Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley talks to Northern Soul
The telephone purrs ominously in my hand. I swirl the last dregs of lukewarm coffee at the bottom of the cup while sitting cross-legged on my desk chair, and stare at the pile of press releases and hand-written notes in scratchy blue biro on my desk.
Certain phrases jump out at me like neon flashing lights: ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize’, ‘America’s Tolstoy’, ‘place bets for the Booker’, ‘here at last: the Great American novel’. I’ve underlined some things and highlighted others. Questions are scrawled all over available spaces on the pages. On the bookshelf beside me sits a hulking trilogy of novels, adorned with yet more quotes from newspapers and literary critics, designed to impress upon the reader the considerable intellectual prowess of the author. My own manuscript for the novel I’ve been attempting to write for the past six months nestles pitifully in the shade in a little paper folder on the shelf. I turn it over. I realise that my hand is shaking a little. I put the coffee cup down. I stand up. I sit down. I stand up again. The phone eventually clicks and I hear the cool, disinterested voice of the hotel receptionist.
“I’d like to speak to Jane Smiley please,” I say. “She’s expecting me.”
I first came across Smiley’s work when I was an undergraduate in English Literature, on a module about works that responded to the plays of Shakespeare. Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a loose take on King Lear and it was for this novel that she was awarded that Pulitzer in 1992. I wrote up an essay on the novel (and also, contrarily, on Forbidden Planet) and filed Smiley in the category of big, serious authors in my mind.
A couple of years later when I was going through a phase of reading the New York Times on a daily basis, I stumbled across an unexpected and beautifully written article that Smiley had penned about Durham and the North East of England. Visiting Durham University for a conference, Smiley had been captivated by the North East coastline and the history of the region, venturing out to Lindisfarne and Newcastle in the days following the event. The article mentioned the Marks & Sparks and the Topshop in the centre of Durham. Yes, that’s right: Durham M&S, making a cameo appearance in the New York Times. And the Smiley trivia doesn’t stop there. Last year I was forwarded a link to a song by the band Wilco, called, somewhat peculiarly, One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend). Unless you can think of any, I’d say not too many authors’ significant others are immortalised in popular song these days.
Knowing all this, you can forgive me for being nervous as I waited to be connected to Smiley’s hotel room. Smiley has been promoting the final work in her recently published trilogy The Last Hundred Years, the story of an American family – and also the story of America itself – from 1920 to 2019. I chatted anxiously to a friend on the phone the night before. “What can I possibly say to her Melanie?” I implored, drinking my 12th cup of tea of the day. “She’s a genius and an international author and I’m Lyndsey from Newcastle. No, really, what do I say to her?”
After a misunderstanding with hotel staff, I eventually manage to get through, around 15 minutes behind schedule and keenly aware that I don’t have long to conduct my interview. A deep American accent blossoms from the speakerphone. “Is this Jane?” I ask, with little doubt in my mind . “Yes it is,” she replies, and again, I have to check myself. Here I am, in a small room in Newcastle, speaking to a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Stay cool.
After introducing myself and going through some pleasantries (“How are you Jane?” I say, uncertain how to start off. “Yes, I’m fine, thank you” comes the curt response, and a strong sense that here is a mind too refined for such banal chit chat), we discuss her appearance at the Manchester Literature Festival earlier in the week. Smiley appeared at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, which had opened 12 years ago that Monday.
“It was a beautiful venue” she says, “and the acoustics were great. One of my favourite things to do is to sing songs. And so, while we were testing the mic – which took quite a while – I decided to sing a song. That was really fun, I’ve never sang through a mic before. I sang a whole song and a few people stopped and listened. That was a big, once in a lifetime thing for me.”
I was intrigued. Which song did she sing? “I sang an old song by Lyle Lovett. You know Lyle Lovett, right? I sang a song called If you were to wake up. It’s a great song. He’s one of my favourites.” I thank my lucky stars that I know who Lyle Lovett is (and can engage in some basic level of conversation about him) and ask whether she’d caught any other writers at the literature festival.
“Uh, no. It was a flying visit for me unfortunately, which was a real shame.” I am still picturing Smiley singing Lyle Lovett on the stage at the Burgess Foundation. Had anyone filmed it? Where could I see it? And what correlation of the stars had aligned in order to bring Smiley, Burgess and Lovett into one building?
Back on the phone to Smiley, I can’t resist mentioning the New York Times article about Durham, and dropping into the conversation that I was currently in Newcastle, a place which she had described as ‘graceful, pale and elegant’.
“I had never been to Newcastle and it just blew me away,” Smiley recalls. “There was the beautiful street that you walked down. What was it called again?”
“Grey Street?” I offer, helpfully. “Yeah, that’s it. I just thought the North East was unbelievably interesting, and beautiful and I loved it there.” I cast my eye over the article, open on my laptop, and the stories of her forays on Lindisfarne and recollections of the bossy geese at Jarrow. Had she had a chance to explore the North West after the literary festival?
“I went from Manchester to Leeds and we drove over the moors a little bit. We got lost a couple of times, which is always nice, but I can’t say we had the opportunity to explore. Someone told me where one of the most scenic rail lines is. I can’t remember quite where it is now, but I have it marked on a map. I thought I’d come back and take the train. Long, long ago, I did take the train to Windermere and the Lake District and I hiked around there. But that was a long time ago. I’ll be back to the North, most definitely.”
I could have continued to chat about the North of England but, as I looked at the pile of press releases for the trilogy on my desk, I was aware that my precious time with her was ticking on, and what she really wanted to talk about was the publication of the final novel in her critically acclaimed trilogy. From the perspective of someone cautiously dipping their toe in the practice of writing fiction, I wondered what her experience had been like of writing such a long series of books, and whether writing the trilogy was comparable to composing her earlier works.
“It was a lot longer,” she says in an entirely deadpan voice. “It took me about four and a half or five years to write all three books. And I knew that I wanted to write all of them before they were published. It was slightly more intense but maybe I can’t say that actually, because the experience that you have of writing any one book kind of disappears once it’s over, and so every book that I write has been pretty intense while it lasted. But this was certainly more prolonged.”
Had the experience been a pleasurable one? “I enjoyed it. I came to really like my characters and to feel attached to them, even to the ones that I didn’t like so much. I feel like on this tour we tend to talk about just a few of the characters, but in fact there are a whole bunch of them to talk about it. In a way, finishing the trilogy and publishing the final book is like saying good bye to a bunch of friends.”
Unlike many book series, all three parts of the trilogy were published within a year of each other. “I wrote a five-volume series about horses, long ago. Children would come up to me who had read one or two of them and would ask where number three was and I’d have to say I’m sorry, it won’t be out for a year. If the reader really likes something, the reader doesn’t like to wait. I decided they should be published really quickly. It took my publisher a little while to go along with it, but they decided to do it and it’s worked fine.”
The title of the trilogy – The Last Hundred Years – is intriguing. The last 100 years of what, who and where? Smiley explains that the idea for the trilogy came from just that sense of curiosity that the title provoked.
“I’ve not had the concept at the back of the mind. The title came to me and I thought it was really interesting. I’m going to write about the last 100 years of American history, year by year. I’m going to start with the children as babies. I’ve never had characters that I’ve known their whole lives and I really wanted to try that.”
The trilogy clocks in at 1,816 pages (I’ve counted). If, like me, you get distracted writing anything longer than a shopping list, you’ll understand how immensely awe inspiring it is that Smiley managed to write such a huge and sprawling work spanning such a large amount of time, in so much detail, in such a relatively short space of time. I was even more surprised when she told me that she’d only had a general picture of what would happen in the trilogy before beginning to write it.
“I had to do a lot of research in order to find out specific events that had happened and things that might plausibly have happened in the characters’ lives, but this was one of the things that I enjoyed most. I would begin with the certain year and then I’d say ‘ok: where are my characters in the world, how might they learn about events and how might they react?’”
She adds, in a voice full of humour: “Between you and me there were events that I overlooked because I didn’t know that they happened.
“The subject of every historical novel is ‘how is this person the same as people always have been, and how is this person different from the way people always have been’. And obviously the 20th century has been extremely eventful, and so people might have changed in some ways. But I don’t think that 100 years is long enough to change humanity in general. I did read Stephen Pinker’s book called The Better Angels of Our Nature about the decline of violence and the decline of the way people perceive violence and I thought it was an interesting book although I didn’t use it in my research. I just put my people in realistic events.”
At this point, Smiley, sounding absent-minded, suddenly interjects: “I’m really sorry to cut you off but I have to get ready to go to the airport now.” Was it something I said? The interview is over and I still have pages of questions. I thank her, say goodbye, and hang up the phone. I email Smiley’s PR and close the notebook, the pages still bursting with scribbled biro notes. I phone my friend Melanie immediately. “So,” she says, “how did it go? How was Jane Smiley?”
“She was fascinating, Mel. Brilliant. Intimidatingly intelligent, funny, witty. But the thing is, she kind of cut me off at the end. I still had so many questions to ask her. I don’t know if it was something that I said.” With perfect comedic precision, the line goes dead. Oh God. It was something I said.
The phone rings. “Sorry about that,” Mel says cheerfully, “my phone died. What were you saying about Jane Smiley?”
Later on, standing in the cool autumn air of the garden, I reflect on my conversation with Jane Smiley. It was either something I said or simply that Pulitzer Prize-winning authors penning 1,816-page family sagas and travelling the country to promote their works have a lot to do and not very much time to do it. I brew myself a cup of tea and, realising that I’ve been pacing in front of the window for the past half hour, pull down the paper folder from the shelf and sit down, pen in hand.
The Manchester Literature Festival in on until October 25, 2015 at venues across the city
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