Jane Smiley: Exploring the lives of writers

For attendees at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, listening to keynote addresses can be like panning for gold at an Alaska back road tourist attraction. You have to pay to get in, and sometimes you don’t find much to take home. Open-to-the-public readings bring writers and poets out into the community, but the opening talk is just for the conference goers. Most keynote speakers deliver inspiring talks, though.

At the start last Friday of the conference at Land’s End Resort, novelist Jane Smiley gave her listeners some color in their gold pans. Tall and with corn-silk blonde hair, she could be a Nordic settler right out of her novel, “The Greenlanders,” an end-of-the-world novel she wrote set in Medieval Greenland at the collapse of the colony. An avid knitter, she wore a black-and-white dress she knitted herself.

Smiley, 69, came into writing along the path common to many modern writers: college then a master of fine arts in writing and a teaching career before finding fame with her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “A Thousand Acres.” Born in Los Angeles and raised in Missouri, she went to Vassar College, “rather like being shot into space at the perfect time for a tall young woman to get ahead,” she said.

Riffing on her talk’s title, “The Life of a Writer,” spoke of how writers start as readers. The novels she loved the most “were not lives that would have been welcoming to or accepting of me, an awkward middle American with a tendency to talk too much,” Smiley said.

In reading about writers and their lives — she wrote a biography of Charles Dickens — Smiley said she found a duality to writers.

“Every author turns out to have two lives, an inner life and an outer life, a life in the world and a life in books,” she said. “Quite often what we see on the page is not what we might have seen in the world if we had been there to see it.”

But the inner world of the writer can creep into the world on the page, Smiley said.

“The more writers write, even if it is for the money, the more they cannot help revealing themselves. This is what we like about them,” she said.

Comparing herself to Jane Austen, she said, “I am way older than the other Jane, old enough to be her mother, but I still find her good natured, mocking style to be very congenial.”

In reading about Austen’s life, Smiley said she was surprised to find that Austen loved the theater and that this perhaps might have influenced some of her work.

“I had not thought Jane Austen was like the rest of us, claiming other authors’ material and making it in her own way,” Smiley said. “Genius is not in starting from nothing. It is loving and reworking from material that already exists.”

What makes a writer unique, and where she finds her subject, comes from the writer herself, Smiley said.

“Whose life do we know best?” she asked. “Well, my own.”

After graduate school at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, she moved up the road to teach English at Iowa State University, Ames, a land-grant college. Staying in the Midwest inspired her to write about the great American heartland.

“No one in New York knew about these things and so I had to write about these things and so I enjoyed them,” Smiley said. “When my agent said, ‘No one wants to read about farms,’ I said, ‘Well, they should.’”

In teaching others about writing, Smiley said she realized she was teaching herself.

“I knew I had to work every day and I did, not like Anthony Trollope, whose servant woke him in the morning,” she said. “The ones who woke me were my daughters.”

A lot of Smiley’s best advice came with questions from the audience. Smiley had earlier said she had ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder. So how could she focus on writing with ADD?

It’s not that she can’t focus, Smiley said. It’s that, as an 8th grade history teacher wrote on a report card, “she only does what she wants.”

“It was their definition of focusing, not mine, that’s been my experience of people with ADD. It’s not that they can’t focus. It’s what they focus on, what they want to,” she said. “All my husbands would agree I never focused on the housework. I would say, ‘If you want it done, go ahead and do it.’”

Sometimes that focus becomes intense. One person asked her how she came about to write “The Greenlanders.” Smiley said that was her post-apocalypse novel inspired by the fear of many Baby Boomers of her generation, devastation from nuclear war. She wrote it on a Kaypro, one of the early generation personal computers that is about the size of a sewing machine. “The Greenlanders” has no chapter breaks.

“I just kept going. There were no pages. I wasn’t taking pages out of the typewriter,” she said. “It just kept going and going and every now and then I thought ‘Uh oh.’”

Smiley also said she’s not a perfectionist. In response to the question of how she writes if she’s not a perfectionist, Smiley said she pushes through to the end, one solid first draft. Then she sets the book aside.

“Your reader brain, which has been longer at it than your writer brain, is actually wise,” she said. “Your reader brain will tell you what to do.”

Sometimes Smiley said she puts in small things, minor plot points that can develop into something depending on where the novel goes. In “Moo,” a novel set at a Midwestern university, she has a young man enter an old building and open a door. The guy sees a hog behind that door, and the hog turns into a major character.

“When you pause and think and then you put something in there to go forward, the thing you put in there could be a pebble or a seed. You don’t know that it will be until you keep going,” she said. “That was a good lesson to me to not plan, to let things move forward, to let the pebbles and the seeds coexist. I think that gives narrative energy.”

The writers conference ended Tuesday with a talk by poet Tom Sexton, “Levitation and Other Wonders.” As is done at the end of every conference, to add a bit of drama, the announcement also is made then of next year’s keynote speaker.

For the 17th annual Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, the keynote speaker will be Anthony Doerr, author of “All the Light We Cannot See.”

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