Jane Smiley on Marriage, Politics, and Huffington Post

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Knopf

Private Life, the latest novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, follows the marriage of Margaret and Andrew Early, beginning with their wedding in the late 19th century and ending in the 1940s as the nation fights World War II. But it's about a lot more than that, as Smiley explains in this interview.


The epigraph of Private Life reads, "In those days all stories ended with the wedding." How was your book an attempt to react against "the marriage plot" that has been such a central part of women's literature?

In our day all books don't end with a wedding, but my character was a woman of her time, and as I imagined her, she's just kind of a quiet girl who reads a lot of books, and so in a lot of ways she's totally unprepared for marriage. Her father dies and her two brothers die when she's fairly young, so she's never even witnessed a happy family or been part of a happy family, so she's extra unprepared for that reason.

She mostly remembers her mother after the death of her father, so she remembers her mother as a single woman working hard to make sure that the daughters are taken care of. And so when she ends up married, in her state of ignorance, she really doesn't know how to deal with it. She has no recourse. Her friends gossip about being married and they chat about it in their groups, in their sewing groups and knitting groups and stuff like that, and they sometimes tell horrifying stories for example about women they know who've had terrible problems giving birth and stuff like that but they don't have any ongoing kind of theory or analysis of marriage. It's just like, "Well, stick with it because you're stuck with it."

And that might be fine for a woman who's married to an average guy who goes out and works for a living, comes home, they have kids. They have a regular, standard family, but for Margaret who's married to not an average guy at all, there is really no way. She's a do-it-yourselfer. She has to come up with how to retain her identity, how to retain her sense of self, how to retain her sense of how the world works, in the face of the onslaught of him.

Are women today better prepared for marriage than they were in Margaret's day?

I think it varies woman to woman. I think a lot of women know their partners much better today than they would have in those days because there was a conscious effort to prevent girls and boys from having any time alone or getting to know one another in those days. And we don't do that anymore.

So, the sexes meet up together, they spend time with one another, they understand each other better, and maybe by the time that they're ready to actually commit they are much more familiar with each other and each other's natural rhythms and way of being and oddnesses and weirdnesses. I don't think that means that marriage will necessarily be easy, and there's still no guarantee.

Newspapers play a big role in the book, from local papers to big national ones like the New York Times. Were you trying to make a comment about the state of the news industry then compared with now?

Because I wanted to tell the history from inside Margaret, from Margaret's point of view rather than from a historian's point of view, I did look at a lot of old newspapers. I was really struck by the wonderful variety of the news. There's a character in there, Mrs. Tillotson, who finally divorces her husband because he's had a child with his mistress, which gives her the ability to divorce him. That was from I think the Oakland Gazette, and it was amazing what stories the newspaper would cover. They didn't have aspirations necessarily in Oakland for example to be national newspapers. So they did talk about the war, and they did talk about national things somewhat.

But they also had plenty of reporters who were pounding the streets and bringing news about local events and local things like orphans that show up at orphanages whose parents have died of the influenza. And that really struck me. I read a lot of newspapers from those days, and I loved the variety, and I loved the tone, and I loved the tiny right next door to the enormous.

We've lost that as we've become more connected to one another. We sort of read two or three big newspapers but we don't get the flavor of the local events, the local news as much.

Speaking of the state of the news industry, you've dipped your toe into some blogging on the Huffington Post. How do you see that as either helping with your work as a novelist, or in tension with that?

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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