Since Jane Smiley’s 1980 debut novel, Barn Blind (an American pastoral centered on a family fraught with clashing ambitions), and through and beyond her 1992 Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres (a modern American reinterpretation of King Lear), she’s been a self-proclaimed fiddler—a writer who toys with form, plucks at connective threads and pulls notes from history both near and ancient. This fiddling, says Smiley, comes from a deep sense of curiosity. And that curiosity shines through as she talks: Interesting, think, know, learn and understand are words she uses frequently in conversation, and it’s apparent in her body of work that she has a broad range of interests.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumna and former Iowa Writers’ Workshop professor has written 21 books of fiction of seemingly every variety, including a series of young adult novels (Horses of Oak Valley Ranch), a murder mystery (Duplicate Keys), historical fiction (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton; Private Life), humor (Moo; Horse Heaven), a Norse epic (The Greenlanders), contemporary fiction (Good Faith; Ten Days in the Hills), short stories (The Age of Grief) and novellas (Ordinary Love & Good Will).
Smiley has also written nonfiction works, about everything from mountain-town artisans (Catskill Crafts) to horses (A Year at the Races) to famous figures (The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer) to the challenge and evolution of writing (13 Ways of Looking at the Novel).
And now, for the first time, Smiley has written a literary trilogy. The three books of The Last Hundred Years, each equal in length and span of time, follow the Langdon family and their five children (Frank, the character Smiley describes as “probably the protagonist—he would say that he is, anyway,” Joe, Lillian, Henry and Claire) from 1920 through 2019—from their farm in Iowa to a handful of major American cities and far-flung countries, and through the births and marriages and deaths of some 40 characters—as the world experiences war, economic flux, social upheaval and climate change. The saga begins with 2014’s Some Luck (fans of A Thousand Acres will recognize the Denby, Iowa, location), continues in April 2015’s Early Warning and concludes with Golden Age, out this October. The first two books were immediate bestsellers, and Volume 3 is highly anticipated.
What will the Langdon family’s future hold—or the author’s own? In the WD Interview in the September 2015 Writer’s Digest, Smiley spoke about the trilogy, the craft, how publishing has changed since she started, and why she’s the luckiest woman she knows. Here, in these online exclusive outtakes we didn’t have space to print, she talks family dynamics, setting and long-term career plans.
In Some Luck and Early Warning, children are sometimes POV characters, even when they’re very small. What’s the trick for developing a personality in a very young character?
I wanted to follow my characters from beginning to end, from birth ’til death, and so I couldn’t leave out the first part. People are always leaving out the first part. That implies that who they are came from nowhere, but in fact who they are came from somewhere.
In my experience of having kids, you have to pay so much attention to the first one because you don’t have any idea what you’re doing. So it’s both good and bad, being a first child and having so much attention paid to you. On the one hand, it gives you a strong sense of self, but on the other hand it kind of takes away your ability to disappear into the crowd and pay attention to the other people and learn from that.
The Last Hundred Years features a few characters who are first-generation Americans who don’t speak much English. It’s unusual for a novel with such a diverse cast of characters to be set in Iowa. Was that a conscious decision?
I’ve always been interested in that part of Northeast Iowa, Northwest Wisconsin that was settled in the 1840s by particular villages from Europe. I’ve always been interested in those towns where people speak, say, Norwegian or German Swiss at home, but go out into the world and speak English. It’s a really interesting region of the Midwest. … It’s just a really interesting aspect of Midwestern culture. When I wrote Liddie Newton, I traveled just around Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri and I was really dumbstruck by how different our states were. They aren’t flyover states at all. They are quite different from one another. I think it’s quite diverse.
You write about the Midwest in the same way many famous classic authors wrote about the South.
It’s interesting. The Midwest has self-consciousness, but I wouldn’t say that it is to the degree that the South does. The Midwest knows that people pass through, and pass over, and move on, and so people in the Midwest are aware of where they live and who they are, and they think well of themselves, but they don’t have the kind of self-consciousness that they do in the South I don’t think. The exception is St. Louis, because St. Louis always thinks well of itself—I say that as a person from St. Louis. I tried to get a little of that when I was writing Private Life, my last novel before these, that sense of—especially since the beginning of the 20th century—future greatness or imminent greatness.
What about Iowa specifically?
When I came to rereading King Lear after writing The Greenlanders, one of the things that struck me about King Lear was that unlike a lot of other Shakespeare plays, it didn’t have a lot of Italian names. It seemed very Nordic to me. I thought it was appropriate to think about it as at least a cousin of the Nordic tradition. And the Nordic tradition is about feuds, and chill, and coldness, and I thought Oh, this is perfect for Iowa.
When I was living in Iowa I got a job offer in Minneapolis and it was some particular winter in the late ’80s, I think, when there hadn’t been sunshine in 47 days in Iowa, and in Minneapolis there hadn’t been sunshine in four and a half months or something like that. And we loved Minneapolis and we were quite fond of visiting—but I’m telling you, the idea of moving to that place, we just couldn’t do it.
Sometimes news that would seem enormous in another place or in another time is just mentioned in passing in your trilogy. I feel like that’s less a matter of time than it is location.
It is. I think so. You know, your main ideas are about the place where you are. And you just can’t help that because you have to pay attention to your own world in order to actually survive. And so it was interesting to me. I read The New York Times and Guardian, and I consider myself fairly up-to-date, but it was interesting to me that some things seemed closer to my characters than I expected and some things seemed further from my characters. It just has to be that way.
You have a huge cast of characters in this series.
Somebody said 40—I don’t know myself.
Is there some sort of advanced organizational process at work here? I think the idea of writing 40 characters is daunting!
Well, how do you keep track of all the people in your family?
Oh, I don’t.
[Laughs.] Well, I have not had any trouble keeping track of the people in my family, and it’s because they’re themselves, and they sort of impose themselves upon you—they have names and they have looks and they have ways of doing things, and once you know them you never forget them. So I guess that’s how I track of these people.
You’ve had a very successful, long career. Are people starting to ask when you plan to retire?
We’ll probably see Jane Smiley on book tour at 85.
I hope so. Alice Munro has been the model. And what is she, she was 82 or something when she said she couldn’t do it anymore. But she’s always the model. I love Alice and I love her work. I love the way she’s gone about her career, and I love the fact that in Dear Life, her last book, she revisited some of her earlier stories and rewrote them from the point of view of what she knows now. And I mean it isn’t very often that an author gets to live very long. Dickens died at 57, Trollope died at I think 65, Henry James was 70 or something like that. It’s only in recent generations that we see authors getting really, really old and that therefore we let them tell us things that they learned when they were in their late 70s or 80s or maybe even older. And to me that’s really interesting and worth paying attention to.
For the full WD Interview with Pulitzer Prize–winner Jane Smiley, look for the September 2015 Writer’s Digest at your local library or newsstand, or download it instantly now.