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"The novel gives voice to individuals" : Entretien avec Jane Smiley

Par Jane Smiley, Jillian Bruns : Lectrice - ENS de Lyon / University of Maryland
Publié par Marion Coste le 09/10/2018

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À l'occasion des Assises Internationales du Roman, Jane Smiley, lauréate du Prix Pulitzer 1992 pour son roman ((L'exploitation)), a accepté de répondre aux questions de Jillian Bruns, lectrice à l'ENS de Lyon, pour la Clé des langues. Jane Smiley revient ici sur la genèse des trois romans qui constituent la trilogie ((The Last Hundred Years)).

Le texte ci-dessous est une transcription éditée de l'entretien. Les questions sont cliquables et renvoient au moment correspondant dans l'enregistrement vidéo.


Question: I wanted to open with a general question: what is the educative role of the novel? Do you think writers are charged with this task of teaching something to the reader? Or do you think that the lessons fiction teaches us are transmitted more indirectly?

Answer: I think it depends on the reader. Sometimes the reader is curious about something and reads a novel in order to find out about it; the writer may know that and have a plan, also. But it’s the reader who decides whether that plan of being taught is the right one. Now quite often, avid readers are also curious people, especially when they’re kids. They think they’re reading for pleasure, but what really happens is that they find things out that they hadn’t thought of before. For me, one example would be when I read Black Beauty. I think I was about ten. I read it because I wanted to read about the horse, but there’s a lot of stuff in it that I had no idea had ever been true, because it was written a long time before I was born. I read it for pleasure, but I learned from it. I think for fiction, for the novel, for the short story, the reader’s first interest is in pleasure. And the author has to understand that. If the author makes it too didactic, the reader will say “This isn’t worth reading”. The author has to understand how to use the pleasure in order to tell the reader a few things. A good example of that for me are the works of Émile Zola, which are very entertaining but also very enlightening. I have read several of them, I’ve read a couple of them more than once, and I learned a lot because he was a very observant person. But he also knew how to write a novel, how to create suspense and how to get the reader to keep going and read all the way to the end.

Question: That brings me to my next question, which is about Émile Zola, because you mentioned at the round table that you had read nine of his novels and really loved them. Do you think that the genealogy or inspiration for The Last Hundred Years trilogy may be linked with Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series? In Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, you put Thérèse Raquin as number 37 on your list of a hundred novels.

Answer: The list of a hundred novels wasn’t rated, it was […] chronological. So the first one that I read, The Tale of Genji, was number one. At my age, there are so many influences. I also loved Anthony Trollope and he wrote a number of series, so I knew there were series out there. As I was growing up I read series of books, The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, series of horse books, and I did write a series of Young Adult horse books and am now working on the second series. The Young Adult books put me in the series mood. But it was the title of the trilogy, which was The Last Hundred Years that got me going. I didn’t intend it to be a series; I just intended it to be about a hundred years, with equal time given to each year. After I realized how long that would be, I knew it had to be broken up into three or four volumes, because nobody would be able to pick up volume one – if it was one volume, nobody would be able to pick it up. That’s how it became a trilogy; it wasn’t really intentional.

Question: Does this mean that it was organic?

Answer: Yes.

Question: What was your reasoning behind choosing 1920 to start the story of Some Luck?

Answer: I chose 1920 because I did not want to talk about the First World War. Right around the time that I was starting to write it, there was a bunch of new novels that came out that seemed obsessed with the First World War; I was tired of the First World War. I wanted to talk about the modern era. Also, I wanted to have the family rhythm of the Langdons be similar to the family rhythm of the one I grew up in. My mother was born in 1921, she was the oldest child. Because my family was very talkative, they gave me a sense of what life had been like for them in the 1920s and 1930s. My grandfather was in the war, but I didn’t know anything about it, they didn’t talk about it. The kids of course didn’t remember any of that. It just sort of all came together as a way forward, rather than an actual theory.

Question: Do you think that the trilogy could be categorized as being naturalist or teaching history, in a way?

Answer: I hope so. I like that. I think that the novel inevitably engages with theories about how things work, about how society works, about how communities work. And sometimes, the author doesn’t even realize what theories they are talking about; other times, the author does. But the author can’t really show his hand or her hand too blatantly, or people back off. Once again, this is the pleasure thing. But you have to have a theory, and if you don’t have a theory, the longer narrative doesn’t really hold together. So yes, I have a theory about The Last Hundred Years. But my hope is that the characters express various sides of the theory and that I, the author, don’t intrude very often to tell you, the reader, what to think. That’s my hope.

Question: Can you share with us what this theory is or is it a secret?

Answer: I don’t think it is a secret. Everybody knows […] – partly because I’ve spent several years writing angry pieces for the Huffington Post – [that] I am a sort of audacious feminist/liberal. So my theory is that openness is good, equality is good, empathy is good, sympathy is good, and I think that’s one thing the novel does: it helps you empathize and sometimes sympathize with people maybe you didn’t understand, and that’s one of the reasons why we write novels. But I want my characters to be rounded and thoughtful and different from one another, I don’t want them all to adhere to the party line. I wrote a book called Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and for that book I read – actually, it was about a hundred and thirty novels, but I put a hundred and one in and I put all of Proust as one book. When I got to Russian novels which I grew up loving, when I got to Russian novels of the Soviet era, I noted how the theory that they had to adhere to sort of closed off the liveliness of the novel that they were writing. Every theory is an experiment. But in general, the novel gives voice to individuals, but it also discusses how individuals fit in their community. And if it’s a happy ending, they and the community mesh, and if they and the community don’t mesh, then it’s a sad ending.

Question: That brings me to my next question, do you think that your theory, that you operate from, has changed or been influenced by motherhood? During the familial saga roundtable, you mentioned that the Langdon family characters of The Last Hundred Years trilogy, all have their own personalities, much like your own children who, you said, “were born as themselves”.

Answer: Yes, my theory of psychology is very much influenced by motherhood. I have three children, gave birth to three children, and the moment when the second child was put into my arms, I knew she was different from the first one. And it didn’t matter what the child-raising book said: their responses to their environment were different. And the conclusions that they drew from how they interacted with their environment shaped who they were. It was so evident to me. Then I got interested in horses and started breeding horses, and I know it’s the same thing about fowls. I have a horse that I bred and the first time I went to see him, he was less than one day old – he was about fourteen hours old at that point. He was in a tiny little paddock with his dam, his mom: she was on one side of the paddock and he was on the other side, looking off into the distance. And that’s the way he was for his whole life. He always wanted to know what was going on. I had other fowls that stuck by mom, wouldn’t get away from mom and I've had other fowls, they've all had individual personalities, and they’ve all had childhoods. That also taught me about psychology: if horses can be different, then people can be different. So that’s been interesting.

Question: Yes, and this idea that […] landscape can shape their characters. You mentioned that you set The Last Hundred Years trilogy in Iowa, because it was a place “that people would leave”. [...] This reminds me of a quote from Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, and this is in reference to the Nebraska landscape: “between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out”. Do you think this description could apply to your depictions of prairie life?

Answer: Well, Iowa isn’t the prairie. Iowa is a Midwestern variable green, sometimes hilly, landscape, it’s not Nebraska. One of the things you know if you come from that part of the country is that Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, they’re all quite different from one another in terms of landscape. That means that the crops that grow there, or the way to earn a living in those places is always different. One of the things that struck me when I used to drive from Iowa City down along the Mississippi River to Saint Louis, where my family lived, was that in Iowa, in the small towns there was a big wide street in the middle of the town, the town was flat and so the farmers could go through town if they had to. The houses, even if there were hills, were down by the road so you could do the work conveniently. The houses and the barns were down beside the road. As soon as you crossed the line to Missouri, where farming had been very different, houses were more elaborate and they were up the hill. So obviously, there were servants to do stuff for them, whereas in Iowa that wasn’t true. The landscapes vary, but the culture of how the people who live there do things, that varies according to where the people are from or what they think is the right way to do stuff – and also what crops they grow. So if you’re in Missouri and you’re growing, say, hemp and tobacco, you’re gonna farm differently than if you’re in Iowa and you’re growing corn and oats. So I was interested in those kinds of things.

Question: This brings me to a question about food and farming practices and food production. It has been a critical thread, intentionally or not, in your novels – The Greenlanders, A Thousand Acres, The Last Hundred Years trilogy – what is the importance of food?

Answer: The way people choose to eat is very important for their own health, but it’s also very important for the health of the environment. There’s a lot of evidence that the way that Americans have decided to eat has destroyed their internal way of processing nutrition. The external biome is closely related to the internal biome. There’s a lot of evidence for that. Nobody believes it though, because everybody would rather eat Rice Krispies than oatmeal, or they’d rather eat a nice, big steak than lentil soup. And I like all kinds of things. I started out as a kid as a very picky eater and actually I remained a picky eater until after my senior year in college I came to Europe for a year, and bit by bit, in Europe, I learned to be a less picky eater and to enjoy food. One of the wonderful experiences for me was to go to Vietnamese restaurants in Paris which were the only ones I could afford at the time, and they’re so delicious. When I was a kid, my mom loved to go to Chinese restaurants and all I could eat was white rice. As I learned to eat, then I learned to cook, then I learned to think more about food.

Question: Would you reject or endorse the attachment of the eco-critical label to your works?

Answer: I love it!

Question: This next question is talking about contemporary context: what do you think literature will have to say in the future about our current political moment? And I’m talking in the United States.

Answer: We don’t know. I just don’t know. I just hope there will be some literature. It seems to me that there is a lot of good young writers who are writing really good, smart books, and they’re very canny about how to put things together, they’re very observant. They’re the ones who are sort of carrying the ball into the future. We can just hope that the ball they carry is quite various and open. When I was growing up, all the books that we were taught in school were by men; we weren’t taught any books by women. In my school, we were taught mostly books by English men. So we would read Dickens, but we didn’t read Jane Austen. I read those books – Jane Austen and George Eliot – on my own. I think students now are reading much more various groups of books. And so, as they become writers, they’re much more influenced by people that didn’t influence us because we weren’t studying them. It’s one thing to read Jane Austen and enjoy her, but it’s another thing to be forced to read, say, Oliver Twist. And you have to read it, you can’t stop, so you have to try to figure it out. And then the teachers and the students talk about it and you scratch your head, but it sticks in your mind because it was difficult. It’s the same with Shakespeare. I think a broader curriculum gives the students and future writers much better chance to try out different things and do things differently.

Question: I want to switch gears and ask you a question about your personal development and the evolution of your career as a writer. I am going to paraphrase you here, your reflection on the writing process, you describe what you called pebbles and seeds moments. So on a larger scale, are there any of these moments you’d like to share, such as pebbles ending up being seeds or vice versa?

Answer: I wrote a book called Moo which takes place at an agricultural university. When I started out, in chapter one, I had already set up the one of the main characters, who is a Marxist agricultural professor. He is out looking at the garden that he has surreptitiously built around an abandoned building. He is monitoring the garden and trying to decide what to do with it. A boy, a young student, walks through the door into the building, and I hadn’t planned to do that. I don’t know why I had him walk into the building. I don’t remember why I had him walk into the building. But once he walked into the building, my next thought was: “why did he go into the building?” And then my next thought was that then the idea of the giant hog at the center  of the university came to me. His name is Earl Butz and that made me laugh because Earl Butz was the agricultural guy for Richard Nixon, who kept telling farmers “get big or get out”. I thought it was a good name for a hog. Then Earl Butz became a very important character in the novel. And so did the young man because he is kind of frustrated – he doesn’t really relate to the other students very well. So that’s an example of a seed, where you just tossed it in, it suddenly came to you how to make that worth something. And that’s still one of my favorite parts of the book, it’s all the Earl Butz stuff.  I had a wonderful experience a few years ago when I went to a bookstore in Washington and a man came up for a signed copy of something, and he said: “Guess what? My father is Earl Butz”. I said: “was he insulted that I named a hog after him?”. He said “No”, and I said, “Why not?” And he said “Because he was such a kind hog.”

Pour citer cette ressource :

Jane Smiley, Jillian Bruns, ""The novel gives voice to individuals" : Entretien avec Jane Smiley", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2018. Consulté le 18/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/entretien-jane-smiley

Assises Internationales du Roman 2018

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