Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley (1949) was born in Los Angeles, California. While she was still an infant, Smiley moved to the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, where she lived through grammar school and high school (The John Burroughs School). After getting her BA at Vassar College in 1971, she traveled in Europe for a year, working on an archeological dig and sightseeing, then came to Iowa City where she subsequently earned an MA (1975), MFA (1976), and PhD (1978) at the University of Iowa. In 1981, she went to work at Iowa State University, in Ames, where she taught until 1996.

Smiley published her first novel, Barn Blind, in 1980, and won a 1985 O. Henry Award for her short story "Lily", which was published in The Atlantic Monthly. Her best-selling A Thousand Acres, a story based on William Shakespeare's King Lear, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. It was adapted into a film of the same title in 1997. In 1995 she wrote her sole television script, produced for an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. Her novella The Age of Grief was made into the 2002 film The Secret Lives of Dentists.

In 2001, Smiley was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. She currently lives in California with her three children, three dogs, and her sixteen (and counting) horses.

Jane Smiley’s Iowa City Days
We express our warm gratitude to Jane Smiley for writing her Iowa City story exclusively for this website.

I lived in and around Iowa City from August of 1972 until the fall of 1981. I had many addresses—the first house we moved to was a farm house west of Wellman, about 32 miles from town, rent $135 a month. I lived there from August until the spring, when I left the husband I had arrived with, and took up with a waiter at the Mill Restaurant. We moved in together in April or May, into a cabin across the highway, down a dirt path off Linder Road (rent $25 per month), on the bank of the river. It had a wood stove and no insulation. I took showers at the gym and carried water home in five-gallon jugs. My partner got free meals at the Mill, and so we ate there quite often. Washing dishes was so difficult and the area so damp that once I put off washing the dishes for a few summer days, and the next time I went into the kitchen, mold had spread from the dirty dishes across the countertop and cabinets and throughout the interior of the kitchen. Another night, my partner came home late and stepped through the backdoor to have a smoke on the back deck. He realized with a shock that the deck had fallen down the hill, and he was stepping into space. We lived there through the winter, with a nice warm break in town at a friend’s apartment for Christmas vacation, when our friend went home for a month.

In the spring, we found a farmhouse at the edge of town—on American Legion Road. Town was to the west and farm country to the east. The farmer had sold the property to developers, who were waiting for permits. I think the rent was $250. This is where I lived while I was in the workshop, and it was a nice big house, the scene of several parties—one for E. L. Doctorow, and one for Jane Howard’s birthday. We had a big garden out to the east side of the house, and several roommates, including Meredith Steinbach. One of our renters was my partner’s brother, who was a believer in Eckankar. He lived in the heatless attic, because he thought that his body could astrally project more easily if there was no insulation. After I had finished in the workshop and my partner had left for California, I continued to live there, and just before my lease ran out and the house was demolished, I almost fell into the well out in the front yard—I saved myself by throwing my arms out straight to either side, and then sort of clambering out.

From there, I went to Iceland for nine months, and when I returned, I lived at 925 E. Washington, in the right hand apartment, a lovely railroad-style place—wood paneling, big front porch, Murphy bed. It was there that I met my second husband, who was friends with my neighbor. I also remember giving a party there for Ian McEwen, who was in town for a reading. At that point, he was a rebellious bad boy, not the establishment figure he’s become. When my second husband and I were about to give birth, we moved to an apartment not far from the railroad tracks, on South Capitol Street. When the baby was about a month old, we realized that the apartment was very inconvenient for a couple with a child, especially since the trains always blew their whistles right outside our window in preparation for the crossing at Clinton Street. We moved to the Hollywood Garden Apartments, over by K-Mart. We had the end apartment in the main building, farthest to the east. When that lease ran out, we bought a house in West Branch, on North Fourth Street. We lived there from the fall of 1979 until the fall of 1981, when we moved all the way to Ames, where I had taken a teaching job at Iowa State University.

SmileyI did not come to Iowa City with my own plan—I had not gotten into the workshop, and I had not applied for grad school. My husband had gotten accepted into the PhD program in the history department, specializing in Medieval History, but his real interest was in Marxism, and there were quite a few Marxists in the history department. His favorite course was a seminar in Das Kapital, which they were reading in entirety. He got well connected with the radicals and Marxists in Iowa City, who were friendly toward me but suspicious of my liberal leanings. In our Wellman house, we had a silk picture of Karl Marx sewn to the American flag, which we hung on the wall of the study, but we took it down every time the landlord came over. I found a job in a home-based stuffed-animal factory, where a local woman and two or three others made toy mascots for local schools and colleges. My job was to sew the last seam closed by hand. The proprietor of that factory eventually divorced her husband and became a state trooper. Sometime in early October, my husband and I went to a party for Medievalists in the history department, and I met John C. McGalliard, who taught old English and Old Norse in the English department. I talked my way into his Old Norse Class, and because I had already taken two semesters of Old English, I caught up in two weeks. I was an eager student, and so when I applied to the Master’s Program in English in the winter, I was given a research assistantship. I did make-work in the main office for Robert Irwin, who was a very nice man, and told me that he considered it awkward that I always called him “Sir.” In the spring, I began a full course load in Medieval languages—Old Norse, Old High German, Middle English, and Chaucer. I also took writing from Stewart Dybek, who was a TWF. I liked to steal copies of student stories off the shelves in the Workshop office, and read them. I stuck to the English department for a year and a half, then applied again to the workshop. I got in for the 1975-76 year. My classmates were Dick Wiley, John Givens, Richard Bausch, and Meredith Steinbach, among others. Barbara Grossman, Allan Gurganus, Bob Chibka, and Joanne Meschery were senior by a year—they were the TWFs. Barbara became my lifelong best friend. In early 1976, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, some of the students raided the files to see how they had done on their applications. My original application was not in the file drawers, which led me to wonder if it had ever been read—the deadline was February 15. I had sent it from Crete on February 1, and received my rejection, in Crete, on February 28. Always a mystery. But I’m glad things turned out the way they did.

Jack Leggett was the director of the Workshop and Vance Bourjaily was the resident writer. They and most of the other instructors seemed to be of my mother’s generation, so I have to say that I respected them, but paid no attention to them. I was not taken up and mentored by any instructor, but I became good friends with Jane Howard, who was a successful writer for Life Magazine, but not a fiction writer. Her mentoring was really about how to be friends with writers who were more sophisticated and farther along in their careers than I was. She was a generous person, and also hugely amusing and ready for any sort of good time. She was very funny, and she seemed to enjoy her sojourn in the Midwest a great deal (she was from Illinois, so maybe she felt relaxed among us). For me the Workshop was about having friends, not about getting ahead. I thought I was going to get my PhD in Medieval studies and get a teaching job somewhere—or not. Maybe I had no thoughts about the future. Some of my friends and fellow students were certainly more mature than I was—Dick Bausch had several children and many responsibilities, for example, but I was just going along, seeing what might happen. My work seemed to have absolutely no appeal to the various big shot editors who came to visit from New York, like Ted Solotaroff and Gordon Lish. But I found them off-putting, too, since they seemed to want us to cultivate them, and I had no idea how or why.

The visiting reader I got the most out of was E. L. Doctorow, who read two selections from Ragtime. They were revelatory—first he got into the head of Houdini, making an escape, then he took Freud and Jung through the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island. I literally had never before thought of a novel doing those things, and I sat riveted in my seat with sheer amazement and joy. Probably that reading was the single most educational experience I had in the workshop. At the same time, my ongoing education in Old Norse was also exciting and meaningful. What we did was what all language courses do, especially courses in dead languages—we made our way through passages of strange literature, most of which we barely understood. But Old Norse is similar enough to English that it seems to be behind a fairly thin curtain—almost recognizable. I was quite struck by the ethos and the dark wit of the narrators of the sagas, and also by the novel-like nature of the saga form. I especially liked Hrafnkel’s Saga and Gisla Saga, and they became quite inspirational for me. In my second year of Old Norse, we translated all of Njal’s Saga, which I didn’t like as well as the others, though I found the painstaking, page by page progress through the book quite enlightening in what must have been a fairly instinctive manner. It was never boring. I think that doing that translation in Iowa had a lot to do with both The Greenlanders and A Thousand Acres. I suspect that if I’d gone to Columbia, I would not have written those books.

I have very little memory of what I wrote in the Workshop. I had written a novel in college, and the style of that novel—spruced up a bit—turned out to be my style—character-oriented, realistic, mildly plot-driven, about relationships and strange behavior. What I wrote in the workshop was more experimental and flashier, but not really me. But I do owe Iowa City my first novel (well, I owe Iowa City a lot of novels). The summer we lived in the ramshackle cabin (you could see sky through cracks in the walls), I worked at a local riding stable. My pay was the chance to ride. I found this establishment so interesting that several years later, I wrote Barn Blind (this was also the summer that Iowa instituted a pop bottle deposit—for a couple of weeks, we ate off the proceeds of picking up bottles beside the highway). Other Iowa City material got into early novels—my partner in the cabin became both of the rock-band characters in Duplicate Keys, and that novel was set in Jane Howard’s neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

SmileyBut maybe what Iowa City taught me was that you can make something of your circumstances even if they were not the circumstances you planned on, and that what you make of them in turn makes you. The most obvious example of this is that I came to Iowa City married to John Whiston; someone I would have said was my life-long mate. But our passions, which seemed to mesh when we came to Iowa City, soon diverged. As I became more committed to scholarship and writing, he came to see writing novels, at least, as a not-quite worthwhile bourgeois activity, and I came to resist this opinion on his part and to see it as a form of ignorance about human nature and also as a form of disrespect for me and my intellect. Whether he had thoroughly formed these views before we came or whether they jelled after he met the Iowa City Marxists, I don’t know, but when I left him, and he left Iowa City, he took nothing “materialistic” with him, including the picture of Marx. I got the wedding presents, too. He later said that he lived in a bare room with a hammer and sickle hanging from the single light bulb and felt good about that, so although I was not especially fond of the French soup bowls that I received as a wedding gift, I did not disdain them, either.

One thing I knew was essential to good writing was passion, and our relationship had been intellectual and sibling-like rather than passionate. When I took up with Steve Mortensen, the waiter at the Mill, his vehicle was a 750 BMW motorcycle, he had been home from Vietnam for a year, he loved women, and he thought Marxism was funny. As a sign of our passion, I lost something everyday—my wallet, my keys, my driver’s license. Steve got that motorcycle up to a hundred any number of times, and eighty-five most of the time. I sat on the back not caring about the outcome (and also trusting his physical abilities). We did not live in a commune, we lived in a bar. I continued to shower at the gym and I wrote. My friends in the workshop seemed not to care that much about Marxism, either. And so, re-entering bourgeois culture after four years discussing whether endangered species were as important as the working class and whether the key conflicts in the U.S. were class-based or race-based had many pleasures for me. But I would say that John’s influence was profound, in that he made me perennially skeptical and anxious—skeptical about America’s claims to special-ness and anxious about where I stood in relationship to the ruling class.

John would have defined Steve as “petit-bourgeois”—his father was a self-employed builder and his mother, the daughter of farmers, was a pianist and a music teacher. His many brothers and sisters were around, and some of them lived with us from time to time. He had had an adventurous Iowa childhood—free on the river and accountable mostly to himself. I thought of him as a latter-day Huck Finn at the time, but I think Tom Sawyer was closer to the truth. When I met him, he was getting his BA in the art department, and was singing at the Mill with various partners. As I had spent college going to basketball games, so I spent most of my time in Iowa City in a booth at the Mill, listening to Steve or our friends play on the stage. He had a set of friends, too, not Workshoppers, but native Iowa Citians—a motorcycle club, fellow cooks and bartenders at the Mill, an art student or two, girls he dated and slept with, relatives. People from most of our friend groups lived with us off and on the whole time we rented the American Legion Road house. We also had cats and a Great Dane.

SmileyAfter Steve left, I dated a student in the Workshop named Fred Ayeroff. Fred was from Hollywood, where his parents were in the real estate business, and he was more worldly that either Steve or John. He had a really excellent way of spotting and approaching celebrities. Once when we were in New York City, we were having a drink at the Algonquin, and Fred saw Jerry Lewis come in. He stepped up to him, offered his hand, said, “Mr. Lewis, I admire your work,” and stepped back without missing a beat. Other than that, Fred also required four meals a day, which I happily supplied for a few months.

When I came home from Iceland, I met Bill Silag, a graduate student in the history department. We were married in May of 1978, and had two children, Phoebe Silag, who got her law degree at the University of Iowa, and Lucy Silag, who is presently a student in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Bill and I lived in Iowa City and West Branch until Phoebe was three, then moved to Ames, where we lived until Phoebe was finished with high school and Lucy was finished with middle school. In 1985, I went back to Steve Mortensen, and we have one son, Axel, who was born in 1992.

Here are things I would not have done if I had not spent all of that time in Iowa City:

Given birth to my three children;
Written The Greenlanders, Barn Blind, A Thousand Acres, and The Age of Grief (at least);
Taught at Iowa State University;
Married the fathers of my children.

I do not in fact know what I would have done, or who I would have been as an adult if I hadn’t lived in and around Iowa City for nine years.

©Jane Smiley


thousand acresNovels by Jane Smiley

Barn Blind (1980)
At Paradise Gate (1981)
Duplicate Keys (1984)
The Greenlanders (1988)
Ordinary Love & Good Will (1989)
A Thousand Acres (1991)
Moo (1995)
The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998)
Horse Heaven (2000)
Good Faith (2003) )
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005)
Ten Days in the Hills (2007)
The Georges and the Jewels (2009)
Private Life (2010)
A Good Horse (2010)
True Blue (2011)

Short Stories by Jane Smiley

The Age of Grief (1987)

Non-Fiction by Jane Smiley

Catskill Crafts (1987)
Charles Dickens (2003)
A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck (2004)
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005)
The Man Who Invented the Computer (2010)

Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize Page
Interview with Jane Smiley

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