Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Jane Smiley: “You are grateful to be published, you hope for some money and some respect.”

Jane Smiley is an American novelist and professor. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Missouri, she received a BA in literature from Vassar College, as well as an MA, MFA, and PhD in English from the University of Iowa.

She taught creative writing at Iowa State University and the University of California, Riverside. Jane won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for her novel A Thousand Acres. She has also been a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters and won the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

Jane’s work has been included in numerous literary festivals and her book The Greenlanders has been praised by author Jonathan Franzen. She also wrote a trilogy of novels about an Iowa family, the first of which, Some Luck, was published in 2014.

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Hi Jane, welcome to Famous Writing Routines! It’s great to have you here with us today. You won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for your novel A Thousand Acres. Can you describe your experience of writing that novel and what inspired you to retell the story of King Lear in a contemporary setting? 

I read King Lear several times in high school, college, and grad school, and I never liked it. I always thought Lear complained too much, and that Goneril and Reagan never got to express their points of view. We read a lot of Shakespeare, and I enjoyed many of the other plays, both comedies and tragedies. One thing I noticed, after I studied a lot of Icelandic Sagas (which inspired The Greenlanders), was that, unlike many of the other plays, King Lear was Nordic, and I wondered about his sources. 

So even though I didn’t like it, I found it rather fascinating, and I came to think it needed a rewrite. I was living in Ames, Iowa, teaching at Iowa State, and my husband and I were coming home from Minneapolis, down I-35. We went through a very flat and rather spooky region, and I as I was looking out the window, I said, “This is where I should set that Lear novel.” 

The more I investigated that ecosystem, the more interesting I thought it was, so I did some research into the history of the region, drove around a little bit, and came up with the opening paragraph, about the landscape. I was also influenced by the economic and ecological problems that farmers were going through in the late eighties and into the nineties. My previous books had not been very political, but, given what was happening in the ag business, A Thousand Acres had to be.

As for my experience, I made myself a rule that I had to stick as closely to the play as I could (though no war in Iowa, only legal action). As always, I worked a couple of hours a day, in the morning. Creating the novel was like solving a puzzle, sometimes frustrating, but maybe a little easier because I knew where the plot was heading. I had to do a lot of research into the ag business, but at Iowa State, that wasn’t difficult. 

Barn Blind was published in 1980. How has your writing style evolved over the years and what do you see as the most significant change in your writing process? 

I barely remember writing Barn Blind, but I do remember being fascinated by someone who had fulfilled a dream I had had when I was young, of owning a lot of horses and having my own horse farm. When I worked for the woman that BB was based on, I saw how difficult and time-consuming that life was, and I think that was what inspired the novel. I would say that the most significant change in my writing process was moving from typewriter to computer.

You have had a long and successful career as a professor of English and creative writing at Iowa State University and the University of California, Riverside. What have been some of the most valuable lessons you have learned about writing and teaching writing, and how do you approach your role as a mentor and teacher to aspiring writers?

I would say that the single most valuable lesson I’ve learned about teaching creative writing is not to be critical or to give praise. You have to spark the student’s interest in and curiosity about his or her work, so that whatever the idea is, it becomes something that the student wants to investigate more and more. In class discussions about student work, I did not allow criticism or praise, only questions.

The students would have to turn in a draft every week, the discussions of each draft would be about fifteen minutes long, and then, in the next draft, the students would address those questions and correct grammar or spelling errors.

For the “final exam” each student was to turn in a draft of the story we’d talked about that interested him or her the most. I found that as the students got more involved in their work, I got more interested in it, too—I loved witnessing how they analysed and changed their stories, draft by draft.

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In 2009, you chaired the judges’ panel for the Man Booker International Prize. What do you think are the most important elements of a great work of fiction?

Our job in 2009 was to award the Man Booker International Prize, which was a life-time Achievement Award. We gave it to Alice Munro for her steady and beautifully depicted representations of the lives, and the inner-lives, of a multitude of characters and situations, many of which were, on the surface, routine, and some of which were dramatic.

Munro was great at depicting the Lives of Girls and Women (the title of her second collection of stories from 1971). Everyone on the shortlist had written interesting works of fiction, and I was especially impressed by Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. I was also a long time fan of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

Each of them is great, and each of them is utterly different from the others. So greatness varies from writer to writer. All of these writers are adept at using a style that draws the reader in, but the worlds they depict are entirely different from one another.

You wrote a trilogy of novels about an Iowa family over the generations. Can you tell us about the research and writing process behind this project and what you wanted to convey through this multi-generational epic?

After A Thousand Acres, I continued to be interested in farming, but more in the history of farming and the way that over a long period of time, inventions and other innovations have changed what we eat, how it’s grown and turned into food, and what it means to own a farm.

Food reveals a lot about culture, and scarcity and abundance always go back and forth. The main crops that we grow in the US are not very healthy for people or for the planet, but it is really hard to change the culture, the financials, and people’s tastes.

The grocery store I go to stocks a lot of organic food and free-range eggs, but there are a lot of larger issues about corporate farming and food production that being a single customer can’t address. So that was part of it. But I also wanted to explore the psychology of five siblings in a single family, how they were similar and different, and also how they evolved over the years, from birth to death.

Can you walk us through your creative process? What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

Fairly simple—get up, eat some granola and drink a Diet Coke (for the caffeine), take a book to the hottub and read for a while, then return to my “office”, get out the Macbook Air and open the file. Then I read through what I wrote the day before and think about it. In my experience, something that I wrote the day before pushes me toward the next few pages. 

I always say that as you come up with ideas, you discover that each of them is either a pebble or a seed, and you don’t know which will be which until you read them over the next day. Depending on the plan, I write a thousand words, or maybe fifteen hundred, and then put it away. 

Often, I have to look things up while I am writing—usually something about the spot where the story is taking place. One thing I like to do is use oddly named places (the protagonist in my next novel, which I think will be coming out in about a year, grows up on a street in St. Louis named Skinker). 

The oddly named places amuse me, and it is also easier to remember them and to picture them. When I’ve done the day’s quota, I save the file, send to myself on Gmail (in case the MacBook goes haywire), and head for the out of doors. I let the things I wrote that day run around in my head while I’m outside, and if some idea comes to me, I send it to Gmail so that I won’t forget it.

If you could have a conversation with an author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

There are so many! Miguel de Cervantes is often given credit for inventing the novel, but I think he invented a masculine form of the novel—adventures, exploration, etc. I would say that Madame de Lafayette, who was born about 90 years later, invented the feminine form—one that explores the pleasures and perils of love and marriage, and that she was probably influenced by The Heptameron, written by Marguerite of Navarre and conceived as an update of The Decameron.

I would love to have a conversation with both of them, and ask them what inspired them to pick up the pen and reveal the inner lives of women (and men, too—they are good at that). I would like to know what other books they read and what stories and gossip they shared with their friends. I would like to understand how they were educated, and what particular works inspired their desire to write.

For us, with our libraries, search engines, and typing, the process of writing is fairly easy. I sometimes have trouble figuring out how to make the story work, but getting it onto the page is almost automatic. I would love to know how those two aspects of writing meshed for them (i.e. Did they dictate? If they wrote themselves, what were the tools like?) I would also like to know if there was anything that they wanted to write but couldn’t get to work, like some sort of adventure tale.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite reads?

Right now, I am reading Brideshead Revisited, because I happened to watch the series, and then realized that I hadn’t read the novel. I am always interested in how novels differ from movies or series that are based on them. I usually read several books at once, so along with Brideshead Revisited. I’ve been reading Contested Will, by James Shapiro, and listening to An Immense World, by Ed Yong (I love audiobooks, because you hear them word for word). 

Jonathan Franzen considers your book The Greenlanders to be among the best works of contemporary American fiction. How do you see your place in the literary landscape, and what do you see as some of the key challenges and opportunities facing writers and artists today?

I don’t think any writer knows his or her own place in the literary landscape. You are grateful to be published, you hope for some money and some respect, you know that the literary world is varied and changeable, and you know that after you die, your work might be remembered or forgotten, but you have no say in that. I think trying to understand your place in the literary landscape is pointless, but writing itself is a fascinating habit, and so I keep going, hoping for the best.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

My bedroom, which isn’t surprising, because it is my bedroom. It has eight windows, a double door leading to the back deck, twelve paintings, one tapestry, one old leather chair, two antique side-tables, a small stuffed toy pony, and lots of things could be put away but aren’t. 

Photo courtesy of the author

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