Interview by Ian Blake Newhem
“You have to enjoy the process, not the rewards,” Jane Smiley tells me to tell you, the student writers I advise. “If it’s about the rewards for you, you’re fucked.”
Interviews infused with eerie gossip about celebrity mealtime peccadilloes weird me out, but I must tell you this, because it tells me something: At Kitty O’Sheas in Chicago, Smiley orders two Diet Cokes. I mean at once.
“We do free refills,” the waitress offers.
“No, Two … Diet … Cokes,” says Smiley. “Please.”
I love this about her. It tells me she’s thirsty.
For the 2013 issue – out this October – FI student associate editors will interview the fiction master. But today, as the Black Swan says, it’s my turn. So here’s a preview of what you can expect in our print issue No. 2:
Jane Smiley. This is the writer who reimagined King Lear on an Iowa farm (1991’s A Thousand Acres) and, as I hear a young student behind us whisper, “rocked a Pulitzer” and a National Book Critics Circle Award, and who (like Chaucer before her) “ripped off” Boccaccio’s Decameron—and set it, seemly, in L.A. (2007’s Ten Days in the Hills—her favorite book for its confluence of “graphic sex and medieval lit”). This is the writer who set off after the Iowa Writers Workshop – “where I didn’t do badly; Well, reports differ on how good I was” – to singlehandedly resurrect the Icelandic Saga form while a Fulbright kept her in kippers: “I was forged as a writer in Iceland. It was dark all the time. My dreams were vivid. The landscape was strange. And I didn’t have the distractions I had in college—a boyfriend and dogs.” This is the writer who named an enormous hog character “Earl Butz” (1995’s Moo, set at a fictional Ag-oriented university – Smiley taught for a while at Iowa State – featuring multiple permutations of students, faculty, staff, administrators, and sundry folk fucking on the library floor and elsewhere). This is the writer who wrote variously tender and weighty horse tales for young adults and old adults. Her heart’s run on horse-power.
A mean-spirited Sunday Book Review illustration rendered her remarkably like a horse, with huge teeth and a My Little Ponyesque mane. She doesn’t care. (The first time we met, she was choking on an improperly swallowed carrot. I love this about her. It tells me she’s hungry).
In another Times review of her latest book, 2010’s Private Life, they deliver a more savage cuff: Michiko Kakutani, the “kamikaze” critic (Mailer), “the stupidest person in New York” (Franzen), likens Smiley’s latest work to a gray, potted, tiresome stew. The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic called a prior Smiley book (the one Smiley considers her most daring), a veritable “cartoon.” Here, she does care. “Michiko’s a perennially incompetent bitch,” she says behind her two fists of caffeine. She hates both kinds of critics, it seems, the academic and commercial. She doesn’t even use the word “critic” per se, but rather, “lobbyist.” I like this about her, too. It tells me she’s pissed.
When Smiley resolves to embark on her own form of “lobbying,” she does her homework. One day, miserable over 9-11 and having lost some faith in the enterprise of writing her novel, 2003’s Good Faith, she decided to try to disarticulate the clockwork of The Novel, and rebuild the timing as a model for us novices (2005’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel). She could afford this ostensible interruption of her fiction writing. A novelist is a tortoise, not a hare, she says. So, calling back on her experience as a sometimes solitary and bookish child, she sequestered herself and read some 130 novels in quick succession. She started with 11th-Century Japan’s The Tale of Genji , and, after months of monkish devotion, ended with the work of Jennifer Egan (see our 2013 issue for a student interview with Egan, another Pulitzer-winner). Along this heroic journey, Smiley became the only American (capable of normal human schmoozing at an Irish pub) to have read all seven volumes – 1.5 million words – of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, without having pithed herself with a swizzle stick. (She knows she’s alone in this because she called the only other viable candidate for this distinction, the director of the Guggenheim Foundation, who sheepishly confessed to having read only Swann’s Way, like everyone else on Earth).
What has she discovered by all this reading? Great writers and great novels abound. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier is “pitch perfect.” The 11 novels in Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series are brilliant, if underappreciated, like Icelandic Sagas. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “which weds the polemic to other forms” on Smiley’s famous “Circle of the Novel” is a masterwork. About its improbable inching up the spine of the canon Smiley is eminently satisfied : What are the chances that book would hit in the heartland with Simon Legree’s sex slave front and center? “Is the average American going to embrace Cassy, a young, African-American prostitute who ultimately outwits Whitey? No fucking way.”
Where do Ford and Sinclair and Stowe stack up against each other? “Books aren’t comparable,” Smiley insists. You can’t say – as I try to get her to say – that between two of her heroes, Shakespeare is better than Dickens, or vice-versa . “It’s like saying, ‘My banana’s better than your cat.’” All great is great, but differently so.
But what about the shitty? For God’s sake, put those shitty novels down, Smiley says. “To continue reading a novel you don’t like is like continuing to date a guy you don’t like. You know, if you stop dating him after one date, you might look back on him and think, Well, he was all right, really. But if you keep dating him, you will grow to hate him.” When you’re at school, you’re told to read to the end. You will learn something. Discipline, maybe. Or you’ll slowly habituate yourself to complexity, like learning what Shakespeare’s up to, so you’re not totally confused anymore the way Smiley was when she first read him in the seventh grade. “But when you’re grown up, you should read what you like—read for pleasure.”
Is Smiley concerned over how many grownups dump her after the porch swing and before the prom? Does she give a crap what we think? Her novels, her beloved—how can she not want them loved? “An author doesn’t want you to read it—an author just wants you to buy it.” I don’t like this about her. It seems disingenuous coming from a woman who’s discussed with me Google Earth-ing her old house in the Catskills. She pushes her empty soup bowl away. The waitress returns to refill one of her empty glasses. Smiley snatches it back. “That’s mine,” she says. “Look, you can’t please everybody,” she tells me. “As a writer, you just have to please yourself.” So says Nabokov, I say.
$750.00 cash awards for the best in the following categories: Fiction, Narrative Nonfiction, and Poetry.