Nick Laird: On Writing, and Life with Zadie Smith


Nick Laird
Nick Laird

Nick Laird was born in Co.Tyrone, Northern Ireland and educated at Cookstown High School and Cambridge University. Currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York, his honours include the Betty Trask Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, a Somerset Maugham Award and the Ireland Chair of Poetry Prize. Since his marriage to fellow author Zadie Smith in the salubrious environs of the chapel of Kings College Cambridge in 2004, a certain sense of literary celebrity has attached to him. They live in New York with their two children where they’re working together on several scripts.

He has published two novels, Utterly Monkey and Glover’s Mistake, and three collections of poetry, To A Fault, On Purpose and Go Giants. Of his debut collection Colm Tóibín said: “To A Fault is the most auspicious debut in Irish poetry since Paul Muldoon.”

Nick spoke to us prior to his conversation with writer/teacher Niall MacMonagle on Friday 29th May at 6pm in St John’s Theatre & Arts Centre. See here for details and to book.

Q. What impact did leaving Northern Ireland to study at Cambridge University have on your life?

A. Much the same I imagine as for most people leaving home for the first time. It was an estranging, exciting time. It was a fine place to study literature, but was certainly a culture shock. There were a lot of the privileged English around, and like the man in Moliere who finds he’s been speaking prose his whole life, I learned suddenly that I sounded ‘funny’’, that I spoke ‘dialect’.To a fault

Q. Do you come from a bookish background?

A. My dad claims he’s never read a book: he says he started a Dick Francis one once but didn’t like it. Can it be true? I don’t know. He’s not read any of mine, far as I know. My mum’s more of a reader: when I was growing up she’d read Jeffrey Archer, Maeve Binchy, Molly Keane. Since they were around, I did too. My mum and I’ll swap novels now: she just read Stoner by John Williams and liked it. She did an Open University degree when I was young – as well as raising us and working full time – so suddenly a few more books appeared. There was Frank O’Connor, John McGahern, some Graham Greene. They stayed in a suitcase under our bunk beds. My dad bought – for reasons unknown – a complete leatherbound set of Somerset Maugham at an auction he was at. I read a lot of those volumes. I’m probably comparatively pretty well-versed on Maugham: nobody reads him now.

Q. Who were your early literary influences?

A. In poetry, Heaney, Yeats, Kavanagh, Mahon, Longley, Muldoon, MacNeice – all Irish really, and then suddenly, through Heaney’s essay book The Government of the Tongue, a copy of which was in my school library, discovering all these other voices – Bishop, Plath, Zbigniew Herbert, Lowell. I was astonished by them all.

In fiction, I loved those writers I mentioned – Frank O’Connor, McGahern, Graham Greene. Also Brian Moore and Edna O’Brien and Scott Fitzgerald and Austen: we studied them at school. Then at Cambridge it was a case of ‘here comes everybody’ – from George Eliot to Martin Amis to William Faulkner.

Q. You became a lawyer after Cambridge but writing was clearly your real love. Was it a difficult decision for you to leave law to write fulltime? Are you glad you did?

A. I think you can have lots of loves, though, and if there was more time in the day, I’d still do both. I worked on interesting stuff: international litigation, inquiry work, death row cases through the Privy Council. I worked on the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. I miss being part of a team, and doing ‘useful’ work. Nobody wakes up needing a sonnet. Plus, of course, having a salary is easier than not having one, than having to piece it together.

Q. You are married to the novelist Zadie Smith, with whom you have two children. Can you describe a typical day in the Laird/Smith household?

A. Like a typical day in any household. It’s not like we’re drinking martinis in kaftans and discussing Proust. You know, changing nappies, looking for matching socks, walking the dog, taking our daughter to school. Waiting for the nanny to come and look after our son. Going for a coffee in the café on the corner. Going to our rooms to work. Unplugging the internet and trying to write. Plugging it back in. Doing the Herald Tribune crossword. Eating lunch. Trying to write. Browsing ebay. Feeling despair. Maybe going for a run. Maybe going for a swim. Getting the kids. Making dinner. Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic. Box sets. Netflix. The usual. We’re working on several scripts together so we get to sit in the local café together and call it work.glovers mistake

Q. What’s special about poetry that other art forms don’t offer?

A. You can keep it in your head, entirely. Not the memory of it, or the sense of it, but the whole of it. I mean, there’s more to it than that but time is brief and the space is tight.

Q. Do you find writing cathartic?

A. I don’t know. Maybe. In the sense that if you write a poem you find out afterwards what’s been percolating in your subconsciousness. But in general I tell my students that if they think writing’s a form of therapy, they’re probably better off just doing therapy.

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. Specificially, this evening, I’m writing a piece on Northern Irish politics and the recent election for the New York Review, doing proofs for Poetry Review of two poems, and filling in tax forms I don’t understand for Poetry Magazine. In general, I’m writing poems, when they turn up: I’d hope to have a collection by the end of the year. I’m working on a novel – it’s long, and long overdue but is coming fairly quickly now. I’ve three screenplays at various stages for various people: an adaptation of a novella, a kind of romantic comedy, and a rewrite for a French director. And I’m working on a TV show set in contemporary mid-Ulster. I’m sure nothing will come to fruition, but it puts the day in. That’s a fairly fulsome answer but it was easier than the previous questions.

Q. Which writers do you most admire?

A. Lots of different ones for lots of different reasons in terms of the work. In terms of the life, those who seem relatively happy and manage to sustain relationships and raise their kids and do their work and not be bitter and mental and grudgey.Go Giants_MECH.indd

Q. Where do you consider home to be?

A. Tyrone. I’m back and forth a lot, and would still call it home – though that may be a consequence of living a fairly peripatetic existence since I left it.

Q. What do you love most about living in New York?

A. My wife’s a professor at NYU and we live in university accommodation down in Greenwich village, a block from Washington Square, so there’s always stuff going on. I love the street life and constant churn of the place. Within a block of the flat there’s a university library, great coffee shops, a gym, a dog run – it’s pretty much ideal for a writer. Plus, when you want to get out of the city, you just get in a zipcar and you’re at the beach or upstate pretty quickly. Not that we actually do that.

Q. Have you been to Listowel Writers’ Week before? What are you most looking forward to?

A. I’ve not been. I’m looking forward to having a drink or four with some old friends who’ll also be around.