Jane Smiley, Solving Puzzles in the Hills

"A lot of the pleasure of the book was the pleasure of constructing the puzzle," Jane Smiley says of her latest novel, "Ten Days in the Hills," about sex in Hollywood. (By Patrick Tehan For The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007


When Jane Smiley sat down to write "Ten Days in the Hills," she found herself confronting a technical problem she'd never faced before:

Too much sex.

"Uh oh, now I'm really in for it," she thought.

At 57, Smiley has been writing for three decades. She'd put plenty of sex in other books, but this one -- first conceived as simply "a novel about sex set in Hollywood" -- turned out to be different, because she'd never made it so central.

"There's a lot of problems with making it central," she explains, "and one of them is that it's boring."

She mouths this judgment almost silently, as if not to shock the other luncheon patrons at Carmel Valley's Cafe Rustica, then grins. Beyond the outdoor tables, lavish houses perch on golden hillsides -- suspended, it appears, between the nirvana of their glorious setting and the devastation a serious mudslide could bring.

But never mind the scenery. We've got technical difficulties to deal with here.

"As I was coming up with a strategy for doing the sex," Smiley continues, "I thought, well, what's my goal? My goal is that the reader finds the book so interesting that she'll keep reading no matter what the characters are doing." The sex had to be integral to "the feelings of the characters and how they're being portrayed."

Smiley is a novelist who loves a good technical challenge. As an 11-year-old, she read "The Hound of the Baskervilles" again and again until the mechanics of the Sherlock Holmes thriller became transparent. Decades later, when she finished a draft of her multi-character academic satire "Moo," she began her rewrite by separating the individual story lines, fixing what needed to be fixed in each, then braiding them back together.

She likes to try out different literary forms -- now an epic, now a comedy, now a tragedy (her Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Thousand Acres" reworked "King Lear" on an Iowa farm). She does this, she has written, in part because it gives "the technician inside me" something new to figure out.

It helps that she's not an overtly autobiographical writer. Some novelists are "inspired by the world," she says, and others by personal experience. You can count her among the former, which gives her inner technician a wider range of material to work with.

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