Jane Smiley: ‘All you need is for one reader to love your book’
The acclaimed US novelist on literary heavyweights, why she doesn’t like to complain and how her current and former husbands helped her write her new midwestern family sagaRobert McCrum
Sunday 26 October 2014 09.45 GMT
irtually all you need to know about the novelist Jane Smiley is encrypted on to the dedication page of her new book, Some Luck, which thanks four men for “decades of patience, laughter, insight, information, and assistance”. Who are they, these merry, long-suffering, dedicatees, John, Bill, Steve and Jack? Smiley’s three ex-husbands of course, plus the incumbent. And are they still her friends? Smiley’s infectious laugh punctuates her answer. “Oh yes, they’re all great guys, all easy-going guys, and I’m fond of all of them.” That’s one of the things about her: apparently no hint of darkness. Indeed, at a skinny 6ft 2in, Jane Smiley is something of an honorary “guy” herself, and the more you dig into her creative life you find a woman who wants to conduct every bit of her professional career with the same “easy-going” detachment.
Each one of these men in her life has had a role in Smiley’s latest, daunting project, a trilogy about the US experience of “the Last Hundred Years”, the first volume of which has just been published in America to widespread approval. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, “[Some Luck] simultaneously miniaturises and contextualises three decades of American history by zooming in on one multi-generational midwestern farm family… In this, Smiley’s most commanding novel yet, the medium matches the message. Births and deaths, triumphs and tragedies are rendered in a flat, matter-of-fact affect that mirrors the midwestern landscape, language and temperament.” Although Smiley now lives in California, this is not just home-town acclaim. The Washington Post has also added its voice to the chorus, praising a book that’s “subtle, wry and moving” while also noting that “it is especially satisfying to hear a powerful writer narrate men’s and women’s lives lovingly and with equal attention”.
Smiley has interrupted her book tour in Philadelphia to speak to the Observer in a mood of almost palpable contentment. We sit at a conference table the size of Nebraska on the 31st floor of her hotel looking out across the city that made the American revolution. Beyond the plate glass, a slow sequence of descending airliners measures out a golden autumn afternoon. Somehow, it’s appropriate to find the pathetic fallacy informing a conversation about the making of what Smiley’s publishers are describing as “the literary event of 2014”.
The object of this excitement sits at the still centre of hype’s whirlwind, paying tribute to the role of her four husbands in Some Luck. “I consulted all of them,” she says, blithely. Here, you sense, is an optimist with a positive agenda, a thrifty woman who lets nothing go to waste. “Each has a different area of expertise and of course… ” – more easy-going laughter – “they’re all experts in getting into trouble.” She reviews her marital roster. “John, my first husband, was a lawyer. Still is, of course. So I could ask him about anything to do with the law. Steve has a really great memory. So if I needed to remember something, I could turn to him. Bill’s a pop-culture maven who could help with which song was playing when. And Jack, he’s the guy I read things to. He’s dyslexic. I read aloud to him first thing in the morning. I always read the last day’s work before I start the next day. He’ll say, ‘I don’t understand’, or he might doze off.” Further merriment. “So that’s helpful.” Smiley writes for five or six days a week and Jack listens to all of it.
Now, as she reviews her husbands, she says, almost wistfully: “I think Jack is the last.” They’ve been together for 15 years, a record for Smiley. What about Jack’s predecessors? Smiley numbers off her team. “John, three and a half years. Bill, seven. Steve, 10.” More easy laughter. “In volume two [to be published in 2015], there’ll be a lot of baby-boomer boys getting into trouble.”
Looking back on the experience of cramming 100 years of American history into about 1,300 pages (the final volume will be published in late 2015), Smiley recalls “a pleasure and a revelation”. On the American literary scene, she is singular, and blessed, for the absence of angst in her creative life and her equable delight in what she does. Writing, she has often said, gives her much joy and her work seems to be no hardship. If the age-old business of putting black on white comes quite easily to her– “I’m always full of ideas” – then it has to be said that Smiley deserves this late-season serenity. She has devoted herself to a long and successful literary career with exemplary fortitude. That’s in character, too. “I was always intending to be a stayer,” she says. “I’m not a sprinter.”
Smiley, who is 65, has been writing since she graduated in 1971. Her first, unpublished, novel (“the heartbreaking, tragic life of college students”) was, apparently, “just gossiping. I had writers who I really loved, but I wouldn’t say that they influenced me”. Growing up in the midwest, she was more steeped in the classics of English and Scandinavian literature than American. She has always venerated Trollope and Dickens, whose biography she has also written. There’s something about her work rate that’s Victorian. Some years ago, she got into hot water for suggesting that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin deserved as much attention as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
She’s always had a beady eye for narrative flaws. “To me, as a writer,” she says of Mark Twain, “the fact that he put Huck Finn aside for three years was a sign that he didn’t know what he was doing.” Smiley shares with Twain a midwestern childhood. “I grew up in a family of storytellers,” she explains, describing Some Luck. “I cannot remember a thing that anyone talked about – not politics, not movies, not history, not religion – that wasn’t filtered through a tale of Grandfather, Uncle Charlie or what Mom was doing that day.”
When she sat down to embark on the Last Hundred Years trilogy, Smiley kept it in the family. So she started with her mother, who was born in 1921. Accordingly, Some Luck opens in 1920 with the multigenerational story of the Langdons, an Iowa farming family. Each successive year gets its own chapter. Volume one ends in 1953; volume two will conclude in 1987; and the whole project will wind up to a conclusion in 2019, which just happens to be the year Smiley turns 70. But that, she insists, is just a coincidence.
By the standards of previous American literary trilogies, notably USA by John Dos Passos, an early 20th-century masterpiece, this structure might seem a little pedestrian in its conception. Put this to her and it will come as no surprise that Smiley has reconciled the narrative of her trilogy to the “organisational principles” of any novel she might want to write. “Every novel,” she instructs, “has to have some drama and some relaxation, otherwise the reader can’t take it in. It can’t be all drama. In Some Luck there have to be regular days, as well as plenty of incident. And all the stories have to cohere. The characters have to seem consistent over time.”
Looking back on this American century, you could boil it down to a choice between money and war. Is that how she sees it? Well, not exactly. Smiley has researched the historical background from various books and cooked up her characters from memory and experience. Her passions are instinctively domestic, for hearth and home. Her focus, for now at least, is the Langdon family, Walter the patriarch, Rosanna his wife, and their five children, among whom Frank Langdon is Smiley’s favourite. “He’s a bad boy,” she says with satisfaction. So, to look at the big picture, what’s the dominant theme? “Money or war?”, she ponders. “I think it changes. The second world war is a very decisive event. It overwhelmed everything and set up the globalisation of everything.” In Some Luck most of the history – the crash, the depression, Pearl Harbor and so on – happens off-stage. Is this a problem? Smiley has an answer for that. “In Iowa,” she says, “history is always off-stage.”
Smiley has set Some Luck in Iowa for reasons that make sense both to her and also her American readers, her core market. As a graduate student, she lived in Iowa, a midwestern state that also became the setting for her Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres. She can become quite lyrical about the Iowa countryside. “I wanted to talk about this ground on which America depends,” she says. Iowa has become the nation’s breadbasket. “The way a country feeds itself,” she continues, “is really important to its identity and to how we see ourselves. Since the second world war, America has chosen to make these innovations in food production that’s become a corporate food system worldwide. I think it’s significant to know how we live our lives.”
Midwestern families, together with the landscape, are what really animate Smiley. She’s been here before. In A Thousand Acres, she retold the King Lear story as a midwestern family tragedy, from the point of view of his daughters. For Smiley, “Lear was always a blowhard. I had always been sympathetic to Goneril and Regan”.
Smiley’s response to Shakespeare is a midwesterner’s response. “I know that in plays the characters really have to talk. But I still do have this resistance to the characters talking all the time.” Now she’s laughing at herself. “For a midwesterner, there is always this resistance to talking.”
Some Luck and A Thousand Acres are not just linked by landscape. Memories of Lear sponsor a sudden moment of introspection. “I grew up,” she says slowly, “in a family where people really didn’t complain. I suppose this has made me write novels where you can look into someone’s inner life without having them express it.”
A certain detached curiosity, combined with an instinctive reticence, generously armoured by modest amiability, seems to be the key to Smiley. The more she talks, especially about her life as a writer, the more she reveals a stoic, midwestern liberalism of the old school, a belief in a traditional America threatened by the global challenge of the new century’s extremism and instability. Here, Some Luck becomes a celebration of old American virtues, but it’s also a fervent elegy for something that’s been lost.
Jonathan Franzen, an admirer of Smiley’s fourth novel, The Greenlanders (1988), connects her fiction to American liberalism. “She understands that the novel is a liberal form,” he recently told the New York Times, “and that the act of fiction writing is a performance of sympathy with people you are not.” Perhaps this is why, wherever she goes on her book tour, Smiley packs a healthy crowd of fans, an audience with whom she engages in a constant dialogue about her work.
As a professional, with work on the final volume of the trilogy still ongoing, she solicits readers’ opinions and, you suspect, has always done so. What, I wonder, does a regular Smiley audience look like? “A lot of people my age,” she says, wryly. “Four in five of the younger people who come along will ask me to ‘sign this for my mother’”. So who is she writing for? “I’m writing for my husband,” she answers calmly. We’re back with that dedication to Jack and her exes. “If it pleases him, that’s fine. I don’t really think beyond that. Anyway, readers have different opinions. I don’t want people just to say how much they admire this or that. I want them to argue with the book.”
Smiley’s sang-froid is bred in the bone and reinforced by long experience. She recalls “a girl in my class at grad school” who had a simple slogan taped to her typewriter: “Nobody asked you to write this novel.” This, says Smiley, was a great lesson, something “I’ve never forgotten. What we do as writers is voluntary – so don’t complain”. Our conversation defaults to her favourite exemplars, Dickens, Balzac and the bestselling writers of the 19th century. Smiley recalls visiting the Balzac museum in Paris and gazing in wonder at the displays of page proofs with Balzac’s painstaking corrections scratched between the lines in a tiny hand. “It’s good to see what it meant to be a popular author in the middle of the 19th century,” she says. “When you see how hard Balzac worked, you’ll never complain again.”
Not complaining seems to be important to Smiley. She conducts herself like a woman who thinks there are other things to do besides writing novels. For many years, she bred horses, a passion she expressed in her novel Horse Heaven (2000). She still keeps four mounts at home in Carmel, California, but her racing days are over. “It didn’t work out,” she says, not elaborating. Did she lose money? “Of course!” Explosive laughter. “Isn’t it my job as a horse breeder to lose money?” Instead, she can now emulate her Victorian heroes and keep at it in front of her laptop from day to day, sometimes measuring her writing by a daily word count. Volume three of the Last Hundred Years trilogy is almost done and dusted, concluding a project of well over 1,000 pages. “Trollope would sneer,” she concedes with a laugh.
In this first volume, Some Luck, implicitly such a passionate portrait of a lost society, the obvious omission from the contemporary point of view is any consideration of America’s enduring problem, the race question. Smiley has tangled with this before, in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton(1998), and still sounds a bit gun-shy. “Iowa,” she replies evenly, “is not racially mixed.” She says she will deal with the civil rights movement in volume two. So what will she say about the Obama presidency in volume three?
“Obama?” She pauses. “I wish he’d been more aggressive, especially against the bankers.” Another silence, then a moment of fiery outrage. “I wish Obama had hit back harder against the right wing. He needed someone on his team who was as big an asshole as Dick Cheney. I used to wonder about Rahm Emanuel [Obama’s former chief of staff, now mayor of Chicago], but maybe he was the wrong guy. Here we are now in this society where the conservatives grab every issue and drag it to the extreme right. I have found it shocking, especially under Obama, to have to live with the stink of the swamp rising around me. But how do we push back? The dilemma, for liberals, is how to find the inherent meanness required to take on the right.”
Speaking of that alleged rightwing conspiracy, volume three, which will run from 1988 to 2019, will have to address both the present and the near future, possibly including a Hillary Clinton presidency. “I ask my audiences,” she says, teasingly, “to tell me: who might be your nightmare future president? And they say Paul Ryan, though nobody can see that happening. But that’s the problem. No one ever anticipates the nightmare outcome.”
Does she imagine her own literary posterity? Smiley shakes her head knowingly. “I’ve understood for a long time that it’s pointless to try to imagine that or even to fantasise what you would like to happen to your books. You have no control. Remember Dickens and Macready wanting to revive Shakespeare for the Victorians? If Shakespeare can fall by the wayside, so can anyone. Your books have their own life. Whatever they do when they go out into the world, they don’t belong to you anymore. You can hope for the best, but it’s not for you to say. So I say: go for it. That’s why I keep at it. I’m sending that message in a bottle out on to the river, hoping it finds its reader. And that,” she concludes, with a modest and charming smile, as if she knows she’s making a pitch, “is all you really need to have for your book: just one reader out there who loves it.”