May 20, 2016

Jane Smiley at AWF 2016: "A life's work"

Liz from Regional Collections made a long-time good intention into a reality when she went to hear Jane Smiley, and she was not disappointed. Exactly the opposite! Here she tells us about why:



I first heard Jane Smiley talk on the BBC World Service Book Club discussing her Pulitzer Prize- winning A Thousand Acres, a version of the King Lear story set in Iowa. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since, but as is so often the way, never got around to it. I jumped at the chance to hear her in person at the Writers Festival, and thought I’d better make a start on reading at least one of her works, if there were any available with the Festival fast approaching. Saved by an e-book, by the time her session came round I was well immersed in the life of Iowa farmers in the 1920s, as depicted in Some Luck, the first book in her ongoing "Last One Hundred Years" trilogy.

Jane Smiley is tall – “you should see me in my 2 inch heels” she said, but the thing that caught my eye was the somewhat retro jumper she was wearing. It turned out that she had knitted it herself, using what she said was a typically Iowan product – knitting wool made out of soy husks. Her wide-ranging literary output includes among other things, an essay on knitting, "Why Bother?", in Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting.

Interviewed by Paula Morris, Jane Smiley gave us many fascinating insights both about her personal life and also about reading, writing and the novel. It is tempting to try to list them all, but that would not capture the wry, laconic delivery that made her so entertaining.

Paula Morris’s praise of Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel led to a discussion of the role of the novel. Smiley said one of the things she truly loved about the novel is the sense of freedom it gives -- “The more novels you read, the greater your inner life is…. you are more likely to think for yourself, and less likely to follow others”. She saw Richardson’s Pamela as a breakthrough work because it gave women a voice for the first time.

"One Hundred Years" has a large cast of characters and the story is told from a variety of points of view. In answering the question of how she managed to achieve these many voices, Smiley said she belonged to a large gossipy family, and there was nothing she and her siblings liked better than getting her aunts and uncles to tell stories of their childhood. Each would tell the stories from a different perspective – “No,that’s not how it happened - it really happened this way… ” and would also have their own theories on what made others in the family tick. “Your mother always thinks that….” Smiley saw this environment, where the description of an event changed with the storyteller, as a natural upbringing of a novelist.

While she thought listening was the first step in being a story-teller, she felt the first step in becoming a novelist was reading. However, for her the motivation to write came from her insatiable curiosity to find out why things happened the way they did. Only one of her 60 books was written from her own experience (presumably Moo, the novel set in an American university in the midwest). The rest cover a staggering range of subjects and styles – a novel about medieval Greenland, Horse heaven, set in the world of horse racing, young adult novels and a number of non-fiction works including The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasof.
The extent of her love of “finding out things” is revealed by her praise for a weather site which gives a hundred years of daily weather readings for the Midwest. Just the thing you need if you are writing a year by year account of farming life in Iowa.

Jane finished her session with a reading from Golden Age, letting us hear the voices of the modern day members of that Iowa farming family. It was evident from her reading how much she loved her characters, with all their quirks and flaws.

If, like me, you haven’t quite got round to reading something by Jane Smiley, don’t put it off anymore. You are bound to find something in her prodigious range that you will enjoy. And if you don’t like the way the author thinks, you have the freedom, as Jane advocates, to quietly put the book aside, and leave it.

-- Liz

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 19:20
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