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Jane Smiley: The WD Interview

To overcome writer’s block, Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley read 100 novels. It was the perfect medicine. She talks about the lessons those novels taught her in this January 2006 WD interview.

January 2006

By Maria Schneider

Most novelists have, at some point in their careers, endured getting stuck halfway through writing a book. But when Jane Smiley, author of 11 novels (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres) was 200 pages into writing Good Faith, she completely lost the will to continue. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had left her despondent to the point that she felt compelled to relearn the craft she’d practiced for so many years. She turned to novels for sustenance, wisdom and inspiration, and this simple act turned into an extraordinary venture—reading 100 novels and extrapolating their lessons for her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Jane Smiley Quote

Smiley began with the 10th century The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and meandered through the centuries, finally arriving at Ian McEwan’s 2001 offering, Atonement. She came to some fascinating conclusions about such fundamental questions as “What is a novel?” and “Who is a novelist?” The answers she found on her journey are poignant, lighthearted and opinionated.

In this candid interview, Smiley distills her exquisitely well-researched deconstruction of the novel form. She also shares with WD her insights on novel writing as a learned art and why—good news!—novelists just get better with age.

How did you begin to undertake this enormous project?

The impetus was to escape the constant barrage of media attention to 9/11, so I chose the most distant novel I could find, The Tale of Genji, written in the 10th century. Then I chose an Icelandic novel written in the 12th century. I was struck by the fact that they were not at all irrelevant to the world we’re living in now. I found that this project, almost from the beginning, spurred me on to keep writing my novel.

How did you go about putting your list together? Was it methodical or random?

At first I thought I was going to read a novel from every year for the last 250 years, but then I realized that there wasn’t a decent novel written every year in the early 18th and 19th centuries. I also knew I wasn’t going to be able to read 250 novels in any kind of quick time, so I decided instead to read 100.

The earliest novels walked onto the list immediately. I’d never read Don Quixote and I’d never read The Decameron by Boccaccio, so I wanted to read them. And then the novels naturally link up. For example, I was reading The Decameron and learned about the French book it inspired, The Heptameron by Marguerite de Navarre. The Heptameron turned out to be one of the most central and important books I read. There were connections like that. So instead of designing the list in any way, I’d let one book lead to another.

What I wanted to do was to have a typical reading list, without intending to get anywhere. My goal was to learn about the anatomy of the novel. Any hundred novels are going to tell you a lot about the nature of the novel.

[Read the outtakes of our September 2015 interview with Jane Smiley.]

Any unexpected favorites? Least favorite?

There were some that I had never read before that were really wonderful, such as The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett. I also enjoyed The Once and Future King by T.H. White and The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West. And yes, there were novels that I found shallow and trivial. I found Joyce’s Ulysses very tedious to read, but this is my opinion.

The great thing about reading novels is, nobody can tell you whether or not you should like a certain novel. When you open a book, it belongs to you because it exists in your mind. You can judge it however you want. But if a novel has sustained the interest of lots of people over a hundred years or more, it’s probably worth reading.

In your book you write: “A novelist can only write a string of novels if he or she is ready to embrace new ideas with as much conviction as he or she embraced earlier ideas.” Can you expand on this?

You have to have a lot of energy and conviction to propel yourself through the writing of a novel, because often it takes a year, two years, or more. So the interest in the subject has to be a compelling one. And lots of times the reason the subject is compelling is because you have passionate convictions about it. But in most people’s lives the passionate convictions they have at 21 aren’t the same as when they’re 50. Most prolific writers are, by nature, people of passionate ideas, but the particular ideas that make them passionate tend to come and go over the years. They keep going by taking up new ideas with that same passion.

You also say, “A novelist is on the cusp between someone who knows everything and someone who knows nothing.”

Novels often have specialized information, but they’re usually about recognizable—even average—people engaging in interesting jobs or incidents. They’re not about specialized knowledge.

They’re really written for, and always have been written for, commercial interests. They’re meant to appeal to average readers.

A novelist often learns about lots of things, but what he’s really interested in is what life is like. What it feels to be alive. How it feels moment-by-moment going through a certain experience. When you’re trying to write a novel, there’s always a temptation to natter on. There’s always the danger that you’ll natter on about everything and say nothing, or go off on some hobbyhorse of your own and say nothing of general interest. You’re constantly trying to maintain this balance of being specific enough to be interesting but general enough to have wide appeal.

You say throughout the book that early novels seek to answer the question, What’s to be done about women? So are you getting at the novel’s role as an instrument for social change?

That was the thrust of the European novel until the beginning of the 20th century: What is a woman? Is she an agent of her own life or a possession to be traded back and forth? At the beginning of the 18th century the woman was an object. As people read novels they saw this. You can read the book Pamela, for example, and as you’re entertained from the suspense, you’re also educated to Pamela’s point of view. One of the ways the novel works is it introduces you to the point of view of people quite different from you.

When a novel is really long—300 pages or more—the novelist has that much more time to shape the reader’s ideas. So this works by a drip, drip, drip process. Once they’re in your mind, especially if things have been entertainingly expressed, then they’re in your mind and it’s hard to get them out. Everybody has novels they read years ago that they can still see scenes from or think about rather often. The author has introduced his sensibility into yours and your ability to simply remain cocooned in your own life has been breached by the author.

You imply that novelists tend to mature later in life. Why?

Most people begin to think about writing a novel when things seem to come together to form a larger picture. That’s a sign that the person has a larger sense of how the world works. The brain is more capable of integrating various experiences.

And that’s what I think novels are about. It’s also why poets often are much more precocious than novelists, because their verbal fluency could be very high and they work that out by writing poetry early on. Novelists are much more like average people.

Did the experience of winning the Pulitzer Prize have any effect on your writing?

You go from being a wannabe to a has-been in the space of an afternoon laughs]. It’s wonderful, but before you win, you’re cooler because you’re outside the establishment, and after you win, you’re inside the establishment—you’re not as cool as you used to be.

Anyway, when I won the Pulitzer I was four months pregnant and I’d already started my next novel, so I couldn’t just start going around celebrating. I ran into Michael Cunningham once after he’d won the Pulitzer, and he’d spent an entire year on the road celebrating. I couldn’t do that because I was going to have a baby. It didn’t change my lifestyle. It didn’t really change anything except it shifted my reputation from one thing to another. I didn’t feel much pressure from it because I’d already started my next novel.

What’s your writing process like?

It’s really simple. I get up and write three pages a day and try to do that five days a week. If I come up to some fact that I don’t know, I stop and jump on the Internet and try to find out about that.

And what are you working on now?

A novel about Hollywood and sex and movies and luxury. All of those fun subjects that aren’t in A Thousand Acres.

You’ve written mysteries, romances, nonfiction books— you seem to hop from genre to genre. Why?

Whenever I finish a novel, I long for those things that the novel didn’t have in it. Although I loved writing Horse Heaven, after it, I longed to write a novel that was more intense and suspenseful, so I wrote Good Faith. While I was writing Good Faith, I longed to write something a little broader. Any novel sets me up to write the next novel.

Any advice for aspiring novelists? Read 100 books?

Well, read lots of books. Every novelist I came up with was an avid reader of novels and had been all of his life. Some, like Jane Austen, were great promoters of novel reading.

A lot of people come up to me and say, “Oh such-and-such thing happened to me and it was really interesting and you should write a novel about it.” But it’s not life that makes you a novelist, it’s reading novels that makes you a novelist. Most novelists do have an ear for language and lots of times that comes from growing up in a gossipy or talkative family. If you want to be a novelist you have to read novels and you also have to develop your ear for language.

Every person in the world has enough material in his life to be a novelist. The key is to have a novelist’s sensibility—and the only way you can do that is by being very familiar with novels and loving them and wanting to write one of your own.

A friend, a painter, told me that sometimes he goes to a museum and stands in front of a painting in awe, thinking, I’ll never be able to do that. No novelist stands in front of a novel in awe and says, “I’ll never be able to do that.” Every novelist thinks, about any particular novel: That’s pretty good but if he’d only done blah, blah it would have been a lot better. So as soon as you take Anna Karenina, for example, and think, He should have done blah, blah, you’re off on the track that leads you to writing your own novel.

That’s the wonderful thing about a novel. No matter how great its reputation is, when you’re sitting alone in your bedroom with it, you can think whatever you want. And that critical thought, that feeling that something’s not quite right—those are the thoughts that spur you toward writing your own novel. Those thoughts should be cherished. 

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