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Writeliving Interview – Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley photo

When I think of the great American novel and writers equally adept at character development, sense of place, theme, and plot, I immediately place A Thousand Acres and Jane Smiley on a very short list. I couldn’t be more pleased that she took the time to share some of her writing life with us.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

There are lots of those! My mother was a newspaperwoman in the 50s, and she always had her portable typewriter on the dining room table. I also loved to read, so my first literary influences were The Bobbsey Twins (Laura Lee Hope) (The Bobbsey Twins) and Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene). I also loved horse books–The Black Stallion series (Walter Farley) and a series by Dorothy Lyons. My experience is that series books get kids to read and read and read–and it doesn’t matter if they read the same books over and over, as long as they are reading. The first adult books I loved were David Copperfield and Giants in the Earth (Ole Rolvaag), but I was also fascinated by the Shakespeare plays we read in junior high and high school, especially Twelfth Night and Hamlet. All through junior high, I was an avid reader of Agatha Christie. In college, I became fascinated with the history of the English language, and so studied Old English, Middle English, and Old Norse. Out of my love of these languages came my interest in updating old stories (King Lear to A Thousand Acres, the Icelandic Sagas to The Greenlanders, The Decameron to Ten Days in the Hills).

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

My writing style is to work everyday, just it down and start, trying not to pay any attention to whether I like what I am producing or not. I find research inspiring because it spurs invention. I like to be accurate, and I am interested in socio/psychological issues, so I need to do a lot of research. My favorite thing is having a little grain of an idea develop into a thought, and then into a theme or a plot twist. I usual do some planning, but I love the sense of the unexpected entering the work–I think that gives it life and energy. Fiction is about how action, thought, and feeling connect, so my favorite bits are when an action has resulted in an observation which produces a feeling, which is then conveyed through a metaphor or an image–to me, that is the inner life becoming manifest. I also like unexpected events which, when you look back on them, seem inevitable.

How old where you when you first started writing?

17–I was a senior in high school. I was not an early writer.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

No, because I have always enjoyed it so much that there wasn’t much of a chance of it dying. I think that a writer is better off if he/she enjoys or is fascinated by the process, because rewards are inconsistent, glancing blows, even good ones. Better to be focused on what you are doing because you can’t stop doing it, not because you hope for greatness.

How have the places you’ve lived shaped your creative work?

I have a strong sense of place, and every place is interesting. My best example is Ames, Iowa, a place that doesn’t have a reputation as a hotspot of literary dynamism, but for me, living there directly produced A Thousand Acres, The Greenlanders, and Moo. It also had great schools and child-care, and so other books that I wrote while I was there benefited from that aspect. There is much to be said, if you want to be productive, for living out of the way, and being able to focus on your work.

What project(s) are you working on now?

A trilogy called The Last Hundred Years, a story of a family that takes place between 1920 and 2019, beginning with the birth of the central character, and following the adventures of him and his siblings and children.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I have no idea!

About the Author

Jane Smiley is the author of  13 adult novels, 5 YA novels, and nonfiction, including a short biography of Charles Dickens, a history and anatomy of the novel, called Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and a book about the invention of the computer, called The Man Who Invented the Computer.

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