Jane Smiley: Private Life

Author mines dark family history for novel about enduring love.

Posted Jun 15, 2011

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres: the powerful and deeply affecting story of one woman’s life, from post Civil-War Missouri to California in the midst of World War II. 
Here's more from Jane Smiley about Private Life:

Jennifer Haupt: You mined the private lives of your great aunt and her husband to create the couple at the center of this novel, Margaret and Andrew. Tell me about why you chose to do this and the research process involved.

Jane Smiley: I chose to do this because I found the great-uncle’s ideas very strange, and I wondered why he clung to them so vehemently. He is really considered a renegade by modern-day physicists and astronomers,and he was also very controversial in his day, because he was so prolific and also because he had a public platforn (he wrote about science for the SF Hearst-owned paper). He was therefore guilty of disseminating crackpot and outmoded ideas. He presented a problem (or many problems) to those he worked for (especially the Navy)--could not be gotten rid of and could not be made to shut up. So my aunt’s life was full of mysterious paradoxes, some of which I managed to explore and some of which I didn’t.

The larger issue is one we often see around us--a highly intelligent person (usually, but not always, male) grabs onto certain ideas or theories that seem to him the answer to the biggest questions. Sometimes, his ideas are vindicated and often they aren’t, but how do you live with him and deal with him? Is he just a megalomaniac? Is he right? If so, what does that mean? If you are a decent, normal person, can you possible prove to this person that he’s wrong? If not, what do you do? I think we see this commonly in the US, because “aiming high,” being “ambitious” is desirable. Do you know how the cosmos was formed? Do you know the nature of God? If you are a certain type of person, well, why not go for the gold and believe that you do?

Margaret is rather like most of us, scratching her head and wondering, is he right? Is he wrong? Is he good? Is he bad?

JH: This book examines how a pivotal public event affected the private life of Margaret in a way she didn’t come to understand until years later. Has there been a public event that has affected/touched your life profoundly?

JS: I think I was deeply effected by the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of my childhood revolved around wondering when we would be blown up by the Russians. I couldn’t stand the news, I knew that if the missile were launched, mortality would arrive in half an hour, so I spent a lot of my childhood feeling  that I was 30 minutes from being dead. I think that the Cold War was an exceptional and unnecessary piece of cruelty. Research shows that many of the Joint Chiefs were quite willing to do it--to sacrifice millions of people for the sake of dominance. We are lucky they didn’t.

I knew from research into The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton that Missouri after the  Civil War was something like Bosnia or Serbia (or, indeed, any place) after civil war. There was a lot of outlawry/insurgent rebellion, and this resulted in a very rough world for the children of that day. A hanging was a public event, and a boy was likely to want to see it. What does that mean? That was a question I wanted to explore, too.

JH: What’s something about your writing life that may surprise people?

JS: Candy is my fuel. Ice cream, too.

JH: What’s the one true thing you learned from writing this novel?

JS: With any novel that you begin, you can’t foresee how difficult or easy it’s going to be, and you can’t really prepare yourself. You just have a take it one step at a time and know that it’s all right to keep going--you can always fix it. And I do believe that you can always bring a novel to its best self--but that best self is never perfect. It’s in the nature of the Novel as a form to be missing something or other and you have to accept that.

JH: What’s next for you?

JS: More more more! I love to write, even when it’s frustrating, because everyday, some little or big thing will unfold, and that is always the highest pleasure.

I have written four horse books for girls and the third, True Blue, comes out in September. I really enjoy writing them, and will write the fifth one on the fall. I am also working on a trilogy of adult novels that I am keeping to myself for a little longer. They are roller-coastery. Sometimes I love them, sometimes I wonder what in the world I am doing, but they always surprise me. I have another project in the making that is entirely different from anything I’ve done, also. The older you get, the more ideas you have, if you are lucky.

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels including A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992,  as well as many essays for such magazines as Vogue, The New Yorker, Harper’s,The New York Times Magazine, Allure, The Nation and others. She has written on politics, farming, horse training, child-rearing, literature, impulse buying, getting dressed, Barbie, marriage, and many other topics. In 2001, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 2006, she received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature.