I was fortunate to be able to see Ali Smith interviewed at Oslo's Litteraturhuset earlier this month. I've been a fan of Smith's work since I happened to pick up a well-thumbed copy of The Whole Story and Other Stories at a used bookstore in Davis, California several years ago. Smith's work has twice been short-listed for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize. When I heard she was coming to Oslo to promote There But For The, her latest novel and eighth Norwegian-translation, I couldn't wait to see her.
"The next time you have a whiskey, drink to my dad."
At this the audience broke out in applause. Smith nodded and raised a pretend glass in salute to the crowd. The gesture summed up the mood of the evening, more a conversation in a pub with a mentor than a lecture given by an award winning author.
Oslo's Litteraturhuset lecture hall was full of avid Smith fans on the evening of 11 April, eager to hear about the famed Scottish author's writing process and philosophy. After two introductions, one in English and one in Norwegian, Smith took her place onstage.
She sat in one of two chairs, each angled slightly toward the other, and in doing so, was forced to duck under an encroaching microphone stand. Her movement, while not quite graceful, was confident. She wore cuffed jeans and heavy brown boots, and her dark hair swung around her face in a plain, perfunctory bob. Over the course of her interview, conducted as a conversation with book critic Margunn Vikingstad, Smith displayed a delicate vigor. Her voice was both soft and tough as it waxed and wound around words, and her Scottish accent made every declaration sound both optimistic and final, as though no one could or would want to argue.
"But is the best word."
"We forget the formative moments of life until much later, but then they always have revolved around something kind."
"Clichés are a dead language, but they're wonderful. We need them. They offer a shared truth... an 'Oh good, that's happened to you, too.'"
In her chair, Smith sat with scrunched shoulders and one foot tucked up underneath herself. Her eyes sparkled as she recounted her early days as a writer, when the kindnesses of people like one of her first Cambridge landlords ("Now there was a versatile man. He was a plumber who also made hats!") nurtured her. He didn't mind whether she couldn't pay the rent. He'd take what she could pay, drink a cup of tea with her and her roommates, and then leave with thanks.
Propinquity - A nearness of blood, kinship; a nearness in place or time, proximity.
Serendipity - The phenomenon of finding a valuable thing not originally sought.
Wheelbarrow - A small single-wheeled vehicle fitted with handles at the rear by which it can be pushed and guided.
Scapula - The shoulder blade, connecting the humerus with the clavicle. In humans, it is a flat bone, roughly triangular in shape.
Beleaguered - Besieged, troubled, harassed.
Furtive - Done clandestinely and with desire.
Autumn - The fourth season (and my favorite), a time of color, retreat, preparation and battening down the hatches.
Quarter - To divide into four equal parts or to provide with lodging.
Zephyr - A breeze from the west.
Accord - A formal reaching of agreement.
Clement - Inclined to be merciful, mild.
Will-o'-the-wisp - A ghostly light seen by travellers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes.
Argentine - Silvery.
Splash - To move about in water, causing it to spatter.
Camber - To curve upward toward the middle.