Jane Smiley is the owner of many horses and the author of many books, including A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award in 1992. She is a member of the American Academy of Art and Letters and winner of the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. Her canon of work includes Barn Blind (1980), At Paradise Gate (1981), Duplicate Key (1984), The Age of Grief (1987), Greenlanders (1988), Ordinary Love and Good Will (1989), Moo (1995), The All-True Tales and Adventures of Lidie Newton (winner of the 1999 Spur Award for Best Novel of the West), Horse Heaven (2000), Good Faith (2003), Charles Dickens (2003), A Year at The Races (2004), Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005), Ten Days in the Hills (2007), The Georges and the Jewels (2009), The Man Who Invented The Computer (2010), and Private Life (2010).
Over the course of her career, she has transcended genre and audience in such publications as Playboy, Practical Horseman, Vogue, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Nation, The Guardian, Outside, and Real Simple. She recently inspired the indie rock band Wilco to name-check her in “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).”
At a geek conference in Chicago, The Days of Yore had to beat through a mob of fans waving ink pens and paperbacks to steal a few minutes with the magnificent Ms. Smiley.
Were there any writers in your family?
I grew up in the suburbs of Saint Louis, and my mom worked for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. She was the Women’s Page editor. I’d been downtown to the paper. I’d looked at the presses. I saw her working at the typewriter. She also ran the biannual fashion show.
Did she put you in the fashion shows?
She did. [Laughs.] So that was fun.
Did you ever try out her typewriter?
No, I wasn’t interested. I read books, but as a child, I wasn’t interested in writing.
What were your favorite books?
The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, horse books by Dorothy Lyons, The Black Stallion books. Series books were what I liked as a child.
At what point did you decide to write something down?
Well, I enjoyed writing things my senior year of high school, but it wasn’t until college that I really did anything. I went to England for two weeks and stayed with friends of my parents, and I loved it. We had to write a long paper at the end of senior year, and I wrote about that trip. I enjoyed writing the piece. So when I got to college, I took Freshman Creative Writing.
Were you getting praise for your writing?
Enough, but not too much. You don’t want to be the star, and you don’t want to be the one who nobody ever notices. You want some praise, but you want the praise to be special, not standard.
Why do you say that?
Praise gets boring, just like anything else. You don’t learn from constant praise. It’s like training an animal. If you’re giving sugar to your horse, he gets bored with that. Pretty soon, you have to do the law of intermittent rewards, where he does not get a treat every time. He gets a pat. He gets to know that he did the right thing, but he doesn’t get that special thing every time. He has to work a little harder to get that special thing.
What made you decide to apply to graduate school?
I got married before my senior year of college, and I lived with my husband. I graduated in 1971, and there were no jobs, and so we said, “Let’s go to Europe and hitchhike around for a year.” And we did. He specialized in medieval history, so he was quite knowledgeable about all the cathedrals and all the cities. It was so wonderful that he decided he was going to graduate school in history, and I thought I would just tag along, so I applied to the Writer’s Workshop.
He got in everywhere he applied, and I got in nowhere I applied. He decided to go to the University of Iowa.
First semester, I talked my way into an English class, and then I talked my way into the graduate program in literature. Then I took some classes in creative writing from Teaching-Writing Fellows: undergraduate classes taught by people in the Workshop. After I did that for two years, I felt a little more prepared to get into the Workshop, so I applied again and I got in.
What was the atmosphere like at Iowa?
It really varies from class to class. Our class happened to be noncompetitive and cohesive, so I learned a lot from my fellow students. My teachers really reminded me of my parents because they were about that age. They’d been in the Second World War, and they drank a lot, and they had a certain social manner. I felt I had nothing to learn from them. But my fellow students, I felt I had a lot to learn from them. They were doing really interesting things and writing good stories. I loved what they were writing, so I paid more attention to them than I did to the teachers. I think that’s a good thing—and one of my fellow students, who was also quite a good friend of mine, went on to become an editor. She was my book editor for a couple of years and a few books.
My view is that it’s okay to start at the bottom with the rest of your peers, because you are in the midst of creating a new literary world. You could be taken up by some big deal, who’s a generation older than you, and who thinks you’re going to be a star, but it’s better to be with your peers, I think.
Do you still keep in touch with them?
I keep in touch with a few of them. Mostly with the editor, though. She’s still my first reader.
You live in Northern California, so is your literary community mostly online?
We do it on Facebook. Doesn’t everybody?
Absolutely. I talked to another writer who called it the literary water cooler. So you went on to earn your Ph.D.?
I got my Ph.D., and when I finished graduate school, I moved to Iceland on a Fulbright to study Old Norse. There wasn’t a lot to do there except eat cream cake and write. I wrote something. It didn’t eventually turn into a novel, but being there got me in the habit of writing every day and reading a lot. When I came home, I hadn’t published, but I had the discipline. I began publishing a few stories. Then I got married and got pregnant and wrote a novel and my friend, who was my editor, published the novel.
What was it like, publishing your first novel?
They had a mini-auction. Somebody else was also interested, so they took me out and fed me exotic food and wooed me, but it was on such a low level. My eventual advance was in the mid-four-figures, you know, so it was fun and it was a nice little bit of money, but it didn’t turn my head or make me think I was going to be a star.
That’s the way it was in those days, in the 70s and early 80s. They gave you a little money, a little pat on the head, and encouraged you to stick with it. You didn’t feel this explosion of stuff that you couldn’t handle: being a star, making too much money, having too much made of you.
By the time that I was a little bit celebrated, I had already written four novels—or three novels and a novella and a book of short stories—so I was in the habit.
Did it feel earned by then?
It didn’t feel exactly earned, but it didn’t feel like a huge blow. It was part of the process. You hoped that it would happen, it did happen, but it wasn’t distracting. I think it’s really hard, for a writer, if the first book kind of knocks you off your post, and you haven’t developed your skills and your discipline, and you don’t quite know what you did in this book that everybody loved: they’re three or four steps ahead of you. Plus, will you ever repeat this success again? Who knows? So it’s better to have enough encouragement so that you want to go on and to have matured your skills so that you know more or less what you’re doing before the book hits.
So it’s about building an author instead of making an author.
I don’t know how a person as an author can control that, especially since the literary world is changing so much, but for people who have modest success when they’re young, they should feel glad about that, not disappointed.
How did you get by in the early days, with the four-figure advances?
We were living in a place that was cheap. We were living in Iowa City, in Ames. Our budget was small. We had enough to get by. We didn’t know that we were living in a dump. [Laughs.] There were a lot of people living in worse circumstances than we were. That’s the pleasure of a college town: everything looks okay.
Part of the time that I was in Iowa City, I lived in a two-room cabin that I rented for twenty-five dollars per month, and I just thought it was exotic and exciting. My boyfriend was a bartender, and part of his salary was getting a meal everyday at the bar.
One night, he came home late from the bar—I was already asleep—and he went out on the back porch to smoke his last cigarette of the night. As he put his foot out the door, he realized that the porch had fallen away down into the creek. And we went, “Oh, wow!” We weren’t terrified. We were just amazed.
We didn’t have running water. We took all our showers at the gym, but we had to bring water in to do the dishes. One time, I gave a little dinner party, and then I left the dishes in the sink for a while. Two days later, I opened the door and the entire kitchen—the cabinetry, the countertops, the dishes, everything—was covered in green mold that had spread from the dirty dishes. But we were too naïve to care! We just said, “Oh, isn’t that interesting?” Then we got some water and washed the dishes.
How old were you?
I was twenty-three, I think.
Was this the husband?
No. This was the guy I left my husband for.
Where did you live when you first moved to Iowa?
When I first moved to Iowa City, we lived thirty miles away, in another twenty-five dollar farmhouse. One day, the bees swarmed, and we looked up and said, “So that’s what that is in the ceiling: it’s honey.” There was a beehive resting on the ceiling up above. My husband had to figure out how to get the queen and to take it someplace way in the back of the yard. I helped him find the queen, and then I remember watching him walk through the backyard and this swarm of bees just following him.
That must have been terrifying!
It was, but we didn’t have the sense to be terrified. We just thought it was interesting or weird. We’d already been hitchhiking through Europe for a year, so we were used to weird things happening. But we never felt that we were impoverished or living badly. We just felt like it was an adventure. That part was fun—and we didn’t ever tell our parents.
Your generation is much more confiding in your parents than our generation was. My generation, you’d almost have an automobile accident, and the next day, you’d call your mom, and she’d say, “How are you?” and you’d say, “Oh, I’m fine.” We never told them anything. “Oh, by the way, I wrecked the car”— no.
Where did you write in those days?
Wherever. I had a little typewriter. When we went to Europe, my husband carried the typewriter. We both had backpacks, but he’d carry the typewriter. We stayed mostly in youth hostels, but occasionally we rented an apartment for a few weeks. I wrote a fair amount.
What was your first publication?
I think it was a story called “Jeffrey, Believe Me,” and I think the magazine was in Chicago, but I can’t remember.
The publication that sticks in my mind was when Lucy, my daughter, was four, and Phoebe was eight. I got them up to go to daycare one morning, and they were horrible. They were just horrible. They would not get dressed. They wouldn’t cooperate. It was cold. I was feeling oppressed. And the phone rang just as we were about to go out the door. It was a guy from The Atlantic saying they were buying one of my stories for a certain amount of money. I turned to the kids and said, “I just sold a story to The Atlantic. You can have anything you want.” Their moods changed instantly. They said “We can?! Let’s get dressed! Let’s go to school!” So I became really fond of bribing the children.
[Laughs.] Were you nervous about being able to write when you decided to have children?
No, I think it’s really important, actually, to get yourself disciplined before the kids come. Not only because you need to figure out a way to do it, but also because they need to accept you as a person who writes. If you’ve always done it, they think it’s just what you do. You also have to explain to them that, not only is this your vocation, but you’re earning a living in this way, so if there’s going to be money, then this job has to be important. My kids were quite good at accepting that. Especially with a lot of bribery.
[Laughs.] Did you have babysitters?
Yes, I always had a babysitter. The older kid was six weeks when I hired the babysitter. The babysitter would come only for two hours day, in the afternoon. I would either write or sleep, and both were fine. It was good for all of us: she got to play with the baby; I got to have a little time away from the baby, but not too much; and the baby got to connect with another person, but that person didn’t take over. I liked that. Both kids went to daycare when they were three or four. The good thing about living in Ames was that the daycare was fabulous because Iowa State has the child development school, so a lot of girls go to the child development school, and then they get jobs at the daycare in Ames. Or they used to, anyway. So daycare in Ames was absolutely A-1. You just felt that your kids were way better off in daycare than they were with you. [Laughs.] I don’t know if that’d be true everywhere, but it was definitely true in Ames.
Perfect for a writer.
Yeah, and the daycare was two blocks away from my house and right across the street from the grocery story. I’d pick ‘em up at the daycare and then go over to the grocery store and buy food for dinner and walk home. I thought living in Ames was a wonderful thing for a writer, because plenty of stuff came through: plenty of stuff to look at, plenty of events to go to, lots of good friends; great daycare. Everything was within walking distance.
The writers I knew who went away to more stimulating worlds, they had a harder time getting organized, because it was totally a physical thing. Where was the daycare? Well, the daycare was five miles away, and the job was ten miles away, and the grocery store was five miles away, so it was much more difficult, even for just practical reasons. So Ames was paradise for a writer.
Now you live in Northern California. What brought you out there?
I was married to that guy that I had left my first husband for, and he was from Iowa, and he had gone to Iowa City, and he had gone to Ames. He had lived in California on his own for about eight years, and he did not want to live in Iowa. He came to live with me in Iowa for a while, but if you grew up in Iowa, there’s no romance there. So we got some money, and the girls were graduated, one from high school, one from junior high, because they’re four years apart. And the opportunity came to move somewhere else, and he really wanted to move back to California. I said fine, and there were various reasons not to move to various other places, but mostly, when we looked around Caramel Valley, every time we walked into a store, they were talking about horses. And I said, “This is it.”
The horse talk sold you?
That sold me. It’s also a beautiful place. I really like it there.
In A Year at The Races, you write about your sessions with an animal communicator. Do your horses like your books?
Yes, absolutely. Well, they have a hard time reading them, but they like having input. [Laughs.]
One of the good things about the horse communicator, and the horses as they communicated, was that they were funny. They weren’t portentous or self-involved. They were just funny. That made me want to keep doing it, even if you didn’t quite believe it. And every so often, they’d come up with something, and you’d think, how did that happen? How did you know? The animal communicator didn’t know that sort of thing.
Do you have other animals?
The funniest [is the] Great Dane, the fawn one. It was my ex-husband’s birthday, and I made a birthday cake, and it was sitting on top of the dishwasher. As I was going in to get the birthday cake, the phone rang, so I answered the phone in the kitchen. It was my agent telling me that A Thousand Acres had been sold to the movies. I was going “Oh, wow!” And I’m looking around, and I can’t find the birthday cake. In the meantime, the Great Dane has sort of slid out the kitchen door and gone to the living room to lie down on the floor. And I can’t find the birthday cake, and I’m going, “Michelle Pfeiffer! Oh, that’s so great! Yakety yakety-yak!” Finally, I see this dark brown water on the floor, and I realize what he had done: he had eased the chocolate cake off the dishwater, and then it flipped and it landed in his water bucket with the plate still attached. So he couldn’t get to the chocolate birthday cake, because the plate was still attached, but it had splashed water on the floor. There was the cake, upside down in the dog’s water. We couldn’t get him to come into the kitchen to be punished, so I had to get off the phone—“Thank you so much”— and my husband took his back end and I took his front, and we carried him, this dead weight of resistance, into the kitchen, “no, no, chocolate cake is bad. Bad dog.”
A Thousand Acres won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Where were you when you heard the news?
In those days, nothing was digital, so everything was communicated by means of going out over the wires. The Pulitzer was announced on the wires as 2 p.m., Eastern Time, and there was no warning or anything. You didn’t know that you were on the list or were a finalist. It was just an award that you suddenly found out about.
My older daughter, who was in ninth grade, had stayed home—she was sick that day or something—and we were sitting at the table. The phone rang, and I answered it. The woman on the other line was from The Ames Tribune, and she said, “So, what have you heard from New York?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been working on a review with the The New York Times Book Review…?” She said, “No, no. What have you heard from the Pulitzer committee?” I said, “Nothing,” and she said, “You’ve heard nothing from the Pulitzer committee?” I said, “No,” and she said, “Okay. If it might happen that you were to win a Pulitzer Prize, what would you say?” So I said something. I don’t even remember what it was.
I hung up and I went back to the kitchen table—this is what it’s like to have a fourteen-year-old—and I said, “Honey, I think I just won the Pulitzer Prize,” and she said, “Huh. Cool.” Basically, “Fuck you, Mom.” Then the woman called back from The New York Times and I said, “I just heard a funny thing. Do you know anything about the Pulitzer Prize?” She said, “No, I truly don’t. But, this is what we say at The New York Times: eighty percent of rumors are true.” So I said to my daughter, “Okay, I think there’s a four out of five chance that I’ve won the Pulitzer Prize.” I continue to do stuff, and I have to go teach my class, and at 1 o’clock at my office in Ames, my phone starts ringing. The first guy is from the Washington Post, who says, “It’s coming over the wire, you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize.” There’s no call waiting or anything, so I hang up, and pick it up again, it’s The Denver Post. I pick it up again, it’s the Mendoza Springs Weekly Examiner, you know.
So then I’m sitting there in my office in the English building, and I hear somebody running down the hall. Then I hear a scream of rage. I open the door and it’s the Ames stringer for The Des Moines Register—the big paper in Iowa, the morning paper—opening the Ames Tribune and realizing that she’s been scooped and that they have my quote rather than her. I found out later that what happened was, the guy who owned the Ames Tribune and who ran the news division at NBC had been in charge of organizing the Pulitzer Prizes, so when he found out that I won, he tipped off the Ames Tribune so that they could scoop The Register. That’s why she had called me. I’ll never forget that scream by the woman at The Des Moines Register. [Laughs.]
Any advice for writers whose drawers are filled with rejection letters?
I’ll tell you what I did when my drawers were filled with rejection letters: I taped them above the kitchen sink so that I would read them and get used to them. I think the main thing to remember is that a rejection letter is a business letter, not a personal letter. They’re not saying, “You stupid shit, you’re a bad person.” They’re just saying, “We’re not ready to buy your product.” So if you stop taking it personally and just get used to it, you’ll just keep submitting.
Interview by Kassi Underwood
Photo courtesy of the artist