American novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley recently visited TU’s campus, agreeing to meet with a few members of faculty and students from classes centered on creative writing. The session was hosted in the faculty lounge on the second floor of the McFarlin library and attracted a small crowd of less than ten people. Despite this, Smiley was enthused, demonstrating a genuine desire in sharing her love for the craft.
At the beginning of her talk, Smiley spoke of her love for the novel’s capacious, complex form. Because of these attributes, she said that the “novelist is the tortoise, while the poet is the hare.” Writing a successful novel, or any novel for that matter, requires a duality of patience and stubbornness. Addressing writing in general, Smiley first cited the difference between pleasure and addiction. Pleasure, to her, is the thing you do and feel good about afterwards, while addiction is the thing you do that you feel bad about afterwards. Writing has always proven to be a pleasure for her, and she believes it should be the same for all writers.
While, in my Writing Fiction course, we have often discussed, ‘Reading as a Writer’, or being more analytical of the choices made in literary content we would usually just consume, Smiley recommended ‘Writing as a Reader.’ In this method, one might write up a first draft of their work, leave the page and return to it with the intent of simply reading it. This method is effective because the “reader-brain has more practice.” She noted that many of us had been reading since infancy, but only really writing since high-school.
Smiley went on to discuss her belief that all great novelists have some unique trait that benefits their writing. “When we look at an author,” she said, “we can ask ourselves: what was their gift?” She offered Charles Dickens as a prime example. Dickens’ terrible insomnia had caused him to roam the streets of London at a time when the city was rapidly expanding and its populace was still varied. Because of this and his ability to listen, he was able to capture the speech and culture of a variety of people, and in turn, bring them to life on the page.
When, later in her session, we were allowed to ask questions, I asked her what she thought her own gift to be. “Nosiness and curiosity,” she responded. This struck me as unsurprising, due to her vocal belief that the predilections to novels are ‘always gossip’. She spoke of her novel “Greenlanders”, a fictional account which explores a Norse settlement in Greenland through the 14th and 15th centuries. She was prompted to write the story after visiting Iceland and hearing a friend talk about their wish to row between Greenland and Iceland. Similarly, she became interested in writing about violence in the antebellum era after witnessing the extreme right wing violence of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Smiley decided early in her career that she would work with different literary genres. “If Shakespeare could do it,” she asked, “why can’t I?” She was inspired to do so because she found she loved such a variety of books that she felt compelled to write with the same variety. Some of her books are epics, others tragedies. What stays consistent throughout is her passion. When asked if her passion for writing had ever waned, Smiley answered that even in projects that turned out much more complex and frustrating than she had previously imagined, she never felt disheartened.
One of the guests inquired if Smiley had ever tried her hand at playwriting. “No,” she said, “I hate plays. Too much talking. Novels can go inside and outside, showing the reader exactly what they need to know without spilling it all out in dialogue.”
Smiley and I talked only a little about our mutual hometowns of Webster Groves, Missouri. She described St. Louis as being ‘big’ when she was younger, and how humbling it can be to return. “That yard you thought was the size of a baseball diamond is no bigger than this room,” she said. “The city that made up your world doesn’t seem so big when you return.”