'Writing Is an Exercise in Freedom'

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley looks to Our Mutual Friend for inspiration on how to harness the spontaneous, liberating energy that comes from writing imagery.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

When I spoke to Jane Smiley, author of Some Luck, she suggested that novelists’ ideas—their political, philosophical, experiential concerns—frequently motivate the writing of great books. But then a strange thing happens: The theories recede, and the descriptions take over. In our conversation for this series, Smiley used a favorite descriptive passage from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend to illustrate why images—the people, places, and things crystallized in narrative time—tend to outlast philosophy in fiction, and why imagining a world has so much unexpected power.

Some Luck—longlisted for this years’ National Book Award in Fiction—is the first installment of a trilogy about the Langdons, a family of farmers in Denby, Iowa. For these books, Smiley adopts a striking approach: The story runs from 1920 to 2019, with a single chapter devoted to each year. As time lapses, characters grow and change before our eyes—and the advancements and ruptures of the 20th century encroach upon them. Some Luck ends in the early 1950s; second and third books will be published in 2015.

Jane Smiley is the author of fourteen novels, including A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. Her prolific body of work also includes books of memoir, nonfiction, and criticism, as well as a series of horse-oriented Young Adult novels, and a biography of Charles Dickens. She spoke to me by phone from her home in California.

Jane Smiley: I read Oliver Twist in seventh grade, and Great Expectations in eighth, and I hated them both.

So when I was assigned David Copperfield in ninth grade, I put it off for as long as I could. Finally, of course, a deadline forced me to get started. I went down to the basement and read the entire thing in one weekend. And it caught me off guard—I adored it. This was where my love of Dickens started.

When I got to college, I didn’t read any Dickens. I was an English major, but I focused mostly on medieval stuff. I don’t know why I picked up Our Mutual Friend during my senior year, over Christmas vacation. But I remember how I sat out by the Christmas tree, just reading and reading, completely absorbed by it.

Of all of the Dickens I’ve read, including everything I studied for the biography I wrote, Our Mutual Friend remains my favorite. There are so many interesting things about the book. First of all, it has one of the greatest portraits of a stalker you could ever imagine. And he plays with the novel’s conventions in fascinating ways. The standard romance ends with the happily-married couple, for instance—but here Dickens moves beyond the wedding into the marriage itself, exploring how a successful love story works itself out with time. By this stage of his career, Dickens was old and successful, and he knew he could do whatever he wanted. You can see him playing with established elements of the genre, subverting them, and it’s part of this novel’s greatness to me.

But there was a more immediate, straightforward connection—I simply loved his descriptions.  Though I had read lots of books before Our Mutual Friend, this was the one that made me think: I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to try to write novels. It’s just too interesting to pass up—I can’t go on and be a lawyer now. (Not that I ever wanted to be a lawyer, but I might have gone on to be a vet or something.) After Our Mutual Friend, other careers were no longer an option. I had to try this novel-writing thing, because the images Dickens uses are so great and riveting.

Dickens’s descriptive powers are on display throughout Our Mutual Friend, but one of my favorite examples concerns the bad guys. Not the really bad guys, but the sort-of-bad guys—Mr. and Mrs. Lammle, two small-time swindlers who marry each other for money. On their honeymoon, they each find out the other person has pretended to be wealthy, so they’re forced to go on swindling other people together.

Mr. Lammle is sort of a villain, but he’s enjoyably villainous.  In the last section of the novel, Dickens describes him in a way I love:

Up came the sun, steaming all over London, and in its glorious impartiality even condescending to make prismatic sparkles in the whiskers of Mr Alfred Lammle as he sat at breakfast.

I’ve always remembered the image of Lammle’s beard sparkling in the sunlight. I can see the little breakfast nook. I can see him sitting at the table. I can see his beard, and I can see the sunlight sparkling in his beard. We already know by this time that Lammle is extremely mercenary, so Dickens is highlighting the impartiality of the sunlight—the way it can beautify anything, good or bad. We know Lammle’s a scammer, but there’s still this beautiful moment anyway. And there’s a kind of magical foreshadowing at work, too: the way the sun shines down, making his beard sparkle, signals that something unusual is coming, some unusual plot twist—as indeed it does come.

As a reader, and as a writer, I love images and sentences that are so striking that you remember and cherish them. Because they’re embedded in a huge amount of language, such standout lines and descriptions must truly be extraordinary. Our Mutual Friend is probably a 200,000-word novel; there are probably 10,000 sentences. Yet as the reader goes along reading this abundance of sentences, from time to time one grabs and holds on. To me, that’s the essence of the novel: the tension between wanting to linger in appreciation of an individual line, and wanting to see what happens next. You must move on, if you’re ever going to finish the book—especially one as long as Our Mutual Friend—and yet certain details capture you, slow you, ask you to pause. It’s because of this experience that I love novels most among the art forms. When you’re reading a poem, you’re asked to linger. If a poem is 100 words long, you’re asked to pay attention to each word. But when you’re reading a novel, you’re asked to keep moving—yet you resist this forward motion when certain lines demand your attention.

The moments are what come to mind when I think about the books I like best—moments that stick in my mind as pictures. When you’re deep into reading a book that you’re very fond of, the images pass through your mind and leave a permanent impression. I don’t tend to remember the ideas as strongly. For me, a novel’s conceptual framework generally takes a back seat to the images that tell the story. Ultimately, these images are more important and enduring than what the writer believes.

There are novelists I love who have advanced their theories about how the world works, how life works, and so on. Some of these theories have been very detailed—one of my favorite examples is Emile Zola. But though the theories may motivate the novel, and they may help structure the novel, they fall by the wayside almost always. The enduring things are the story, the characters, the scenes.

The reader has to have images in order to feel oriented in the world of the novel. We must be able to see our way around. Your images may not be the same as my images—different readers will perceive a novel’s world differently, depend on what they notice and respond to in the descriptions—but the visual details are our entry into the story.

It’s fascinating that readers can have images of places he or she has never seen. Recently, I met someone who grew up in Russia. One of her favorite books had been Huckleberry Finn, while one of my favorite books was Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. There’s a scene in Crime and Punishment where a horse and carriage are going down the road, and the driver whips the horse so badly that it falls to its knees in the street and dies. I remember being 15 and reading that, and imagining that I could see all St. Petersburg, and within it that horse dying in the middle of the street. Simultaneously there was somebody in Russia imagining Huckleberry Finn going down an American river she had never seen. I believed in my images, and she believed hers. These mental images—created in collaboration with the author—are what give one’s love of a story a base.

Dickens was extremely observant. People who knew him or met him were sometimes taken aback by how he seemed to be scanning them. He was observant not just visually, but aurally—he was a practiced eavesdropper. Many moments that the rest of us might pass over, he would note, and they would filter into his work.

I think he created his images both consciously and unconsciously, as all novelists do. By the time writers are old and practiced like Dickens was, the choice of imagistic details is not really conscious thing. As you sit there, starting a new chapter, your mind goes hmmm—and then, bingo. It’s on the page. It’s not like you’ve sorted through every image in your brain and picked the best one. It’s more that you knew what the theme of the chapter was going to be, and this thought or image cropped up as one way in. It gave you energy, and off you went.

Often the story details we choose have an unconscious, unintended power. For example, in Our Mutual Friend, the stalker is a young man who’s a teacher; born poor, uneasy about his social mobility. During the day, he attempts to do a good job with his teaching—but during the night, he stalks the gentleman Eugene Wrayburn. It’s this social uneasiness that makes him more and more aggressive as he stalks his aristocratic target. I don’t think we can read Our Mutual Friend without seeing this stalker as a kind of weird self-portrait of Dickens and his social rise. But it’s very possible Dickens didn’t intend this at all. Maybe he just drew upon his own life—his experiences as a kind of social weirdo in the class system of England—in order to portray a stalker’s obsessiveness.

This unconscious power is often tapped through the act of description, and unexpected story revelations can spring out of the physical details of a scene. The images themselves, in other words, can contain clues about where the story needs to go. When I was first starting my novel Moo, for instance, I was describing some abandoned buildings that my character Chairman X was looking at. Suddenly, he saw a young man going inside, though he didn’t know why anyone would enter an abandoned building. Well, I didn’t know why either! But this man went in, even though I had never thought about those buildings or that man before. Suddenly, I had to find out what was inside. As it turned out, the giant pig Earl Butz—the hog at the center of the finished novel—was inside. Earl Butz hadn’t been part of the plan before that point. But as the book progressed, the secret I discovered in those buildings became essential to the novel.

As a writer, that kind of experience is what I always want: the energy that comes from sudden inspiration. That’s what inspiration is to me—the idea that gives unexpected energy to the narrative.  Work that is too planned out often doesn’t have that kind of energy.

That’s why you cannot be judging yourself as you write the first draft—you want to harness that unexpected energy, and you don’t want to limit the possibilities of exploration. You don’t know what you’re writing until it’s done. So if a draft is 500 pages long, you have to suspend judgment for months. It takes effort to be good at suspending at judgment, to give the images and story priority over your ideas. But you keep going, casting about for the next sentence. I think there are two kinds of sentences in a rough draft: seeds and pebbles. If it’s a pebble, it’s just the next sentence and it sits there. But if it’s a seed it grows into something that becomes an important part of the life of the novel. The problem is, you can’t know ahead of time whether a sentence will be a seed or a pebble, or how important a seed it’s going to be. That bit of Moo turned out to be an important seed. But if Chairman X had turned away and had another thought—had I stuck with my plan and insisted the man entering the buildings was just a pebble—the book might have gone in a different direction.

This is why it’s important to remain open to the unexpected. The writing experience is in some ways like riding a bucking bronco—sometimes he’s good, and sometimes he bucks you off, sometimes he follows orders, sometimes he spooks. I like that unexpected quality. You have to be able to keep riding whatever comes.

Of course, I don’t want to suggest one’s ideas and beliefs have no place in the novel. They’re important. One’s ideas can inspire the story. The writing process is an interplay between the ideas you begin with and the story that emerges despite what you think. The story and the ideas talk back and forth to one another. As I write, my ideas about the book may inform how the characters think, how the story works itself out, what happens. But at a certain point, the characters start take on their own life—and they begin to transcend the ideas that initially inspired them.

For example: In Volume Three of the trilogy I’m completing, there’s a good guy and a bad guy. I thought of them as “good” and “bad.” But when I went back for the latest rewrite, I was surprised by how appealing the bad guy was. The idea part of me thought, “Well, maybe I need to make him more of a scumbag.” But the novelist part of me said, “No. Ambiguity is always good.”

So you learn to expect the unexpected, and make allowances for it. There’s a constant back and forth between what you planned and what you didn’t plan, and how you are going to reconcile the two. I guess that’s what drafts are for—negotiating how much plan to preserve, how much newness to let in.

I think all novel writing, and all art, is a form of play—and it’s the unexpected that gives it the playful aspect, while ideas give it the serious aspect. When the unexpected crops up, that’s like playing a game where your body has to catch the ball you didn’t even realize a moment ago was heading in your direction. So, I like this aspect of play, I think it’s  wonderful—and makes it all worth doing.

When I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I remember opening the door to my friend’s office and looking inside. Over her desk, above her typewriter, she’d tacked up a phrase: NOBODY ASKED YOU TO WRITE THAT NOVEL. I knew right away this was going to be an important idea for me. The line reminded me that writing was a voluntary activity. I could always stop. I could always go on. And since no one’s asking you do it, I’ve always seen writing as an exercise of freedom, rather than an exercise of obligation.  Even when it came to be that writing was my income, it still seemed like an exercise of freedom. Yes, writing is my job—but I could always stop and do something else. Once writing becomes an exercise of freedom, it’s filled with energy.

I remember when I proposed A Thousand Acres to my agent, she said, “Are you kidding me? No one wants to read a novel about farming.” But no one was going to stop me. “We’ll see,” I said, and I just wrote it. That’s been the case of all my books, successful or not successful. I wrote the books I wanted to write. I know I’ve been lucky to be able to write this way.

To me as a reader, this greatest thing about the novel—I start sentences this way all time, but I always say a different thing—is that it gives access to the mind of the writer. Our Mutual Friend is a perfect example of this: You have access to the mind of this guy, Charles Dickens. Prolonged access, 880 pages of access. There is no intermediary between you and this guy’s mind. There are no actors, there’s no stage production. To read a book is an act of humanity. It’s an act of connection. And it’s also an act of freedom—at any point, I could say, I’m done with Our Mutual Friend, I’m moving on to Anthony Trollope. As long as you’re reading, you’re there voluntarily. To me, that’s the essence of the novel: accessing the mind of another human being in a way that combines freedom with intimacy. This is a rare thing. You don’t get it through an interview, you don’t get that through relationships—other people can always withhold information from you. You don’t get this kind of access in any other art—poetry, maybe, but the contact isn’t as prolonged. I find it perennially alluring. I’ve been at this for years and years and yet, and yet this voluntary act of connection still fascinates me in my reading and my writing.