Reading is the Source of Jane Smiley’s Latest Book
While in the midst of completing the draft of her last novel ‘Good Faith,’ the terrorist attacks of September 11th left author Jane Smiley feeling such despair that she put that novel temporarily aside and decided to take some time and just read.
“It was early October 2001 and I would lock myself in my room, sit on the bed and read,” said Smiley in a recent phone interview from her home in Carmel, California. “It was a wonderful, pleasing thing to do, and in the first six months after 9/11 it was a way I could get away from the claustrophobia that the media was creating.”
Smiley ended up reading 100 novels in the next two and one-half years. “I read something like 45,000 pages,” she said. “Some of the novels I had read before and some I had never read. Some novels I enjoyed very much, and some I just tried to finish.”
She had no particular criteria for selecting the books she read although she did want to read novels that were remote from the time period in which we lived. She also found that many of the books that had been written hundreds of years earlier still had themes relevant to today.
“When I read ‘The Decameron,’ written by Boccaccio in the 1300’s, I was struck with the idea that people really hadn’t changed that much since then. The Decameron is about people during the Black Plague, and I was reading it during a similar plague in our country concerning the anthrax scare.”
From all this reading came Smiley’s latest book “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel” (570 pages, $26.95, Alfred A. Knopf Publishers). This is one of Smiley’s most personal books, and it is a treatise on the novel. Some of the ground covered in this non-fiction book are the pleasures of reading, why a novel succeeds or fails, and how the form has changed over time. In her typically candid and opinionated style Smiley takes readers behind the scenes of novel writing and she explains her own personal habits of how she writes a novel. She also gives some of her insights about the 100 novels that she read.
On Friday Smiley, who has now written twelve books including the Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘A Thousand Acres’ (1991), will read from her latest book at a public reading at 4:15 p.m., at the Campus Center in Room 375 of the University at Albany’s Uptown Campus. The free talk is part of the Visiting Writers Series and presented by the New York State Writers Institute.
One of my favorite sections of her new book concerns her advice about how to write a novel. Her favorite anecdote about the ease and pleasure of writing a book comes from Ilene Beckerman, who in 1995 published her memoir ‘Love, Loss, and What I Wore.’
Smiley writes about Beckerman, “Her initial impulse had been to jot down some memories from the early days of her marriage for her children, herself, and her best friend, so she kept paper and pencil at hand and every time she remembered something, she wrote it out. She did not write about the memories in any particular order, only when they occurred to her.”
Beckerman ended up filing each page in a manila folder, and after a year she pulled out the folder, read over the pages, organized them chronologically, and had them typed. She made five copies of the book, one for herself, her three children, and one for friend. A few months later was shocked to hear that a publisher had discovered the book and wanted to publish it. Her best friend had loved the book and decided to send it to a publisher who also loved the book and ended up publishing it.
According to Smiley, Ilene Beckerman is an example of why the novel is such an important invention. “Before the novel came along and became so popular writers would usually only write about important characters like kings and queens. Shakespeare did this all the time,” said Smiley. “But the novel celebrates the average person and the ordinary event. From reading novels people have begun to recognize themselves in books. This creates empathy and understanding. It’s because of the novel that we have James Joyce writing about an ordinary man from Dublin and his ordinary day. This novel, Ulysses, is often considered the greatest novel ever written.”
Although she’s heard all the warnings that people are no longer reading novels anymore, Jane Smiley is not overly concerned. “People have always thought we’d stop reading,” she said. “They thought this when movies came out, and the same with television and now with computers, and still people read, and I’m very encouraged to see a whole generation of readers get turned on by the Harry Potter series.”
After reading so many novels and working so thoroughly on this book, Smiley was excited to get back and write another work of fiction. “I wasn’t intimidated at all after reading so much great literature,” she said. “I was very excited to get back and work on another novel.”
She feels that one thing she has learned from reading all those novels is how authors from long ago loved to linger over a scene or an idea and not just make the plot move along so swiftly. “I’ve been guilty of that with my own books,” she said, “so with my new book that I’m writing, which I’m about two-thirds the way through, I’m trying to slow down and not rush through each scene. The new book concerns sex, Hollywood movies and the Iraq War so hopefully readers won’t mind if I linger for a while on those topics.”
For more information about the Jane Smiley talk or about the New York State Writers Institute call 442-5620.