Sedona CALLAHAN, Writer
Monterey County Herald
The Winner’s Circle
By Sedona Callahan
The trouble with Jane Smiley, a seventh-grade teacher once told her, is that she only does what she wants to do.
And on an afternoon in March, at Thai Bistro in Carmel Valley, she wanted to talk about her new foal named, for now, Lumberjack. “He’s only 36 hours old. Look at the pictures,” she urged. “He was a big baby, weighing 90 pounds at birth,” she said, and then grinned as nearby restaurant patrons stared in astonishment, not understanding she was talking about a horse.
Smiley, horsewoman and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, relocated from her home of 24 years in Ames, Iowa to Carmel Valley last year, with her husband, Steve and her three children. “Twenty-four years in a place with bad weather 330 days of the year is a really long time,” Smiley says. “My husband, Steve, had lived in Santa Barbara for eight years. He wanted to move here, but he had a lot of conditions. Any place north of Santa Cruz was too rainy. He wouldn’t live within 100 miles of one of the nuclear power plants, so that let out San Diego and San Luis Obispo. His first wife lives in Santa Barbara, so…this was the only place left.”
Although Smiley misses friends left behind in Iowa, she enjoys life in Carmel Valley. “We like the food and sunshine. People are friendly. It’s beautiful. There’s no reason to leave.”
Smiley is best known for her seventh work of fiction, “A Thousand Acres,” a modern King Lear tale-with-a-twist, set in the farmlands of Iowa, and the book that earned her the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. As in all of her works, she is strongly praised for her development of characters in “A Thousand Acres” and their relationships with one another. “Jane Smiley’s characters are so hauntingly real you can spend the better part of a day just brooding about them,” says a Boston Globe reviewer. “Stunning insight and impact…”, “brilliant portraits of family relationships…”, “stunning detail…” rave other reviewers.
Hollywood took interest in the tale of three sisters, and a movie version of the book is scheduled to be released this fall. “Propaganda Films and Beacon Films collaborated to make the film,” Smiley says. “It’s been filmed and edited. Laura Jones wrote the screenplay. It was as I wrote it,” she says of the film script, which features Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Robards among the cast. “Those involved made strenuous efforts to stick close to the novel. Part of me says ‘ooh, good!’ while part of me thinks it’s a bad idea. It shows a lack of creativity on their part. If it turns out well, I’ll take the credit,” she jokes. “But if it turns out poorly, well, I only set out to write a novel.”
Smiley says the story of three sisters and their powerful, manipulative father is not an autobiographical tale, but the characters were developed from memories of conversations she had with her cousins about their mothers as they were growing up. “My mother has three sisters. My cousins and I have been talking about our parents since God was young,” says Smiley. “‘Why are they like that? Why do they do what they do?’”
Smiley explains you don’t have to experience exactly what you write about, but be able to apply what you know to imagined situations. “You write out of memory and imagination. Your memory gives what you write authenticity. Your imagination gives it general applicability. Without imagination, you can’t write anything anyone else wants to read. It’s your imagination that tells others how you perceive your experience. Young writers usually plunder their relatives wholesale for characters. They use memories and observations to perk up their imagination. Now I don’t have to do that so much.”
Smiley says she briefly put herself in “A Thousand Acres,” then took herself out again. “Ginny [the story narrator] went on for about two paragraphs with feelings I sometimes have. But then I went back and took them out. She’s much more lacking in self-confidence and more eager to please than I am. Caroline [the youngest sister] is probably most like me. A little self-righteous, more selfish than the others.”
Smiley’s novel “Moo,” a satire of university life and currently riding high on recommended reading lists, is set on the campus of a large Midwestern agricultural college, nicknamed Moo U. The locale is not surprising, considering Smiley was an associate professor of English at Iowa State University. In a review written for The Blue Penny Quarterly, writer and contributing editor Norman Maynard says, “Moo is a Holstein of a book: big and beefy enough to cover a plethora of writing styles…as well as an in-depth knowledge of agriculture, hogs, politics, gastronomy [the latest de rigueur in contemporary fiction], Beatles references, anatomy, horticulture, kinesthetic memory and the male sexual psyche. But Ms. Smiley’s strongest muscle is the one she uses to create characters…”
Smiley’s writing muscles were developed while earning a master’s degree in creative writing in the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. “The workshop has been going on since the early ‘60s,” says Smiley. “A lot of good writers, especially poets, come out of there.” Smiley is one notable author from a program that has included writers such as Flannery O’Connor [“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”], Gail Godwin [“The Good Husband”], John Irving [“The World According to Garp”], TC Boyle [The Road to Wellville”] and Alan Gurganus [“The Last Confederate Widow Tells All”].
Smiley sometimes thinks of teaching again. “If the creative writing department at Santa Cruz [UCSC] wanted me, I’d consider it,” she says. Smiley holds a Ph.D. in medieval literature from University of Iowa.
Smiley has benefited in many ways from having earned the Pulitzer Prize. “It’s nice to win the Pulitzer Prize,” she says. “The first day I thought I’d gone from a wannabee to a has-been, in one minute. Once you’re certified, you’re no longer truly outrageous anymore. But I got used to it. The prize itself is only a few thousand dollars, but they estimate booksales double, or more. There are more journalism assignments, lecture fees. It’s a bonanza – a lot of money, a lot of publicity.”
Winning the prize made it possible for Smiley to move to Carmel Valley and buy horses. “I was acting as if nothing would change my life. But when I passed a stable, I decided to take riding lessons. Within two weeks I had bought a horse. In acquiring horses, I learned that horses had to be fed an cared for, read to and their minds cultivated,” she jokes. “Getting the Pulitzer Prize has made me take a right-hand turn, from Iowa to California. My life has been changed by it.”
Smiley says it is probably to the surprise of some people who knew her as a child that she has turned out to be gainfully employed, including the disapproving teacher who said to her, “the trouble with you is you only do what you want to do!” “That continues to be the trouble with me,” Smiley notes in her essay “Idle Hands,” except over the years I have wanted to do more and more – wanted to write because I loved to read, wanted to go to school because I wanted to learn about writing, wanted to teach because I liked going to school.”
Smiley was told when she was eight years old that she was going to be a writer. “I accepted the idea when I was 18,” she says. “In the meantime, I thought I was going to be a farmer, nuclear physicist, horse trainer, ballerina, of course, and a career cheerleader. As I kept growing, a lot of those options fell away. My mother was delighted that she got her way, and without too much struggle.
Smiley agrees with her mother that children should be allowed to lay about, reading in bed and entertaining their imaginations. “Where would I be today if they had rousted me out and put me to scrubbing floors?” she asks.
Offered the hypothetical opportunity to invite any writer from history to a dinner party, Smiley chooses Xenophon. “He was the first great writer about horses,” she says. “Harriet Beecher Stowe would be my next choice. She was supposed to have been very interesting, supposedly very funny, and a great writer. The diarist, Richard Henry Dana, remembered meeting Stowe when she was about 18 and he and his friends were about 11 or 12. He remembered being scandalized by her because she made a lot of jokes and did outrageous things. George Eliot – she could converse with Xenophon. She was a great writer and she and Mrs. Stowe would have a lot to talk about. Xenophon’s eyes would pop if he could see what a thoroughbred is.”