Even when you’re a pro at what you do, says bestselling author Jane Smiley, it’s never easy
After years of anxiety, I finally gave up superstition and decided to just go ahead and live when 1984 rolled around and neither the predictions of George Orwell nor those of Jeane Dixon had come to pass. I felt that they covered it — he was a respected political man and she was a maligned religious woman — and if neither of them had a handle on the end of the world, then none of that other stuff about open umbrellas in the house, black cats, or knock on wood was true either. Thus it was that when I came to write my thirteenth work of fiction, I trotted into the great dark wood without a second thought.
I have always loved writing books, and I have never minded trying something big or unusual. In “A Thousand Acres” I took on Shakespeare; in “The Greenlanders,” I killed off a small civilization; in “Ten Days in the Hills,” I went for sex and war. My new novel, “Private Life,” was meant to be easy — just a woman and her husband in Missouri and California, places I knew well. All I had to do, really, was learn about physics, the First World War, the 1920s, the Depression, and the internment of the Japanese. What could be hard?
I sat down and wrote the whole novel from the first-person point of view of Margaret Mayfield Early, a woman not unlike me or you. She is well-meaning and fairly intelligent. She likes to read, is rather quiet, and attractive from certain angles. And yet, when her twenty-seventh birthday rolls around, her mother realizes that she is doomed to end up an old maid if something isn’t done, and so Margaret is set up to fall for and then marry the town genius, who is thirty-eight, and whose own mother has some doubts about whether he is going to make a decent life for himself. So far, so 19th century.
The first draft was flat as a floorboard. The clue was that there were too many commas and too many “justs” as in “I just felt…” Poor Margaret sounded like she had no inner life, and then I realized that the interesting thing about her was, not that she had no inner life, but that her inner life was a mystery to her. I knew the reason why, but she didn’t, and I’m not giving away that reason here. In addition, her husband was a monster. He was not cruel, or even unkind — but in a way he was not human either.
I should have been discouraged. Everyone else who read the draft of my thirteenth novel was. But even as the work got more and more difficult, it also got more and more compelling for me. I kept passing it through the mill of rewrites, grinding it finer and finer, and I became more and more fascinated by Margaret’s mind and Andrew’s mind and the minds of the other two main characters. I did not feel, as I had with “The Greenlanders,” that I was being talked to from afar. I felt as if I were burrowing in, uncovering bits and pieces — and as I brought these bits and pieces together, my characters were waking up, sitting up, and coming to life. Finally, I gave a draft of the novel to my bookkeeper’s book club. They were seven experienced and enthusiastic middle-aged women, and when we all met, I said, “What more do you want?”
And they told me. They wanted some embroidery, they did not want me to rip out the whole garment and start over. Armed with their ideas and suggestions, I did the embroidery. The composition of “Private Life” was a real toil, my first — but I learned from it. I learned that writing about sad things is, for me, harder than writing funny. I learned that some characters are especially reticent, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth writing about. I learned that all history is filtered through the perceptions of those living through it — if I didn’t write the history as Margaret might have understood it, it was dead on the page. I learned that sometimes, the only redemption a character can have is understanding. I learned that human monsters have a point of view, and that their authors as well as their wives have to understand it. And I learned that if at first you don’t succeed, try try again — not because you have to, but because you want to.
Jane Smiley’s latest novel is “Private Life.” She has written numerous other novels, including ““A Thousand Acres” which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as four works of nonfiction. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature in 2006. She lives in Northern California.