Interview: Author Jane Smiley on her latest novel ‘Some Luck’ and her visit back to Iowa City

Jane Smiley reads at the 2014 Iowa City Book Festival this Sunday. Photo by Mark Bennington.
Jane Smiley reads at the 2014 Iowa City Book Festival this Sunday. — Photo by Mark Bennington.

Novelist Jane Smiley will read from and discuss her new novel Some Luck for the Iowa City Book Festival this Sunday at 1 p.m. at The Englert Theatre. The novel — the first installment in a trilogy set to span one hundred years — takes readers back to the fictional town of Denby, Iowa, the setting of Smiley’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres.

Smiley first came to Iowa in early 1970s to attend the Writers’ Workshop. Upon graduating, she relocated to Ames where she taught English at Iowa State University until 1996.

Smiley possesses an oft-coveted gift among writers: She produces great work quickly. Over the course of her robust career, she’s written over a dozen novels, two short story collections, biographies of Charles Dickens and John Atanasoff, a young adult series, several books and articles on literary craft, and countless reviews.

Little Village recently talked with Smiley about her new novel, her writing process and her affection for the state of Iowa.

Little Village: What brought you back to Denby, after all this time?

Well, the first thing I came up with for this trilogy was the title [The Last Hundred Years]. I knew I wanted to write a multi-generational book set in the US from 1920 to 2019. When I thought about where exactly I wanted to set it, I considered that the most important aspect of any culture is where they get their food — how they think of their food, what their food means to them. So I decided to go back to farming.

Did you read anything in particular while working on these books?

I read all the time. I always read while I’m writing. A lot of it was research, but there was other stuff on the side. I read a little Trollope. I do book reviews. I think what you read on the side enriches your life and your work. The things I read on the side are influential to what I write, in an oblique way.

How did you balance research and narrative development in Some Luck?

Usually, I do a fair amount of research before I start writing. And then at some point, which I can’t predict, I know I’m ready to start, and then I’ll write until I get stuck again and I do some more research.

In the first draft of a research-heavy novel, in a lot of ways, you’re talking to yourself. So you have to be careful in subsequent drafts to be aware of the places where you’re talking to yourself and cut that back so you’re just telling the story. For me, the marker is the word “just.” They’re just doing this or whatnot. It’s a sign that I need to cut and streamline.

But I don’t mind cutting. My personal preference is for there to be too much and to cut it back than not to have enough, and to have to flesh it out.

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That’s fascinating about the word “just.” I think that betrays a real intimacy with your work and your process.

Well, with my previous book, Private Life — I hadn’t expected it to be difficult, but it really was, and it required several drafts. Because of that experience, I was more aware of my process.

Other books like Horse Heaven or Ten Days in the Hills just came to me –even odd books like The Greenlanders—after the initial fifty pages, the rest is essentially a first draft. In Private Life, I had to learn to assimilate a lot of information I didn’t know, so there was more talking to myself. It was good practice for The Last Hundred Years.

I can imagine.

It’s true. Every book prepares you for the next book. In some ways it prepares you properly, and in some ways, it doesn’t. So you just hope for the best.

jane smiley -rachel-williams-RGB (1)
Jane Smiley first came to Iowa in the 1970s to attend the Writers’ Workshop. Both Her latest novel Some Luck and her 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres are set in the state of Iowa. — illustration by Rachel Williams.

I had the pleasure of seeing you here in Iowa City for the 75th anniversary of the Workshop in 2011. How do you feel about returning?

I love Iowa City. And Ames. I enjoy both places equally. I always say Iowa made me. I came from St. Louis, and then I went to Vassar. But Iowa was the place where I grew up, in the truest sense.

Iowa City in the 1970s was very loose — my colleagues in the Workshop were an interesting and exploratory bunch—they really wanted to try lots of different things, and we had great fun.

Have you noticed any dramatic differences between contemporary Workshop cohorts and yours?

I wouldn’t say so. When I was in the Workshop, it might have been around the time the conduit to New York opened. I remember editors — mostly male editors of the World War II generation –giving readings and talks. So there wasn’t a sense that you were isolated from the big publishing world. There was a sense that they were looking in your direction — well, maybe not yours, personally; they never looked in mine. Perhaps that’s increased, but I haven’t noticed a big difference.

The Workshop does still draw its share of attention.

One of the things about the Workshop is that you get used to lightning striking around you. It may not strike you, but it gives you the confidence to go forward.

One of my instructors at the Workshop named Henry Brommell later made his name in Hollywood as the writer/director of Homeland. When he taught us in the Workshop, he was our age. So, here was a guy who’d written two books and come for a semester to teach us, and he was the same age as we were — he had a similar educational background, too. And what I learned from him was not necessarily how to write. It was that if Henry could do it, I could do it.

That’s reassuring. I tend to compare myself to more accomplished contemporaries and fret over how little I’ve done.

I remember that, too. My best friend in the Workshop was a girl named Barbara Grossman. I remember her sitting in her office… reading through stories that she was supposed to read, and I was lying on the floor complaining that I would never be a genius.

So I did have that feeling — that others were somehow getting ahead of me — but it was just a passing sensation. The more important feeling was, “Okay — let’s just keep going.”

Mallory Hellman received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA in English and American literature from Harvard. Her nonfiction has appeared on the Forbes Booked Blog and in the Indiana Review. Her short story “October, Forest River” was a finalist for the Room Of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize. She’s currently at work on a novel.


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