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Smiley finds a sexy way around L.A. noir

In her latest, she finds Hollywood's essence in eros, work and stories.

February 11, 2007|Maria Russo | Times Staff Writer

JANE SMILEY was walking on a sunny afternoon near the top of San Remo, a winding street in Pacific Palisades. This was the block where the 57-year-old novelist pictured the home of Max, the possibly past-his-prime Oscar-winning film director who's at the center of her new book, "Ten Days in the Hills."

It's billed as a Hollywood novel, but it's just as much a novel about sex, and it's a novel that feels burrowed into Los Angeles' landscape and real estate. Smiley uses a Decameron-like setup: A group of Max's family and friends hole up together for 10 days in March 2003 that happen to fall just after the Oscars and just at the beginning of the Iraq war. They tell a lot of stories and have a lot of sex, both the relationship kind and the just-for-kicks kind, all of which Smiley describes patiently and in detail (more on this later; suffice it to say here it's no surprise to learn Smiley has been anthologized a few times in the "Best American Erotica" series).

There's a detour to a bigger and much more elaborate house owned by some shady Russians, but the heart of the book is in Max's place on this green and pretty street, with its soaring glimpses of canyon between the closely set houses. They look spiffy but homey too. "You can see how these houses are modest, in their way," Smiley said.

She had been inside one of them years ago. She had a friend who was Andre Agassi's sports-medicine doctor, and when Agassi got engaged to Brooke Shields, Smiley went along with her friend to the engagement party at their place on San Remo. "I think it was this one," Smiley said, standing in front of a tidy white house, by no means flashy or enormous-looking. From the street, on the night of the party, it had seemed an unassuming one-story structure, but when she went inside she saw that it unfolded to several levels built into the hillside, which made it feel cozy and intimate. And yet there was a spectacular view all the way to the Getty, and separate terraced outdoor areas.

That house, for Smiley, represented a certain strata of Hollywood occupied by the characters in her book, who include 58-year-old Max; his down-to-earth 50-year-old girlfriend, Elena; his glamorous actress-singer ex-wife, Zoe; their serious-minded daughter Isabel; and Zoe's Jamaican mother, Delphine, who still lives in Max's guest house. Max may have an Oscar, and Zoe may be a national sex symbol with a hefty page on IMDB, but they are members of the working Hollywood that people often find to be surprisingly Midwestern.

"These are people who came from modest backgrounds, worked hard and were interested in what they were doing," Smiley said of her characters. "And so they haven't been living in the world of Hollywood as a playground for the fabulously wealthy. Because I just don't see how a director or producer or anyone who wanted to have a long and productive career could party all night and do drugs and still do the work."

Celebrity, whatever

SMILEY was raised in Missouri and lived for many years in Iowa until she moved to Carmel Valley, Calif., in 1997. There, she has happily immersed herself in writing her books as well as raising and riding thoroughbreds, blogging furiously against the Bush administration for the Huffington Post and, after three divorces, living harmoniously with the man she calls her "partner," Jack Canning, a handsome, blue-eyed Eastern transplant and real estate agent turned contractor, whom she met when he did work on her house. Her horses race sometimes at Santa Anita, so she comes down to L.A. now and then, but not for long stretches. She has a 14-year-old at home and two grown children.

Smiley is 6 feet 2 and thin, neat but unfussy, and athletic-looking. For her, meeting, say, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro would probably have been a much bigger thrill than meeting Brad Pitt. When her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "A Thousand Acres" was made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange, Smiley was not involved, and she does not seem to have felt left out. She is the opposite of star-struck. "I got invited on the set once," she said without any discernible excitement. "I went to the premiere."

If one were to list the ways Jane Smiley is an unusual candidate for writing a Hollywood novel, this blase approach to celebrity and glitz would be a good starting point. In fact, all the usual tropes of the Hollywood novel are conspicuously absent from "Ten Days in the Hills." It is not concerned with the bleak decline of its characters' souls, or their bloated egos, or the willful destruction of American moviemaking by wicked studio executives, or the ugly truths lurking behind the pretty surfaces of Hollywood. The novel does not contain the words "Botox" or "liposuction." Yes, the Iraq war casts a shadow over the novel's privileged L.A. residents, and yes, there are shady Russian moneymen involved, but mostly it's a book in which Hollywood is boiled down to its most life-affirming essences: sex, work and storytelling.

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