I spent a week in Honolulu, Hawaii, presenting at the Spellbinders Conference held at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. I’m including some candid shots of the gorgeous surroundings, and the remarks made by 1992 Pulitzer-prize-winning Jane Smiley (“1,000 Acres”) and a quintet of Hollywood screenwriters who spoke of their work on such films as “Golden Eye” (the James Bond reboot), “The Book of Eli,” “The Hulk,” “The Punisher,” and many, many others, including many television shows.
1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley (“1,000 Acres”) lives in Carmel, California, now, with her husband Jack Canning, but there was a time when she was an Iowa (Ames) professor of writing and there was a time before that when she was a student at the acclaimed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
It was this kinship over our Iowa roots (although Jane was born in Los Angeles and raised near St. Louis) that led me to ask her questions about her writing process at the first Spellbinders’ Writing Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii at the Hilton Hawaiian Village that is concluding on September 3, 2012.
After “1,000 Acres,” a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear story set on an Iowa farm was made into a movie with Jessica Lange, Jason Robards and Sam Shepherd, Jane Smiley moved on to write “Moo,” a humorous tale that dealt with politics at the university level. She told a charming story that went this way: “I was flying from Monterey to New York via San Francisco and I fell asleep on the flight. One hour into the flight, I woke up to the sound of laughter. My seatmate was reading “Moo.” I said, “That’s my book.” She said, “No, it isn’t. I bought it in the airport.” I said, “No, I mean, that’s MY book. I wrote it.” She looked at me and said, “No, you didn’t.” Her laughter was the best compliment I ever got.
Asked about her years as a Professor of writing at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, Ms. Smiley said, “I did enjoy it. When we let them in, we explained it was NOT the University of Iowa (in Iowa City’s) world-renowned Writers’ Workshop. About one-fourth of them said, ‘Oh!’ (with disappointment in her voice). But most were engineers and engineers are used to doing their work. I’d give them writing exercises, like, ‘Eavesdrop for 3 days and then come to class and read what you’ve heard.’ That was hilarious! Or, ‘There are 3 beings in the room and something happens.’ Some of them would write about 2 people and a dog. It was really more fun than work.”
When asked if she would ever consider teaching writing again, Smiley responded, “If I could do it MY way, I’d teach again.”
When asked how it felt to learn she had won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (in 1992) she said: “My 14-year-old daughter was staying home that day. She was at that age where it is absolutely impossible to have any positive impression of her mom. A reporter from the Ames ‘Tribune’ called up and said, ‘What would you say if you were told that you’d won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.’ I gave her some response. About 2 p.m. the phone rang and some guy from the Washington ‘Post’ called to tell me I had actually won. I said, to my daughter, ‘Honey, I think I won the Pulitzer Prize’ and she said, ‘Hmmmm. Cool.’ Later, in the hallway outside my office at the University, I heard someone screaming, and it was the stringer for the Ames Tribune. They (the Ames Tribune) had scooped the Des Moines Register, who had always scooped them. But, after you win, you go from being a wannabe to a has-been. You are no longer cool—although I never was. I was 16 weeks pregnant at the time, so I didn’t have to run around and go to a lot of things, because I was throwing up all the time, anyway.”
On writing, in general: “You can be the kind of person who enjoys the process, or you can be the kind of person who enjoys the awards. If it enhances your feeling of being alive, of finding things out, remember that there are never enough awards.”