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Jane Smiley: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Jane Smiley has written one of everything: articles, essays, non-fiction, children's literature, a TV episode ... not to mention her popular fiction titles, including her Pulitzer-winning retelling of King Lear, A Thousand Acres. If you look at her author page on LibraryThing, you can see that 9,929 members have at least one of her works in their library.

Jane's new book, Private Life, is a fictional story based on her own great-aunt's life, spanning the 1880's to 1940's. The story unfolds over the turn of the last century, encompassing a number of well-known American events (both cultural and scientific) while remaining very much a domestic story about the private life and marriage of Margaret and Andrew Early.

Author MadLib: Jane Smiley is currently working on a new novel or two. She lives in California with five horses, three dogs, and one partner. When she's not writing, she's riding, knitting, cooking, traveling, or trying to get the children to clean their rooms.

What does Private Life refer to?

Margaret's inner life (which Andrew shows no interest in) and also the contrast between the role of the traditional wife and the world-renowned scientist-husband. But it also refers to the various layers of her memories of her early life and her interpretation of them.

Andrew's personality seemed to overwhelm and override Margaret. Do you think there was any way Margaret could have constructed a happy life while married to Andrew? If they were living in today's times, how differently might she have navigated her marriage?

In the end she gets some perspective on who she is within this marriage, but it is a certain kind of marriage that is less common today (though not gone away). Anyone, even today, can be married to a self-centered, self-involved tormented ego-maniac. It's also more possible today to get help in retaining your identity in such a marriage. But every marriage involves choices about whether to accommodate the marriage or to leave it, so even though Margaret and Andrew exist in an earlier time, the dynamic of their relationship is not entirely of their time. And of course, there are still plenty of cultures in our world where the wife's job is to be subordinate, and so what does that mean? It's a perennial question.

If it was the "effervescence of the impending twentieth century" that made Andrew attractive to Margaret, what would the modern-day equivalent be? Do you think she would have married him?

I think couples can have any sort of shared experience that they feel brings them together, and sometimes that shared experience turns out to be an illusion. At that moment in Margaret's life, both she and Andrew (and most of the people around them) think that the twentieth century will be new and exciting—a break from the past rather than a continuation of it. But it never happens that way.

From jmyers24: When you were writing The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, how much of the total time was spent in research vs. actually writing the book? How does the research for that work compare with that for Private Life?

I don't have a specific memory of how long I spent on research, only that there was plenty of material about Kansas and Missouri before the Civil War, and that a lot of it was original source material, since Kansas was so interesting as both a place to settle and as a contested territory. So there were autobiographies, newspaper articles, advertisements, tall tales. I probably spent the same about of time researching both, but I don't remember clearly enough to say for sure.

From adelavoe: What is a typical work day for you? Do you write in the morning or the evening? Do you write long hand or use a computer?

I use a laptop computer and I never write at night. During the day, though, it varies—sometimes an hour or so if I'm really going, other times longer, if I need to make more effort. I try to write three or four pages a day, six days a week.

From jenwren18: Of all the books you've written, which one was the most special experience for you while writing it and why?

Two of the books seemed to come from outside me, The Greenlanders and Horse Heaven. These stories seemed to tell themselves and to use me as a secretary. I think that is always a good thing, but it doesn't always mean that readers will like those books best. My favorite Anthony Trollope novel is He Knew He Was Right, which Trollope hated, and my favorite Dickens novel is Our Mutual Friend, which Dickens thought was very difficult. But both seem very fluent to me. So what a reader makes of a novel is always different from what the writer makes of it.

From elkiedee: I noticed you'd published a children's book? How did writing that compare with writing for adults?

It's fun! The girls' horse books are told in the voice of the main character, Abby, so though they aren't necessarily less complex, they are more immediate. She is interested in the concrete details of her daily life, not so much what it all means, but how it is all going to work itself out. I like the unfolding of that.

From EnriqueFreeque: Were you surprised by the criticism levied against Ten Days in the Hills?

Never saw it, so I don't know. But I doubt that any of it would surprise me. It was a daring novel in several ways, and quite often I run into someone who really has enjoyed it, so every novelist has to say, it is what it is, and you, as a reader, can make of it what you will.

From adelavoe: Who do you think has been overlooked for the Nobel Prize in literature? Who do you think is the best essayist today?

Almost everybody has been overlooked for the Nobel Prize. Big prizes are bolts of lightning—they make no sense, and aren't necessarily good, either. I am not an expert on essayists. I like funny ones.

What have you been reading lately?

I can't say, because I have been reading books for review. A recent non-review book that I enjoyed was Emile Zola's La Terre.

Usually we ask "What's on your bookshelf?" because it's the LibraryThing tagline. Instead, here's adelavoe's question: Susan Sontag had over 15,000 books. Is your library as impressive?

No! I don't keep many books. I like to pass them on to other readers.

I had to follow up on the fact that Jane Smiley knits, because I'm a big fan of knitting. What are you working on now?

Well, I stopped on a vest I was making because I hadn't dyed enough wool, so I had to order some Kashmiri saffron to dye some more. In the interim, I decided to try a project I call "knit a sweater in a week". The yard is mostly wool and the needles are big (#9), so the gauge is about 3 st. and 3 rows to the inch. I am moving right along! It is a jacket-style cardigan. All of this sounds quite expert, but the projects are very hit and miss—some I wear and some I hide.

—interview by Sonya Green

Books by Jane Smiley

Of Human Bondage (7049 copies)
A Thousand Acres (5348 copies)
Crossing to Safety (3474 copies)
Moo (2273 copies)
The Sagas of Icelanders (1950 copies)
Horse Heaven (1032 copies)
Some Luck (1026 copies)
The Greenlanders (941 copies)
Good Faith (823 copies)
Duplicate Keys (659 copies)
Private Life (634 copies)
The Moonflower Vine (535 copies)
The Age of Grief (462 copies)
Early Warning (441 copies)
Barn Blind (337 copies)
Golden Age (324 copies)
Charles Dickens (313 copies)
At Paradise Gate (274 copies)
Twenty Yawns (123 copies)
A Good Horse (111 copies)
Notre Âge d'or (1 copies)

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About author interviews

Each month we feature a few exclusive interviews with authors in our "State of the Thing" newsletter. Know an author who might want to be interviewed? Find out more.


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