Writing is an almost sisyphean task: pushing the boulder of narrative up
the ever-steepening slope of countless sentences and paragraphs, only to start over— revising, replacing, and deleting the product of previous climbs, always eyeing the horizon line of clear, engaging, well honed prose. For me personally, I marvel at the fact that books are ever completed at all and, given the opportunity to interview a prolific and talented author like Jane Smiley, my first thought was: "how does she do it?" Part of the answer, is that Smiley keeps at it on an almost daily basis and the results are formidable: her novel A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992, and her novel The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton won the 1999 Spur Award for Best Novel of the West. She has contributed to a wide range of well respected magazines, including The New Yorker, Elle, Outside, The New York Times Magazine, and Harper's. Her most recent novel is Private Life.
LN: As the author of this interview, I find myself facing a blank page at the moment. What are your strategies when you’re facing a blank page? Have you found anything over the course of your career that helps?
JS: Usually I have a plan for the first thing that I’m going to put down. It can be a thought or even just the vaguest little idea. I find that as I put it down other thoughts begin gathering around it. Generally, I just keep going whether I have any faith or confidence in those thoughts or not.
Then I reread what I’ve written later and I always have confidence that eventually I’ll figure out what I’m writing.
The best way to do that is to keep writing rather than keep thinking. If you are just thinking, your thoughts don’t have any specificity. The more you think and the less you write, then the less you will write. You have to be willing to write without thinking in order to generate some thinking.
LN: One informs the other.
JS: I think this is a neurological truth. Sometimes you sit at your desk for a period of time but then you feel stuck. For me, if I get up and do something such as get into the hot tub or ride a horse or just get away, this can cause ideas to gel or come to me.
From my experience, it’s good to act on these ideas quickly. So if I’m on the way to the barn and I won’t be home for an hour, I will text myself a thought. If I’m getting into the hot tub, sometimes I’ll just stop and go back to work if I get an idea.
LN: Strike while the iron is hot. Did you always consider yourself a writer or was there a formative moment in your life?
JS: I was a very avid reader as a child. My mother worked for a newspaper so I saw a person writing in the house. It wasn’t until I was in college that I began to consider myself a writer. Because I love to read, it was a very easy step to go from one to the other.
LN: The common wisdom is that you have to cultivate your writing, what else goes into that, aside from writing itself?
JS: When I was writing Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, I looked into the lives and works of a lot of novelists. I would say 100% of them were avid readers. Some were such avid readers as children that they always had a book in their hands no matter what else they were doing.
I don’t understand why you would become a writer if you weren't a reader. If you are a reader, then what’s nature and what’s nurture? There are plenty of readers who come from families that aren’t full of readers. We don’t know why some kids become avid readers and others don’t.
I always say you might owe more of who you are to Jane Austen than you do to your grandmother. You have this multiple ancestry that is only partially your living, physical relatives. For a lot of kids, there’s freedom in that sense that they have come from books in addition to families.
LN: Your book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, is a good example of how you’ve covered a lot of ground between literary fiction, young adult fiction, non-fiction, and maybe blurring those labels at times since they’re not always clearly delineated.
To what extent do you change your process depending on the genre you’re writing in? Is the experience of writing in those different genres different for you?
JS: It’s recognizably different. For example, a novel always strikes me as something that has an inherent integrity. Part of a writer’s job feels like discovering your subject’s inherent integrity. It has a form and you’re simultaneously building it and discovering it.
Non-fiction seems to me to be much less self-contained.
LN: What do you mean by that?
JS: I really loved writing Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Part of the reason I loved it was I could read what I’d written and say, “Oh, this is total bullshit.” Then go back and start at that place again without feeling as if I had destroyed something. There was something lighter and more intellectual about it. It didn’t have a kind of inherent emotional substance.
This was also true for the book I wrote about the invention of the computer. My job was to do the best kind of research I could, organize it, and then write it. The characters provided the emotional and intellectual material. I was more like a witness to them than a participant in their lives.
At the same time, I was trying to write Private Life. That was a much deeper and more difficult process even though in both instances, I was dealing with weird scientific cranks.
It was interesting to write both of those at the same time and to notice the differences between them.
When I write young adult books, because I’m inside the consciousness of a 13-year-old, the stories unfold a little more simply. The main job is to tell the story. I try to understand the story from a 13-year-old’s perspective. I find that really enjoyable and appealing. Is that because I’m still 13? I have no idea. It’s been quite enjoyable.
LN: Do you ever imagine your readers when you’re writing? Do you think about how they’ll experience your work? Is that a useful strategy for writers to have?
JS: Every day, I read what I wrote the day before to my husband. Sometimes he responds or asks a question. However, just his presence while I’m reading gives me the sense of whether he’s enjoying it or not.
I don’t consciously imagine my readers, but since my husband is a reader, I find that quite helpful.
LN: You have one in-house. After his initial read-through, do you have a broader network of people you trust with your work?
JS: I have an old friend who used to be my editor a long time ago. I send her sections of books and completed books. I have another friend who is very knowledgeable about the horse business, so I sent the young adult books to her.
LN: When you're working on fiction and developing a story idea or characters, are the ideas rooted in experience? Are there things that are plucked from your imagination fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus? How does this work for you?
JS: It really varies because I’m used to both imagining and remembering at this point in my life. Lots of times I do research in order to imagine, which causes me to remember something. Or else I remember something, and then that causes me to imagine something. Then I do research in order to imagine it more clearly. It’s all mixed now.
One time when I was given an award, I thanked all the people I had eavesdropped upon, spied upon, watched, and gossiped about. That’s part of your imagination, too. It’s not only what you read and remember. It’s also what people tell you, and what you watched them do, and stories you hear about them. All of this goes into the same bin. You just pull it out of the bin.
LN: Do you collect anecdotes, or personalities for future use? Is there an aggregation that goes on when you’re gathering details for your work?
JS: Years ago, I used to write things down in a journal, but then I immediately forgot them. It was as if I consigned them to the journal. I also forgot the feeling that they’d engendered.
I have the habit of storing it away in my memory. That might sound like a contradiction about what I said earlier about texting myself, but I just text myself a hint so that I’ll remember that particular thing. It doesn’t last long. When I get home after an hour, I start working on it. That’s a slightly different thing.
I try to do everything from memory because it has more feeling to it. I’m sure for him, since he was an artist, there was a lot of feeling in drawing things. He found his own drawings evocative. It was a good way for him to generate thoughts, which in a way was like doing a rough draft for a writer.
I’m always trying to go from simple thoughts to complex thoughts. Lots of times a rough draft is a rough draft because partly you’re telling a story, partly you’re trying to remember, and partly you’re talking to yourself about the story. When you write a second or third draft, you have to get rid of that part that is you talking to yourself and get on with the more evocative parts of the story.
I enjoy the process, so I don’t have any anxieties about it. I just do it.
LN: Do you write every day? Do have a schedule that you keep?
JS: Absolutely. It depends on the book. I write either five or six days a week.
LN: I’m really interested in exploring how in your process you maintain an immediacy of an idea, so that you can get it on the page even though you’ll revise. It’s the idea of not writing in a journal or just texting yourself a hint, so that when you're writing, you’re really writing.
JS: That varies from book to book. Each book demands a different kind of pre-production. Some books demand a lot of research. So I do the research until I feel like I can get started. Then I keep doing research, and keep doing research, and finally it tapers off.
Other books don’t demand research. They just sort of say, “Here I am.” I start writing. Some of the books I wrote were already organized in my mind. Other books were not. Part of the work is to organize them. Since my books are much different from one another, they inevitably make different demands.
LN: Let’s say you’re researching the invention of the computer and you uncover a really interesting tidbit about Alan Turing. Does it have the same immediacy? Do you think, “I need to get this down now?” Or because it’s non-fiction, does that change the dynamic?
JS: I don’t know how that book relates to other non-fiction books. The characters in that book were unbelievably peculiar and interesting. They really were unforgettable. However, the technical aspects were quite forgettable. Since I didn’t know a lot about this, I had to constantly remind myself and be reminded of what was true about the technical aspects.
I don’t think I ever forgot that his Alan Turing’s brother said that he didn’t know how to put his shoes on until he was five years old. He went to the Sherbourne School, which is a boarding school. His fellow students would tease him and at least once a year, they would stick him under the floorboards. I don’t know why they did this, but it’s a frightening image.
LN: Absolutely. It’s very claustrophobic.
JS: He was only one character and he wasn’t even the weirdest one. Truly the weirdest character was the German guy, Konrad Zuse. He maintained his savoir faire and his interest in his machine all through the Nazi era. These guys in this book just blew me away. But it was very hard to remember the various technical aspects.
LN: Yet many of your books are full of technical specificity, how do you reconcile that?
JS: I’ve always been extremely curious. I was the kind of kid who was told to stop asking questions, at least for five minutes. When I was doing the research for Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and also for the computer book, I was curious. Curiosity drives lifelong learning.
Some people are naturally lifelong learners. A perfect example of that is John Atanasoff, who I think invented the computer. He was irrepressible. He drove his grandchildren bananas. Even in his old age, he couldn’t stop learning and teaching.
In some sense he’s the epitome of lifelong learning.
LN: He sounds like a Know Journal kind of guy.
JS: He lived until his nineties and just kept at it. Some of the other computer guys had happy lives and some didn’t. That was just circumstance. The thing that drove them all was curiosity.
I’m in my sixties now. I come up with new ideas for novels constantly. In fact, I do this now more than ever because there is stuff out there that suddenly seems appropriate. I think, “Let’s write a novel about that.”
LN: It’s surprising that some people aren’t more curious. I don’t know how to engender curiosity with anything other than really great, engaging content. Do you have any thoughts on that subject?
JS: How to engender curiosity? Well, I don’t think curiosity is a general thing. I think that it’s a specific thing. It may get more general.
My husband and I have five kids between us. What we’ve noticed is they start out and they’re curious about a couple of things. If you’re lucky, one thing leads to another. They become curious about other things. The boys eventually become curious about their inner lives.
They’ve all been curious to one degree or another. Some started out as readers and that built their curiosity. Others didn’t start out as readers, but because they were curious about particular things, they eventually became readers.
It varies so much from one person to another. My main feeling is that if there’s something you’re interested in, investigate it. One thing will lead to another. But having just some sort of general curiosity can be overwhelming. Curiosity is not a general thing. It’s a specific thing.
LN: Perhaps with great writing or great education, it’s not so much a question of creating curiosity as it is of supporting it.
JS: Yes. One of the problems with school is that the child is stifled in his natural curiosity. They are told to look at this or that. I remember in sixth grade we diagrammed sentences. Was there ever a more boring thing to do in the entire world? It was not about literature or language.
Subsequently, I became interested in the history of words and the history of the English language, which is a big passion for me. Diagramming sentences didn’t take me there. What was diagramming sentences about? I have no idea.
My husband’s father was educated in Northern Ireland. Those boys learned about history by memorizing famous poems such as “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Maybe a modern teacher would say, “What did they possibly learn about history from these poems?” But the poems stuck with them. Maybe at some point those boys remembered the poem and said, “I wonder what that’s about.” Then they followed it up.
You have to have faith that the kid will follow up on his or her own curiosity, not the curiosity that you impose upon him.
is the Executive Editor of Know Journal.