voted best Scottish book of the year and won the Encore award for best second novel.

More? She’s a lesbian and has been with her partner, Sarah, for 15 years. She lives in terraced house next to where cricket legend Jack Hobbes was born - the house is full of books and an enormous cat, and there’s a sycamore tree above her study window. Why did she become a writer? She had chronic fatigue syndrome 12 years ago, so she quit lecturing at Strathclyde in 1992 and was immobilised for months. One June day, sitting on a bench in the Royal Botanic Gardens, she wrote a short story - and it poured out of her so much that her hand still hurt from writing it three days later.

But not a hint of that in her childhood? Ah, now, wait... She’s sitting in my hotel room in Cambridge, talking into a tape machine on the table between us, remembering growing up in Inverness. "My mother was a tree surgeon," she explains. "She loved trees so much that she lived in one most of the time. And the rest of my creative family, we’d be sitting underneath the tree, and she’d cut off the twigs from the top branches and send them down to let us know when it was time for us to have tea. Only the tips she didn’t want to grow, obviously. One day there was a procession of people from the local church passing by the tree, and the man in black said, ‘You shouldn’t be up that tree, lassie! You should get down immediately!’ My mother refused. She was adamant. And I’m sure that’s marked my life ever since and made me an imaginative writer." Really?

No. But Smith had done an interview the previous day and, for two hours, she’d been asked about being a lesbian, and why and how about chronic fatigue syndrome, and how and why about coming from a small town in Scotland. And, yes, there was one, just the one, question about her new book. And sometimes - in fact, often - she gets depressed about what that says about our culture, that we don’t look at the writing but only at the writer, that we never get beyond the surface of things. So, the next time someone asks, she may well start inventing whole swathes of her past life. A tree surgeon mother, for example.

Why? Because the life’s got nothing to do with the work. Or rather, there are some common threads interviewers always pick up on. In Hotel World, for example, one of the characters has ME and Smith’s had chronic fatigue syndrome; another worked as a style journalist and Smith herself had briefly helped out at her brother’s advertising agency; another worked as a receptionist, as she’d done herself in summer jobs; then the first name of the main character is the same as that of Smith’s partner, and there’s a potential gay love affair in it and Smith herself is gay and…

"And look at what that does to the book," she says. "It breaks its bones. It takes it apart, splays it out and says there is a reason for everything in this art. There’s a closedness about it that makes me angry. Because it looks as though there’s an equation: this person is gay, therefore they write in a certain way, this person is a man, therefore he must write in a certain way. To me, that kind of thinking is like a trap in the forest that catches the leg of an animal. The leg might be left there in the trap, you might have caught it, but you can’t see the whole animal running.

"There’s an Emily Dickinson poem, Split the lark. ‘Split the lark,’ it says, ‘cut down into the middle of it, see what’s inside.’ Well, that’s not the essence of the lark, of its soaring, unsingable strangeness. And that’s why the biographical trail is always a false one. It may seem interesting, but it doesn’t lead anywhere."

True, there are some writers you shouldn’t accept that from. If Hemingway goes to Spain and writes about what he saw and how it changed him, the life obviously informs the work. But Smith doesn’t operate like that: when she sits down to write, she says, her own ego only gets in the way. "I’ve got to forget about it, wait for it to recede, wait until I can let the stories go where they want to go." And no, she doesn’t even want to think about how she actually does that in case it stops her doing it again.

Yet when that Smith ego fades away, just look at what’s left behind. In Hotel World, there are scenes from the edge of life itself, or homelessness, illness, bereavement and bleak consumerism, often quite hauntingly written - especially in the case of a ghost already starting to lose its grip on language and memory that provides one of the most effective openings to a novel I have read for years.

And now here she is again, with a collection of short stories that is even bolder, even riskier, and all any journalist wants to ask her is not about them but about this lesbian, Scottish, used-to-be-ill person who wrote them. She’s bored with that. Bored with the fringes of celebrity culture, with the necessary circus of prizes, even the delightful surrealism of the Booker night, which she describes as "rather like being on a 1950s cruise ship with luxurious food, alcohol that doesn’t stop and old-world manners: you expect to see a young Gore Vidal turn the corner or the young Muriel Spark surrounded by gentlemanly cads, all smoking long blue-smoke cigarettes". Bored with the way in which, as she writes in her new collection, "The face and the voice and the name, the body of the writer, are sold as part of the 9.99 package. Tiny peeled slivers of him and her inserted for years between the pages like erratum slips or bookmarks."

If that sounds like over-preciousness, it’s not. Because Smith is among the most intellectually generous of writers, an evangelist for other imagination-openers such as Kate Atkinson, Alan Warner or Jackie Kay. After our interview, I go along to an event at Cambridge’s book festival, at which she reads with Kay. At the end of the event, she reads a story from her new book. But, rather than plug her own books, she tells the audience that the one book they really ought to buy is Kay’s latest.

Both are collections of short stories, an art form to which Smith is passionately committed but which she fears is desperately under threat. Publishers don’t like them, often hardly bother to market them and put pressure on writers to produce novels instead. Even poetry gets more support - not least with major prizes such as the Whitbread that just don’t have a category for short stories. Writing them in Britain today, she says, can be a short cut to oblivion. And not just in the "Numpty Noughties" - when Katherine Mansfield published her first collection, she notes that Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, "She’s done for now!"

Yet, if you look at what Smith can do with the short story, you see what we may be missing. Of the 12 in her new book, The Whole Story, there’s hardly one that doesn’t at least try to do something new, that doesn’t take risks, that doesn’t ooze confidence. Which is odd, because Smith is never confident about anything she writes. On finishing Hotel World, she thought it too dark and would, had it not been for Sarah, have happily consigned it to the bin.

In The Whole Story, Smith’s stories crack and break open, and end up going in a completely different direction to where you would have imagined they were heading. In some, the course of a relationship is charted in two first-person narratives, completing conversations, giving what might well be the whole story (but can it ever be?). In others, those conversations are broken into, like mobile phone calls interrupted by tunnels or multi-channel grazing, TV zapper in hand.

"That’s important," says Smith, "because we live on a surface that we think is controllable. We think we can talk to anybody at any time, or learn things at random from TV, and be in control. And the war in Iraq, for example, has shown us how that’s a complete joke, that we’re all living on this crazy surface pretending that nothing very much is happening. Whereas, really, everything is happening and we can’t even see it, and we’re so spun that we can’t get off the surface."

Getting off the surface is something Smith’s stories do effortlessly. Their original triggers of inspiration are often slight: an apple tree infested with ants, sycamore seeds drumming down on her study window, an odd-looking man dressed in white in King’s Cross station, a couple of chance remarks, a tree, a newspaper article about the Highlands being the best place to live in Britain.

But look what happens then. The man dressed in white in King’s Cross, for example, becomes Death, the Grim Reaper transformed into someone who looks like a BBC arts executive, and Death is indeed on the line, further up, in a brilliant story that leaves the cold rails of realism and a superficially controlled life far behind. And the tree, well, that may be just an obsession, something a lover has fallen in love with, will sacrifice anything for, something the partner can’t possibly understand, and it may be just a beautiful image of love. And it may be both.

To Smith, it doesn’t matter. Images don’t have to be tied down. Nor, in at least three of the stories about relationships, does the protagonist’s gender. To what extent is that because she wants to avoid being pigeonholed as a Scottish lesbian writer?

"You mean the myth of Smith," she says and laughs. Exactly. "You know," she continues, "although those things - Scottish lesbian or whatever - might sound more exotic, what I am really is just a booky geek."

I’m thinking back to what she told me about the stories, about how the main one in the collection was called "Paradise" because she’d just been reading and comparing translations of Dante’s Inferno - just for fun, you understand. About how the first story in the collection had its origins in a thought that drifted into her mind while she was looking at the different editions of The Great Gatsby that Sarah had collected on her shelves - "she’s a booky geek too, that’s why we love each other". About the child growing up in Inverness, youngest of five children, who was reading books such as Gulliver’s Travels and writing her own poetry book at the age of eight.

Her mother, a switchboard operator and a bus conductress before she fell ill from angina, would have noticed this booky geekishness early on, but her parents didn’t go out of their way to encourage it. "Are you joking?" says Smith. "They thought I was weird."

In fairness, you don’t spot the geekishness at all. It gets drowned out by the fervour with which she talks about other writers, the enthusiasm that just bubbles up into her conversation whenever you mention an author whose work she loves. Books figure in each of the 12 stories in the collection. In a few of them, love is there, too. "Books and love," she says. "That’d make a great title for the autobiography - Books, Love and A Few Lies." And she throws back her head and laughs.

So what else do you need to know about Ali Smith? That she likes Turkish food and whisky, though not together? That she cried watching the opening of the Scottish Parliament, "though I’d just as easily cry at the Corries singing ‘The Road to Dundee’"? That she still speaks with a soft Inverness accent, even though a story in the new collection is the first time she has written in it since she was at school?

What else? You mean, what’s she like? Funny, kind, friendly, inventive, passionate, original, radical. The kind of person no one has a bad word for. Unless you think a booky geek is a bad thing to be. And even then, it’s not the whole story.

The Whole Story, by Ali Smith, is published by Hamish Hamilton on 28 April (10.99)