An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Jane Smiley
Author of Some Luck (Knopf, 7 October 2014)
Columnist Anna Roins
by Jane Smiley
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Some Luck, is the first book in a trilogy that spans 100 years of the life of an American family written by Jane Smiley. It returns to the farm country of northern Iowa, where her Pulitzer Prize winner A Thousand Acres (1991) was set. However, the difference between the two books is vast and brilliant. Whereas A Thousand Acres was based on the Shakespearean play of King Lear, her current novel is based on the passage of time. The story of the Langdon family, who live on a modest farm in Iowa, starts in 1920 with each character’s life unfurling before the reader’s eyes.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Smiley, thank you for sharing your time with us to discuss Some Luck, which was long-listed for the National Book Awards in 2014. This is the first book in your trilogy that spans a hundred years and is a tremendous force in literature – at once epic and pastoral.
SMILEY: Thank you
|“I got quite fond of the Langdons as I wrote about them . . . They stopped seeming like my characters and started seeming like their own characters.”
AUTHORLINK: Some Luck takes readers back to a fictional town in Iowa, the setting of your novel, A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It mimics real life so eloquently that the characters feel palpable to the psyche. You have written all three books in the trilogy now with the second one, Early Warning coming out in May of this year. What do you miss most about the Langdons? Who are your favourite characters?
SMILEY: Well, to begin with, Denby, the town in Some Luck, is not set where A Thousand Acres was set. It is about fifty or sixty miles south and east of that setting, and that is important, because A Thousand Acres is set in the “Pot-hole Prairie”, a post-glacial formerly swampy area of Iowa that was cleared by digging drainage wells in the nineteenth century. These wells ran into the aquifer and became dangerous when pesticides started being used after the 2nd World War, because the pesticides were carried into the aquifer and then brought back in the farmers’ drinking water. So, the two settings aren’t the same.
I got quite fond of the Langdons as I wrote about them, and writing about them from, basically youth to old age, or birth to death, got me more and more fond of them. They stopped seeming like my characters and started seeming like their own characters and I became really interested in what was going to happen to them, as if I didn’t know, and because I didn’t plan what was going to happen to them, I actually didn’t know. I cannot say that I had favorites, but I did quite fall for Andy and Arthur, just as Frank and Lillian fell for them.
AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting, thank you. It has been said (by Donna Seaman in a starred review for Booklist) that the novel explores how the ‘high and low pressures of the mind can determine a farm’s bounty and losses just as droughts and blizzards do.’ Would you kindly expand on this? In your opinion, can one’s moods affect a farm’s bounty?
SMILEY: That isn’t my thought, so I have no idea. But farming, especially farming when the Langdons were doing it, has always been hard work then more hard work, with an uncertain outcome. Any crop can fail, any animal can die, any member of the farmer’s family can have an accident. The farm can fail to pay for itself and be lost, and the farm can soar in price and tempt the farm to get out of the business. But all of these variables make farming interesting and compelling for farmers, and so they stick to it, and others are tempted to go into farming. For a novelist, at least for me, these variables are what make it worth writing about.
|“Every family is filled with differing accounts of events, and that fascinated me.”
AUTHORLINK: Understandable. You used an omniscient narrator in Some Luck which enables the reader to behold the story by an all-seeing God-like omnipotent viewpoint. This perspective is not employed in novels much nowadays. What made you decide to use it in your trilogy?
SMILEY: I knew that I wanted to jump from point of view to point of view, and especially that I wanted to have a few scenes from the point of view of babies and children. Every family is filled with differing accounts of events, and that fascinated me – a narrator’s point of view shapes the way the story is told and what it means. Quite often, those account do not agree, so that adds to the complexity of the family and their life together. I wanted to get some of that complexity, and as the trilogy progresses, accounts do change, even from what the reader knows to have happened.
AUTHORLINK: That is so true. You once said that the idea for the story came about due to your frustration over the political situation in the U.S. and your desire to understand ‘’how the country got where it is today’’. You wished to emphasize to your fellow countrymen that their food comes from farms owned by generations of families such as the ones depicted in your book. Do you feel you have achieved this?
SMILEY: I have no idea. That is for readers to say. An author never knows what a reader may or may not take from a book. I remember there was a certain conservative group that took up The Greenlanders as evidence of some ideas they held. I was amazed.
AUTHORLINK: You have been vocal about the difference between true art and commercial success and have noticed that at times, this excludes women. The following question was put to another well-respected (male) author by AUTHORLINK recently and we would like to know your opinion, as well: – Do you believe there is a noticeable discrepancy in the publishing industry about what is regarded as literature or commercial work that correlates with a disguised gender-bias? Further, is the way a book received (and reviewed) about relationships and family written by a woman, seem different to how it would be received, if it was written by a man, and if so, why?
|“The novel has always been a form that exists along a continuum between popular and worthy of respect . . . “
SMILEY: I would like to know what the other author said! The best-selling authors are quite often women (Agatha Christie, J.K. Rowling, for example, or Harriet Beecher Stowe). In the 19th century, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained that “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.” But it has been true, in general, that the work of men is given more respect. About ten years ago, the NY Times sent a request out to I think 300 writers, critics, scholars, etc. asking what the best book of the previous twenty-five years was, and only one woman got into the top ten. When I asked them about the response to the request, it turned out that almost all of the men responded, and only about half of the women–I think the responses were 65%/35% men/women. So the women either were not interested in the question, or couldn’t pick a best book. The novel has always been a form that exists along a continuum between popular and worthy of respect, and no author can choose where she or he wants to be on that continuum. Readers read what they want, which is good for everyone. Those who decide lists of “the best” or the “most important” are just readers like everyone else. You just have to hope for the best, whoever you are.
AUTHORLINK: What a fantastic comment by Nathaniel Hawthorne! You lived in Greece for a short time in 1972 which we understand was a positive experience for you. President Barack Obama made a statement recently that seems to be in favour of Greece’s position in support of ‘development’ versus, ‘austerity.’ Do you have an opinion about this and how it might impact the United States?
SMILEY: I loved Greece when I was there (mostly on Crete) and loved it again when I went back for the short visit in 2009. I am generally opposed to austerity (see Paul Krugman), but I have no knowledgeable opinions about what is going on in Greece right now, I just hope for the best for them.
AUTHORLINK: How do you think you have evolved from a creative point of view since you wrote A Thousand Acres in 1991? What advice would you give to your younger self about the journey?
SMILEY: I don’t know how I have evolved, because I don’t think like that. My advice for my younger self would just be to keep at it. I have always found it involving and wonderful to write, and so that is why I write. I have been lucky to keep getting published, to keep being able to do what I want to do, and to be able to try new things. Sometimes my editor raises her eyebrows, but she always does the best with it that she can. I have been terrifically lucky, and I know it.
|“. . . I think that stories that are dramatic or sad are much more generally shared and sharable . . .”
AUTHORLINK: Is it possible to write about happy subjects that can hold a reader’s interest if suspense and conflict are infused into the storyline, or are they mutually exclusive? You once said [about writers] “The ones who write about unhappiness generally get more respect than the ones who write about the whole range of feelings.’’ Why do you think that is? Are humans set to ‘default’ to misery?
SMILEY: I love writing comic novels like Moo and Horse Heaven, but I think that stories that are dramatic or sad are much more generally shared and sharable–humans pretty much agree about what makes them sad (death, destruction, suffering, fear, ambivalence) but they do not agree about what makes them happy, and especially about what makes them laugh. Some people are much more appreciative of absurdity than others, some people are more ready to laugh, some cultures value comedy and satire and others do not. It also may be true that we are programmed to react more strongly to bad things because they make us cautious. Supposedly, it takes one bad experience to put someone off and many many not-bad experiences in the same circumstances to undo the bad experience, so there could be an evolutionary process at work there.
AUTHORLINK: It’s compelling, isn’t it? As a young woman, you set out to write a novel in every literary genre; romance and comedy, epic and tragedy. Now you’ve tackled the trilogy. Is there another genre you would like to attempt? Can you tell us what are you working on now?
SMILEY: I can’t think of one, but maybe I will after the trilogy is finished.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Smiley, we thank you so much for your time today. We wish you your continued success with Some Luck and the following two books in the trilogy.
SMILEY: Thank you.
|About the Author:
Jane Smiley is a novelist and essayist. Her novel A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992, and her novel The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton won the 1999 Spur Award for Best Novel of the West. She has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1987. Her novel Horse Heaven was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2002, and Private Life, was chosen as one of the best books of 2010 by The Atlantic,The New Yorker, and The Washington Post.
She has contributed to a wide range of magazines and newspapers, including The New Yorker, Elle, Outside, The New York Times, Harper’s, The American Prospect, Practical Horseman, The Guardian, The Nation, Real Simple, and Playboy, and she regularly blogged for The Huffington Post between 2005 and 2008.
In addition to novels for adults, she has written several works of non-fiction, including Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, a history and anatomy of the novel as a form, and The Man Who Invented the Computer, an account of the complex and circumstances that led to one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. She has also published a five volume horse series for young adults. Her most recent novel SOME LUCK is the first volume of a trilogy covering one hundred years in the life of an Iowa family.
You can find out more about Jane Smiley at http://www.therealjanesmiley.com/
|About Anna Roins:
Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor in Sydney before she embarked on a career in writing seven years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites, and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.