Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels including Private Life, The Age of Grief, The Greenlanders, Ordinary Love and Good Will, A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, Moo, Horse Heaven, Good Faith, Ten Days in the Hills, and the young adult novel, The Georges and the Jewels, as well as many essays for such magazines as Vogue, The New Yorker, Practical Horseman, Harper’s,The New York Times Magazine, Allure, The Nation and others. She has written on politics, farming, horse training, child-rearing, literature, impulse buying, getting dressed, Barbie, marriage, and many other topics. She is also the author of the nonfiction books A Year at the Races, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and from Penguin Lives Series, a biography of Charles Dickens. In 2001, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 2006, she received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature.
Q (Meg Pokrass): Mentoring for other writers: At one time… were you mentored? Do you have thoughts relating to the mentor relationship for a writer or the role of mentoring?
I don’t feel that I was mentored, though I had supportive friends. I am a little suspicious of mentoring because it can become contaminated by whatever the personal relationship is. I prefer the library method–the kid or the young person reads and gleans and learns from reading.
A mental ex-lax thing, do you have tricks to move things through when not feeling as inspired?
Ride a horse. Take a bath. Read something. Eat a piece of candy. Set the clock for an hour and tell yourself you only have to work that long.
What is exciting about this time as a writer w/ the internet and what it offers.
Easy research! I love that part. You can find out a lot on the net itself, or you can order all sorts of books.
What is (conversely) not so good about it?
Distracting. I am a serial email checker. I need to actually get into the hot tub or the bathtub to read a book.
Any favorite writing exercises ?
Eavesdrop and write it down from memory–gives you a stronger sense of how people talk and what their concerns are. I love to eavesdrop! Gossip. The more you talk about why people do things, the more ideas you have about how the world works. Write everyday, just to keep in the habit, and remember that whatever you have written is neither as good nor as bad as you think it is. Just keep going, and tell yourself that you will fix it later. Take naps. Often new ideas come together when you are half asleep, but you have to train yourself to remember them.
What writers, artists, musicians (dead or alive) do you turn to again and again for inspiration?
Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Nancy Mitford, George Eliot.
What is happening now for you? Tell us a bit about Private Life, what it’s about for those of us who haven’t read it yet…
Private Life is about a long marriage between a well-trained, good-natured, and basically normal young girl to her town’s genius. It takes place between 1880 and 1942, and is really about how a relationship evolves as one of the partners realizes that his dreams of stardom are slipping away from him. He IS a genius, but he has the wrong ideas for his time, and he finds this unbearable. He is very dynamic, though, and never gives up. This, I think, is a common American pattern, whether the genius is a scientist, or an artist, or a prophet of some religion. I was interested in the cost to be paid by his wife, who comes to realize that as energetic as he is, he is wrong.
What is in the works?
More girls’ horse books, and a trilogy of novels called, The Last Hundred Years.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday — and over the holidays, every Saturday — Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” will be out in February from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.