27 Apr 2016

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 27 April 2016

Kathryn Ryan meets the woman who has been described as the ‘best living American novelist’ – Jane Smiley.

Jane Smiley lives in Carmel Valley, California with her husband and a number of animals including Fallon (aka Felon), the singing dog. She will visit New Zealand this year for the Auckland Writers' Festival and WORD Christchurch.

Jane Smiley is the author of nearly 20 novels, including the bestselling King Lear-inspired A Thousand Acres, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. She has also written nonfiction – a memoir, biographies, including one on Charles Dickens, an essay on knitting (Why Bother) and a celebration of fiction, 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel.

Her latest book is Golden Age, part three of her trilogy Last Hundred Years – a multi-generational family story that begins in the heart of Iowa.

Read an edited snapshot of the conversation:

I was reading that if you get stuck or the mind needs a break, you’ll go off and brush the horse’s tail. It’s part of the balance of the intellectual internal life and the external environmental life.

Well, I’ve been really obsessed with horses since before I can remember – maybe since I was three or four. When I grew up and got some money I got myself a horse. I discovered that they’re wonderful for you in many, many ways – some of which I didn’t expect. And one of them is that they’re eternally interesting. So if I am working on something and I get stuck the horses really distract me as well as giving me some exercise. And quite often when I’m in the middle of getting one ready or riding or something where I was stuck sort of opens up and I can go home and continue.

I think you’ve said ‘I read out of curiosity and I wrote because I was a reader’.

I think that’s what a lot of people do. It’s very rare that you find a novelist who didn’t start out as a reader. And my experience is that the novel… the novel is an imperfect form. The bigger it gets, the less perfect it gets, but also the grander it gets. So we are led into this desire to write something that maybe is better than War and Peace… (Laughs) ..because we can see the flaws in the novels that are reading. And that makes us curious about how they could be put together, how they could be made, what it takes.

Quite often, if you find a perfect novel, and let’s say Pride and Prejudice is a perfect novel, One of its characteristic aspects is that it’s quite small in its scope. And we love it because it’s a perfect novel, but as soon as we’re finished reading Pride and Prejudice we start casting about for something a little more daring or a little larger or a little more inquisitive. So we go read Our Mutual Friend and that leads us on to other novels. I think for a reader one novel leads to another. It’s a wonderful thing…

I found over the years that lots of times writers who start out with children’s series books, like the Bobbsey Twins or Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys, they’re the ones who become writers. Whereas the ones who start out with great works, they are the ones who become critics.

There’s the old starting point ‘write what you know’. But for you how has that worked? And how can one evolve from writing what you know to researching and writing what others have known and have lived?

I guess I would say I don’t write what I know or I have not in the past. I write what I want to learn about. I’m motivated more by curiosity than by the desire to explore my own experience... There are many authors who are very cautious about how much research they’re going to do and how accurate they want to be. It’s inherent in writing history itself for the historian to acknowledge the things that the historian doesn’t know or can’t find out.

When people read historical fiction I think there’s two main things they want to know. And one is what did it feel like to be alive during that period, and the other one is did it feel different or very different to be alive then from the way it feels to be alive now. In other words, have humans inherently changed or stayed the same since that particular historical period? And a novelist really has to address that idea, because a novelist wants the characters to be real and compelling to the reader.

How do you look forward from where are in 2016?

As hard as I tried to figure out what might happen in the future, at the end of Golden Age real events 'trumped' me, let’s put it that way. I think a lot of things are up in the air, especially in the US, but also in other parts of the world, too. It’ll be interesting and maybe not very good to see what will happen. But I have moderate hope that we’ll be able to deal with climate change in some ways. Every day I open the newspaper I say ‘Oh dear’ as I turn the pages and I also say ‘Oh, well. That could work’.