Pulitzer Prize-winner (for A Thousand Acres, 1991) Jane Smiley (1949-) came to the San Francisco Public Library with the new paperback edition of her thirteenth novel, Private Life, a bleak tale of a Missouri woman named Margaret who was “rescued” from spinsterhood by naval officer, astronomer, and crank Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, older than she. What Smileychose to read comes from late in the novel, when Early has been consigned to Mare Island (which is really a peninsula– in San Pablo Bay, the bay northeast of the Golden Gate), where his duty is to signal midnight to ships within sight to synchronize their clocks. Barely noticed by her husband, Margaret is watching a brood of seven recently born coots, and reading letters her husband’s mother wrote him. (The mother died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake in the Palace Hotel).
Clad in black (dress and sandals with one thick strap per foot), the very tall author with long and limp blonde hair (that I thought might be white, but decided was near-platinum( recalled that she did some of the most pleasant research for the novel across the street, at the Asian Art Museum. Margaret becomes an aficionada (Smiley said “aficionado”) of Japanese painting (including commissioning one of the coots). San Francisco audiences expect even — or especially? — LA natives to praise our city in some way, and this satisfied this assemblage.
Until getting to reading Margaret reading one of the letters from her deceased mother-in-law to her husband, Smiley’s reading seemed rather flat to me. Smiley lived in Missouri for a time and put on a Missouri accent.
She said she liked Q&A and was good at it. She was not taxed by any of the wildly incoherent vocalizations that often present a challenge of finding a question somewhere in them. One woman apologized for not having read Horse Heaven (2000) until recently. Smiley gracefully absolved her. The question was whether the characters in the novel were based on real-life models. Smiley answered that the horses were based on horses she has known, but the human characters were not. She added that “horse people” attribute motives to horses and that the horses she has raised from foals take responsibility for protecting her, as she does for them.
On the question of advance planning of plots, she said that sometimes she did not know what was going to happen until she wrote it. Other times, especially in A Thousand Acres, which followed “King Lear” — on an Iowa farm — and in Private Life that follows the trajectory of her grandfather’s much older sister, Frances See (and her astronomer-turned-cosmologist husband, Thomas Jefferson Jackson See), she knew in advance where the plot was going, though inventing the plot. Her “Margaret seems to me like many well-meaning Americans who are caught up in the schemes of our more grandiose and overbearing citizens.” (quoted from her website).
Nonetheless, when as a fund-raising gimmick for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, she sold the name of a character in the novel she was writing (Private Life) for $10,000 to a Ukranian-born English banker, the character surprised her. And in that instance took over far more than she had planned. I asked if the banker was pleased with the result. She said she had not heard from him since the initial conversation in which he stressed that he was Ukranian, not Russian and that he wanted his character to be someone who made and lost fortunes. Perhaps, she speculated, he has lost another one.
She said that she used to work on one book at a time, but under deadline duress in 1999 wrote five books (a biography and two children’s horse books) and now likes to have something else going when having problems with a project. She also said she wrote before and after riding.
To the usual question about her favorite of her books, she gave the common answer: “the one I’m working on.” What that is, she did not reveal. Giving more satisfaction to the questioner, she added she retained special affection for Horse Heaven and the Greenlanders… and Private Life (after all, the book she is promoting!).
Asked what she is currently reading, she said that for a Folger Library project, a biography of Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549, grandmother of the first Bourbon king of France, as well as being a poet and playwright and protector of Rabelais and Ronsard), probably. Marguerite de Navarre: Mother of the Renaissance by Patricia F. and Rouben C. Cholakian.
Surprisingly (especially in San Francisco), there were no questions about politics/wars. Or about the Carmel Valley, where she has lived since 1996 with her third husband. Or about e-books.