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The Edge of Knowing 

Jane Smiley's American Century

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Jane Smiley has a thing for round numbers and Iowa farmland. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres has named her new trilogy The Last Hundred Years. Its first volume, Some Luck (Knopf, 2014) earned rave reviews; Early Warning will come out in May and the final installment this fall.  

Like A Thousand Acres, the trilogy revolves around an Iowa farm family. But Smiley, who'll appear this month at the Woodstock Writers Festival, is no one-trick pony. Her two dozen books—novels, nonfiction, and young adult—stake out a wide swath of literary and geographical turf, from medieval Greenland to the racetrack and the Hollywood Hills. Some Luck may begin with young farmer Walter Langdon walking his acreage, but its 33 chapters (one set each year from 1920 to 1953) radiate into the widening world: first leftist Chicago, then WWII's North African theater and the postwar diaspora. Early Warning follows the five Langdon children as they disperse to both coasts and beyond. If there's a world map on the wall of Smiley's writing office, it's studded with push pins.

Smiley answers the phone from the mountainside home outside Carmel, California, that she shares with fourth husband Jack Canning and three well-loved dogs, one of whom can be seen on her Facebook page, baying as Smiley plays banjo. A former horse breeder, she's cut back her herd to a moderate four. Carmel, she says, is "an old cowboy town. Now it's a wine town." She sounds delighted with both.

Interviews with Smiley invariably mention her height (six-foot-two) and upbeat personality; the New York Times' Charles McGrath called her "the sort of writer who secretly drives other writers a little bit crazy. She's prolific and successful, untroubled by neuroses or blockages, with no messy blots of drinking or drug-taking on her résumé. She seemingly writes the way her idol Dickens did—as easily as if it were breathing."

Despite a lingering cough that rattles her Midwestern cadence, Smiley is happy to chat. She grew up in suburbs of St. Louis, raised by her grandparents and mother, an editor at the Globe-Democrat. Her father, a tall, charismatic inventor, was sent to a VA hospital for some combination of PTSD and mental illness when Smiley was just a year old. Raised by strong women, she was a bookish child who relished the wild company of her older boy cousins and stepbrother.

She left the Midwest for Vassar in 1967; Meryl Streep was a classmate. During Smiley's senior year, she and her boyfriend rented a house in Saugerties, a rambling spread on the Esopus Creek. After graduation, they spent a year hitchhiking through Europe. When he started a PhD program at the University of Iowa, she moved there with him, despite being turned down by the famed Writers' Workshop. Instead, she studied medieval literature, got her doctorate and stayed in Iowa to teach.

In the mid `80s, she and her husband impulsively bought a summer house in Fleischmanns. Smiley remembers "long, long walks up dirt roads, old graveyards, farms, pastures, beautiful sunsets. We had a Toyota Tercel, and we used it as an SUV, going up the weirdest little roads. If there was a turn off the main road, we took it." 

She also joined a local quilting group, which inspired her 1988 book Catskill Crafts. "Everyone else was at least twice my age, and they'd lived in the Catskills all their lives. They talked about how things had changed since the `20s and `30s, when the dairy cattle—what, Jerseys? Guernseys?—were agile hill walkers. When people started wanting less fatty milk, they switched breeds, and so there was less hillside pasture. The forests regrew."

This attention to everyday detail animates Smiley's farm trilogy. She's fascinated by the ways in which people and land interact, and the Langdons got under her skin. "I've written a lot of books and gotten attached to a lot of characters, but maybe because it's a trilogy, I got very deeply attached in different ways, as you would be with people in your family: You adore some, you're more skeptical of others." 

She has special affection for rule-breaking characters like "bad boy" Frank Langdon and his brother-in-law Arthur Manning, possibly the most sympathetically drawn Cold War spook ever committed to paper.

"As Arthur developed, I was really kind of blown away by him," Smiley admits. "I feel really sorry for Arthur, even though I'm the one who's tormenting him. Is this how God feels? I don't believe in God, but that's what I'd wonder if I did. You can love them and torment them at the same time."

The trilogy novels include an extensive family tree on the flyleaf, but most readers will rarely need to consult it—the characters are bell-clear and memorable from the moment they draw their first breaths. As each generation grows up, personalities blossom and congeal, moving from willful, ignored, or fawned-over infants to distinctive adults. "I basically decided when they were born and what their temperament would be like from birth, and then sent them off into the world," Smiley says. 

Some years are action-packed and others much quieter, filled with the changes of seasons and textures of everyday life. Smiley researched as she went along, figuring out what she needed to know for each time period and her characters' many careers. The effortless shifts from one story thread to another were done more by instinct than plan.

"I knew the Depression would happen, World War II would happen, the Cold War would happen. I didn't decide how [the characters] would respond," she says, adding, "I feel like I got on a train with these people and started eavesdropping. Whenever you write a novel of any length, you want to be on this little edge of knowing what you're doing and moving into the unknown, with a sense of what might go bang, bang, bang."

Near the end of Some Luck, the Langdon clan returns to the farm for a Thanksgiving dinner. "As if on cue, Walter turned from Andrea and looked at Rosanna, and they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing—a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with 23 different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious."

Jane Smiley will appear3/21 at 4pm at the Woodstock Writers Festival's fiction panel with Stephen Dobyns, Ann Hood, and moderator Elisa Albert. See details below.

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