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Jane Smiley | Biography

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Early Life

Jane Graves Smiley was born September 26, 1949, in Los Angeles, California, but was raised outside St. Louis, Missouri. Her father left when she was only a toddler, but Smiley grew up surrounded by what she recalls as a family of storytellers—including her journalist mother. There were always grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins around. After her mother remarried, the family grew to include several half-siblings and step-siblings as well.

As a girl, Smiley was in love with two things: books and horses. "I was a very bookish child," Smiley remembers, "and my family didn't dislike that or condemn it. My grandmother would send me out of the house, and I'd just take my book along." When she wasn't reading, she was riding. One of her cousins recalls they all expected Smiley would be either a writer or a vet when she grew up.

University Years and First Novels

Smiley settled on writing, majoring in literature when she went to all-female Vassar College in 1967. She met her first husband, John Whiston, while she was there. Whiston was a student at Yale University who fulfilled her major criterion for a boyfriend: he was taller than she by a full eight inches. Smiley's own six-foot two-inch height had made finding acceptable dates nearly impossible in high school.

She married Whiston in 1970 and graduated from Vassar with a bachelor of arts in 1971. They hitchhiked through Europe together, Smiley carrying a portable typewriter with her everywhere so she could write. Upon their return to the United States, the pair lived for a while in a Maoist commune in New Haven, Connecticut. But when her husband went to the University of Iowa for post-graduate work, Smiley enrolled in the doctoral program to study medieval literature. The marriage unraveled, but this did not deter Smiley from an intensive focus on her studies. She was awarded the prestigious Fulbright scholarship in 1977 and used the money to travel to Reykjavik, Iceland, for nine months where she immersed herself in 9th to 11th-century Icelandic sagas written in Old Norse.

Smiley was enthralled by these ancient sagas and began planning not just one but several of her first novels. This included A Thousand Acres, which she envisioned as a contemporary American family story as sweeping as the Norse sagas she loved so much.

But it would be years before she wrote that novel. In the interim she earned three graduate degrees at Iowa: her master's in 1975, a master of fine arts in 1976, and her doctorate in 1978. She would also divorce, get remarried to a history professor, give birth to the first of two daughters, and join the teaching faculty at the University of Iowa. Even with so many demands on her time, working on her books was always a priority. She published her first novel, Barn Blind, in 1980, followed four years later by a mystery novel, Duplicate Keys, and in 1988 The Greenlanders, an epic historical novel set in the 14th century and written in the same style as the Norse sagas Smiley had studied in Iceland.

An American Shakespeare

Even this early in her career, it was clear Smiley had no intention of being stuck in any one literary niche. Her first three books were written in three different genres. But working on The Greenlanders proved to be a natural transition to her fourth and most famous book, A Thousand Acres. Like the Icelandic sagas that inspired her, both books tell the history of a proud landowning family. But in A Thousand Acres Smiley moved the action to modern times in a place she knew well: Iowa. "I wanted to talk about this ground on which America depends," she says, referring to the state's major role in U.S. agriculture.

The literary influence that is most obvious in the novel, however, is that of British playwright William Shakespeare's famous tragedy, King Lear (1606). By the time she entered graduate school, Smiley had read King Lear three times. It was her least favorite of Shakespeare's plays. She was repelled by what she saw as the play's "embrace" of tyranny, disliked the three female characters, and couldn't figure out why Shakespeare wanted readers to feel sympathy for Lear. "So I set about correcting my friend William Shakespeare," she said, by imagining what a father could do that would cause his daughters to turn on him with such rage.

Readers of her novel and King Lear will note similarities in plot detail and character names. In both a father divides his "kingdom" (in the novel, a farm) among his daughters, creating family strife and contrasting appearances over reality. However, in A Thousand Acres, readers are left in no doubt why Ginny and Rose, the Iowa counterparts to Shakespeare's Goneril and Regan, are so incensed by their father, Larry.

A Thousand Acres was published in 1991 and received immediate acclaim. Although some reviewers found it melodramatic, it captivated enough critics that it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991 and the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It was made into a major movie in 1997.

Recent Work

Smiley taught for 15 years at Iowa State University before leaving to devote herself full-time to writing. She married two more times and gave birth to a son. She eventually moved to Carmel, California, where for many years she bred thoroughbred racehorses, a return to another childhood passion. She was also vocal in her support of progressive social and political policies.

A prolific writer, Smiley has published numerous titles in many genres, including 13 novels as well as novellas, short stories, biographies, nonfiction, a young adult series about horses, and a children's picture book. She also wrote a script for the television crime drama Homicide: Life on the Streets. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001 and received a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

Smiley's adult work includes a mammoth trilogy, The Last Hundred Years, which includes Some Luck (2014), Early Warning (2015), and Golden Age (2015). In these three novels she has returned to the same setting—an Iowa farm—and the same subject—a sweeping family epic—that has absorbed her since her long literary career began.

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