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Review: Jane Smiley at UEA Literary Festival

As soon as Chris Bigsby introduced American author Jane Smiley, it was evident we were in for an interesting evening: author of over 20 books, Pulitzer prize winner…and 89th on Goldberg’s list of 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. Once the applause had died down, Smiley gave her wry response – while her relatives were worried this title would get her shot, she was not – “I said, ‘I don’t think so, I’m only 89th'”.

As the interview went on, Smiley did not disappoint. She exuded a quiet confidence, delivering almost everything with a twist of dry humour, occasionally accompanied by graceful flourishes of the hand. She did not shy away from any of the questions, whether they were on her writing, politics, or past relationships. When Bigsby noted her latest novel, Some Luck, is dedicated to all four of her past (and present) husbands, she was not at all bashful. “Well, I’m on good terms with all of them, and they were extremely helpful [in writing Some Luck]”, she said.

The interview loosely followed the chronology of Smiley’s life, which at points sounded like a novel itself. Her college boyfriend was a “six foot ten inch Marxist basketball player”. With him she had hitchhiked all over England and mainland Europe before heading to Iowa. There she worked in a teddy bear factory “the size of someone’s living room”, until she managed to talk her way onto the Old Norse course at an Iowa University party. It was there that she went on to do her PhD, and joined the Iowa’s Writer’s Programme. She was also the only one from her university to go on a trip to Iceland (“nobody else wanted to go”), which sparked the beginnings of one of her earlier novels, The Greenlanders.

Yet, no matter how far ranging her experiences were, they always tied into her love of literature and writing, weaving her personal and literary life into one. One of her favourite books growing up, Giants in the Earth by O E Rölvaag, started her love of Anglo Saxon mythology that would get her onto the Old Norse course. Another favourite was Shakespeare, who gave her courage in her writing: “I was always taken by how he was ready to try this or try that”. Her quip about studying creative writing also earned a loud laugh: “the lucky [students] didn’t pay any attention to our teachers at all, because who cares about the teachers? We didn’t want to impress the teachers, we wanted to impress each other!”

The evening ended with Smiley reading from Some Luck, the first book to be released from her trilogy The Last Hundred Years. Smiley took a creative approach, asking the audience to shout out a page number for her to read from. The resulting extract was a large chunk of dialogue between numerous characters, which Smiley navigated with remarkable ease. Situated in rural Iowa, the passage was far removed from Norwich – yet the characters, like Joe and Mr Silver, felt palpable and familiar. Some Luck and the lady behind it had quietly but undeniably drawn the audience in – and really, what more can you ask of an author?

10/11/2014

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