Jane Smiley: “The Balzac of the American Midwest”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the 71st birthday of American novelist Jane Smiley, who has been called “The Balzac of the American Midwest” for her explorations of farm life, family strife, and financial upheaval in novels like At Paradise Gate, A Thousand Acres, and Some Luck.

Smiley was born in Los Angeles but raised in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis. Her parents divorced when she was two, and her mother worked as a journalist. She says, “I was always pretty good at school, but all I ever wanted was a horse.” Smiley rode horses regularly, and fancied becoming a jockey, but when she reached 6-foot-2, she realized she was too tall and set her sights on writing.

Smiley went to Vassar College to appease her mother. She says: “She wanted me to be an intellectual. I was her eldest child, and she thought that being a writer was the best thing you could be.” After college, she lived on a Maoist commune in Connecticut and backpacked through Europe for a year. Her boyfriend carried her typewriter.

When she came home, she worked in a teddy-bear factory in Iowa before being accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was her fellow student, novelist Leonard Michaels, who suggested her pen name. Smiley had married and was using the name Jane Whiston. Michaels said nobody would remember that name and asked what her maiden name was. When she said, “Smiley,” he answered, “That’s the one. People will remember that.”

She describes her first three novels, Barn Blind, At Paradise Gate, and Duplicate Keys, as “practice.” She went on to write a murder mystery, a medieval epic, The Greenlanders, and a college satire Moo. She’s been compared to Charles Dickens, but considers herself mainly a comic writer, saying “Somehow, after Moo, I lost my investment in sobriety as a literary tone. And I became lively and satiric.”

Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992 for her novel A Thousand Acres, in which she transplants Shakespeare’s play King Lear to a 1,000-acre Iowa farm headed by patriarch Larry (Lear in the play). The book was a best-seller and was made into a film starring Jason Robards.

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