A Conversation with Novelist Jane Smiley
By Jan Alexander

A Thousand Words With a Master Novelist

Jane Smiley is famous for writing novels that are a product of her curiosity and exacting research rather than any particular inward-looking angst.

I confess, there was a time when I considered that a reason to resist her work, imagining she might also be stingy with emotional risk; I think of reading a novel in which the author hasn’t tapped into an infinite spectrum of feeling as an exercise that’s about as convivial as going on a date with someone who spends the whole evening on his cell phone.

I think of, for example, Arthur Golden’s well researched but to my mind overrated 1999 novel Memoirs of a Geisha, which felt more like a clever thesis in cultural studies than a novel. But as for Smiley, I tried one novel, then another and then another. I was hooked.

She is nothing if not a prolific supplier to those who crave her words. To date, she’s published 15 adult novels, and this fall will see the release of Volume 3 of The Last Hundred Years, a family saga that begins on a farm in Iowa in 1920 and ends where the ensuring generations have wandered as of 2019.  Plus five nonfiction books about writers and writing and a young adult novel series about her other passion, horses.  

Smiley is a master of storytelling, and of language that entwines so seamlessly into the story you have to remind yourself to pause and admire its understated richness.  But what I’ve grown to most admire most is her ability to inhabit so many complex characters, developing them through their responses to one another as well as the time and place she chooses for them.

Nowhere is that more evident than in The Last Hundred Years, in which she plunks the Langdon family down into settings that include not only an Iowa farm but also the North African theatre in World War II, the post-war CIA and the San Francisco Peoples’ Temple just before Jim Jones led his followers to Guyana and served them cyanide-laced Flavor Aid.  

At the same time, part of the appeal of the Langdon family trilogy is Smiley’s abiding affection for the deceptively salt-of-the-earth farmers and the vast cornfields of Iowa—and her intricate research into fertilizers and rainfall and Depression-era egg prices.

Many novelists have, as she did, earned PhDs from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, but Smiley—who also taught at Iowa State University from 1981 to 1996-- is unique in the way she’s made farming a recurring theme in her work. She satirized a midwestern agricultural university in Moo, and her Pulitzer prize-winning A Thousand Acres is a retelling of King Lear from wicked daughter Goneril’s point of view, with Iowa farm property replacing a sovereign kingdom.

Another recurring theme, of course, is Smiley’s propensity for repurposing the classics. In Ten Days in the Hills she took the model of Boccaccio's 14th century gathering in The Decameron to a Hollywood house party that seemed like it might never end. She’s also written for Neworld and revealed that her taste for exploration extends to cuisine.  I spoke with Smiley during a recent afternoon when she was at her home in Carmel Valley, CA, about her characters, her writing life and the power of novels.

Jan: You’re known as a writer who started with a lot of confidence—a mother who wanted you to be a novelist instead of frittering away so much time with your horses, and not much of a dark side to your life.   It seems to have served you well.

Smiley: No, I haven’t been through terrible things. My father disappeared out of my life when I was a year old. Ostensibly that’s a terrible thing, but actually it was a good thing because my father was the crazy one. Then my mother remarried when I was in sixth grade. My stepfather was a wonderful, kind person. The other bad thing was that my stepfather died of a heart attack right after my freshman year in college, and that was really bad, but from my point of view I was essentially out of there by then. So the bad things around that happened to my brother and sister and my mother.

I basically had a good childhood. My mother was the women’s page editor for the St. Louis Post Democrat, and she loved writing and thought the ideal career was to be a writer. The other thing about her was that she was very glamorous.

So unlike me; I ‘m not very glamorous but I had that alternative model. When other girls’ parents came to our school they were wearing housedresses, but when my mother came she was wearing high fashion. And my grandparents were fun and down-home. Everyone liked to talk and had a great sense of humor. Around 1960, my aunt observed, and I think she was serious although she was smiling, that the Kennedys were a lot like us. Now nobody in the world would have ever said that. I mean in terms of money, looks, prominence whatever. I can still picture her saying that.

Jan: Okay, we’ll never see a memoir from you about danger or deprivation or addiction or other terrible things. But how much autobiography has gone into your novels?  

Smiley: My life has been really boring, so I write about things I’m curious about. That’s my motivation, curiosity rather than self-expression. My first novel was Barn Blind, and that was a practice novel, about an interesting family I had some acquaintance with. The second novel was Paradise Gate, and that was kind of about my family, reimagining my family around the time of my grandfather’s death. I don’t really appear in it.  

The Age of Grief had an emotional source in my split with my second husband but I was never a dentist or anything like that. I had to find out about that. The thing that would be closest to being autobiographical about my novels is that they’re set in geographical places that I was interested in. As soon as I got to Iowa I thought this is really interesting, from the chemicals in my well, to what the crops look like, what the sky looks like, what the weather looks like, what the people are doing.

I studied a lot of old Icelandic literature, and went to Iceland, and I became interested in the end of the Greenland colony as a metaphor for the end of the world. (The Greenlanders was published in 1988.)  The inspiration for Horse Heaven was that I started with going to race tracks and thinking what an interesting, and not of the real world place, they are. They’re kind of simultaneously higher and lower than the real world.

Jan: And you even raised race horses for a while.

Smiley: Yes, but I got out of it because I couldn’t afford it and it was too corrupt. But even though horse racing is crooked in a lot of ways, certain horses seem to enjoy racing. You can mistreat them but you can’t make the ones who don’t want to do it do it.

Jan: But you still have horses, right?

Smiley: Now I have four horses. I rode two of them today

Jan: Besides being fodder for novels, are there ways that they provide inspiration?

Smiley:  I think horses have quite complex emotional lives and excellent memories.  I can’t say I agonize over my work but when I get stuck it’s nice to go to the barn. But I also feel like whatever ego boost you get from your work or from being successful, horses don’t cater to that. You have to be observant and modest and attentive and thoughtful in order to get along with them. Once you’re trained to be that with the horse, then you are that way.

Jan: As a teenager were you like Fiona, the character in Early Warning who’s a daredevil on horseback?

Smiley: I was more like Debbie, a Langdon family descendent who’s cautious and desirous. There was a girl I knew who was like Fiona and I admired her tremendously.

Jan: (Spoiler alert) I’m very much looking forward to finding out what happens to Fiona’s love child. When Charlie first appeared in Early Warning I thought “who’s that?” I looked in the Langdon family tree at the front of the book, but no Charlie.  I guessed he must be the child of one of the illicit assignations that happens in the novel, and I guessed Fiona and Tim.  On the other hand, Frank Langdon thinks Charlie is his child with an elusive mistress when he first sees him, but when Frank falls in love the whole encounter somehow feels like too much a product of his own fantasies to actually produce a baby.

Smiley: Oh you guessed it, good. First the ages are right. The clues are there.  I think Frank would pride himself on saying he knows what’s what, and I’m not sure he does.

Jan: Truly, the best insights into how you approach your art are in the book 13 Ways Of Looking at the Novel—and it’s great advice for all novelists as well as readers. You mentioned in “13 Ways” that you have a particular liking for writing about characters who are manipulative, full of bull, talks compulsively and are  full of theories that partially correct. Did you think of Frank as this character in the Langdon family trilogy?

Smiley: I’m not sure Frank has enough of an inner life for that. I don’t think he’s consciously manipulative. He’s so focused on his own desires he almost doesn’t have awareness of other peoples’ inner lives. That comes under more explanation in Volume 3. The other thing I think about Frank is that in a sense he’s the ideal World War II generation guy. Where does that lead us?

Jan: As in where does it lead the next generation and the next? Frank’s kids are fascinating; so screwed up and how could they not be?  Frank is always chasing love through mistresses and other peoples’ children. He doesn’t know what to do with what he has in his own family.

Smiley:  Their mother is emotionally absent too. These issues continue to get explored in Volume 3. I think for Frank, the distance comes from not ever having looked within. He’s not a reader.  He just feels desire.  

Jan: Do you have to be a reader to have that inner life that Frank is lacking?

Smiley: A lot of people would say no. But what comes first, the reading or the inner life? Because when we read as children we’re simultaneously growing up and developing our inner lives.  If you don’t read as a child, how do you develop your inner life? The person to ask is Richard Ford, who always said he never read as a child. He didn’t start reading until he was in his late teens or early 20s. The way I think about the novel is that because its’ so long it seeps very slowly into you and it exercises your neurons in a way that, say, a movie or a short story or a poem doesn’t.  

Jan: You said in “13 Ways” that novels did a lot to change society’s perceptions of marriage.

Smiley: It affected society’s views of women and the nature of women. If you grow up reading novels about the inner lives of anybody—women, horses, men, boys, space aliens – then you’re much more sensitive to the fact that there are other points of view than yours.  One of the most interesting things to me in The Decameron, one of the earliest novels, was women’s expectations. In the sixth story of the third day a man lures a married women named Catella to a public bath. The man pretends to be her husband and rapes her. Once she realizes it’s not her husband, the rapist points out to her that she’s dishonored and that if she tells anyone, she’s ruined.

Boccaccio is sympathetic to Catella but he can’t give her a way to get beyond her initial grief and her recognition that she just has to make the best of it –so she gives in and takes the rapist as her lover. It hasn’t been that long that women have had any kind of acknowledgment of their inner desires and their inner lives, and we can trace that through novels. All those ministers who railed against girls reading novels--they were absolutely right. [Men] were going to lose power from that.

Jan: Has writing about the inner lives of others affected your own perceptions? I’m thinking of you as a novelist whose politics are generally left of center creating characters you’d probably disagree with, like Arthur Manning, who is the husband of Lillian Langdon and works for the CIA.

Smiley: I love Arthur. My job, I felt, was to torture Arthur. But I also knew that he, and this is true of many people who go into government service, began with good intentions. Arthur would be the first to tell you and the first to understand that his good intentions were quickly subverted by the institution. He’s torn, and then, well you decide what happens after his suicide attempt. The thing about writing a novel is that you must have empathy.

Mikhail Sholokhov, the Russian novelist who won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, was sympathetic to the Soviet model. In reading his fiction I noticed that the good characters were stiff and inhuman in a lot of ways --because they had to conform.

When he’s writing about the Cossacks on the steppes they’re interesting, but as soon as he enters Soviet society the characters  have to follow the party line. That was really telling for me in terms of how politics work in the novel.

Jan: You talked about polemical novels in “13 Ways”, as part of 12 types of discourse that might set a novel in motion—travel, history, biography, tale, joke, gossip, diary or letter, confession, polemic, essay, epic and romance. You’ve already used a lot of these forms. Would you ever use polemics this way?

Smiley: You’ll have to see in Volume 3.

Jan: On the subject of The Last Hundred Years, a lot of reviewers have speculated that you were refashioning The Divine Comedy. If that’s the case it seems like Volume 1, Some Luck, would be purgatory, and Volume 2, Early Warning, would be hell, which leaves us with heaven in Volume 3.

Smiley: I haven't read the Divine Comedy since college, and even then, I only skimmed it. So, no, no conscious inspirations, all subconscious. And hell is at the end.

Jan: What are you preparing for dinner tonight?

Smiley: Actually we’re going out. But last night we had veal with a sauce of walnuts, parmesan cheese, and olive oil mixed with lemon and cream, and grilled polenta. Normally I don’t eat veal but there’s a store near here where they swear up and down that the calves get to live with mom for a really long time.

Jan: That reminds me, I was trying to figure out who was the stand-in for The Fool in A Thousand Acres, and I thought probably Marv Carson, the banker who’s obsessed with healthy eating. “It’s not what you eat, but the order you eat it in that counts,” he says at one point, then goes into a graphic description, while others are eating, of how he excretes out the toxins that are in everything.

Smiley: Yes, that was him.

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