Before she was awarded a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her iconic novel A Thousand Acres, American author Jane Smiley won a 1976 Fulbright Research Grant to study in Iceland for a year—an adventure that has been a consistent source of inspiration for her throughout her prodigious literary career. Smiley recounts her time as a young student in Reykjavík with the Iceland Writers Retreat in this piece and describes both her upcoming toddlers’ book and her ambitious new trilogy about the past 100 years of American life and human civilization.
Interview by Elliott Brandsma. Photo by Mike McGregor/The Guardian.
Jane, take us back to your time as an exchange student in Iceland. What initially drew you to the country, and what projects did you work on while you were here?
In graduate school, I studied Old Norse, Old English, Gothic, and Old High German. I loved the sagas, and I took Old Norse for four or five semesters. One year we read all of Njál’s Saga, so when I was thinking about studying abroad, Iceland was the only destination I had in mind. I wanted to learn modern Icelandic and improve my reading skills in Old Icelandic. I was not quite prepared for the climate or the landscape, but I enjoyed myself a great deal. The landscape seemed very exotic to me, and I enjoyed taking walks. I also enjoyed the historic sites we students were taken to visit out in the countryside.
Toward the end of my stay, I got to be friends with a man who owned a car and was a hiker. He took me to visit some great scenery, and also on a horse ride. My real difficulty came from the length of darkness as the Winter Solstice approached. I had a very hard time waking up in the dark and my biological clock got out of kilter so that I stayed up writing much later than I would have at home in the states. I loved the swimming pool that was not far from Háskóli Íslands (the University of Iceland), especially the hot pools. I would go there every day, then stop at the consulate (now the U.S. Embassy Reykjavík) and check out books to read. I did a lot of reading.
My friend also told me about Greenland. I had read The Saga of the Greenlanders, but what he told me sparked my imagination, and I started thinking about writing a novel about the end of the Greenland settlement. I did do so, and that was published in 1988, about 10 years after I got back from Iceland. I visited Greenland in the early ‘80s. I saw that it was very different from Iceland, but Medieval Norse literature connected them in my mind, and so I modeled the style and the philosophy of the Greenlanders on that of the sagas. Also, I loved rjómaterta. I went to a certain fancy hotel and ate a slice every Friday.
You have had a successful career in academia and literature, winning the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, teaching once for the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Iowa, and also at Iowa State University, and being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. You now teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Riverside. How did your stay in Iceland shape you into the writer you are today?
The American consulate had a very good library, so I read a lot of books—like War and Peace and The Grapes of Wrath—that I had never read before. Even though I did socialize and go to concerts and have friends, there was plenty of time to read, especially late at night. I caught up on novels I had missed earlier when I was busy translating archaic texts in school. I loved them, and they cemented my interest in the novel as a form. While I was there, I did my assignments for my course in Icelandic, but I also wrote a great deal, though none of that has been published. It was good practice and gave me good habits. Since I did a lot of walking, there was plenty of time to ponder various ideas.
Describe your interactions with Icelanders. What do you miss most about the people and culture of Iceland?
I found Icelanders friendly and easy to get along with, but I was surprised at a few things. At the end of my stay, a man who was planning to go to the states asked me to help him with his English, so we had a few sessions. His English was pretty good, but I had to show him how to lower his voice and not stand too close to the people he was talking to. I also witnessed an amusing exchange at the market, where two Icelandic women were trying to figure out what celery was. In the dormitory at the university, the students could be a little rowdy on party nights but were in general very friendly. I thought Icelanders were very straightforward and smart. I enjoyed talking to them and being around them.
Name some of your favorite books by Icelandic authors. In your view, which book is a must-read for anyone considering a trip to Iceland?
I first read Halldór Laxness in Iceland. Independent People is one of my favorite books of all time and has been very inspiring to me. That would be the book I would tell people to read. But any other Laxness book would be terrific, too. And, of course, the Sagas, especially Laxdæla Saga, which is less focused on a single person than Njál’s Saga. I was quite fond of the main character of Gisli’s Saga, who seemed less rough and more sympathetic than some of the other saga heroes.
Tell us about your latest works, the Last Hundred Years trilogy. In your own words, what is the series about, and why did you decide to write an American family saga that extends an entire century?
The first idea that came to me was the title of the trilogy—the Last Hundred Years. No one can be certain at this point whether the last hundred years of civilization will turn out to be a success or a failure. I think it could go either way. There are good things about the modern era, but also quite frightening and depressing things, like nuclear warfare, climate change, the rise of the power of corporations and banks, and the splintering of the political landscape in America and the Middle East. I was also interested in the formal experiment of having the books progress year by year, and fitting the plots of the characters’ lives into those years rather than doing it the usual way. I enjoyed that part a great deal. I did put in a Norse character, Andy, from a town in Iowa founded by Norwegian settled in the 19th century. That enabled me to put in some bits from the sagas and from other Scandinavian stories. She is one of my favorite characters. Another character, Henry, is my alternative self—the one who became a medievalist rather than a writer.
You are also venturing again into children’s literature with the upcoming book 20 Yawns. How did this project come about, and what were some of the challenges writing for such a young audience?
I have written five YA novels about an 11-13-year-old girl who lives on a horse ranch in California. These are based on a horse training method that was invented near where I now live and has transformed the way horses are trained in the US—much more cooperative and less confrontational. 20 Yawns is a toddler book. I came up with the idea and wrote the text, but the artist came up with the art, which I think is the main pleasure of the book. I hope it sells and that people like it.
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