Pulitzer winner's latest project is a novel endeavor

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, September 11, 2005

It was 8 o'clock on Friday morning in Northern California and sloshing water could be heard over the phone as Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley discussed her new book, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel."

"Oh, that sound? I'm in the hot tub, reading a novel," Smiley said.

Smiley was actually reading two novels, alternating between Julian Barnes' latest, "Arthur & Grace," and a reissue of George McDonald Fraser's "Flashman at the Charge."

Smiley is a floating, splashing advertisement for the ardent argument she lays out in her book. She writes that the novel, contrary to Tom Wolfe's infamous prediction of its demise, is alive and well and still capable of transporting the reader to a sublime state.

"Writing this book was incredibly fun because I soaked in the bathtub, laid around eating chocolate in bed, cooked dinner for my family and read novels the whole time," Smiley said.

"Good novels are still wonderfully entertaining, and the reader always can vote on whether it is working by turning the next page or tossing it aside," she said.

It's hard to imagine that Smiley -- one of her generation's most acclaimed and prolific writers, with 11 novels in a variety of genres and three nonfiction books to her credit in the past 20 years -- suffered writer's block.

Gripped by fear after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and out of sorts at the prospect of turning 52, Smiley tried to dip into her fictional well in the fall of 2001 and found it empty. She was both shocked and frightened to discover that the act of writing imaginative prose proved "insoluble, unjoyous and unstimulating."

Her cure?

Read 100 novels that she had always meant to read or reread, analyze them, uncover common threads, discuss overarching themes and write a book about the experience.

But, above all, she planned to leave her own artistic worries behind and escape into the pleasurable, evocative and enlightening landscape of literature.

Smiley has gleaned from three years of intensive reading a compelling book that is, at turns, autobiography and dense literary criticism. (She originally considered reading an unwieldly 250 novels.)

More importantly, perhaps, the reading exercise helped Smiley overcome writer's block.

"My reading had a wonderful effect and it worked in several ways on different levels," Smiley said. "It inspired in me the idea that it was OK to go on as a novelist in good faith and that there could be room in my consciousness and the national consciousness about thoughts other than terrorism and 9/11."

Novel en route

Fans of the author of "A Thousand Acres," "The Greenlanders," "The Age of Grief" and other books will be pleased to know that Smiley is deep into a new novel-in-progress, a contemporary story set in Hollywood during the first 10 days of the Iraq war.

In her hot tub, on this warm and clear morning in northern California, Smiley couldn't help but be in a sunny disposition.

She recalled her undergraduate days at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie (Class of '71) and reminisced about living in the small village of Fleischmanns, Delaware County, in the late-1980s. "It was so beautiful in the Catskills. I loved taking long walks on our country road," she said. More recently, Smiley has visited Saratoga Race Course a few times to research a novel, "Horse Heaven," which was published in 2000.

Smiley continues to operate Laughingstock Stables near her home in California. She had a couple of thoroughbreds racing at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., but injuries forced Smiley to take them off the track and ship them back to her farm.

"They didn't hold up well, because horse racing really tests their soundness in a way that most other equestrian sports don't," Smiley said. She's a competitive dressage rider who uses the rehabbed thoroughbreds in jumping events.

After many years on the faculty at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and other colleges, Smiley has taken a hiatus from teaching.

And yet her new book is a kind of primer for aspiring novelists. It has an encouraging tone and argues that any writer possessing a modicum of talent, stamina and a fierce determination can write a novel.

"Novel writers don't need to have the same talent or verbal fluency as short story writers and poets," Smiley said. "Novelists need to look around, observe and integrate their experience."

Storm of criticism

Smiley makes no apologies for her taste in novels. For instance, she has drawn a storm of criticism for a Harper's magazine article in which she described Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" as boring. She repeats the indictment of Twain's celebrated Mississippi River novel and leaves it off her list of 100. She much prefers Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Perhaps her favorite novelist is Charles Dickens. She also displays a fondness for the work of Henry James, Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. Her list is not meant as a greatest hits, but was chosen selectively and somewhat at random. It does not attempt to be encyclopedic. She had to pick and choose, and purposely left off several literary lions, most notably Ernest Hemingway.

Among contemporary novelists, she picks a grab bag of books that appeal to her own literary sensibility: "Vox" by Nicholson Baker; "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith; "Possession" by A.S. Byatt; "WLT: A Radio Romance" by Garrison Keillor; "Atonement" by Ian McEwan; "Beloved" by Toni Morrison; "Annie John" by Jamaica Kincaid; "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" by Anne Tyler.

"You can't compare one novel against another," Smiley said. "Dickens was a greater writer than Trollope, but not necessarily a greater novelist. Trollope has a flatter style, but he has a remarkable precision. Dickens has a wildness of style drawn from his acute observations. The reading culture and society changes taste over time, but these two have endured."

Smiley said the reading exercise "smashed my own novel preferences and dismissed even the idea of judging books and having favorites."

Within her own household, though, Smiley has been less successful in infecting her five children with a love of novels.

"Two of my kids are avid readers, two never read a thing and one reads magazines," Smiley said, happily sloshing away in the hot tub, two novels close at hand.

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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Jane Smiley