The How’s of Writing Fiction

Jane Smiley doesn’t shrink from challenges, and in her 20-year career in publishing, she has tackled plenty. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has taken her pen to mystery and satire, family drama and historical novels, with a respectable batch of novellas, short story collections and essays thrown in to keep things interesting. “I love to write,” Smiley explains. “I’ll write anything. I’ll write a memo. I have no problem with any of that.”

Writing anything at all is certainly a goal most writers aspire to on a bad day, but on a good day, Smiley makes shifting points of view and historical time periods look easy. The key, she says, is in the structure. Research and attention to detail are building blocks that support a framework of plausibility, bringing readers along with the story, regardless of setting, premise or point of view.

“The facts – if there are enough of them – form a kind of system that points to the truth,” she says. “If you leave some facts out, or change them, then they’re not forming as complete a system as possible, so you aren’t getting at the truth of what happened. You’re never going to get at the truth of what happened in an absolute way. But for me, the smallest details arise out of the largest structural components of any situation or system. So I never think any detail is gratuitous.”

Fact-finding and detail play a central role in Smiley’s writing, whether she’s approaching a novella from a man’s point of view or placing her story in another time period, as she did with her current novel, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (Knopf). Set in the pre-Civil War Kansas Territory, Lidie Newton is the story of an abolitionist’s young wife that follows its heroine through the complex terrain of developing womanhood, while examining the violence of a young nation divided by slavery and headed for war.

Smiley came early to appreciate research, although detail has occasionally run her into trouble. Her first novel Barn Blind (Harper) was praised for its depth in examining the troubled relationship between a rancher’s wife and her four teenage children. But The Washington Post Book World noted the novel had “the advantage of a milieu seldom so well-known by a writer as Smiley knows this horse farm and all its peripheral activities, and the disadvantage of too much documentation, too many facts and details of setting.”

That criticism didn’t pull her up short. Smiley has continued to punctuate her stories with the smallest facts that make a story savory to readers who appreciate them. If anything, she has learned to use her details to illuminate larger issues, such as in her novella The Age of Grief (Knopf), nominated for the National Book Critics Award. In the story of dentist and father of three David Hurst, Smiley examines her protagonist’s discovery that his wife, Dana, has found a lover. Unable to accept her infidelity and unable to confront her, David works through the chaos of emotion that plays delicately under the fabric of the family’s daily life, only to discover that marriage is “a small container, after all, barely large enough to hold some children.” Of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres (Knopf), Ron Callahan in The New York Times Book Review writes: “Smiley brings us in so close that it’s almost too much to bear. She’s good in those small places, with nothing but the family, pulling tighter and tighter until someone has to leave the table, leave the room, leave town.”

This acuity and precision has permitted Smiley a wide berth in her work. A graduate of Vassar and the University of Iowa, Smiley first published short stories in such periodicals as TriQuarterly and Redbook. After Barn Blind, readers followed her through mystery in Duplicate Keys (Knopf); historical epic in her novel The Greenlanders, set in 14th-century Greenland (Knopf); and satire in her 1995 novel Moo (Knopf). Readers and critics alike turned out in droves to read A Thousand Acres (Knopf), which accomplished both telling the poignant tale of a family’s dissolution and recasting from a matriarchal viewpoint Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Smiley explains her willingness to experiment with characteristic precision: “I guess I continue to experiment because all the forms interest me, so I don’t feel limited by some sort of proclivity to one form or the other,” she says. “Each form has its faults and its virtues, and each form asks for different compromises on what you’re going to communicate. Also, each form offers different things, and appeals to different types of readers and different things in each reader. So if you put all the forms together, they would make a kind of map of the human psyche. And I want to exercise all different parts of my psyche, not just one.”

Although her family was busy between trips to France and Ireland, Smiley took time out to talk with Fiction Writer from her home in Northern California. She managed to handle two noisy teenage girls, one sick 6-year-old, and our conversation about what makes her writing work.

Fiction Writer: What about writing historical fiction do you find gratifying?

Jane Smiley: I like to write historical novels because you get to look at your own period in history from a different perspective. A lot of things the lives of various populations, so it’s fun to look at those things as they were a certain time before, and use them as a lens for looking at your own time.

FW: Was it difficult to move into an ante-bellum syntax, vocabulary and sensibility and not allow it to become a barrier between the story and your readers?

Smiley: It’s mostly a question of psyching out the language. In some sense it’s like being an actor or an actress trying a different accent. I usually go about it in a fairly rational way – I read a lot of works from that period, and I try to imitate the rhythms of the speech, but I also notice words that we don’t use that would have been used in that time, like victuals or comestibles.

People read different books then, and the country was more stratified classwise, and also differentiated regionally. In our time, most Americans basically speak the same way, with some regional accents. But in those days people had widely different ways of speaking, and that was fun for me to try and have my characters talk in different ways. For Lidie, since she was a reader, I decided to give her a fairly articulate and educated way of expressing herself, and I mostly came to that through reading books that she might have read, and thinking about words that she might have used. I had a colleague at Iowa State who was very well read in 19th-century literature and he read the manuscript, and when words came up that were anachronistic he mentioned them, or if he had a different suggestion for a word that was more common then than now, he suggested those. But it’s mostly just kind of getting into the rhythm and the feel of the language of the time.

FW: How do you know when you’ve got it right?

Smiley: Obviously to some greater or lesser degree, you’re wrong. Any writer is wrong. Any writer’s imitation of the language of a particular place and time is going to be off. But it has to be only right enough for the reader to accept it, and the reader usually is inclined to accept things, rather than disinclined to accept things. There are other parts of the story, like the plot or the characters, that the reader also is inclined to accept. [But without] finding a reward sufficient for acceptance of the style, the reader chooses to blame the problem on the style.

If you have 50 readers and you present them with Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, several of them simply will not accept that a man could turn into a bug. And so nothing about the story pleases them because of that one barrier. But the majority chooses for the sake of reading the story to entertain the idea that the man could turn into the bug, and once they make that choice, then the writer has a certain amount of leeway in terms of the realism or plausibility of the story, because he’s got the reader with him. That’s just an extreme case of a general principle, that if you make it inviting for, the reader to accept the premise, that the story is set in a different time or the story is about a man turning into a bug, then the reader’s more inclined to accept it and go along with it. But if you don’t make it inviting enough, then the reader will say well, this is wrong and this is wrong and this is wrong, and I don’t like this. It’s kind of a wholesale thing.

FW: Russell Banks was quoted recently on National Public Radio regarding his novel Cloudsplitter saying novelists should not be held to the same standards as historians, and that while the two work with the same material, their goals are different. How bound do you feel to historical accuracy?

Smiley: I do a lot of research. But I don’t take any leeway that I can help. I try to adhere absolutely to the facts. And where Russell and I diverge is that I would never take on a historical figure and make him the center of my story. Because I might be tempted to diverge from the facts in order to write a novel rather than to be writing a biography. So when I take on a historical period, I write about fictional characters within that period, so that’s where I take my leeway. But about the discoverable facts of the period, I don’t take any leeway at all with them. I always think each detail has a necessary relationship to the other details and to the structure of the system. I would feel like I was falsifying the system, both in my thinking about it and in my portrayal of it, if I falsified or left out any discoverable facts. And I would never present myself with the challenge that Russell presented himself with, of taking a person whose life was fairly well-documented and then trying to make a novel out of that. I think that was a very difficult challenge, and I take my hat off to him.

FW: How did you develop the ability to isolate illustrative details?

Smiley: I don’t construct the details in any conscious way, they just sort of come up. I would say I’m a very cerebral and rational writer in a lot of ways – I think about it in a pretty rational way, but particulars like words and details, they just sort of flow out as a part of the system. So it’s kind of a question where you set up the system, and if it’s a good system it flows. And the details of it come out as a part of the larger structure.

FW: You chose to write The Age of Grief from the viewpoint of a male character. Are there pitfalls to watch for when you’re writing as a man in such an intimate way?

Smiley: It’s like any kind of research, you know? It’s like writing from a different historical period, or writing from the point of view of an old person or a young person. It’s a research question. I’m not a method actor. I don’t try to psyche out from inside what it would be like to be that person. I read books, I talk to them and I listen – it’s a question of the same old process, of finding out what it would be like to be that person.

Laurence Olivier always said he could figure out a character by finding the right nose. So he would do various noses, and when he felt he had the right nose he would kind of extrapolate from that nose to facial expressions, then to actions, then to body posture, not necessarily in that order. He would build a character from the outside in. That is very typical of an English actor, rather than try to build a character from the inside out, which is more like Marlon Brando. So I’m more of the Olivier type than the Brando type. I’m not a method actor.

FW: When you were developing your craft, were there writers whose work influenced you?

Smiley: I was probably influenced more by specific books than by writers. During that time I was influenced by To the Lighthouse and The Grapes of Wrath, among others. What I learned from To the Lighthouse was that you could and in fact had to have a very conscious sense of how you’re going to manipulate the passage of time in your novel. It’s basically written in three sections. The first section is about a particular day before the war, then the war takes place, and then the third section is about a particular, day after the war and the children are grown. It takes place about 10 years later. The author seizes the passage of time issue, and she shows the passage of time through the entropy of the belongings in the house. So that really struck me and was educational to me.

I always thought of The Grapes of Wrath that you could use that book as a manual for how to go to California in a Model-T Ford. So what that taught me was how significant questions of how to do things are in fiction. Fiction is about how. How to fix the engine, how to start a revolution, how to pick vegetables, how to put up a tent – characters are always delineating who they are by how they do things.

One time I was at a writers’ conference and there was a whole bunch of writers sitting together in a circle late in the evening, about half fiction writers and half poets. And one of the poets said that she’d gotten a bat in her house, and one of the fiction writers said “how did you get it out?” And all the fiction writers leaned forward, and the poet said “I can’t remember.” All the fiction writers, one by one, got up and left. Not even realizing it. And the poets continued to sit around and discuss how she felt about that bat in her house, and what she thought it meant. But the fiction writers didn’t care anything about either of those issues, they only wanted to know who she was through her technique for getting the bat out of the house. To me, that was an incredibly instructive incident that showed me the difference between what fiction writers do and what poets do.

FW: Was short story writing a good training ground for writing your later novels?

Smiley: I think it inevitably is. I mean, it’s a very tried-and-true and workable path, to write short stories and .then write lengthy short stories and then write a novel that inter-twines some stories and then there you are. I don’t write may short stories anymore. It’s mostly because it’s too exciting to write a short story. I used to write short stories impulsively, so I’d get all wound up about some subject and write a short story about it. I always found that very exciting, and it sort of would put me on edge. Now I prefer novels, because it’s more relaxing to go this day, and then the next day, and then day after day after day.

FW: Has the writing process changed a great deal for you from Barn Blind to Lidie Newton?

Smiley: Oh sure it’s a lot easier. It’s really much more automatic, because I know what I’m doing. There’s a kind of state of receptivity, mental receptivity, that puts you in a good mood for writing, and if you can cultivate that then you’re much better off – your writing will come much more easily. The thing you want to avoid is judging yourself, either positively or negatively. You want to be in a more observational state of mind, and that gives you a kind of receptivity – that’s the only word I can use – that allows the stuff to come in or come up or come out or whatever it does. In some of my novels I have felt there was channeling, but in all of them I’ve felt like it was a relaxing process, rather than a frustrating thing.

FW: So it didn’t take you long in your growth as a writer to find how to do that?

Smiley: It came immediately, because I was writing novels. It didn’t come with short stories, but as soon as I was writing novels and I could relax – it just was there. And that’s why I’m the writer who says it’s easier now than it was then. Because it’s still there, it’s even more there. Self-judgment and self-criticism inevitably get in your way, and it’s very tempting at various points in your career to judge yourself, either because you’re not making enough money or you’re not doing as well as this person or it’s not up to your standard or whatever. The criteria are always different, but they’re always wrong. It’s very, very destructive to judge yourself. It’s much more instructive to observe yourself.

FW: You’ve been quoted as saying A Thousand Acres was your monster child, “two pages and I was wiped out. I could hardly drag myself back to the typewriter, and normally there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.” Why was writing that novel different from the others?

Smiley: My interest in the material sort of came from being in conflict with it, rather than being in communion with it, so when I was writing the novel I found the material pretty uncongenial. I thought after I’d written The Greenlanders that I really could look deep into a kind of abyss and that I’d found the bottom of the abyss with that book, but that wasn’t true. I guess I didn’t realize how uncongenial it was going to be before I did it. It was pretty exhausting. The other novels have come from different sources. Usually they come more from loving something and being intrigued by it than from being in conflict with it.

FW: You once wrote that “the arc of a novelist’s career is frequently easy to predict – complexity and wisdom that arise from more mature experience replace an early freshness of subject and approach.” Where are you on that arc?

Smiley: I think there’s a moment in a novelist’s life, like late forties, early fifties, where all the conscious thoughts that you have like how the world works, how people work, how politics work, how culture works, those things become fused and then they begin to come out in stylistic terms, so that your novels aren’t so overtly theoretical anymore, and if things are working, they’re much more stylistically complex and they’re harder to interpret but easier to understand. I think that’s the point that I’m about to be at. I don’t think I’m there yet.

Anne Bowling is production editor of Writer’s Market.

Reading List

Barn Blind
Harper, 1980

At Paradise Gate
Simon & Schuster, 1981

Duplicate Keys
Knopf, 1984

The Age of Grief
Knopf, 1987

Ordinary Love & Good Will
Knopf, 1989

The Greenlanders
Knopf, 1989

The Life of the Body
Coffee House Press, 1990

A Thousand Acres
Knopf, 1991

Knopf, 1995

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton
Knopf, 1998

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