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Ali Smith - Longlist author interview

Ali Smith - Longlist author interview

As part of our series of interviews with Man Booker Prize 2014 longlisted authors. We spoke to Ali Smith, author of the longlisted novel How to be Both.

What has it been like to be longlisted?

Very surprising and unexpectedly nice.  Usually I fall off my bike or walk into lampposts if this kind of thing happens.  So far I haven't lost any spatial awareness at all.  Also, people everywhere have been being warm and supportive, just lovely. 

What are you working on next?

I can't tell anyone that.  It'd be like trying persuade a bird to land on your hand by ... playing a tuba at it.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am China by Xiaolu Guo.  

What is your favourite Man Booker-winning novel?

All my favourites on the lists are the ones that didn't win : Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent and The Driver's Seat, Nicola Barker's Darkmans, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop. George Mackay Brown.  What a wonderful writer.  I wish he'd won it.  

One of the plotlines of How to be Both deals with a Renaissance artist and the book is said to use the technique of fresco – how can fresco and painting inform the writing of fiction?

I tend to think all the arts are related and that the most exciting things happen, to them and us, when they cross the borders into the other arts.  The structure of fresco is intriguing; it has to be light on its feet, done so fast, completed before the plaster dries, yet is so long-lasting and so, yes, fresh, full of its same quickness, life and colour all the hundreds of years later.  Though frescoes become a physical part of the walls they're on – actually part of the plaster – they have these structural underdrawings or sinopie, the original sketches or figurings done by the painter, underneath.  Sometimes the sinopie resemble, but sometimes they're completely other than, what's on the surface.  You look at it, see one thing, and something else is behind it, right in front of you, there but invisible. I began to think about surface and underwork, about how all stories travel with at least one understory, and to wonder about this in relation to notions of time, sequence and consequence (the novel form is always about time) - as well as about the act of looking, of representation across time – and off we go, straight into all the questions and possibilities of what narrative structure is in the world, how it reflects us, then and now, how we encounter it, how it works, what it can do.