Thursday, November 8, 2012

E-mail to/from Zadie Smith

Author Zadie Smith, whose new novel NW came out about two months ago, became a big deal back when her first novel White Teeth was released to critical acclaim in 2000. She was 25 at the time. In the literary community, the elite are termed "major writers" and Smith earned this status almost immediately with the publication of White Teeth.

I'd wanted to read the aforementioned book for some time now and finally got the chance to do so, however after reading one question remained. I e-mailed Smith and she responded (which is AWESOME). Our brief exchange can be found below. 

My e-mail: 

Hi Professor Smith, 

My name's Charlie Griggs (in case the e-mail address didn't tip you off) and I'm currently in my first year studying to receive my MFA in Fiction from San Diego State University. That being said, as part of the curriculum for a British literature course I'm taking (1950-present), I read your novel White Teeth. My professor advised that I e-mail you and attempt to pursue the following question after inquiring in class with little success: 

As the novel progresses, the Chalfens grow ever more irritable. However, I was plagued by the phonetics of their name from the very first mention of Joshua. The name "Chalfen" in and of itself, I find to be especially grating from the soft "A"-sound to the "-lf-" which strikes me as the type of guttural someone who's choking on food might make. Is the surname "Chalfen" meant to reflect the repugnance of the family in question or am I waaaaay off? 

Anyhow, for the sake of diplomacy I should note that I hold nothing against the Chalfens and, despite my distaste for them as people, they remain successful as characters. Additionally, if you find the last name "Chalfen" appealing and my comments w/r/t guttural choking noises have caused you any offense, I sincerely apologize. 

Hope to hear back from you! 

- Charlie Griggs

Her response: 

Hi Charlie,

I guess I never thought of the name as terrible. it was just the last name of someone i knew at the time and i stole it - most of my names come that way. either people, or books on my desk. literally when i need to name a character i look up from my lap top and choose two names often at random from whatever books or leaflets or posters are within my sight range.

i remember liking chalfen especially though because it lends it self to adjectival forms 'chalfenesque' 'chalfenish', and so on. not all names do that so well.


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