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Historical fiction 'The Fraud' is about a man's testimony of outrageous, obvious lies


We're going to speak now with the author of a new book about a trial - a complete spectacle of a trial, a nation riveted by the proceedings. At the center of the trial - the testimony of a man who says one provably false thing after another. And the more outrageously, obviously untrue the things the man says, the more his supporters surge to his defense. The book is fiction but based on real events in 19th century England and Jamaica. The title is "The Fraud." The author is Zadie Smith. And when we reached her in London, I asked why she was drawn to the saga of Sir Roger Tichborne.

ZADIE SMITH: I think I've always been interested in contradictory figures like this. Like, I remember being really fascinated by the O.J. trial, even from over here in England - the idea that the truth wasn't the ultimate test in that case. It happened again with Trump, and it happened with the Tichborne claimant, too, that when a system is so twisted and perverse and so unjust, there will be a popular reaction against it.

And those kind of people who appear in the form of fiction - that's the best way I can put it - I guess O.J. appeared, in some sense, as a white Black man. Trump appears as a kind of working-class billionaire, a man of the people who is also a real estate mogul. And Tichborne was another one of these figures. They use fiction. They use the tools of fiction. And because I'm a fiction writer, that interests me.

KELLY: You mention O.J. Simpson. You mention Donald Trump. I never did, and I was going to ask whether our contemporary politics were on your mind - to what extent they were on your mind as you were writing.

SMITH: I mean, I don't think you could have a mind in the past 20 years without contemporary politics pressing in on them. And it was on my mind, but to be honest, the parallels between the trials - I didn't have to make any effort in that direction. They just existed. I mean, there even is, in the Tichborne trial, a almost crazed lawyer who was interested in the kind of theory of a leader coming every - I think it's every seven years, in his case, to change humanity. There was this kind of Steve Bannon-type, Giuliani mix in one person. So these things kept happening as I was reading, so I didn't have to do much in that direction. All I did was tell the truth, and the analogies kind of made themselves.

KELLY: Well, let's talk about some of the characters. One of them is William Ainsworth, who was a real writer, a contemporary - fair to say, a frenemy of Charles Dickens.

SMITH: Yeah, I think frenemy is the right word. Yeah.

KELLY: (Laughter). And he published a bunch of novels, most of which have been lost to history. Did you read a bunch of them to try to capture him?

SMITH: I mean, I have all of them. Reading all of them is a task beyond my capabilities, I think.

KELLY: (Laughter) Or at least interest, it sounds like.

SMITH: Right.

KELLY: Yeah.

SMITH: There's 43 of them, I think, altogether. It just interested me that he had written all these books and was so completely forgotten. And I like the idea of someone who was so optimistic about fiction, who loved it so much but who had absolutely no talent. I found that combination inherently comic.

KELLY: (Laughter). Charles Dickens does not come across as a particularly amiable character in this novel. And I wondered, did you, as one of the, you know, most prominent writers living and working today in Britain, have fun? Did you find joy in skewering one of the most prominent writers living and working a century and a half ago in the U.K.?

SMITH: Listen. If I'm skewering Dickens, I'm skewering myself because the traits he has, the personality traits - I know I share a lot of them. So it was in no way attack. If it's anything, it's a self-attack because I recognize that kind of writerly ruthlessness and monomania and foolishness about politics and sentimentality. Those are all things that are in me as much as they're in him. So maybe that's why the portrait seems severe.

KELLY: You both have a talent for building characters, and there's one more I want to ask about, which is Andrew Bogle.

SMITH: Right.

KELLY: He grew up enslaved on a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica. How does he enter your story?

SMITH: Well, he was the witness - the main witness in the trial. Without him, there would be no trial.

KELLY: He's also a real person? He was a real person?

SMITH: He's a completely real person.


SMITH: Everybody in the book is real. There were no fictional people in there, really. And there were, I think, 12 volumes of the Tichborne trial. I obviously have not read all of them. But that means that as a Black man in Britain, his is probably one of the longest narratives we have, I think, of that period, of a Black man in a courtroom describing his own life. It's an incredible oral tale. And so I felt like I wanted to preserve it. I wanted people to be able to read it, and I wanted to demonstrate what made this trial so compelling because it wasn't the Tichborne claimant. It was Bogle. People bought papers obsessively to read what he had to say, both about his life in Jamaica and his life in England.

KELLY: You're hopping back and forth in this novel between two countries, between England and Jamaica. And there's one line I wanted to ask you about because it's beautiful writing. You say, (reading) England was not a real place at all. England was an elaborate alibi.

As I say, it's beautiful. What does it mean?

SMITH: I mean that England's history is mostly offshore, that its colonial brutality was offshore. Its enslavement of millions was offshore and that that enabled England to have an idea of itself which is not accurate. And that is what I wanted to write about - the gap between the delusion, the belief of what England is and what it really was. Now, I am English, and I love England. So the truth to me really matters. I need to know it. I need to know it to retain the love I have for my country but also to know exactly what it was and what it did. And the brutality of its behavior in the Caribbean, I think, is without equal. So part of writing this novel was to find out the truth for myself.

KELLY: And this is your eighth novel. It's your first work of historical fiction. So you're going back and excavating events from 150 years ago. To what extent did that inform your understanding of England today?

SMITH: I think those delusions remain. I think they're incredibly hard to let go of. I think one of the things I really noticed - I've always noticed since I was growing up - is that the thing we're famous for as a country, I think, is our sense of humor - that we're funny. And we value this very highly. And one of the things I noticed about it is that as well as being delightful, it is also self-protective. So when I sat down to write this novel, I could very clearly envision an English reader thinking as they start to read, oh, you're getting bogged down. Oh, she's going to be serious. Oh, she's not being funny anymore. Oh, no, she's going to corner us about the enslaved people and the colonial situation - this kind of English feeling that you stop being fun when you do that. You've dragged things down. You've become belligerent. So I wanted, in my most ironic and most comic and most charming voice, to tell the truth. So the novel, I think - when you read it - I hope when you read it - for quite a while, you might not think you're about to hear anything you don't want to hear, but you will hear it, and you'll hear it in full.

KELLY: Well, it was a joy to read, Zadie Smith. Thank you for writing it.

SMITH: Thank you. It was a pleasure to write.

KELLY: The book is "The Fraud." The author is Zadie Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHIAN SHEEHAN'S "LA BOITE A MUSIQUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.