A Conversation with Jane Smiley: Part I

Jane Smiley (photo by Derek Sharpton)

My conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley over lunch at St. Burch Tavern in downtown Iowa City began in a way appropriate to an Iowa spring. We talked about sneezing.

“I love sneezing now, actually. It gives me a tingle,” Smiley said.

Before the lunch, I’d been thinking back on my previous conversations with Smiley, including the very first—around the publication of her 2001 novel, Good Faith—in which I’d felt obligated (and extremely nervous) to ask about her 1996 essay in Harper’s, “Say It Ain’t So, Huck,” in which she argued that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is overrated. “Look, my only point was that Huckleberry Finn is boring,” she told me then, quickly dispensing with the topic—even though the essay (which can be found in her recent collection, The Questions That Matter Most) has, in fact, a much more expansive argument about Mark Twain’s novel and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Since that first conversation, I’d interviewed Smiley a number of times, including about the novels that make up her masterful Last Hundred Years trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age) and her delightful novel Perestroika in Paris in which the titular character is a horse. The lunch at St. Burch—which we enjoyed ahead of Smiley’s conversation with IPR’s Charity Nebbe at the Iowa City Public Library—was our first in-person interview, and I was nearly as nervous as I was over 20 years ago when we first spoke by phone.

But a quick conversation about the virtues of sneezing has a way of putting a fella—this fella, at least—at ease. Over an excellent midday meal, we talked about her new novel, Lucky, the protagonist of which is Jodie Rattler, who recounts her story of making her way in the music world beginning in the early years of the folk-rock era as epitomized by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Janis Joplin, and Joni Mitchell.

The book opens in St. Louis, where Smiley herself grew up.

“I was there for my 50th high school reunion in 2017. . . . This guy interviewed me, and he said, ‘Have you ever set a book in St. Louis?’ And I realized that I hadn’t. And I thought, St. Louis is such an interesting town. I didn’t want to explore it in my own life. I wanted to look through the lens of somebody else’s life. And I thought, okay, since I love music and always wished I had practiced and therefore learned to play an instrument . . .”

At this point, I interrupted to ask her about the picture of her with a banjo on the back cover of Lucky. “I can play about three songs,” she explained. “And the person who took the picture is one of my ex-husbands, who’s a musician, and once in a while I play with him.”

The conversation turned to the high school Smiley attended. The question of where one went to high school is always a first order of business when two individuals who grew up in St. Louis meet, a fact I’ve known since marrying a woman from there and which Smiley confirms in the novel. It turns out that she and her character attended the same school—John Burroughs High (during the talk at the library, Nebbe pointed out that a certain “gangly girl” who is Jodie Rattler’s classmate in the book is certainly Smiley herself). We talked about various school names, and that led us back to the novel’s setting.

“One of the reasons I wanted to write about St. Louis is that there’s so many weird names. And that’s why I put Jodie in the house that she lives in, because the street name [Skinker] where she lives is weird.”

Baseball fan that I am, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk about the Cardinals with Smiley, telling her the story of my marriage being conditioned on the immediate transfer of my rooting allegiance from the Dodgers to the Cardinals. Smiley had an even better Cardinals story to tell.

“My favorite baseball story in my life was, I think it was the ’62 but it could have been the ’63 World Series. . . .” [I’m confident this story is actually about Game 7 of the 1964 World Series.] “My grandfather took me and a friend of mine. I think my stepdad got the tickets. I’m not sure how we got the tickets, but we got the tickets. They were for way up in the stands. My grandfather stayed there, but my friend and I, bit by bit, went down to the first row. Because the tickets were right behind home plate, pretty soon we were right behind home plate. So when Bob Gibson pitched the last strike, we jumped over the fence and ran on to the field. And then we looked at each other and went, ‘Oh, oh.’ We turned around. There were all these other people behind us who were running on to the field. It was so fun.”

My next question about the novel was about the musicians who get name-checked in the novel. It is clear that Smiley chose Joan, Judy, Janis, and Joni for the J that also appears at the beginning of her protagonist’s name, but I was interested in how Smiley thought about positioning Jodie in the universe of folk rockers and who needed to be mentioned in order to make Jodie part of that scene.

“Well, I didn’t really think too much about it. I mostly put her in with the artists that I loved the most…It fascinated me how different each of those singers [Baez, Collins, Joplin, and Mitchell] were from one another. And I thought, well, she can learn from all of them. . . . When I was growing up, I had a record player, and it was in my bedroom. I played records over and over and over again. They were mostly records by those singers plus Peter, Paul and Mary and James Taylor. And then when I went to college, I was also allowed to have a record player in my room, and so my roommate and I would listen to lots of music. That just engraved it into my mind.”

Our conversation continued as Smiley talked more about her love of music, the role of luck in the book, and much more. I’ll pick up the conversation in the next issue.