Jane Smiley reviewed by Audrey Edwards

This review was written by a member of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team. The Review Team take part in a special reviewing workshop at the start of the Festival before attending Festival events.

Before I went to this event I knew very little about Jane Smiley but, as I like nothing better than a large scale family saga, spanning centuries I was eager to find out about The Golden Age and its two predecessors.

Smiley was relaxed and friendly and had a good rapport with both the host and the audience. As she responded to the well-chosen questions, her career, with its milestones, achievements and ideas was unfolded to us.

She was introduced to English literature when she was a teenager on a long summer visit to England. She devoured all available reading material, which included the pony club manual, Dickens, George Eliot and Jane Austen. She admitted that she did not at first like Dickens, and had even had the temerity to ask “why Oliver Twist couldn’t have more”. However an encounter with David Copperfield changed her mind and led her to appreciate the author’s intensely visual descriptions, narrative and creation of characters. This experience provided her with what she described as ‘training’ in literature and gave her the conviction that writing was the career for her.

When the ‘great American novel’ was mentioned, Smiley talked about the inspiration and knowledge which she had gained from Steinbeck, Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder. She also found the writings of Rose Wilder, Laura’s daughter, a great source of information and insight into the times.

The trilogy, The Last Hundred Years seems to carry on this tradition but in a new way. In it she follows the progress of a farming family from Iowa from 1920. She chose to start here because it was the beginning of the era in which her grandparents were born, and it was, therefore, the earliest point from which she could feel a personal connection.

She told us about the creation of her characters and the way in which they developed over time. She sets herself a strict planning timetable which helps her to finish the books quickly but, within this structure, she allows space for her characters to develop. She emphasised that a story has the potential to develop in a number of different directions and that experiments are never a waste of time but can often feed into the final outcome.

She is deeply interested in the rapid changes in agriculture, food production and industry which have occurred during this period and the way in which they are played out in the lives of ordinary people. Her trilogy departs from the usual tradition of ending with the present day and pushes ahead into the future. Not into the distant unimaginable future, but into a more immediate time which is not too far away to unsettle her readers.

She finished with an extract from her book which was highly entertaining but showed an astute grasp of the human vanities and temptations to which we are all prone.

It was an excellent event and I, for one, cannot wait to begin the first volume of the trilogy.

Audrey Edwards is married with two daughters and lives in Hellifield. She was a teacher, mainly working in special education until she retired in 2012. Since then she has studied Fine Art at Craven College. Audrey enjoys writing stories, poems and artciles and has co-written short plays and sketches for village entertainment.


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