British Author (1975- )
Described by The Guardian as the "first publishing sensation of the millennium" she
was born on the 27th October 1975 at Brent in north-west London to a Jamaican mother and an
English father. Smith was originally Sadie Smith, but changed her name to Zadie at the age of
fourteen in order to to make herself sound more exotic, shortly before her parents were
divorced. She then lived with her mother in Willesden and was educated at local state schools
before winning a place at King's College, Cambridge where she read English literature.
Her early dream was to be the star of an MGM musical and she tap danced for ten years before
she realised that no one made musicals like that any more. She then decided to become an author
and began writing her first novel White Teeth whilst she was still at university and
attracted the attention of the iterary agent Georgia Garrett who began the job of marketing
her book, or at least the first eighty pages which Smith had written up to that point. This
resulted in a rights auction at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn of 1997 which was won
by Hamish Hamilton with an advance rumoured to be £250,000 for a two-book deal. It took her
another two years to finish White Teeth, which ended up as 462 page long blockbuster.
The completed novel was set in Willesden and explored the fortunes of two families, one from
Bangladesh and the other Anglo-Jamaican and has been described as a "sprawling tale of coming
of age in multicultural London". It won the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First
Novel Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and two EMMA Awards for Best Book and
Best Female Media Newcomer for 2000. It was also declared the Overall Winner of the
Commonwealth Writers Prize for 2001, and won the Authors' Club First Novel Award and the
WH Smith Award for Best New Talent for 2001. She was also the hot favourite to win the
Orange Prize but she lost out to Kate Grenville as Smith expressed outrage at the presence
of Ffion Hague on the judging panel. (According to Smith women should be judged by the
opinions expressed by their husbands.)
Despite the critical success not everyone liked White Teeth, one anonymous review
described the book as "the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing
10-year-old" and according to a survey by the Bookseller magazine of reading groups,
they rated it as their biggest disappointment.
Her second novel The Autograph Man a "story of loss, obsession and the nature of
celebrity" which featured a Jewish-Chinese Londoner named Alex-Li Tandem, met with a more muted
response (it got some very bad reviews) and was regarded as disjointed by comparison with her
previous effort even by those who liked it. But thanks to its subject matter, it did win the
Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction for 2003. Smith also managed to make it on to
Granta magazine's list of the twenty "best young authors" in the same year.
Her third novel On Beauty, a campus novel set on the American east coast featuring
the relationship between an English academic and his African-American wife, received a better
response and won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006. Smith
broke down in tears at the Orange awards ceremony when her win was announced, saying "I cannot
believe it. I am stunned." When she had earlier failed to win the same award in 2001 she had
called it "just another prize".
To some Zadie Smith is a literary sensation and a major new writer, to others she is an
over-hyped adolescent scribbler of little or no talent. There have been complaints regarding
her behavior at book signings (being rude to the punters), and there is a very funny article
called "Zadie Smith: Where Did It All Go Wrong?" which describes her complaints about all the
attention now being paid to young writers, or at least all those that are younger than she is.
Smith is married to fellow novellist and poet Nick Laird whom she met at Cambridge
University; they live at Kilburn in North London. She has been writer-in-residence at the
Institute of Contemporary Arts and a Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard University. Her
brother is a DJ who goes by the name of Doc Brown.
Interview: Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith: Where Did It All Go Wrong?