It was writer, Lisa Appignanesci who first put the spotlight on Smith. Appignanesci’s son, Josh, was one of Smith’s contemporaries at Cambridge's King’s College and told his mother about a woman at his university who had an extraordinary talent for writing.
Appiganesci was sent some of Smith’s short stories and, so the story goes, she was so impressed that she introduced her to Salman Rushdie. Rushdie, in turn, introduced her to his literary agent, Andrew Wylie. And the rest as they say -- including the advance of around a quarter of a million pounds for two novels -- is history.
In fact, the whopping advance of 250,000 pounds (400,000 euro), is not a particularly unusual occurrence, but it was this news, added to Zadie Smith’s potent mix of talent, beauty, youth and mixed racial roots (her father is British, her mother Jamaican) that caught the imagination of the British press and turned her into a celebrity overnight.
Exalted and vilified by the press, lionized for her style, her fiery wit and outspokenness, she has been touted as a spokesperson for multiculturalism, youth and women.
She announced that the former conservative party leader's wife, Fiona Hague, "could kiss my behind" after William Hague said he wanted to build detention centers for asylum seekers in Britain. And despite playing the fame game with some finesse -- attending photo shoots for glossy magazines and the like -- she remained highly critical.
"I wouldn’t mind it if I saw five-hour photo shoots for Martin Amis, but that doesn’t happen," she told Deutsche Welle. "If you’re a woman, it’s as if they want to reduce everything to the same denominator."
Back to earth with a bump
Smith's second book, The Autograph Man, was published in September 2002.
To be glib, The Autograph Man does exactly what it says on the tin. It is the story of Alex Ti Tandem -- a man who buys and sells autographs, both genuine and fake, and focuses on the notion of modern celebrity.
And though the book is less expansive than White Teeth -- indeed, many critics have heaped praise on Smith for finding her "voice" after writing a best-selling debut -- Smith's continued preoccupation with race issues and multiculturalism is clear. Tandem is a Chinese Jew and the novel is infused with symbolism and Judaic themes.
Smith took a more careful tack with the publication of this book. "People can read the book, or not read the book" she told the British newspaper "The Observer", matter of factly. "Obviously I hope they do, but someone doesn’t have to be the biggest best-seller ever to be a good writer. That’s not what it’s about."
Snubbed by Booker
The rollercoaster ride for Smith didn’t end there, and the decision not to shortlist her for the Booker Prize for White Teeth came as a surprise.
To Nick Hornby, the best-selling British author of About a Boy and High Fidelity, Booker's omission of Smith's "startlingly ambitious, wise, funny and warm" White Teeth was both "depressing and baffling." "I'm sure I wasn't the only one chanting, 'You don't know what you're doing' at the hapless judges,” he wrote in "The Guardian" at the time.
British writer and broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, who was one of the judges, justified her decision not to shortlist White Teeth for the prestigious literary prize, saying Smith's characters were far too extreme and basically caricatures.
It was the more self-aware sections of the press that mooted it was this treatment that actually drove Smith to leave Britain in September 2002. While living in the U.S. she attended Harvard University to complete a postgraduate degree on the modern European novel and write a third book, this time non-fiction.
Yet regardless of her treatment by the media, Zadie Smith appears to take most things -- her luck, career choice and her celebrity -- with a grain of salt. She once famously said: "I write for money and sometimes it's more than that and sometimes it ain't."