Pulitzer Prize-winning author pens poignant new novel
Literary maven Jane Smiley is no stranger to fame. She has published four works of non-fiction and 13 novels (including the critically acclaimed “A Thousand Acres” which I read in my American Authors class while studying English in college and promptly fell in love with her writing) in the time that many people take to decide where to travel for summer vacation. Her latest literary foray is entitled, “Private Life,” an illuminating new novel that spans the life of an ordinary woman married to an extraordinary yet self-indulgent man. Or so she thinks. The 20th century has just dawned and Margaret Early, a native of St. Louis, Mo., blithely marries the man her mother chooses for her, and resigns herself to be a dutiful housewife. Her secretive new husband moves her to Northern California, where she endures two world wars, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and myriad personal tragedies. Little does she know of the trials and tribulations she will endure as the wife of a Navy captain that fancies himself a scientist of the highest degree. What begins as a marriage based on convenience and security turns into a prison sentence, and Smiley’s lyrical prose explores the life of one woman who lives a life she grows to loathe. To outside observers, Margaret’s existence seems charmed, but on the inside, turmoil and unhappiness threaten to disarm her will to live.
GT recently caught up with author Jane Smiley prior to her May 10 visit to Book Shop Santa Cruz to dig a little deeper into the motivation that led the author to write “Private Life.”
Good Times: How did you come up with the idea for Private Life?
Jane Smiley: My grandfather was one of 10 or 11 children, and one of the elder daughters was married to a man who was kind of a joke in the family—like a crackpot scientist. Then I started to look him up on the Internet and discovered that he was kind of famous for being a crackpot scientist. He was in the Navy, he was an astronomer, and he was just overwhelmingly productive. I thought, “Wow that’s an interesting idea.” Lots of times you read about a genius that isn’t vindicated, and I wondered what his life would be like. And, more importantly, what would his wife’s life would be like. He was a typical American type, a very smart and in some ways very wrong person. I wanted the story to be like a lens looking through the wife and their marriage and what it would be like to have her fate connected to someone like that.
Why did you choose that time period?
It roughly corresponds with the family history.
Is there a particular message that you hope people get from reading the book?
No novel, I think, has a particular formulatable message. The energy of the novel is about the emotional aspect. Reading a novel is about seeing the world through other people’s eyes, through the characters’ eyes or the author’s eyes, so every person takes away a different feeling or a different attachment to it.
What do you like the most about writing fiction?
The thing I really like about writing fiction is sensing the story unfold. You start with a basic and simple idea, even things that you just thought of that very moment, and make something logical out of the bits and pieces that start accumulating. To me that is the greatest pleasure. Non-fiction is about clearly stating something that you’ve learned or an opinion that you have. For example I like writing for The Huffington Post because I can express fury or disdain about the political situation in the world. When I am writing about literature for example, in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel” I am trying to express my ideas about how literature works. There is a pleasure about the analytical process.
How did it feel to win a Pulitzer Prize?
I went into a cold sweat. It’s not like one of those prizes like the Booker where you know you’re on the short-list and then you get nervous waiting for the announcement at the dinner. It just comes out of the blue. I think that’s a good thing because you’re not worrying or thinking about it. It’s like being struck by lightning. You feel like a slightly new person.
What is your next project?
I have an ongoing young adult series about horses. One was published last October, and it is set in the Salinas Valley.
It could go on forever. I am also just finishing up the first book for the Sloan Foundation-sponsored series called “American Inventors.” It’s about John Atanasoff who invented the computer at Iowa State. Many people were pondering the computer and invented computers and this one is the one that grew into the computer that we know. It’s really an interesting story.
Smiley will be reading from “Private Life” and signing copies of the new book at 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 10 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 423-0900.