Q&A: Baileys Prize-winner Ali Smith on How to be Both

By Tim Masters
Arts and entertainment correspondent

Published
image copyrightAP
image captionAli Smith's winning novel intertwines the stories of a 15th Century painter and a contemporary teenager

Ali Smith has won the £30,000 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction for her novel How to be Both.

The book's dual narrative focuses on the lives of a grieving teenage girl in the present day and a 15th Century Renaissance artist.

It comes in two editions - one begins with the artist's story and the other with the girl's. Readers are free to choose which they want to read first.

Smith spoke to the BBC immediately after her win about the idea behind the book, the feedback from readers, and plans for her next novel.

How does it feel to have won the Baileys prize?

It's unbelievable, it's glorious and it feels like an astonishing fluke. It was such a strong, versatile shortlist, and I can't believe this has happened.

How to be Both has already won the Costa novel award and the Goldsmiths prize. How important are those accolades to a writer?

It's lovely, but once you've finished your book it goes its own way and has its own life. The stuff that happens to the writer is outside of the book.

This stuff happens on the surface, and the surface isn't what it's about really - but how lovely the surface is tonight!

It's a novel of two halves which can be read in any order. How easy was it to sell that concept to your publisher?

My editor already cuts me quite a lot of slack. I said I wanted to produce a book where you the reader won't know which half they are going to get first.

I got an email back after a couple of days saying 'we can do that' - technology makes it simple to switch the file halfway through the print run. So we did it.

When it went to the printers we had people who sorted the books as they came off the machine so each bookshop would get a random mix of books.

What sort things do your readers say to you?

I get an incredible warmth that comes from people who speak to be about this book. It's partly to do with the book asking questions about time and structure.

We [appear to] live our lives in sequence, but we don't really - as human beings we have all our younger selves at all our ages. There's something about that which speaks to people.

How did seeing Renaissance frescoes help inspire this book?

A fresco is a work built into a wall - so much so that if you take it off the wall you have taken a part of the wall off.

When the famous frescoes in Florence were damaged by flooding in the 1960s, the restorers found underneath the originals designs that were sometimes different.

It struck me as extraordinary that we can be looking at a surface and think we can see everything but actually there's something below it - and we can't see it.

You plan to start work on your next book in July. What can you say about it?

It's a really primal, private thing. If I was to talk about it, it would probably not be there when I tried to write it. It's not fully formed yet.

The inspiration came about 20 years ago. It was in my mind when I began to be a writer. It's part of a sequence of books I want to do over the next few years.

Ali Smith's How to be Both is out now in Penguin paperback

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAli Smith celebrates her win with Baileys Prize chair of judges Shami Chakrabarti

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