Jane Smiley is the author of several critically acclaimed and popular novels, including "The Age of God," "The Greenlanders," "Ordinary Love and Good Will," "A Thousand Acres" (winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award), "Horse Heaven," "Good Faith" and the new young-adult novel "The Georges and the Jewels" (Knopf). She has also written for The New Yorker, Horseman, Harper's, The Nation and others. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 2006 received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She was a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 and 1987. Smiley's new novel for adults is "Private Life" (Knopf). She lives in California.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2010 National Book Festival
What sparked your imagination for your new book – The Georges and the Jewels?
The Georges and the Jewels is the first of a series. The second volume, to be published in late October, is called A Good Horse, and it is the horses that spark my imagination. I have five horses (I used to have lots more), and every day when I spend time with them, I am amazed at how idiosyncratic they are, what distinct personalities they have, and what a challenge and a pleasure it is to learn how to make the best of their different talents and abilities. I wanted to write about a girl whose family buys and sells lots of horses, so that she would experience and think about all different horse personalities.
You have written many books for adults, but this is you first young adult book. What made you decide to write for this audience?
I grew up reading horse books, as did most of my equestrian friends, and I heard that such series had fallen by the wayside. I knew that I could think up plenty of stories, and so far (I've completed 3), it has been wonderful fun. At the same time, theories of horsemanship and of the natures of horses have changed considerably (and for the better) since I was a girl. That was another motive for writing these books.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
The main challenge is to have enough knowledge about a subject so that you can have a valid opinion about it, and portray that in a rich and entertaining way. So I always have to keep learning and investigating what I am writing about. But that is fun! I enjoy that because I am a curious person.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
Get started! Don't be afraid. One sentence leads to another, so once you get started, keep going. You can always go back and fix what you don't like. But the fact is, the more you write, the more what you write will interest you, and the more it interests you, the more you will want to write.
Can you suggest a fun topic to get them started?
Something they love or are curious about. My older cousin used to tell my other cousin and me stories about our dogs, and we always enjoyed their adventures.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I don't really decide--Most often, I get interested in a situation, and the themes grow out of the situation. For example, in this series, there is a little boy that Abby takes care of sometimes. In book 3, he gets away from her, and she has to deal with the ramifications of that. That he gets away from her is an outgrowth of his personality, and then how she feels about it forms the theme of some of what comes next. So quite often, the characters and the situations present themes, and my job is to think about them and draw a lesson or a set of feelings from them.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
I love to do research! The more you learn, then the more material you have to shape toward the ideas you are interested in. You can start it in any way, just depending on what sort of person you are. I am not terribly systematic, so I let one source lead to another, and so on. I love the Internet for research. You can learn quite odd and amazing things.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Read to them, have books around, read yourselves, and never restrict their reading. There is no "bad" book. Every book they read leads to another one, and pretty soon, they have a habit that will last a lifetime.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
Volume four of The Georges and the Jewels, and an adult novel about a family living on a farm.
If you weren’t writing books, what do you think you would be doing?
I can't imagine.