Add to researchAli Smith
- Inverness, Scotland
- Short Stories, Fiction
Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962.
Her first book, Free Love and Other Stories (1995), won the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award and a Scottish Arts Council Award.
Her first novel, Like, was published to critical acclaim in 1997. Set in Scotland and Cambridge, the book tells the story of an enduring childhood friendship. A second collection of short stories, Other Stories and Other Stories, was published in 1999. Her second novel, Hotel World (2001), won the Encore Award, a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the inaugural Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award. It was also shortlisted for both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Booker Prize for Fiction. Set during the course of one night, the narrative follows the adventures of five different characters, one of whom is the ghost of a chambermaid killed in a bizarre accident. Her most recent collection of short stories is The Whole Story and Other Stories (2003). In 2004, her novel, The Accidental (2004), was published, and won the 2005 Whitbread Novel Award. Girl Meets Boy was published in 2007 and There But For The in 2011.
She has also published a play, The Seer (2006), and her most recent collection of short stories is The First Person and Other Stories (2008). The Book Lover (2008) is a personal anthology of favourite pieces of writing gathered over the course of her life.
Ali Smith is a regular contributor of articles and reviews to journals and newspapers including The Scotsman and the Times Literary Supplement. She lives in Cambridge.
Ali Smith possesses the perfect characteristics of the short story writer: rigorous self-discipline in the planning process, an eagle eye for condensing detail, a capacity for using the personal and individual to suggest universal truths and a skill for hinting at a wider world beyond the story, all of which can be seen in her two collections of short stories Free Love and Other Stories (1995) and Other Stories and Other Stories (1999).
Her novels Like (1997) and Hotel World (2001) also have the tight planning and formal construction of her short stories. Like for example is divided into two equal parts, the stories of two women with the pleasingly symmetrical names of Amy and Ash, the symmetry, and the fact that the two names are similar to the author's, giving us an uneasy insight into the closeness the three women share. Hotel World too is divided into five sections, the stories of five very different women during a day in the life of a hotel in the Global Hotel chain. Each section stands in its own right, and yet the stories are deftly interweaved, with characters from one section popping up in another, the actions of one character influencing the fate of another.
To say that Smith plans her writings conscientiously gives the impression that she might be an over-deliberate, uninspiring writer, and this is very far from the truth. The themes she chooses to write about are ambitious: love, particularly that between women, death, loss, guilt, grief, illness, time and the chasms of misunderstanding between the generations where affection can become lost in impatience and incomprehension. They are themes that most writers touch upon, yet she seems to see them in a new, fresh light.
Her first book of short stories, Free Love, experiments with love of every kind and degree, every story with its own individual tone - from the delicacy of the shy naval electrician in 'A Story of Folding and Unfolding' who, working in a WAF station just after the war, falls in love with his future wife when he sees her flimsy underwear folded in her locker; the fiery passion of the photographer in 'A Quick One' (note the double entendre here) remembering the height of an affair 'when clothes were worn to be taken off'; the poignant unrequited love of the Sunday art cinema goer in 'To the Cinema'; sibling love and the aching realisation of its loss in 'College' (a theme explored in more depth in Hotel World); a young couple's shared obsession with the actor River Phoenix in 'Scary' and a schoolgirl's crush on her French mistress in 'The World with Love'.
The bold opening story, 'Free Love', tells the tale of a young girl who loses her virginity to a prostitute while on holiday with a friend in Amsterdam. Many are the times we have read stories or seen films about sexual awakening in the arms of prostitutes, but the innocent is usually a young man. At what point in the story do we realise that this time the innocent is a girl and that we are reading about a lesbian awakening? It is difficult to say - later in the story we read about how the encounter gives the main character the confidence to seduce her (girl)friend and all becomes obvious, but from the beginning, Smith playfully toys with a sexual ambiguity that continues to appear in other stories in both this and other books. When we read of love from this first story on, we are often on guard to see whether we are talking about man-woman or woman-woman love and, in the end we cannot help but come to the conclusion that Smith seems to want us to come to - that love is love, no matter the age, sex or environment in which the protagonists live. For, as Smith herself says, 'true love stories are always interchangeable' and we all feel love in the same way - 'everybody gets the crazy time'.
Other Stories and Other Stories continues exploring the world of lesbian love in tales such as 'Blank Card', where a woman receives a bunch of flowers from an unknown admirer, and only at the end of the story do we realise that the admirer is not only her lover, but also a woman. But Other Stories... also branches out into new imaginative territory where we come across the couple with a summer insect infestation in their home in 'Small Deaths', the mysterious woman in 'Kasia's Mother's Mother's Story' who, though seemingly a non-Christian, steals a crucifix from a church in the belief that it will protect her and her children, or the sinister, nightmare world of Pauline in 'The Hanging Girl' who inhabits a world of near-insanity alongside the ghost of a young girl who has been hung for a crime which is never fully explained to us.
Smith's work abounds with mysteries, with unresolved puzzles: what really happened to the old man who survived under the snow for a week in 'Miracle Survivors'? Who is the woman in 'Kasia's Mother's Mother's Story' hiding from? What crime did the girl in 'The Hanging Girl' commit? What country is she in? In the stories these mysteries are small but fascinating distractions, in the novels they become central to the plot: why is Amy's 'daughter' Kate not her own? Where did she get her from? Did she steal her from her lover, Ash? Why did the girl in Hotel World fall to her death? Was it an accident or was it suicide caused by the shame of her recognition that she loved a person of the same sex? As well as arousing the reader's imagination, the mysteries help to give each story a wider context, to make the story just a slice of a much larger and more complex world. They make the stories more real, because this is what life is - a continuous series of strange coincidences and unresolved endings.
Smith's stories are peppered with irrelevant information, which she delivers with a tongue-in-cheek delight worthy of Michael Caine. 'Not many people know that' you can almost hear her yelling as she gives you a rundown of the contents of the Left Behind Room in Hotel World ('alarm clocks, batteries, books, all kinds of cameras...seventeen pairs of jeans...packs of condoms...a prosthetic limb (lower leg)...small easily lost children's toys') or how the more spirited chambermaids 'had a practice of wiping down the toilet seats of exceptionally messy rooms with the face flannels of guests'. In Like we are informed that, if a person bites you 'the new cells of the body will still, years after the bite, reproduce the shapes of the teeth that bit you all those years ago', that 'four hundred different kinds of insects....can be supported by living on one tree' and that 'nuns are not allowed to give each other presents'. Not only are some of these facts fascinating in their own right, they also give us an insight into Smith's personality - we imagine her poring over encyclopaedias as a child, (rather as the girl in Like does over the One Hundred and One Great Wonders of the World), sifting through articles in Sunday newspapers, keeping notes of any interesting new irrelevancies - and we feel more in empathy with her because of this.
In Like, Smith convincingly takes us into the mind of an eight-year-old - her world is a kaleidoscope of names and colours, the smell of dead fireworks, plastic animals stolen from school and hidden in secret places, dreams of circuses and far off worlds, of words (the letters of words on a page look like people, she thinks), and joke after joke: 'Why was Cinderella thrown out of the football team? Because she ran away from the ball', 'What kind of music do ghosts like best? Haunting melodies'. Kate may not be Amy's real daughter, but Smith skilfully builds up a strong image of mother-daughter intimacy by a mixture of physical detail - the washing of the dirty neck and the cleaning between Kate's toes, the musky, gas heated, condensation-filled caravan where Amy and Kate snuggle up to read together - and the robust leg-pulling, that only people who are close can submit one another to: 'I am called Kate Shone', says the little girl. 'More like Kathleen the Hooligan, Amy says, jabbing her in the ribs with the packet of cotton buds, drying her after her shower'.
Her wicked sense of humour spawns endless puns at the blackest moments in her books: 'Put your hands together for this swinger' 'Why did the chicken cross the road? Wouldn't you if someone wanted to ring your neck' cries the compère at the execution in 'The Hanging Girl'. After Sara Wilby falls down the lift shaft in Hotel World we hear how terrible jokes 'the punchlines of which were, for example, Well and truly shafted...had been Chinese whispered up and down the stairwells'.
Language is important for Smith, not only for its jokes, irony and double meanings, but also to give her narratives tone and psychological complexity. It is no coincidence that Amy in Like loses her capacity to read language after the emotional turmoil of acquiring her child, and only begins to read again when she feels confident enough to go back to her parental home and take a holiday with her child. In Hotel World too, as the ghost of Sara Wilby slips away into eternity, not only do the colours that she sees and her memory for physical sensations begin to fade, but so too does her verbal reasoning. She begins to forget words ('There is a word for heated up bread'), and sentences in the book contain blank spaces and full stops where words should have been ('Seeing birds. Their wings. Their beady. The things they see with'). The punctuation too becomes more and more confused, at times non-existent. The use of this device makes this section difficult to read, but at the same time adds a sense of urgency to the phantom's quest - to find out why her physical alter ego fell to her death - before fading into obscurity. The fact that Sara's sister, whose story we come to later in the book, speaks in the same breathless, unfinished way, underlines the closeness of the two girls. The sister's use of swear words is a typical characteristic of teenage dialogue, but also represents her mental confusion and her subconscious desire to be irreverent, to spit in the face of tragedy.
Else, the bag lady in Hotel World, has a rich world of inner thoughts that range from the metaphysical poets to the rules of the Winter Shelter, but is so cut off from the real world, and debilitated by respiratory problems, that she communicates in short, abbreviated snatches of language 'Cn y spr sm chn? Thnk y.' Penny, the 'bored out of her mind' journalist staying at the hotel, spends her life conjuring up adjectives (classic, ideal, flawless, immaculate, superior, transcendent) that are as empty of meaning as her own life and, as the narrative shows us, totally inappropriate to describe the Global Hotel, which is far from perfect, harbouring as it does sadness, secrets and disrespectful staff.
What happens after you die? How do we feel when a loved one dies? How will death come to us? How can we cope with grief? These are ideas that have preoccupied artists since the beginning of time, but what does it actually feel like to die a violent death? This is a question that few writers have addressed, and even less have depicted with the such simple language, with such brutal, fresh immediacy as Ali Smith in her description of the swimming champion's final dive into oblivion in the lift shaft in Hotel World:
'hooooo and broke on the ground, I broke too. The ceiling came down, the floor came up to meet me. My back broke, my neck broke, my face broke, my head broke. The cage around my heart broke open and my heart came out. I think it was my heart. It broke out of my chest and it jammed into my mouth. This is how it began. For the first time (too late) I knew how my heart tasted'.
This is just one of the many unsentimental, individual, breathtakingly honest images that lodges in the mind, like a piece of poetry, long after the book has been put down, and leads one to think that those who describe Smith as a major talent might just be right.
Amanda Thursfield, 2003
- There But For The, Hamish Hamilton
- The First Person and Other Stories, Penguin
- The Book Lover, Anchor
- Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis, Canongate
- The Seer, Faber and Faber
- The Accidental, Hamish Hamilton
- The Whole Story and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton
- Pretext Volume 5, editor with Julia Bell, PEN&INC
- Hotel World, Hamish Hamilton
- Brilliant Careers: 100 Years of Women's Fiction, Virago
- Other Stories and Other Stories, Granta
- Wild Ways: New Stories About Women on the Road, contributor, Sceptre
- Like, Virago
- Scottish Love Stories, contributor, Polygon
- Free Love and Other Stories, Virago
- James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), There But For The, shortlist
- Clare Maclean Prize, Girl Meets Boy, shortlist
- Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, The Accidental, shortlist
- Orange Prize for Fiction, The Accidental, shortlist
- James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), The Accidental, shortlist
- Whitbread Novel Award, The Accidental
- Man Booker Prize for Fiction, The Accidental, shortlist
- Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, Hotel World
- Encore Award, Hotel World
- Scottish Arts Council Book Award, Hotel World
- Orange Prize for Fiction, Hotel World, shortlist
- Booker Prize for Fiction, Hotel World, shortlist
- Arts Foundation Award for Short Story Writing
- Scottish Arts Council Book Award, Free Love and Other Stories
- Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, Free Love and Other Stories