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Jane Smiley, Solving Puzzles in the Hills

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

CARMEL VALLEY, Calif.

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.

And yet . . .

To read "Ten Days in the Hills" and spend an afternoon with its distinctly non-boring author is to see that she's about much more than literary mechanics. And it's to encounter plenty of emotional connections between this ostensibly detached technician and the fictional universes she creates.

'It Was Write or Die'

She grew up book- and horse-crazy in the suburbs of St. Louis. Key words: "grew" and "up." Because for Smiley, who's 6-feet-2 and thin enough so she looks even taller, height was destiny.

"I got to be six feet tall when I was 14," she says. "So it was pretty clear that if I was going to be married and have a regular love life and kids and stuff, desperate measures were required."

She's not joking, or at least not much. This was the early 1960s, a time when you didn't see six-foot women strutting proudly through boardrooms in high heels or stuffing basketballs down other players' throats. Tall girls, Smiley says, were more likely to be given hormones to stunt their growth.

She arrived at Vassar in 1967 without having had a serious boyfriend. Taking the initiative seemed the thing to do. She fixed on a likable guy from Yale for one qualification alone:

"He was 6-foot-10."

An ill-advised marriage ensued.

The tall husband headed off for graduate work at the University of Iowa. Smiley went too, and wound up working toward a doctorate in medieval literature. After they broke up, she found herself spending a year in Reykjavik, researching a potential dissertation on an Icelandic saga and writing short stories in her spare time.

"It was write or die," she says. "There was nothing else to do."

Returning to Iowa in 1977, she was primed to abandon scholarship for fiction. She'd brought back enough stories for a creative dissertation ("it took me about five minutes") and the concepts for three novels.

The first two became "Barn Blind" and "At Paradise Gate." And the latter, according to Lucy Silag -- one of Smiley's two daughters from her second marriage -- was in clear violation of the no-autobiography rule.

"My mom doesn't usually write from her life," Silag says, but there was enough personal history in this one that reading it became "for me, an exercise in learning how women in the family relate to each other."

The youngest of those fictional women, as it happens, is contemplating divorce from a nice-guy husband. She finds it impossible to both stay married and be herself.

In 1987, to jump ahead a bit, Smiley published a much-praised collection called "The Age of Grief." The novella-length title story, which evokes another threatened marriage, is filled with unforgettable emotional detail. Silag says she's in it -- she's the 2-year-old who won't let go of her dad -- but you don't need that autobiographical tidbit to understand that this piece of fiction, too, must have been written out of Smiley's experience.

Smiley doesn't deny it.

"It's not autobiographical in the sense that I'm not a male dentist ," she says. But in the tradition of Dickens's "David Copperfield," it qualifies. "All the facts are wrong, but the feelings are remembered."

Meanwhile, she'd written, but not yet published, the third novel she'd conceived in Iceland.

"The Greenlanders" finally came out in 1988. A 558-page epic set among the doomed settlers of 14th-century Greenland, written in the starkly hypnotic style of the Icelandic sagas Smiley had translated and absorbed, it was not -- to put it mildly -- a typical work of commercial fiction. But the fans it has attracted tend to be passionate.

"Why don't people talk about this book?" asks Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections," who calls it "a work of monumental sadness and great ambition" with a perspective and pace unlike anything else he's read.

Urged to check out "The Greenlanders" maybe a decade ago by his friend and fellow writer William T. Vollman, Franzen finally picked it up last year. "Once I got hooked, that's all I did in the evening, night after night," he says. "It's such a brilliant job of imagining her way into that way of living."

Writing it resembled nothing Smiley has experienced before or since. "It was like they were telling me -- that's what it felt like," she says of how her characters seemed to take over. By the end, she was doing an astonishing 20 pages a day.

Talk about not writing from your life: At one point in the narrative, Smiley says, a hunter tries to capture a polar bear cub "and I remember thinking, God, I am totally unequipped to imagine how he's going to capture this polar bear cub. But then I did imagine it."

She laughs. "And I thought if I can do that, then anybody can. That's what the novel is for. It's for imagining stuff."

'Get On With It'

For the next 13 years, Smiley kept on imagining.

She imagined King Lear on that Iowa farm, won the Pulitzer and got famous, though writing "A Thousand Acres" had felt to her -- especially compared to "The Greenlanders" -- like "a long slog with a heavy load of bricks through deep mud."

She imagined a Midwestern agricultural university, nicknamed "Moo U" -- autobiography alert: Smiley taught for 15 years at Iowa State -- as a comic metaphor for consumer capitalism run amok. That one was more fun.

She got divorced (again) and married a third time; had a son; and found herself one day in 1993 impulsively buying a horse and re-immersing herself in the world she'd loved as a girl. This led eventually to a novel, "Horse Heaven," and a nonfiction meditation on her equine obsession, "A Year at the Races." It also precipitated a move from Iowa to Carmel Valley, which for a horse lover might as well be Shangri-La.

This is where she found herself when her imagination failed.

It was the fall of 2001. Two-thirds of the way through a novel called "Good Faith," Smiley began to doubt if she could keep going. Her first and last rules of literary creativity had always been "get on with it," but this pragmatic approach had stopped working and she didn't know why.

Was it that she felt shaken by Sept. 11 and its aftermath? The ever-present distraction of horses? A recently kindled interest in spiritual things? The simple fact of her advancing age?

A less determined writer might have settled into a prolonged funk. Smiley being Smiley -- remember that proactive approach to tall-girl romance -- she set out to read a hundred novels, beginning with the 11th century ("The Tale of Genji") and working her way up to the 21st.

This self-taught course "was like gassing me up again," she says, "only with high-octane fuel." She got three books out of it, if you count "Good Faith," which she was inspired to buckle down and finish. The second was "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel," an impassioned report on what she learned along the way.

The third was "Ten Days in the Hills," the genesis of which was a little more complicated.

Early in her 100-novel binge, in the midst of the post-9/11 anthrax scare, Smiley sat down to read "The Decameron" by the 14th-century Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio, which takes place during the Black Death.

"Florence was in the grip of an epidemic that possibly modern Americans cannot begin to imagine," Smiley writes in "Thirteen Ways." The order of the day was "death, dread, disease, social breakdown everywhere." Yet here were Boccaccio's main characters, 10 members of the Florentine nobility, deciding "to go out into the countryside, to take a break from the devastation, and to entertain themselves with stories."

They tell 10 days' worth, many of them erotically charged. They know that when they return to the city, they may die. "But they do find repose and they do entertain themselves," Smiley continues, and in the process, "they reconstitute what it means to be human and civilized even while civilization is disintegrating around them."

She already had a vague notion of what her next book would be (that "novel about sex set in Hollywood"). What would happen, she wondered, if you built the thing around 10 characters and 10 days of storytelling, a la Boccaccio?

As for the death, dread and social breakdown component: By 2005, when Smiley started writing "Ten Days in the Hills," the Iraq war was looking like an obvious choice.

'Constructing the Puzzle'

"She's me," Smiley says cheerfully. "I mean her feelings are mine and her arguments are mine, her inability to even grasp how anybody could be for it."

The non-autobiographical writer is talking about Elena, a character in "Ten Days in the Hills" -- which begins a few days after the invasion of Iraq -- who simply cannot get the war off her mind.

The conversation has moved from the restaurant to a grassy, unused airstrip where Smiley has come to fling a tennis ball for her German shorthaired pointer. In the course of the afternoon she will also check on the five horses she keeps at a nearby equestrian center (she's worried about a favorite named Jackie, who's limping from an as-yet-undiagnosed injury) and will introduce Jack Canning, a Carmel Valley builder she's been with for the past eight years or so, to whom "Ten Days" is dedicated.

"Okay, now you've seen the dog, you've seen the horses, you've seen the boyfriend," she jokes at one point, as if summing up the components of a contented life. Asked if there's anything she'd change, she says: "I'd have that horse not be hurt. That's about it."

Back to the new novel, then, where things -- structural and emotional -- can seem a bit more complex.

"A lot of the pleasure of the book was the pleasure of constructing the puzzle," she says. She had 10 major characters to introduce and make vivid. She had 10 days over which to unfold her narrative, and she wanted each day to be of equal length: "If I came to the end of the day and it was too long, that meant something had to go."

Higher-level challenges arose from her choice of form.

"Ten Days" is a Boccaccio-like stringing together of stories that has very little in the way of overarching plot. Smiley's characters gather, eat, sleep together, speculate on one another's lives and, above all, talk. Often the talk involves movies -- an elaborate remake of "Taras Bulba," for example, or an antiwar film starring J.Lo for box office appeal -- that are unlikely to get made. Generating enough narrative tension to keep readers going became a novelistic high-wire act akin to the cinematic one Louis Malle pulled off in "My Dinner With Andre."

Smiley is well aware of the parallel. One of the movies her director character, Max, wants to make is called "My Lovemaking With Elena." When he defends his notion by saying it won't be pornography "if they have a conversation," he might as well be talking about the novel Smiley has put him in.

She keeps things moving by finding endless ways to introduce compelling stories: personal narratives, movie plots, horrific tales from the newspaper, even the elaborate lie Max's daughter tells about how she came to be sleeping with his agent. Smiley also counts on hooking readers with increasingly nuanced portraits of her 10 characters.

And here's where future biographers might want to focus on the artful blurring of the imagined and the real.

Yes, Smiley is Elena -- whose moral outrage over Iraq mirrors the opinions her creator fires off from such platforms as the Huffington Post -- though she's a far more forceful personality. But she's not just Elena.

"Max is me, too," she points out. The director opposes the war and its architects for technical reasons: "It's a task that they have not prepared for and that they cannot complete."

Politics aside, Max is also old enough to understand that what young people see as "surprise twists and happy endings" are mostly "just the same old plot points all over again." Sounds suspiciously like the kind of wisdom a thrice-divorced fiction writer might have acquired.

No, Smiley is not Paul, the bearded enlightenment seeker. Yet he's the character she most enjoyed creating, "because he's the most suspect one . . . a charlatan and yet sincere." What's more, he represents the quasi-Buddhist spiritual exploration with which Smiley has been intrigued of late.

Certainly she's not Simon, the impulsive 20-something. But what about the scene where Paul maintains that the war, like every material thing, is "all an illusion" and Simon decides to call his bluff by decking him with a sudden left hook?

Can we detect a little authorial skepticism here?

"I was sort of on the way to accepting a kind of detachment from the world," Smiley says, "but then the Bush administration came into office and I had to set aside the attempt."

Four characters down, six to go: There's plenty more in "Ten Days" to dig into. But the midwinter sun is setting on this precarious hillside paradise, so we'll have to leave the rest to those future biographers.

One thing is clear, however:

If Jane Smiley were to change her spots and write some truly autobiographical fiction, she'd have some great material to work with -- and there'd be more than just technical issues to resolve.

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