The writer Ali Smith will be Trinity’s first Senior Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts, starting in January 2019. The position, funded by Trinity alumnus Tom Hall, is designed to support the Fellow’s creative work and encourage participation in College life. Trinity Fellow and Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, Adrian Poole, said:
We are thrilled that Ali Smith will be at Trinity for two years. Her presence in the College will be stimulating for students and Fellows alike. This new Fellowship builds on 50 years of support for the arts through a Fellowship that has brought visual artists, poets, novelists and musicians at an early stage of their career to the College.
With this new appointment the College is helping to maintain a literary tradition that encompasses Byron, Tennyson, Housman, A A Milne, and twenty-first-century writers Sean Borodale, Sophie Hannah, Ben Okri and Angela Leighton.
Best known for the many poets collected in the anthology Trinity Poets, published last year by Carcanet, the College has also hosted novelists including Thackeray and Nabokov, Jonathan Coe and Anjali Joseph, all of whom studied here, and visiting lecturers including L P Hartley, Toni Morrison, Alison Lurie and (in 2020) Arundhati Roy.
Ali Smith CBE, FRSL is one of the leading writers of her generation, author of nine novels including Hotel World (2001), The Accidental (2005), Artful (2012, based on lectures delivered in Oxford), Autumn and Winter (2016, 2017, the first two of a quartet), and five collections of short stories.
Professor Poole talked to Ali Smith about how her Scottish origins inform her work, living in Cambridge and coming to Trinity in 2019.
How do you plan to spend your time at Trinity?
I’ll have an open door. I’m going to be available to see people from Trinity, from other colleges – students, staff right across the board, anyone at all who’d like to show me work or just come and hang out and talk, or not talk. I’ll put the kettle on. I’ll be working with the College Literary Society too I hope. And hopefully I’ll be inviting writers to come two or three times a term and give readings or talk to us.
How has Cambridge changed in the 30 years you’ve lived here?
It’s got much harder for people to live here ad hoc, I think – and like almost everywhere, it’s become terrifyingly homogenised. When I first arrived, in 1985 God help me, Cambridge had a strong alternative scene and the town was full of independent shops of all kinds. But some things don’t change – one of the reasons I love living here is that the town is full of energy, a kind of lifeblood of intelligence passes through it, along with a simultaneity of a multitude of languages, and this I love, always have, always will.
How important are your Scottish origins?
What, to me? Well, very. Let me quote Muriel Spark and say I’m Scottish by formation. And add to this that for the kind of writer I probably am, form is everything.
You started off writing plays – what did you learn from that?
That there’s no written form without voice and dialogue.
Do you think of your novels differently from your shorter fiction?
I try not to think of them at all, except when I’m writing them, and then it’s more like they’re thinking me.
How important are dreams to your writing?
I don’t know. But I do know that dreams are the undercurrent, the foundation, of all our perceptions of reality, and I’m interested in all four – undercurrent, perception, reality, dream, and in the places they come together and come apart.
In 2008 your collection of favourite writings, The Book Lover, featured pieces by Muriel Spark and Margaret Atwood, and lesser known writers like Clarice Lispector. Who would you include now that you didn’t then?
Oh what a good question. The Book Lover was actually called The Reader in its UK publication, which I think is a much better title. For some reason the US publishers wanted to change it. Sigh. I’d add so many writers. I’ll name the top few. The Italian novelist Giorgio Bassani, in translation by Jamie McKendrick; I’d add one of the superb short stories from Within the Walls: Five Stories from Ferrara. Eley Williams, whose debut collection of stories, out last year, I think is really good. And Jeremy Gavron. I reckon he’s one of the more underrated novelists writing now, and I also love his non fiction. Jay Bernard; if there were ever to be a twenty-first century Auden, with all the invention and cultural understanding, understanding of tradition and sense of the speed and the human outcome of foul politics, Jay is it. And Olivia Laing, whose latest novel proves to me yet again what a versatile and sensitised writer she is.
The phrase ‘luck and justice’ is prominent in your 2014 novel, How to Be Both. What does it mean to you?
Exactly what it says.