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Published: Sunday, 5/16/2004

Jane Smiley is equally adept at fiction, nonfiction

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Author Jane Smiley describes herself as a 'realist writer' Author Jane Smiley describes herself as a 'realist writer'
LEONARD ORTIZ / KRT Enlarge

Three kids, a boyfriend, a dozen horses, a pair of Jack Russell terriers.

Early to bed. Up at dawn to get her boy on the middle-school bus. Morning soaks in the hot tub at home in the hills near Carmel, Calif.

And there will be time for the pleasurable activity that has given her this good life: two hours of writing three pages for the book that will be first-drafted by July.

"When I was a kid, this was the life I wanted to lead," says Jane Smiley, author of novels, nonfiction, and essays.

Smiley speaks Tuesday night at Authors! Authors! in the Great Hall of the Stranahan Theater. She is touring the country, promoting the new paperback edition of Good Faith, her 2003 novel.

It happens she has the rare distinction of touring for another book, also - A Year at the Races, published in April. "It's nonfiction, about taking my very humbly bred thoroughbred to the race track and watching his ups and downs."

Smiley, 54 years old and 6 feet, 2 inches tall, spoke by phone while sipping Diet Coke in her hot tub. She was asked about the topic of her Toledo speech.

"I'll probably talk about the differences between fiction and nonfiction and why fiction is so appealing to a lot of people, but why you have to be in a certain frame of mind in order to read it, which I think I'll define at the time."

Likewise, composing fiction and nonfiction involves different processes, she says. "Usually when I'm writing a novel, I absolutely do not rewrite anything until I've finished the first draft."

Fiction, she adds, is easier for her. But her current project is nonficton.

"I have written, written, written, and then gone back and thrown it out and gone back and started over and recast it. So that's interesting to me from a technical standpoint: why would I do that? On the other hand, it wasn't hard to do it. It wasn't like every word was precious the way it might feel with a novel."

The working title of this book is The History of the Novel. It's about novelists and their readers (she insists it's not scholarly - no criticism, no lobbyists), and in preparing for it she planned to read 100 novels, beginning with Daniel Dafoe's works in the early 1700s, but she's up to 120.

"I drew my own conclusions about what various authors have tried to do with the form of the novel and how the novel has influenced the way that we think of ourselves in the modern world," she says. "It's not like we've progressed from worse novels to better ones."

But some things have evolved, such as the way novelists deal with female characters. Until Jane Austin, nice girls were portrayed as not having any real opinions or desires of their own, she says.

Smiley has described herself as a "realist writer" with an interest in social constructions more than social issues.

Smiley's parents divorced when she was a baby and she didn't know her father. Her mother, a writer and editor at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, remarried a businessman.

In 1971, Smiley graduated from Vassar College. She traveled in Europe for a year, and earned master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Iowa. She taught literature and writing at Iowa State University and has written essays for magazines such as the New Yorker, Harper's, and Practical Horseman. Married and divorced three times, her elder daughter has graduated from law school. A younger daughter attends college, and her son is in middle school.

Classical writers she's fond of include Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austin, Virginia Woolf, and Halldor Laxness, an Icelandic writer and winner of a 1955 Nobel Prize.

Favorite contemporary writers?

"Before I started writing this book about the novel, I would have had a list. But since I've been reading so many novels I don't so much have a list of favorites anymore. I see different characteristics and qualities in different writers so I don't really put them in a hierarchy. So usually the one I'm reading is the one I like. Otherwise I don't read it."

She is reading The Sea, the Sea, by Iris Murdoch, and recently finished Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows.

It all comes down to taste, she says.

"The more novels you read, you say, 'Oh, this has this good quality and that good quality and I like that, too.' And pretty soon, they all just stand alone and the pleasure is in reading them," she says.

Smiley's 1992 A Thousand Acres won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was made into a movie starring Michele Pfieffer, Jessica Lange, and Jason Robards. It's a powerful King Lear-like story of a successful farming family in Iowa. The patriarch plans to leave the land to his three daughters, but things unravel after one daughter rejects the idea and the father begins losing touch with both the land and reality.

She has tried her hand at several genres.

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998), written in the style of mid-19th century prose, is about a gangly young woman circa 1855, who learns who she is by grappling with marriage, the frontier, abolition, and violence.

Horse Heaven (2000), is about the people and horses whose lives orbit a racetrack. Smiley's own equines include riding horses, brood mares, and their offspring.

Moo (1995) was a blackly comic send-up of academia and society. Duplicate Keys (1984) was a whodunnit with a Big Chill feel. And The Greenlanders (1988) is a 14th-century family epic written in the style of Icelandic sagas she studied in graduate school.

Jane Smiley will speak Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. The series is sponsored by the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library and The Blade. Tickets are $8 and available at library branches and at the door.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com

or 419-724-6075.



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