|Pulitzer-Prize Winning Novelist
September 16, 2005
4:15 p.m. Reading
Campus Center 375
UAlbany, Uptown Campus
A Conversation with Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist renowned for the variety and originality of her work."[Smiley is] one of the premier novelists of her generation, possessed of a mastery of craft and an uncompromising vision that grows more powerful with each book." - Wendy Smith, Washington Post Book World
Afflicted with writer's block after the events of September 11th, 2001, Smiley applied herself instead to reading novels. Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005), the book that resulted from that project is a multifaceted work: a personal appreciation of the 100 novels on her reading list; a penetrating examination of what a novel is; a joyous discussion of the pleasures of reading; and a valuable guide for would-be novelists.
The 100 books on Smiley's list include forerunners of the novel such as Murasaki Shikibu's 1,000-year-old Tale of Genji, two Icelandic sagas, and Boccaccio's The Decameron; classic early novels such as Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling; 19th century works such as Frankenstein, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina; 20th century works such as Ulysses, Orlando, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Lolita; and very recent works such as Francine Prose's Guided Tours of Hell, Chang-rae Lee's A Gesture Life, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Ian McEwan's Atonement, and, 100th on the list, Jennifer Egan's Look at Me.
"Bracing literary criticism from a practitioner's point of view…. Stimulating, provocative and unfailingly intelligent--in short, vintage Smiley." - Kirkus Reviews
Smiley is the best selling author of twelve works of fiction, including the novels, The Age of Grief (1987), The Greenlanders (1988), A Thousand Acres (1991), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Moo (1995), Horse Heaven (2000), and Good Faith (2003). A Thousand Acres became a major motion picture in 1997, and The Age of Grief inspired the 2002 film, The Secret Lives of Dentists. Smiley is also a three-time winner of the O. Henry Award for short fiction. Her nonfiction books include Catskill Crafts: Artisans of the Catskill Mountains (1988), the Penguin Lives Series biography Charles Dickens (2002), and A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money & Luck (2004), an account of the author's lifelong fascination with horses. She is also editor of the new fiction anthology, Best New American Voices 2006 (2005).
Q: When and why did you decide to write this book?
A: I began reading the first of my hundred novels, The Tale of Genji, in early October 2001, a few weeks after September 11, because I was looking for a way to stop thinking about that disaster. I thought a Japanese novel from the 11th century would be as distant from our time as it was possible to get. I would lock myself in my room and sit on the bed and read--no TV, no newspapers, no magazines. I was struck almost immediately with how comforting it was. There is plenty of unhappiness and disaster in Genji, but there is also the sense of the author and the characters contemplating their lives and figuring out how to live them. And then, The Tale of Genji has been around for a thousand years at this point. So that in itself served as an antidote to the feelings of mortality I was having. I found that novel such a revelation that I went on to the Icelandic Sagas and The Decameron, which was much more explicitly about how to live through a disaster (the Black Death). By the time I'd read those four works, I was thinking so many thoughts about fiction and novels that I knew I wanted to write a book about the novel as a form.
Q: What is a novel?
A: A novel is a lengthy written prose narrative with a protagonist. See my book! These very few elements that comprise the definition of a novel are quite powerful in their simplicity and have many implications, even though they are so simple, and in some sense so practical.
Q: Why is novel-reading important? Why should people read novels?
A: People should read novels because they are fun to read, and that is the source of both their popularity and their power. We read novels because we are interested in other people and the first thing we learn from novels is that other people are like us, but not exactly like us. Novels rely for effect on both empathy (understanding how it feels to be another person) and sympathy (a sense of emotional kinship and support for another person). Since novels always spend a lot of time discussing the inner life of one or more characters, readers get practice imagining how to see things from someone else's point of view. At the same time, novels are complex, and so they train readers to understand and appreciate complexity. Most protagonists are neither all good nor all bad--if they were they would be too boring to sustain the length of a novel--so novel-readers get in the habit of appreciating human complexity and withholding judgment until the entire story is told. In addition, the novel reading experience is not like any other artistic experience--it is lengthy, private, intimate, emotional. It enlists many parts of a reader's brain. It is a lot like a meditation in that it requires the reader to suspend her own consciousness, and yet it is often exciting and suspenseful.
Q: This is in many ways a very personal book as you let the reader into your own life and writing process. When did you first discover the joys of reading and what are some of the books that first inspired you as a child?
A: I was an avid reader from the beginning. I loved all sorts of horse books, but also The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys. I would read certain books over and over. I think I read my first "good book" in eighth grade--it was Giants in the Earth. I also enjoyed Johnny Tremaine and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I learned about the logical construction of plot and the clear construction of character from Sherlock Holmes' The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Q: Any worries about revealing the secrets of your craft?
A: No! Writing a novel is a way of developing your inner life and communicating with
others in a very complex way. Everyone should try it.
Q: Okay, this one may seem obvious but I have to ask...why 13 ways?
A: That's how many ways it added up to after I had been writing for a while. When I realized that, I thought of the Wallace Stevens poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Another title I thought of was Everything You Wanted to Know about the Novel but Didn't Bother to Ask.
Q: You have been clear that the list is not a "100 Greatest" list. How did you begin the selection process and what were your selection criteria? Were there titles you would have liked to include that for some reason didn't make the cut?
A: I knew there were some famous and innovative books I couldn't miss, but mostly I allowed one book or author to lead me to another. I figured if, say, Henry Fielding was so irritated by Samuel Richardson's Pamela that he wrote a parody of it, I had better read Pamela. Or, if Mikhail Lermontov liked The Tale of Old Mortality by Sir Walter Scott enough to have his protagonist read it and enjoy it while he was waiting for a duel, I would try that one. Or, I would see books in bookstores or be reminded by one of another I had read or not read. Most reading lists are idle if they are to be pleasurable. The reader has to feel free to read what she wants and to stop if she is not enjoying herself.
Q: Did you ever get sick and tired of reading?
Q: Has doing this book changed the way you think about your novels and/or impacted the writing of your next novel?
A: I am working on a novel now--we'll find out when I'm finished.
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