Craft Interview: Jane Smiley

Interviewing Jane Smiley means, if you’re the person asking the questions, you’re going to have to pick and choose. Since her 1980 debut, Barn Blind, Smiley has published a book at least once every other year. Her oeuvre is nothing if not diverse: an Agatha Christie-like mystery, a college politics farce, an Icelandic saga, and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reimagining of King Lear. Her writing has the unique position of appealing to both literary and commercial crowds. All together it can be a little difficult to know where to begin, what to cover.

I started by cracking open Jane Smiley’s 2014 novel, Some Luck, thinking that the novel’s subject matter—a family on an Iowa farm in the early twentieth century—made it a given this book would in some way be traditional. How wrong I was. Some Luck and the two novels that follow, Early Warning and Golden Age, might be the most engaging experiment of literature I’ve ever encountered. The trilogy follows the Langdons from 1920 to 2020, one chapter a year for one hundred years. The structure, plot, and pacing are all decidedly non-traditional, and like most maximal works, the Last Hundred years trilogy succeeds by creating a world so complete the reader feels as if he’s walking around inside it. However, unlike Knausgaard’s Scandinavia or Ferrante’s Naples, Smiley’s last century has no fixed location. Its only consistent, as it turns out, is the most bedrock novelistic concern: family.

In addition to her fourteen novels, Jane Smiley has written collections of short stories and works of nonfiction. She grew up in St. Louis and now lives in Northern California. We talked by phone one morning last summer.

Boulevard: The novels in the Last Hundred Years trilogy aren’t at all structured like novels typically are. They don’t follow the order of exposition, rising action, climax. All three had a much more idiosyncratic pace and tempo that felt much more like real life, like nonfiction. How much of that nonfiction feel was the intent from the start and how much of it came about naturally, inevitably, from dropping in on a character once or twice a year for one hundred years?

JS: Well, my first aim was to cover a hundred years. And I knew that I had to do that through a single family. So I set up the family, and I knew that they were going to get out of town and see the world or at least some of them were. Then I just sent them on their way. My novel Moo, about an agricultural college, also had a large group of characters. And so just like for that book, I wanted not to forget too many of the characters, which means you sort of have to pick who you’re going to focus on and let some of the others fall by the wayside. But what I would do is I’d get to a certain year and think about how old the various characters were and what they would likely be doing at that age and in that environment. I would decide whom I wanted to follow and whom I wanted to include in that year. I just made sure that all the ingredients were present in the recipe and hoped for the best.

Boulevard: Can you say a little bit more those necessary ingredients?

JS: What the character was doing didn’t have to necessarily be universally interesting, but it had to be interesting to the character. For instance, when Henry is young and he’s going to school, in order to have something for the kids to do, the teacher lets them sew an outfit. That’s interesting to Henry because he likes making things and he also likes looking unusual in the clothes he’s wearing. So that’s interesting to Henry. But how old is he then? Like seven years old. And then it’s interesting to other characters because they love him. And they find him amusing.

So, that’s the sort of thing that is interesting to a character, but it’s not universally dramatic like, say, when Frank in volume one goes off to the Second World War. Well, that’s interesting to everybody because it was a big event.

But I didn’t want Frank to go to the places that you instantly think of when you think of the Second World War. I didn’t want him to go to France, for instance. So I decided to send him to Africa instead because that was a little bit off to the side. Then when I learned about the African campaign and how they came up through Italy, I thought, well, this is totally interesting. I thought, wow, why had I never heard about that before? Part of my job was to mix dramatic and not so dramatic events. But part of my job was also to find out the more interesting and idiosyncratic parts of famous events.

Boulevard: I can totally picture Henry in the back of the tiny classroom. I don’t know if you used the word “crocheting” or not, but that’s how I pictured it. Did you do research into history on that specific of a level, to see if a boy going to school in the 1920s in Iowa would have spent the day sewing? Or did you write what felt true on the page and let that be good enough?

JS: Well, I did research into education in rural Iowa, and I saw that in the small schoolhouses things could be pretty idiosyncratic. One of the things you had to do if you had eight or ten students and only one teacher was to keep various students occupied while you were teaching other students. So I learned about the system, and then I located the system in time and space and let the teachers be kind of idiosyncratic in that world.

Boulevard: The novels that bring me the most joy are the ones in which I’m totally immersed in that created world. Plot seems to me just sort of a way to kind of facilitate that transport. In these three novels you seemed to let plot get out of the way and take us straight into the place and time of the world you’d built.

JS: Every novel needs a logical structure because in order for the novel to progress in a way that the reader understands, it has to have some kind of logic to the progression. And usually that is the plot. Even if it’s not a traditional plot, like a murder mystery, there’s some kind of rising action. There’s some kind of reason for suspense, and the reader follows that. And then there’s a pop where the suspense resolves, there’s a revelation or a climax. But I knew that for this set of books, there had to be more rising actions. For example, when Frank is in Europe or when there’s a worry about whether the farm’s going to survive, there’s a suspense there. Then time resolves it. The suspenseful thing ends, there is a climax, and then people move on, like we move on in our lives.

If you live past a particular climax, for example a breakup of a relationship, then you look back on it, and you have issues about it, but you’ve moved on past it. Climaxes come and go. That’s what we learn in life. For me, the climaxes are the plot and are linked to specific characters.

Boulevard: That makes so much sense to me because I’m thinking about Frank and the war, which has its own suspense and climax, and then he gets back from the war and is something like a spy, then he gets into real estate. All of those are arcs or climaxes in their own right and are suspenseful, driving the reader to turn to the next page.

JS: Maybe the overarching plot of the trilogy is about who Frank is and what he does, since he’s the most dynamic and exploratory character. But his children would say that he doesn’t have an inner life, that he has no actual emotions. I think that’s wrong. I think his wife, Andy, would disagree, but I think for men not having too many inner feelings was a way of survival. So who Frank is, is probably the overarching line of the narrative, but all these other characters have their own narrative lines, and they also contribute to that narrative line of who Frank is.

Boulevard: When I read nonfiction, even really good nonfiction, the one thing that’s always a little bit disappointing is that no matter how good the writer is, you as the reader can’t completely access the interiority of the characters the way you can when reading a novel. So for me these three books, Some Luck, Early Warning, Golden Age, read like an impossible third genre, like a nonfiction in which the reporter truly did know everything about the people she was writing about including their inner lives. Is that total nonsense?

JS: No, I think it is a really good compliment. When I was on the BBC a couple of years ago doing stuff in Britain about these books, I got into a big brouhaha with a nonfiction writer named Niall Ferguson. He’s a historian who at the time was promoting the first volume of his biography of Henry Kissinger. He basically said that the historical novel was a secondary form, that nonfiction history was the best form. What I said is just what you said, his history has to be accurate so the writer cannot pretend to know more than the data shows. But a novel has to be complete. And the writer has to imagine things that there’s no data for, so they offer two different results, two different attractions for the reader. The attraction of history is that it’s accurate. The attraction of fiction, historical fiction, is that it’s full, that it’s complete. What you’re saying is that you’ve got both out of the trilogy, which is great. And go watch that debate. It’s online.

Boulevard: I’ll do that.

JS: What made me laugh the most was that he was trying to resurrect Henry Kissinger. Talk about fiction, you know.

Boulevard: In the beginning of your craft book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, you said while you were writing Horse Heaven you were obsessed with horses. You write in that introduction about being obsessed with different things when writing several of your novels. What were you obsessed with writing the three most recent?

JS: I think probably the first thing that pops into my mind is history. I’ve written about families before, and I like exploring family relationships. That sort of comes naturally. The history side was the side that fascinated me and made me want to keep going.

Boulevard: Speaking of history, if a hundred years from now someone were to write three novels chronicling the last century in this sort of way, what would the 2018 chapter look like?

JS: Well, let’s put it this way. You noticed the pun in the title, The Last Hundred Years. So, I hope there is somebody one hundred years from now who has something to talk about.

Boulevard: You’ve written about how you stalled in the process of writing Good Faith and as a result set about to read one hundred novels, a project that itself led to your craft book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel. But Thirteen Ways was published over a decade ago, and I’m curious what impact has sitting down so intentionally to read one hundred novels had on your writing in the longer run?

JS: I would say that it’s somewhat changed my idea of my favorite authors. Before, my favorites were ones I read in junior high and high school like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen. I still like those authors, but I was introduced to authors like Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola and others who had a much more realistic way of going about things. I came to understand that I’m more Trollopian than I am Dickensian, by temperament at least.

Boulevard: Can you say more about their having a more realistic way of writing?

JS: Trollope explores how regular people think and their ambivalence to what they think about. And one of the things his characters always think about—which is one of the things that we always think about—is money. And one of the things they always do is weigh the moral ambiguity of various things. I think that’s pretty much the normal way of going about life. And Trollope makes it dramatic, and he makes you care whether this particular young woman picks this guy or that guy because he makes you look into her mind and into the feelings she has for either one and then look into her regular concerns about what she’s going to do with her life.

He makes that dramatic and interesting without going to fantasy. He doesn’t have to resort to death threats. He doesn’t have to go to scary things the way some other writers do. And the French writer Emile Zola, I’m a big fan of him. His work is interested in slightly different things than Trollope. But what he’s interested in is very much in our world.

Actually, there’s this epigraph in Thirteen Ways from The Tale of Genji. Let me, let me read it to you:

We’re not told of things that happened to specific people exactly as they happened; but the beginning is when there are good things and bad things, things that happen in this life which one never tires of seeing and hearing about, things which one cannot bear not to tell of and must pass on for all generations. If the storyteller wishes to speak well, then he chooses the good things; and if he wishes to hold the reader’s attention, he chooses the bad things, extraordinarily bad things. Good things and bad things alike, they are the things of this world and no other.

So, basically in the year 1000, [Murasaki Shikibu] was noticing that Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein was going to be way more popular than, I don’t know, than Elizabeth Gaskell writing Cranford. The bad things and the fantastic things are going to be the ones that are more popular, but the realistic things are going to be worth talking about.

Boulevard: Like Henry sewing, if it’s interesting to the character and we have access to that character’s inner life, then it’s likely going to be interesting on the page.

JS: Yeah, I totally agree. But, but also there are waves. So one of the things I grew up reading and read in graduate school were the Icelandic Sagas, which are essentially realistic. But sagas had a purpose when they were written, and then they stopped being written, and they gave way to more fantastical folkloric type stories. I think that happens, you know; I think culture has to have stories that are realistic, and then that gives way and the stories are more mythical. And then that gives way to stories that are realistic. That’s just the way it is.

A lot of the novels from the eighteenth century were written with fantastic elements, and then in the early nineteenth century novelists like Jane Austen went back to realism. That was followed by ghost stories in the late 19th century. In our world Alice Munro epitomizes realism, but what readers now are more and more interested in surrealism, fantasy, and myth. So, Alice Munro gets outsold by Hunger Games. Well, you know, that’s the way it is.

Boulevard: Do you think there’s something about right now that has readers shunning realism?

JS: I think things come and go. Trends come and go.

Boulevard: I wanted to ask just one question about A Thousand Acres, in particular your use of King Lear. How much was it motivated by an interest in the psychology of the characters and the predicaments in Shakespeare’s play and how much was it taking the tragedy’s proven plot structure and building on top of it your own original interpretation?

JS: What intrigued me about King Lear when I read it in high school (John Burroughs in St. Louis) and then in college and grad school, was that the motivations of the three sisters were not very well explored. It was accepted that Goneril and Regan were evil and Cordelia was good. I didn’t believe that. I wondered about the reasons for their antagonism toward their father and toward each other. The second thing was that Lear himself was a terrible complainer. I didn’t come from a family of complainers, so he always got on my nerves, which meant that I didn’t have much sympathy for him. We read a lot of Shakespeare, and I knew perfectly well that he repurposed old material for commercial ends, so I figured, well, why not? Farming interested me once I got to Iowa and lived in an old farmhouse outside of Iowa City. Thanks to Barry Commoner, who taught at Washington U, I learned about the dangers of pesticides and fertilizers. So it all came together. I did want to follow the plot as closely as possible—that was the game.

Boulevard: I asked about the impact of reading the hundred novels. What was the impact of winning the Pulitzer?

JS: Well, it was good. I mean it’s like being struck by lightning. Suddenly you’re being interviewed by scads of people, and people are paying a lot of attention to you. I happened to live off the publicity grid at that time, in Ames, Iowa, and now I live even farther away from it than that. So it never had the same effect as if I had lived in New York or London or someplace like that. I could always look at the scene if I wanted to and look away from it if I wanted to. Oh sure, I liked getting the prize. But my view is that I’m in charge of writing the books, and the publisher is in charge of selling them. My publishers kind of agree with that.

So they don’t bug me or make me do press I don’t want to. I do book tours. I like giving readings. I like meeting people and getting out of town. But I could see how if you were situated differently and there were more people that you had to entertain, interact with, and impress, maybe that would make you more anxious. But for me the Pulitzer was a fabulous thing. The lightning struck, and then I got up the next morning and taught engineering students who didn’t know a thing about it. So that was a good firewall.