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?

The practical reality is that I have three books coming out this year. There's this one, and then there's the second volume of my girls' horse series, and then there is also a book about the invention of the computer. So once I really had to dedicate myself to really writing books and actually earning a living, I didn't really have time to do the Huffington Post articles so I sort of stopped. And I don't know that that's permanent.

But the other thing is that when the Huffington Post first started and I first got involved in 2005, the site itself was much smaller, and there was a kind of intimacy about it that I really enjoyed. And there was a kind of simplicity about it that I really enjoyed. We gave our opinions, people reacted to them, and it was like being part of an online family. But as the website has expanded and gotten enormous and included all kinds of new little tabs and, you know, connecting to facebook, connecting to twitter, or whatever. It's so enormous that I feel sort of lost, even as a reader. And so I've lost some interest in doing it. Once there were a few voices, and it was a pleasure to be one of those voices, and now there are so many voices that anything that you would say has already been said 17 times before you manage to think of it.

Also for me, when I first started blogging I was one of the few people around who was so adamantly opposed to what the Bush-Cheney administration did, that I felt somebody had to say that. I mean, I was so opposed to it after the 2004 election that I was put in Bernard Goldberg's book as the 89th most un-American person in the USA. I was public enemy number 89. And my relatives who saw me in that book thought I was going to be shot. So there's a kind of necessity to what I was saying. That's gone. The world is full of people who share my opinions. My job is finished here.

Now, I think my job is slightly different. Now I think my job is to analyze in a more longitudinal way. And I do think this book is about a marriage, but it's also about American life. How does the person who sees the world in a fairly benign and objective way, how does that person live when wedded—either politically or matrimonially—to people who are so insistent upon their view of things? I mean, it's a parable of the recent elections as well as it is the story of a marriage. How do us regular old middle of the road liberals deal with Rand Paul and all of the tea parties? Even when we see they are going to hurt someone? That they're going to be destructive? How do we stop them? Well, Margaret has no idea. And I have no idea.

So, yes, thank you for enjoying the book as a portrait of a marriage, but it's also a portrait of a perennial American problem: how do regular people reign in the incredibly energetic extremists?

Does the book have an answer or a road map?

No. I mean does she succeed? No. She doesn't succeed. Finally the task I think she does succeed in is retaining her independence of thought, or finding her independence of thought. Finally she sets herself the real question: Why should I think what I think is true? And she comes up with a rationale for that, and that makes her feel, "Well, ok, yes, these things have happened to me."

There was a little scene I put in the book, and I took it out because I thought it was too obvious, so I probably shouldn't name it, but I had a little bit of dialogue in which she says, "I'm going to write an autobiography," and he says, "What in the world are you going to write about? Are you going to write about me?" And then I decided, no, I don't want to be as straightforward as that. She's not writing an autobiography. It's me, writing about her.

But there is that feeling among people of, "Oh, you're such a non-entity, what do you have to write about?" Well, in fact everybody—everybody—in the entire nation has enough stuff in their life to write about that's interesting that they could write their autobiography. And in the end that's why I find people interesting.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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