If you grew up in Iowa, as I did, or attended either the University of Iowa (Iowa City), as I did, or Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa), you probably remember when Iowa City graduate Jane Smiley, author of “1,000 Acres” won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She followed up that tragic retelling of the King Lear story, set on an Iowa farm, with “Moo,” a comic piece that poked some fun at the politics of teaching on a university campus.
Jane Smiley has been in residence at the 2012 Spellbinders Writers’ Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, and her workshop on writing, which I attended, had much valuable information to share with less proficient authors—like me!
It was also fun to hear her tell the story of the day she learned she had won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and other stories from the career of someone who is truly a much deeper thinker than Yours Truly. Jane Smiley (“1,000 Acres”) lives in Carmel, California, now, with her husband Jack Canning, but there was a time when she was an Iowa (Ames) professor of writing and there was a time before that when she was a student at the acclaimed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
It was this kinship over our Iowa roots (although Jane was born in Los Angeles and raised near St. Louis) that led me to ask her questions about her writing process at the first Spellbinders’ Writing Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii at the Hilton Hawaiian Village that is concluding on September 3, 2012.
After “1,000 Acres,” a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear story set on an Iowa farm, was made into a movie with Jessica Lange, Jason Robards and Sam Shepherd, Jane Smiley moved on to write “Moo,” a humorous tale that dealt with politics at the university level. She told a charming story that went this way: “I was flying from Monterey to New York via San Francisco and I fell asleep on the flight. One hour into the flight, I woke up to the sound of laughter. My seatmate was reading “Moo.” I said, “That’s my book.” She said, “No, it isn’t. I bought it in the airport.” I said, “No, I mean, that’s MY book. I wrote it.” She looked at me and said, “No, you didn’t.” Her laughter was the best compliment I ever got.”
Asked about her years as a Professor of writing at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, Ms. Smiley said, “I did enjoy it. When we let them in, we explained it was NOT the University of Iowa (in Iowa City’s) world-renowned Writers’ Workshop. About one-fourth of them said, ‘Oh!’ (with disappointment in her voice). But most were engineers and engineers are used to doing their work. I’d give them writing exercises, like, ‘Eavesdrop for 3 days and then come to class and read what you’ve heard.’ That was hilarious! Or, ‘There are 3 beings in the room and something happens.’ Some of them would write about 2 people and a dog. It was really more fun than work.”
When asked if she would ever consider teaching writing again, Smiley responded, “If I could do it MY way, I’d teach again.”
When asked how it felt to learn she had won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (in 1992) she said: “My 14-year-old daughter was staying home that day. She was at that age where it is absolutely impossible to have any positive impression of her mom. A reporter from the Ames ‘Tribune’ called up and said, ‘What would you say if you were told that you’d won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction?’ I gave her some generic response.
About 2 p.m. the phone rang and some guy from the Washington ‘Post’ called to tell me I had actually won. I said, to my daughter, ‘Honey, I think I won the Pulitzer Prize’ and she said, ‘Hmmmm. Cool.’ Later, in the hallway outside my office at the University, I heard someone screaming, and it was the stringer for the Ames Tribune. They (the Ames Tribune) had scooped the Des Moines Register, who had always scooped them. But, after you win, you go from being a wannabe to a has-been. You are no longer cool—although I never was. I was 16 weeks pregnant at the time, so I didn’t have to run around and go to a lot of things, because I was throwing up all the time, anyway.”
On writing, in general: “You can be the kind of person who enjoys the process, or you can be the kind of person who enjoys the awards. If it enhances your feeling of being alive, of finding things out, remember that there are never enough awards.”
Asked to assess her effect on the lives of others, the self-deprecating Smiley said, “I never think that way. I cannot experience myself from outside.”
Truly a class addition to the Spellbinders Writers’ Conference in Honolulu, held from August 31st to September 3rd, 2012.