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For the week of Sept. 1, 1999 through Sept. 7, 1999

Smiley dazzles Sun Valley Writers' Conference

by Dana DuGan


Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley delivering her Writers Conference introductory speech Sunday evening.

Jane Smiley is that exceptional writer who loves her work. Luxuriating in her Jacuzzi bath, she conducts the incredible research that go to make up among the most fully realized "alternate worlds" we can find in contemporary fiction.

She is the author of nine novels. One of those, "A Thousand Acres" won her a Pulitzer prize and was made into a movie.

Smiley gave the conference’s keynote address, on Sunday evening, with a spirited talk that set the standard for the rest of the event.

You might think that being 6’2’’ tall, Smiley’s most impressive feature would be her height, because her demeanor is so unassuming and forthright. Yet she one-upped her peers right from the get-go. She sang. That’s right—a Pulitzer Prize winning author sang, a cappella, a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tune and an Enya tune in front of an audience of jaded authors and conference attendees from all over the world. The gist of the first song was that life in the new century is going to be great.

"We'll all have lot's of money that we won't have to spend," she sang. "This time around, the party's never going to end." The audience burst into a spontaneous and affectionate applause. I asked her the next day whether there was any thing she was not brave enough to do on stage. After a moment's thought she said, "No." A source for this enviable fortitude comes, she thinks, from her grandparents, who had their tough, hardscrabble beginnings right here in the Wood River Valley.

Smiley’s maternal great grandfather was the editor of the original Republican backed newspaper in Hailey, and died of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. His daughter, Smiley’s beloved grandmother, was three when the family moved from Illinois to the Wood River Valley in 1901.

"They would spend a lot of time in the mountains," Smiley tells me one day by the pond in Sun Valley, "hunting for mushrooms. She had a wonderful childhood here, which she never forgot.

"Another thing she always told me, she could remember living here and the Chinese workers who had gardens coming to the back door to sell vegetables. Her mother was Norwegian and was a great believer in fresh vegetables and attributed her long life to those fresh vegetables.

"She went through high school and became a teacher and in those days they boarded the teachers with the families So they boarded her with my grandfather and his brother in Shoshone, who'd been sent out here by their mother in Missouri to ranch. My great uncle had supposedly killed a man in a bar fight--that’s why they had to leave Missouri, and my grandfather was supposed to ride herd on him."

Smiley enjoys the tale of her family. She has used it in one of her novels, Paradise Gate.

"I set the mountain scenes outside of Sheridan but really they took place around here," she said.

After falling in love with the older brother, she married him and as Smiley put it "did four months worth of dishes." After Smiley’s mother, a brother, and sister were born, the family moved again.

"The two brothers felt they couldn't make it and they sold the ranch," she said. "My grandmother said it broke her heart--she had no say because she was the woman and they were the men. She just had to go along. She said it was the worst thing that ever happened to her

"They moved to Texas, and tried to ranch in Laredo. But that was worse. Then they went back to Illinois where they had relatives, and Grandpa went to work for a shoe company.

"He had wonderful stories to tell. He told about how he had won a diamond ring in a poker game. He'd never had the money to buy her a ring. So he won the ring in a poker game in Hailey--that was her diamond ring."

There was serious attraction for her in coming to this conference.

"The whole time I was growing up, this (place) was heaven on earth," she said. \"I was interested in seeing what it was like. And we wanted a vacation."

Smiley's grandmother was a born story teller. All of her siblings and cousins write, and her mother is a journalist.

"Another connection--my grandmother was always proud of the fact that Ezra Pound was from the same town. My cousin did his Ph.D. thesis on Ezra Pound. When my first novel was published I asked my grandmother how she liked it and she said ‘Oh Janie, I though it was really good but you know you should read what Steve wrote in his dissertation about Ezra, It was so good that you could barely understand a word."

As a writer, Smiley has covered ground from the death of the fourteenth-century Greenland civilization in "The Greenlanders," to King Lear on a farm in "A Thousand Acres." Her newest book, "The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton," is an exploration of the cruel Kansas-Missouri skirmish in the 1880s through the eyes of a pre-modern woman.

"I wanted to write about places or worlds that were unfamiliar to most people," Smiley said. "And I have to say I've never hesitated to write about something of which I know nothing."

Indeed, contrary to the old adage, "Write what you know," Smiley thinks it helps for a novelist to know nothing. She asserts, "you must write what you know but what you know may not be what you've experienced."

Smiley's passion is for discovering worlds about which she is initially ignorant. Since writing "The Greenlanders," even scholars have come to accept her (fictional) version of the story, as essentially the best explanation offered up to date.

"For me to do historical work has always been a way for me to find out what’s going on now," she said. "For instance, the reason I did "The Greenlanders" is that it was the only established western civilization of any size that actually ended. I was raised in the fifties where apocalypse was always a possibility. So that fascinated me and writing "The Greenlanders" was a way of writing about when the world ends. We forget in 1999 how strongly we feared that the world would end in the 1960s.

"It’s also true of Lidie because of the Oklahoma bombing. What I was interested was how ideology could lead to such violence. I asked a friend of mine who’s an American historian. I said I wanted to write about ideology and violence in American history, and he said, ‘Write about Kansas.’

"The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton" is a fascinating account of one woman's life and growth through the turbulent 1880s when the Civil War was played out in extreme measures in Kansas and Missouri. Almost every horror that could be perpetrated on a citizenship took place (except rape, thanks to the 19th century men’s regard for women).

"This all seemed very familiar. It seemed very Balkan-like," Smiley said.

Smiley's other great passion is horses. She’s an event rider, which involves lots of galloping across country and jumping fences--water fences, chicken coop fences, rock walls and rollbacks. This is a woman who grabs life in all forms.

"Art is essentially amoral--a way of seizing joy," she said.

Smiley has just finished a novel about horse racing. It’s been very difficult to sell the idea to her agent, she said. But, she argued, horse-racing people are very literate--all you have to do is look at the Daily Racing Form to figure that out.

Also, there’s a colorful language around horse racing that attracted her to the idea. On the radio, she heard a horse trainer say "spit the bit," which means to quit, and she was hooked. The problem, she said, is "the language horse racers use is evocative but not very communicative. "So it has to be feathered in with another language—mine."

Judging from the audience's response to her reading from "Horse Heaven," the technique works well.

"Always and forever," she read. "Luck is better than genius."

 

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