Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsJane Smiley

Writing That Springs Fully Formed : Books: Most authors work chapter by chapter. Not Jane Smiley. She'd be the first to tell you that 'Moo,' her newest novel, was finished long before she put word to paper.

June 04, 1995|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On a lecture tour recently, Jane Smiley found herself in the midst of an accountants' convention. It occurred to her, standing among these men and women in cookie-cutter dark business suits, that they probably lead lives very different from her own.

The majority of them, for example, may not prefer to do their work in pajamas, regardless of the hour. Not all of them shop for groceries via fax machine. Some might favor people over horses--or one horse, a 16-year-old thoroughbred named Tick-Tock. Only a few might confess to writing novels that emerge fully formed from their heads. And to one or two of them, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction might rank as a noteworthy attainment.

Here is what Smiley says about taking home this country's top literary award:

"I'd say in terms of life-changing experiences, having a baby at 43 was greater than winning the Pulitzer."

The baby, her third, would be Axel James, or A.J., now 2 years old, the product of Smiley's marriage (her second) to Steve Mortensen, who snapped the smiling photo on Smiley's most recent book jacket. A.J.'s arrival in 1992 coincided with the accolades surrounding her seventh novel, a modern retelling of the story of King Lear. In addition to the Pulitzer, "A Thousand Acres" received glorious reviews as well as the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction.

Smiley, for her part, had little time for the festivities and fawning that accompanied her literary grand slam. She was busy giving birth, first to A.J., then to "Moo" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), her madcap tale of life in a Midwestern agricultural college.

Like all of Smiley's books, "Moo" was a complete story before it was a single word on paper. The whole book showed up in her brain, right down to petty sexual intrigues and even pettier academic power-mongering. Rather than crafting the work section by section or character by character, Smiley sat down--in her pajamas, when possible--and wrote a novel. This kind of talent has been known to drive lesser writers to despair.

"I have often wondered, of all the tools that a novelist has, which ones are gifts and which ones are skills," said Smiley, nursing a goblet of mineral water before heading off for yet another packed-audience reading from "Moo."

Writing dialogue, one of her strong points, is what Smiley describes as a skill. "You can learn to write good dialogue," she said. "You can learn it by eavesdropping a lot, by paying close attention to what people say, by writing it down."

But the ability to produce an entire story is something else again--a gift by which Smiley comes honestly, and probably inevitably. Everyone in her family is either a writer or an editor, she said, much as if she were describing a long line of drill-bit manufacturers. Her great-grandfather was a newspaper editor in Idaho. Her 74-year-old mother, a reporter, covers a city council for a paper in Florida. Her sister is a magazine editor. A cousin edits medical periodicals. Her oldest daughter, 16-year-old Phoebe, is the managing editor of her school paper in Iowa.

Raised with the bizarre notion that writing was a safe way to make a living, Smiley dreamed at Phoebe's age of taking giant professional risks. She thought she might be a horseback rider, or maybe a farmer. Then she went off to Vassar and, as she put it, "caved in to the family tradition." She decided to become a novelist.

She picked up her doctorate and a first husband, the father of Phoebe and 12-year-old Lucy. In 1981, she began teaching at Iowa State University--dead in the heartland of America, if not the heart of its literary consciousness.

But as Smiley said of her view from the Midwest: "I mean, you're not overwhelmed by stimulation. That's good, because there's plenty of time to get your work done.

"You don't feel as if you're at the center of things, especially culture. But I like living there. There's no traffic."

*

Behind her huge glasses Smiley has a direct gaze, and her sense of impatient drollery makes it hard to know if she is laughing at herself, her questioner, or both. Willow thin, she stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall. While she speaks, she twiddles her thumbs.

Certain characteristics of the life she describes in Ames, Iowa, do sound reminiscent of university habits in "Moo." But Smiley denies that reality provided any inspiration for the satirical novel, whose two-dozen main characters include a 700-pound pig named Earl Butz.

The characters are "figments of my imagination," she said, not composites or caricatures. "People have been trying to persuade me to admit that they are based on real people, but they aren't. I've written enough books now that it would probably slow me down to base them on real people."

Real people are often less disposable, in any case, than the characters she invents, Smiley said. Pulitzer or no Pulitzer, she couldn't wait to move beyond the dysfunctional family members in "A Thousand Acres."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|