NEW YORK — While visiting Washington on her last book tour, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley received word of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma.
The subject, but not the particulars, of her next novel had arrived as well.
"After hearing about the bombing, I called a friend and told him that I wanted to write about the intersection of ideology and violence in American life," explains Ms. Smiley over a cup of mint tea. "Without hesitation he said, 'Kansas, 1850.' "
The suggestion also dovetailed with a design Smiley had devised in the mid-1980s as she began work on her Norse epic, "The Greenlanders."
"I wanted to write an epic, a tragedy ('A Thousand Acres'), a comedy ('Moo'), and a romance," she says. "And since most American novels of the 19th century are romances, I knew I had my genre as well.
"The primary source material for this novel was extensive and wonderful. Many women in late 19th-century Kansas kept journals; some were quite sad; all of them were politically conscious. One of the most famous belongs to Sarah Robinson, the wife of Governor Robinson. She was smart; she knew what was going on; and she had lyrical moments, too," says Smiley. "She was not only a source of information, but a model of what was possible for a woman in those days."
The abolitionist heroine of Smiley's latest novel, "The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton," adds to American antebellum literature a character of pluck and depth, a woman for whom, as Smiley puts it, "the complexity of experience has destroyed the simplicity of ideology." And while the novel is replete with dramatic incident, a significant part of the endeavor's challenge involved capturing and conveying the oft-unobserved private moments that shape a self.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe, Smiley found a guide for chronicling the quotidian. "I love 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' " she exclaims, wide-eyed behind her shirt-pocket-shaped glasses. "I think it's a much underestimated work, and I learned a lot from reading it not only about slavery, but about writing, and the different concerns of men and women. There are scenes of 19th-century domestic life in Stowe's work that are as important as any of the feuds in Twain's novels."
"Say It Ain't So, Huck," Smiley's dismantling of Twain's famous work, published in Harper's magazine more than two years ago, has led some critics to regard her latest novel as polemical corrective rather than dispassionate literature, a charge she dismisses coolly as balderdash.
"If you are a novelist and a citizen of a certain time, your only option for engaging is found in the social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions of reality. If you have a view that these things aren't timeless, I don't see what you're engaging with. Frankly, I don't see how you're engaging with others," she says.
"I don't see where the humanity is," she adds. "So, why bother? The great writers: Dickens, George Eliot, Woolf, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Homer, not a single one failed to engage the social, cultural, economic, and political reality. Not one."
Literature's luminaries loom over Smiley's oeuvre but their place is no more important than that of the reader. She borrowed the plot for her acclaimed, "A Thousand Acres," from Shakespeare's "King Lear." "I always love to tell a good story," Smiley says, "there are pure story values of narrative, pacing, plot, and climax. If you're lucky, there are some readers for whom everything you write has three or four modes of meaning."
At the heart of such meaning Smiley finds the value of the moment: The experience of the "present" surfaces repeatedly throughout our conversation. "Often I'm looking back to find the meaning of the moment," she explains. "Perhaps I'm looking back to stop looking back; there's a paradox there.... I think we're moving into a world that we'll be able to live in but that we cannot currently imagine," Smiley suggests. "And maybe learning to live in the present moment is our only refuge.
"I focus on my animals and my kids and the actual act of writing." Standing clear of the snare of memoir mania, she prefers the mazes of the world to those of the self. "If you look at yourself, your material comes to an end," she explains, "but if you look out into the world your material is endless."
* Ron Fletcher teaches English at Boston College High School, Boston.
Which way to act?
...in a place like the [Kansas Territory], you could easily act one way one minute and another way the next minute, and smile or laugh or cry all in the same minute. I wanted to kill something, preferably a Missourian, preferably the men who had driven off Jeremiah [my horse].... Before they died, I wanted them to give back Jeremiah, apologize to me, and know what brutes and liars they were. At the same time, I wanted no more violence of any kind...
- from 'The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton'