Zadie Smith was born Sadie Smith on October 27, 1975, in the Willesden area of North London, the daughter of a British father and a Jamaican mother. Later she would draw on this North London setting and her own multicultural ethnicity in her novels. She changed her name to the more exotic-sounding Zadie as a child pursuing the performing arts of tap dancing and jazz singing. She was fascinated with old Hollywood movie musicals, another source she would draw upon in her novel The Autograph Man. Smith attended Hampstead Comprehensive School until the age of eighteen and King’s College, Cambridge University, from 1994 to 1997, graduating with a degree in English literature.
While at Cambridge, Smith published short stories in the May Anthologies, the annual collection of work by students at Oxford and Cambridge. While still a university student, she was offered an advance of ¡250,000, approximately $400,000, for her first two books. The size of the advance for such a young, unknown writer put her name in the news even before her first book was published.
White Teeth, Smith’s first novel, was published in January, 2000, when Smith was twenty-four years old. The book, a saga of three families in multicultural north London, was an instant best seller, and Smith became a literary celebrity.
Smith was writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London from 2000 to 2001 while writing her second novel, The Autograph Man. This novel was not as well-received as White Teeth, more than likely because it was impossible to live up to the media attention that had attended the first novel. One of the themes of The Autograph Man is an exploration of the nature of fame and celebrity, possibly in reaction to Smith’s experience after the publication of White Teeth.
In 2002-2003, Smith lived in the United States, teaching, studying, and writing as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. While there, she began work on literary essays.
Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, a transatlantic campus novel, was published in 2005. Set in London and on the campus of a fictional American university, the novel depicts the disintegration of the marriage of Howard Belsey, a liberal, white art-history professor married to a vibrant African American woman, and his collision with his ultraconservative Anglo-Caribbean archrival, Monty Kipps.
In 2004, Smith married poet and novelist Nicholas Laird. The two met while students at Cambridge.