Scottish Book Special

Super Ali

One Hotel. One night. Five women. One brilliant new book.

We caught up with Hotel World author ALI SMITH over drinks from the mini- barand complimentary chocolates. Words: Allan Radcliffe

18 THE LIST 15—29 Mar 2001

OK, so you’re a talented young author with an acclaimed debut behind you. Your problems are only just beginning. Crafting your eagerly anticipated second novel is going to involve a particularly tricky balancing act with temptations to be avoided on both sides of the high wire.

On one side, the desire to shout, ‘Fuck it, all bets are off with this one,’ before gleefully bashing out the book you really wanted to write all along: the bloated, pretentious, multi-voiced, non-linear narrative dealing with life, the universe and the stoicism of your poverty-stricken ancestors. On the other, the pressure to appease the crowd by reproducing, sentence for sentence, the quirky, well-loved tome that brought you so much success in the first place. And as for you, Zadie White Teeth Smith, gobbling up gongs, cash prizes and acclaim like Pacman brimful of E-numbers at the tender age of 24, only the single-handed reinvention of the novel in English will suffice for your next effort.

Despite these pressures, lnverness-born writer Ali Smith, has succeeded in pulling off the feat of a second novel that’s as ambitious and startlingly original as her debut. Hotel World follows one night in the lives of five women; four living, one dead, each one connected to the

of successful Scots to have escaped south of the border, Smith now lives with her partner in Cambridge. She fell in love with the city when casting for prospective venues for a PhD and describes it as a ‘weird, fairytale, film-set place’. Having happily abandoned academic life (‘I spent most of my PhD writing and putting on plays’) Smith’s extra-curricular activities began attracting attention in 1994 when one of her short stories won the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday competition.

The collection Free Love was published the following year to approving noises and Like appeared soon after. This first novel explores polar opposites, both human and geographical, reflected in the book’s twin settings of Scotland and Cambridge.

So, with Hotel World due for release, another collection, Other Stories And Other Stories, already out, and a play and a new novella in the pipeline, Ali Smith is in danger of becoming extremely prolific. Having achieved literary success with short stories and novels, does she prefer either form to the other?

‘I wouldn’t say either was more rewarding, but at least with stories they’re short, they’re over quickly and you can get closure easily. Working on a novel is a bit like

‘Working on a novel is a bit like being in the middle of the Sahara with no end in sight.’

Global Hotel, a grim vision of a Holiday Inn-style chain. There’s a young chambermaid, desperately clinging to the remembered fragments of a life recently lost, her guilt-ridden sister, an erudite bag lady, a benevolent receptionist and an inquisitive, well-to-do journalist.

As in her previous novel Like, Smith uses the book’s circular structure to explore the little connections between these five seemingly disparate characters. While the book is thematically dense, Smith writes of the big issues of life and love, death and displacement with a delicate touch, picking apart the detail of each encounter and highlighting the importance of these brief, shared moments. By turns moving, funny and compassionate, Hotel World is, quite simply, the kind of book that will make even the most established writers feel inadequate.

‘The book started life with the image of the hotel, rather than as a series of unrelated stories,’ says Smith. ‘The “hotel” is a gift of a metaphor for a writer, and particularly lends itself to the things I’m interested in as it’s a place where people of different social class are constantly passing through. I wanted to discover the casual connections between those people and how they manifest themselves, but I didn’t realise I’d end up with such a Grand Guignol ofconnecflon!

As the latest in a long line

being in the middle of the Sahara with no end in sight and involves sleepless nights as you try to work out what’s going to happen next. In fact, novels are a scanner to write.’

As they say, you can take the girl out of lnverness . . .

Hotel World is published by Hamish Hamilton on Thu 5 Apr priced £10.99. Ali Smith reads from her new novel at Waterstone’s, West End branch, Edinburgh on Wed 28 Mar, 6pm.