Pulitzer-winning novelist Jane Smiley’s ordinary settings reveal extraordinary truths
Although Jane Smiley’s passion for horses fueled her novel “Horse Heaven,” her days of horse breeding are over.
“It didn’t work out,” says Smiley, who lives in Carmel Valley with her husband, dogs and horses. When asked if she lost money, she says with a laugh, “Of course! Isn’t it my job as a horse breeder to lose money?”
Sometimes it’s best to stick with your day job, especially when you do it as well as Smiley. She has been called the premier novelist of her generation for good reason. She has written in almost every genre and setting since her graduate school days in Iowa back in the 1970s, and makes sure that no experience goes to waste. She even dedicated her new novel, “Some Luck,” to her three ex-husbands, as well as her current one, “for their patience, laughter, insight, information, and assistance.” Needless to say, they all remain good friends.
“Some Luck” is the first book in her first trilogy, and it returns to fertile creative ground: the Midwestern family farm. She explored its tragedy in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1991 novel “A Thousand Acres,” and here she explores the scope of its humanity. Also set in Iowa, “Some Luck” tracks the Langdon family over what will be the course of 100 years, and for Smiley, its rich farmland is the perfect place to begin their journey. “I feel like it’s going back to the center and saying, ‘OK, things come from here,’” she says. “This is where the roots are.”
Time serves as conductor to this intimate yet sweeping symphony of family life, and sets its pace with a precision that gives structure to the changing fortunes of farming—and indeed, America—over the course of the last century. Each chapter covers one year, and the book itself travels just over 33 years, from the 1920s to 1953. The next two books will unfold in equal measures, ending in 2020.
Smiley employs a wealth of her formidable gifts in this already widely praised novel—her innate feel for her characters, her detailed grasp of farm work, her ability to weave history into the mix of individual stories—but perhaps the greatest is her syncopated approach to the rhythms of daily life. She drops surprises and interruptions into the comings and goings of Walter and Rosanna Langdon, their five children, and many relatives, but always returns to the forward flow of time. She reminds us that most of the dramas we’ll ever experience come conveniently wrapped in day-to-day life: a baby is born, a loved one dies, we fall in love, we leave home, the crops come in, or they don’t. Disasters happen near and far, but we are ultimately bound by sunrises and sunsets, shaped by the soil where our feet hit the ground. “I wanted the years to pass evenly,” Smiley says, “the way they pass in our lives. I wanted to talk about that in the lives of my characters, and I wanted their entire lives to be on display, passed through and thought about.”
Novels remain Smiley’s first love, and she’s far more motivated by curiosity than the angst and drama or even creative pains that plague so many writers.
“Every novel I’ve written has been about finding stuff out. I’m motivated much more by curiosity than by self-expression, and if that’s your goal, then maybe the process is more of a pleasure.”
When speaking to writers, she celebrates workhorses like Charles Dickens and Balzac, who struggled to organize their thoughts and devoted countless hours to research and revision. When speaking to readers, she reminds us why novels are so important.
“Most protagonists are neither all good nor all bad, so novel readers get in the habit of appreciating human complexity and withholding judgment until the entire story is told,” she says.
In that spirit, I look forward to the next installment in this captivating trilogy, knowing that she understates her case. Her characters will challenge my judgments and stretch my imagination long past the time when their entire stories are told.
Jane Smiley will read from her new novel “Some Luck” at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 12; free.