This fall, critically acclaimed British writer Zadie Smith released The Fraud, her sixth novel and first foray into historical fiction. It’s a characteristically sprawling and thrilling read about the Tichborne trials, the true story of Roger Tichborne, who was thought to be lost at sea but returned home years later to claim his role as rightful heir to his family’s fortune. The story captured England’s imagination in the 19th century, and in recent years, Smith found herself drawn to it too.

The author is known for exploring the collective psyche of contemporary society, and although The Fraud is based on historical fact, she still manages to examine the subject through a different lens. The themes she explores—shared pragmatism or a lack thereof, for one—had been simmering in her for some time. She told me about this over a recent blast-from-the-past phone call: I was endeared by a classic landline experience when she and her partner, novelist and poet Nick Laird, picked up the phone at the same time. “It’s for me,” she clarified.

In 2020, Smith spoke at a “Tell No Lies About Climate Change” event in London, diving into the societal evils that cloud the issue and prevent action rather than the issue itself. Although The Fraud doesn’t directly address the perils of our planet’s current trajectory, it does look at corrupt power structures and the actions required to dismantle them. “Utopic society is inhuman by definition,” says Smith. But she still believes in a fair and decent way of life—it just requires action by many far-reaching communities. “When you have a large criminal system or a terrible globalized injustice, how do you end such a thing?” she asks. “I was thinking of the environment a lot when I was writing this book, but slavery is a perfectly good analogy. When you look into British slavery, [you see that] the way it was ended was not by a small group of perfectly moral people. It was by an enormous coalition [that included] the slaves themselves, rebelling almost every year. Missionaries, libertarians, conservatives, abolitionists, liberals… If you really want to stop something, you need everybody.”

Smith’s characters are filled with flaws and, as the title would suggest, hypocrisies—which means they are obfuscated by their own self-deception. “I think everybody thinks everybody else is [a hypocrite], yet nobody ever seems to find themselves hypocritical,” explains Smith. “I find that my own life is filled with hypocrisy on a daily basis—especially once you have children, [when] it gets even harder to convince yourself that you’re an upstanding human being. Self-deception interests me.”

The Fraud by Zadie Smith

Much of The Fraud is told from the perspective of a woman named Mrs. Touchet, who serves as an early example of modern wokeness. The grey areas of the Tichborne trials (which systems prioritize which communities over others) prompt Mrs. Touchet to explore the real meaning of justice and question the systems that frame both her privileged class and her oppressed gender.

Smith seems to genuinely miss Mrs. Touchet and speaks about her like she might about a departed friend. “I loved writing her,” she says. “I loved spending time with her, even with her many hypocrisies. I have so much sympathy for her frustration.” Smith, who herself is 47, writes with such tenderness and ferocity when it comes to this middle-aged character. Aging is a consistent theme in her novels, and so I wonder what she has observed about the experience off the page. “I mean, I’m definitely menopausal,” Smith says with a laugh. “I find it hard to age. Everybody finds it hard to age. But, you know, I have the best job in the world for aging—the only one a woman can have where people begin to suspect you might be getting better.”