At the Christchurch Art Gallery last night, a keen group of contemporary fiction fans gathered to hear American author Jane Smiley talk about her life, her books and her love of “playing” with fiction. Jane appeared at this WORD Christchurch event with thanks to the Auckland Writers Festival.
Well-known Christchurch literary promoter Morrin Rout introduced Smiley as a “formidable chronicler of her times” who has written 27 books including adult novels, books for children and young adults, and non-fiction works on subjects as diverse as craft, computers and Charles Dickens. This woman is one smart cookie. She studied Old Norse, Old English and Old German among other languages at university and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Iceland, an experience which prompted her to write The Greenlanders (which Jonathan Franzen considers to be one of the best novels ever to come out of the USA).
Despite all this heady stuff, Jane Smiley comes across as a warm, witty, engaging woman who, like many of us, loves nothing more than trying to figure out what makes other people tick. She openly admits she grew up in a “very gossipy family” and enjoyed the talkative, mentally challenging environment.
Not surprisingly, she builds her recent trilogy, The last 100 years, around family of similarly formidable characters. The Langdons have roots in agriculturally-based Iowa where the main topics of conversation are firstly the weather, secondly gossip and thirdly the news. Sound familiar? This certainly struck a chord with the Christchurch audience who perhaps also live in a town where “important things are happening and no one pays any attention”.
Jane Smiley is aware of the rare talent she has “to express a feeling in terms of an image or metaphor”. If you haven’t read her yet and you’re looking for an insightful author who will make you think, you’re in for a treat.