This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for September 26, 2017: Ode to My Sister

September 26, 2017: birthday: Jane Smiley

It’s the birthday of Jane Smiley (books by this author), born in Los Angeles (1949). Smiley came from a family of journalists and newspaper editors, but when she was growing up she cared more about horses than she did about writing. She read every book about horses she could find. She invented imaginary horse farms, drew maps of the stables, and made up names for all the horses. As a teenager, she grew to be six feet two inches tall. She said, “I didn’t want to be a writer when I was in high school; all I remember wanting to be was shorter.” Her height meant she could never be a jockey, so she began writing instead, and wrote her first novel as her senior thesis at college.

She lived on a commune in the late sixties, leafleting and selling pro-labor newspapers at a local electronics factory. She said: “You were supposed to talk to the workers and educate them. Although when I did, the workers all seemed very well informed and knew exactly what they thought about how the system worked.” She eventually decided that she didn’t want to be a revolutionary, but she did want to travel the world. She said, “My plan, was to go to England and then sort of wander around the world, with my typewriter in one hand, my banjo in the other, and my backpack on my back.” But after a year of traveling, she got married and started a family, deciding that novels about family life could be just as interesting as novels about life on the road.

She’s best known for her novel A Thousand Acres (1991), a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, set on an Iowa farm and told from the daughters’ perspective. Smiley thought it would be a good way to write about the decline of the American family farm. She spent months hanging out in small town cafés interviewing Iowa farmers. For her research, she drove a combine and read the agribusiness section of the Des Moines Register for a year. A Thousand Acres begins, “At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute.”

That novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Her latest novel, Golden Age, was published in 2015.

Jane Smiley said: “I think a lot of things are hilariously funny, and that’s kind of the way I live my life. And I also believe that it’s only possible to live if you can detach yourself and detach your sort of sense of what’s going on a little bit and take a kind of observational position on everything … Being detached is the first step to being comic.”