With a Pulitzer Prize under her belt and regular appearances on the New York Times bestseller list, writers might be forgiven for finding Jane Smiley’s success a tad intimidating. But you’ll find few authors more open, positive and appreciative than her. It’s part of what makes her so approachable—and a big reason Writer’s Digest invited her to be the central keynote speaker at the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference in Los Angeles this October 28-30.
Adrienne Crezo recently sat down with Jane to hear her take on today’s publishing possibilities, plus how she manages to keep readers hooked while telling a hundred-year story. Enjoy part two below:
Do you think it’s easier now to find a writing community than it was pre-Internet?
My daughter works at Book Country [Penguin Random’s online writing community, bookcountry.com]. I feel compelled to ask her advice. Book Country is a really interesting website because it’s like an online writers workshop. You can just go on and connect with people and read things and learn from it and get advice. I think it’s fascinating, and I’m glad she works there, and I think she’s learning a lot. I try to get advice from her; she doesn’t get advice from me. [Laughs.]
It seems to me that the history of writing is closely connected to the history of people being able to find a community that helps them write work, learn from each other’s work, and understand their own work. It’s very rare that a person just shows up and they’ve got a book and they wrote it all on their own and they don’t know anybody. Usually the first thing they do is get into a social system or social group that is interested in writing. Those people encourage you and give you the criticism that you need. That’s the way it happened with Shakespeare, that’s the way it happened with Virginia Woolf, that’s the way it happened with Charles Dickens. It’s good for you to do that, especially when you’re young; that way, you are eased into the literary world and you always feel connected to people around you and you always feel that you’re learning from people around you.
It is inevitable in our world that people are going to do this on the Internet. Is that better? Is that worse? I have no
idea. It’s just another form of something that’s been going on since Athens. Literature is a form of communication. When we first start—whether it’s in a workshop or hanging out by the Parthenon—it’s because we want to communicate. We just modify our ways of communicating as the world changes. The tool changes, but the desire to communicate, the desire to tell stories, that seems to be continuous.
You called your early novels “practice books.”
Yes! I was so lucky. I’m a big fan of Anthony Trollope, and one of my favorite novels of his is one called The Kellys and the O’Kellys, which he wrote when he was in Ireland, and it sold very poorly in England. Both of his Irish novels, The Kellys and the O’Kellys and The Macdermots of Ballycloran, sold very poorly. And yet he got the chance to write those novels in obscurity. … I realized that he had had a mildly similar experience to mine. He got to write a couple of novels, he got them published, he got a few readers, he got that sense of how to do it. And then when he went on to write The Warden, he already kind of knew what he was doing because he had gotten those practice novels.
I think it’s harder—I don’t know from my own experience, but it looks like from the outside—that it’s harder if you strike a big success with your first book, because what do you know? You don’t know nothin’. And then the pressure is on you. The great thing about your practice novels is that there’s no pressure. Nobody cares. And so you get to do the best you can and learn from it, rather than having a big, hit novel.
You’re hoping to improve, but eventually, or at least in my case, you’re doing what you want to do because you’re curious about that idea. My motivation for writing has always been curiosity. I prefer to write about things that I know a little about, but not a whole lot about. Then when I write the novel, it becomes completely interesting to me because I’m finding out about things I didn’t know before.
When I was first starting out, pretty early on, I came up with several ideas. And then I worked out those ideas as I grew into them. I had the idea for The Greenlanders years before I started it, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do it because I didn’t have the skills. One of my practice novels is a murder mystery—Duplicate Keys. ... I’d read a lot of murder mysteries when I was a kid, especially Agatha Christie, and so I knew that if I worked on a murder mystery that I would be able to learn how to do a plot. Once I had done that, I felt as if I had at least a little more knowledge. And so then I felt I could contemplate The Greenlanders more.
A Thousand Acres gets a lot of attention, even 23 years after it won the Pulitzer and so many books later. Do you feel it’s your best work?
I don’t ever say “best.” I think it’s all personal. So for me, it’s not What’s your best? But What’s your favorite? Because you can’t be objective. It all depends on what suits you. I don’t believe in “best” lists. I just think it’s all a personal choice. I would say that I’m quite fond of The Greenlanders, I’m quite fond of Horse Heaven. I love Moo. Comic novels never get to be “the best” because their audience is always quite particular—much more particular. And I also love Early Warning. And I’m not including Volume 3 on the list, so I’m not going to say anything on that. Nothing about Golden Age.
I don’t think too much about A Thousand Acres. I understand that I’ve been lucky. If you’re lucky, it gets better and better.
Do you feel lucky?
Absolutely! How could you not? I mean, the biggest piece of luck is that you get to do what you want, and once you get to do what you want, then you are defined as lucky. And in some ways, that is the definition of success, as far as I’m concerned. You’re lucky if you don’t have to subordinate the things you want to do in order to survive.
Of course I understand that it’s luck. But I’m not going to walk away from it for that reason. … I understand that I’ve been lucky and that my job is to continue on and keep going.