An entire feature could be written on the achievements of Montana Book Festival keynote guest, writer and teacher Jane Smiley.
Over a decades-spanning career she has written more than a dozen novels, half as many novels for young adults, and several notable short stories and works of nonfiction. With her 1992 novel "A Thousand Acres," she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As prolific as she is, Smiley still finds time to be a popular guest at festivals like ours in Missoula. She visited with the Missoulian from her home in California, just days before her 68th birthday.
Q: As a teacher and writer, what comes to mind when you think of the literature of Montana, or the idea of “Western” literature?
A: I’m not very up to date on the literature of Montana, or of the West, but I did just do an introduction for a new edition of "O Pioneers!" by Willa Cather. A couple of her books of the Prairie Trilogy are set in Nebraska, one is set in Colorado, and those are what I’ve been thinking of the most, her depictions of those areas, and of the Southwest.
Q: You live in California, which is often lumped in as part of “The West,” but you folks are really your own thing, aren’t you?
A: That’s an interesting question, because there’s this book I don’t know that you’ve heard of by Colin Woodard called American Nations — have you seen that book?
Q: Yes, it’s the one where he essentially divides the United States up into separate countries based on regional differences.
A: Yes, it’s a really good book. [According to Woodard] I don’t live in the West, I live in “El Norté,” which tops out at Monterey, which was the capital of California for about the first year. So I really identify our part of California, and then south, as this kind of Hispanic area. There is something unique about where American culture and Mexican culture meet, and I think that’s interesting.
Q: Since we’re talking American culture, and books, I’m wondering something. You’ve said you wrote your nonfiction book about novels, "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel," as a kind of response to a certain flagging personal interest in writing at all, post 9/11. Given all the angst and divisiveness in our country today, has the current American political climate affected your approach to writing as well?
A: No, it hasn’t. The difference between 9/11 and now is that 9/11 was a tremendous shock. The stuff that is happening now, we’ve kind of seen coming all along, or at least since the beginning of the Iraq war. So it’s depressing, but it hasn’t shocked me into saying, “OK, I have nothing more to say.” In fact it’s sort of pushed me into thinking I better get it on the page as fast as I can just in case!
Q: One of the things I admire about your work is you seem to write about whatever you want, from fiction, to nonfiction, to books for children. This sort of genre-hopping is rare for writers, and almost seems, within the industry at least, to be discouraged. I’m curious how you’ve managed to pull it off. Has this ever created conflict with your publisher, or editor, or anyone?
A: I would give two answers to that. One is serious and one is not. First, I started varying my form right off. My first two novels were family novels with different points of view. My third was a murder mystery. I was just always going to do it my own way and the publisher got used to that. The problems come if you are very profitable in a certain kind of book. The publisher wants to keep you profitable. So if you’ve written, say, eight very profitable books of a particular type, it’s much harder to say you want to write something new, and for the publisher to accept that. But if you’ve always been all over the map then they expect you to be all over the map. The other thing I would say is that I should have written a book called “The Blessings of ADD.” Because I’m certain I would have been diagnosed with ADD when I was in school. I remember one of my eighth-grade teachers writing on my report card, “She only does what she wants to do.” That’s just the way I’ve always been.
Q: Do you work on multiple projects at the same time?
A: Yeah, I always work on multiple projects. When I set out to do the trilogy [“The Last Hundred Years” trilogy, featuring the novels "Some Luck," "Early Warning," and "Golden Age"] I knew that I was going to write the rough draft of each book in about four or five months. Then I knew that I needed to do something else for the month that I wasn’t writing the rough draft.
Q: So you write a rough draft and then let it simmer a bit before you start your edits?
A: Exactly. So I did some of the kids' books while I was writing the rough drafts. When I was doing "Good Faith" — that was the one I set aside after 9/11 — I started reading a lot of books, and after I read a certain number of those really old books, that struck me that I should write about similarities in the genre of the novel, going all the way back to Murasaki Shikibu [11th Century Japanese author of "The Tale of Genji"]. I had that idea, so that when I finished "Good Faith" I started reading the books again. So I always have several ideas going; sometimes I put one off and come back to it, other times I work on it simultaneously with something else. It’s not a program, it’s more like an impulse.
Q: Of all the different types of writing you do, do you have a favorite?
A: Whatever it is I’m currently doing. You have to enjoy the work, whatever it is you are doing, for its own sake. Otherwise why do it?