Salon Series: A Conversation with Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides
March 31, 2016
NYU Washington, DC hosted a conversation with internationally award-winning authors Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides made possible through collaboration with the NYU Creative Writing Program. The discussion was moderated by internationally recognized multi-platform journalist Keli Goff (GAL '01).
The NYU Washington, DC Salon Series: Conversations with Writers & Artists presents an opportunity for the NYU and Washington, DC community to meet and engage in dialogue with acclaimed writers and artists as they reflect on their craft. This program provides facilitated conversations that aim to illuminate the guests’ creative processes, discuss their current works, and explain the impact of their work on the world around us.
Meet the Authors
Zadie Smith, Novelist, Essayist, Short-story Writer
Zadie Smith is a British author known for her treatment of race, religion, and cultural identity and for her novels’ eccentric characters, savvy humour, and snappy dialogue. She became a sensation in the literary world with the publication of her first novel, White Teeth, in 2000.
Smith, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father, changed the spelling of her first name to Zadie at age 14. She began writing poems and stories as a child and later studied English literature at the University of Cambridge (B.A., 1998). While there, she began writing White Teeth, and at age 21 she submitted some 80 pages to an agent. A frenzied bidding war ensued, and the book eventually was sold to Hamish Hamilton. Smith took several more years to complete the novel, and in 2000 it was published to rave reviews. Set in the working-class suburb of Willesden in northwest London, White Teeth chronicled the lives of best friends Archie Jones, a down-on-his-luck Englishman whose failed suicide attempt opens the novel, and Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim who struggles to fit into British society. Spanning some 50 years, the novel also detailed the trials and tribulations of their families, which prompted some critics to hail Smith as a modern-day Charles Dickens. The ambitious work won numerous awards, including the Whitbread First Novel Award (2000), and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction.
Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man, was published in 2002. It centred on Alex-Li Tandem, a Chinese Jewish autograph trader who sets out to meet a reclusive 1950s starlet and in the process undertakes his own journey of self-discovery. The Autograph Man, which also addressed the public’s obsession with celebrity and pop culture, received mostly positive reviews. Soon after the novel’s publication, Smith became a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
On Beauty, published in 2005, further established Smith as one of the foremost British novelists of her day. The novel, heavily modeled on E.M. Forster’s Howards End, chronicled the lives of two families in the fictional town of Wellington, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. A comic work studying the culture wars and racial and ethnic overlap in a liberal college town, On Beauty was praised for its acumen and scathing satire. The novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and won the 2006 Orange Prize for fiction.
NW (2012) centres on two women whose friendship—tempered by their straitened upbringings in a gritty London council estate—is tested by their divergent paths in adulthood. Though lauded for its evocative sense of place and sharply observed characters, the novel was deemed plotless and confusing by some critics.
Smith also edited and contributed to the short-story collection The Book of Other People (2007) and published a collection of essays, Changing My Mind (2009).
Jeffrey Eugenides, Novelist, Short-story Writer
Much like his character Calliope Stephanides, Jeffrey Eugenides was born to a Greek-American family in Grosse Pointe, a wealthy suburb of Detroit, Michigan. He graduated from Brown University magna cum laude and got his Masters degree from Stanford in English and Creative writing. He is currently a professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University and he has received many awards for his work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Henry D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Pulitzer Prize.
Much of Eugenides' work is set in Detroit, including both Middlesex and his earlier novel, The Virgin Suicides. Eugenides grew up during the slow demise of Detroit, and remembers it as almost an elegiac feeling, which comes across in both novels. Although conscious of the fact that the suburbs were not considered dignified literary subjects, Eugenides eventually embraced his past and realized that the suburbs are often just as interesting locations as some other "exotic" locales. He draws many elements from his past, including the struggle of classism he experienced in Grosse Pointe. Eugenides' narrative risks paid off, and many adult demographics have responded to his novels very enthusiastically - Oprah even placed Middlesex on her book club list.
Eugenides claims that he has always been a voracious reader and that he began his journey reading Modernists and Postmodernists like James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Pynchon, but he has since started reading more classical texts like Leo Tolstoy and Henry James. As a writer, Eugenides is verbose and often experimental: his novels are marked by unusual narrators, from the first person plural ("we") in The Virgin Suicides to the often omniscient and detached first person intersex narrator in Middlesex. Eugenides considers himself a slow and deliberate writer, often editing a section repeatedly until it feels right. This may be why, as of 2013, Eugenides has only published three novels: the two mentioned above and The Marriage Plot.
Meet the Moderator
Keli Goff (GAL '01) is an internationally recognized multi-platform journalist and fiction writer best known for documenting the intersections of politics, pop culture, race and gender in America. As a journalist her work has appeared in some of the world’s leading publications, including the magazines Time, Cosmopolitan and Essence, and the web editions of The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Elle Magazine and New York Magazine, to name a few. Currently a Columnist for The Daily Beast, Keli previously served as a Contributor to The Washington Post blog “She the People,” The Huffington Post and the online magazine The Root.
Keli’s columns have sparked national conversations in a variety of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” She has appeared on more than 100 television and radio programs providing political analysis and cultural criticism on the networks CBS, MSNBC, NPR, FOX, BET, the BBC and many others. In February 2016 she began hosting "Political Party with Keli Goff," a new series featuring interviews with politicians, media personalities and artists about the issues shaping the 2016 presidential election for NPR affiliate WNYC.
In 2014 she began writing for theater and television.
She was a recipient of the Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group fellowship and spent 2014-2016 developing new material at the legendary artistic institution best known for producing Shakespeare in the Park. She joined the writing staff of the critically acclaimed drama “Being Mary Jane” during its third season. The following year she was awarded an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing on a Dramatic Series for her work on the episode "Sparrow."
The author of two books, her first, Party Crashing: How the Hip Hop Generation Declared Political Independence (Basic Books, March 2008) featured interviews with young voters and high profile leaders, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The Washington Post called Party Crashing “engaging” while Arianna Huffington declared that it “Should be on the nightstand of candidates on either side of the political aisle.” Her second book, the political novel The GQ Candidate (Atria Books, 2011), was designated a recommended summer selection by The Los Angeles Times and More Magazine.
Keli’s books have generated extensive coverage in outlets such as Vanity Fair and USA Today. She was also profiled in the book “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How we Think about Power,” by bestselling author Gloria Feldt. Keli is also featured as one of the “expert bloggers” in the book "The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging".
A member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Keli holds a B.A. from New York University and a Master’s degree in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Born and raised in Texas, Keli now splits her time between Manhattan and Los Angeles. Follow Keli on twitter @keligoff