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[Interview] with Jane Smiley

by David M. Olsen

Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Thousand Acres, graced us with an interview where we got to chat about her most recent novel, A Dangerous Business, as well as her life, writing habits, teaching, and love of horses.

A Dangerous Business is a riveting murder mystery that follows two young women working in brothels in nineteenth-century Monterey, California. The novel is compelling and richly descriptive with finely tuned prose that turns a well-trained eye toward the beautiful Monterey coastline, past and present.

[Kelp Journal] Can you briefly tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up?

[Jane Smiley] I was born in LA, but from the age of one to the age of seventeen, I lived in Saint Albert in the suburbs of Saint Louis, a very lovely suburb called Webster Groves. Then I went to college at Vassar, and I was introduced to the East Coast. I was pretty amazed and had fun college times there. After college, I traveled in Europe for a year, hitchhiking all the way with my husband at the time, and when we got back, we had gotten into the University of Iowa, so we went there.

I found Iowa very illuminating because I had been in the city all that time. When we first got there, we lived in the only place we could afford, which was a farmhouse southwest of Iowa City. When I lived on the farmhouse, I was really lucky because it was farmland, but there was also a natural open space not far from the house. And so I became fascinated by farming. It’s where I also read Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle and learned about chemicals in the well water because of farming, and that got me more interested. So eventually I got into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and made some good friends and did a lot of writing. Then I got hired to teach creative writing at Iowa State, which got me even more interested in farming. Iowa State was a great place to have kids because they have wonderful daycare and inexpensive but very well-built houses. I had exceptional colleagues, and I really liked Iowa State, but by that time, I’d been there for a long time. I was married to this guy whose grandparents were Danish, and he had grown up in Iowa, and he didn’t want to, as he said, “die there.” He’d been to California, and he wanted to move here, so we looked around. By that time, I was interested in horses, and Carmel Valley really seemed perfect, so that’s how I ended up here. It’s a wonderful place to live. My husband and I always look around and say, “Well, what could be better?” I always say that there’s a rule in Carmel that you can’t complain. But on the other hand, you don’t have any reason to.

[KJ] Was there a point when you were growing up, or somewhere along the way, where you realized that you wanted to be a professional writer?

[JS] Yes. My mother was a newspaper person, and I was fascinated by her writing, and she let me read books, and I used to think I was doing it secretly—I would have a little flashlight, and I would read under the covers at night—I think she knew it, and she didn’t care. But when I was in high school, she let me go visit some friends of hers—my stepfather’s in England—and they lived right by Hyde Park. I kept a journal about that, and then I turned that in as my final paper. When I did, I thought, Well, this is fun. When I got to college, I got more and more interested in creative writing and took creative writing classes. So I just always knew it. And I loved books, novels especially, but I read a lot of nonfiction too.

[KJ] You’ve taught over the years at a couple of different schools; it seems teaching has endeared itself to you. What’s your favorite thing about teaching career writing?

[JS] I would say watching the students’ stories develop. So I had a particular method which I used the whole time. At Iowa State, the term was sixteen weeks long, and at Riverside, the term was ten weeks long. The classes were three hours long once a week. So every week, the students had to turn in a draft. It worked out so that at Iowa State, they had to do four drafts in sixteen weeks—the length was for them to decide. And at Riverside, they had to do three drafts for ten weeks. So I’ll just explain how we did it. At Riverside, a student would turn in a draft, and the class would talk about the draft for ten to fifteen minutes, and then the next week, they would turn in a draft that showed what they had learned from the conversation.

In the conversation, they could not criticize or praise the draft. Because if you criticized it, that would turn the writer off initially. And then if you praised it, that made him or her not so exploratory about it. So that was my main rule. At Riverside—they do three drafts for the first nine weeks, and then for the last week, they would pick the story that they liked the most and do a fourth draft of that. The thing I loved about it was that we could all see how the students’ minds were developing and learning. We could also see—and I wanted to see this—we could also see how different they were from one another. And I wanted them to appreciate that. That’s why I taught all kinds of genres, because I didn’t want them to feel directed toward any particular genre.

[KJ] What does your writing practice look like daily, weekly?

[JS] It’s getting up in the morning, reading what I wrote the day before to my husband, and then writing the next amount. Usually, the amount starts out as a thousand words, and it can get longer as I understand what I’m doing. So I like to think of my technique as more exploratory than a plan. But I know that for some books, there has to be a plan. When I wrote A Thousand Acres, I wanted to adhere to King Lear as best I could, so there had to be a plan.

[KJ] Did you create an outline for that book?

[JS] No. I just kept reading the play. But I did write a guideline for Moo, which was about an unnamed land grant university, but the only guideline was a grid where across the top, it had the name of the characters, and down the side, it had the chapter numbers. I would just check which characters showed up in which chapters, and then if I saw that one of the characters was being left behind or I was focusing too much on one character, I’d either add that character or I’d have a party where they could all join together. That was fun; I liked that.

So there have been different plans for different books. The book I’m working on now, I just started a couple of weeks ago, and it’s called The Trail. I just started with an idea I had when I was walking the river trail and I heard a rustle. I had seen a sign that said Higher Mountain Lion activity—and I had poles—but then I heard rustling. It wasn’t anything, not even a deer—I don’t know what it was, nothing probably. But it caused me to think up a little incident, which I’m not going to tell you, and then I went home, and I decided that I was going to write down this incident, and then I was going to write a novel without any forethought, doing a thousand words a day, just seeing where it would take me. It’s not set here; it’s set somewhere else in California. And so far, it’s been fun. Sometimes it’s frustrating, other times head-scratching. But other times it’s like I never thought of that before. I make my own rules, but I write Monday through Saturday, and then on Sunday, I read what I’ve written and fix the spelling, but I’m not really allowed to change the plot; I still want to see where it’s going. So that’s been fun.

[KJ] I haven’t done it that way. That’s fascinating. So when you get some steam, what’s the maximum words you write in a day?

[JS] The time that happened the most was when I was writing The Greenlanders, and that book was interesting because I had planned to write it for a really long time, but I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, I’d read all the Icelandic sagas and all of that, but I didn’t know too much about what I was doing. So one of the things that I did was write a murder mystery called Duplicate Keys in order to understand plot. Then when I started on The Greenlanders—I did go to visit Greenland to look around, and that was very informative—it was difficult at first because I just couldn’t get it; I couldn’t figure out what I was doing. Then after maybe forty pages, it started to click. It ended up being quite long. But when I was about halfway in, I just broke through it, and it truly felt like they were talking to me. I’d sit down at my computer, supposedly a portable computer that’s about as big as a sewing machine, and I’d start typing. Because I wasn’t using any paper because it wasn’t a typewriter, I would just keep going and going and going and going and going. Then I’d get up eight hours later, and I thought, Why is it so late? because I thought I’d been working for, like, two hours. While I was doing this, I was writing from our summer house in the Catskills, so there was also an aspect of it where I was in this very natural environment—maybe that had something to do with it. But I would type all day and then go for walks at night thinking about it and hope not to fall over the edge of the road, and come back and do it all over again. That was probably the weirdest writing experience I’ve ever had.

[KJ] Awesome. Do you have any writing quirks or superstitions, like a lucky hat?

[JS] My only superstition is I need a Diet Coke. I don’t drink coffee or anything, so I like that hit of caffeine in the morning, but that’s it. I mean, I have advice and I have thoughts. I think visiting the place where you’re setting it. Doing a lot of research. Talking to people—if you can—about that area. I think those are good spurs to getting moving.

[KJ] That actually brings me to my next question. Where did the idea for A Dangerous Business stem from? How did you choose the setting? What research did you do?

[JS] Well, obviously, I was just fascinated by walking around Monterey, which is very beautiful, and they’ve maintained the historic buildings really well. One of the things I always think of is that old theater that was brought from Australia and planted in Monterey. So the town plus the landscape is really fascinating and wonderful to walk around. Plus the beaches. So I thought it was a really interesting spot, and I thought that the history of Monterey was quite interesting. Having been at the capital of California for a year, I also thought that the sort of eternal diversity of population and of the landscape—all of that was interesting. And I had written that one murder mystery. I had an idea a long time ago that I should do a sort of Joyce Carol Oates thing and write a murder mystery set in every county in California. And that and some of them would be historic rather than present. Obviously, the first historic one was going to be about Monterey. That general idea sort of slipped away because I got involved in other things, but I stuck with the historic mystery set in Monterey. So I started doing the research, and I realized it was even more fascinating than I thought it was. And it did involve a lot of walks around Monterey, which I loved.

[KJ] The geography is one thing that really stands out—how it just seems like there was a lot of work that went into the historical context, what they were dealing with at the time, and the landscapes and geography as well.

[JS] I went to the library, and I asked in the historical room if there was someone who could read the book and help me. And a local historian proved very helpful. He was extremely detailed and precise, and he set me straight in a lot of ways.

[KJ] Pearl Street seems like a big avenue for the characters.

[JS] Yes, and that’s partly because I really love that old graveyard in the neighborhood. And I love the view from looking over the graveyard out to the Bay. I think that’s one of the most interesting areas. But what neighborhood isn’t interesting? There’s probably some I didn’t put in, because I couldn’t climb the hill.

[KJ] Regarding this particular work, is there anything you want to share with our readers, anything all?

[JS] Well, I enjoyed it. There have been some books where I was just scratching my head constantly, not knowing what was next and more or less not knowing how to get there. But I wanted this to be plausible for the time period, but also interesting. To touch on things that you don’t read about in your Monterey history book that were plausibly present.

[KJ] I loved that about the book. It was kind of like a Western and a murder mystery. One of the things that struck me was that there really wasn’t law enforcement established in the time frame this book is set.

[JS] That was another thing that I discovered in my research. One of the things that spurred a number of ideas was just walking up and down around the area and looking at various buildings and various houses and saying, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Like walking up Jefferson and looking at the one that I called the Hayward house and thinking how weird Eliza would find that coming from the upper Midwest.

[KJ] I have seen some great black-and-white photos from the era this book is set, and I kept conjuring up those images while reading these characters. There are some cool old photographs at the library and museum. The book has very sharp, accurate descriptions.

[JS] I did an interview for the BBC where they wanted to talk about John Steinbeck, so I reread East of Eden, and what struck me when I reread it was how careful he is to depict that area where it takes place, and he really is noticing how beautiful it is.

[KJ] And he did the opposite of you; he defected to the East Coast. But, the Monterey area is a beautiful place to live. You won’t catch me complaining.

[JS] Me neither.

David M. Olsen​ (he/him) is founder and editor-in-chief at Kelp Joirnal. He is a graduate of Stanford’s OWC program in novel writing and holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside Palm Desert. His work has appeared in Carmel Magazine, Catamaran Literary Reader, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, Close to the Bone, Scheherazade, and elsewhere. He resides on California's central coast where he surfs regularly.


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