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Jane Smiley Draws on Family History in “Private Life”

Novelist Jane Smiley has written on a variety of subjects in several genres from the Pulitzer Prize winning family drama A Thousand Acres to the animal loving children’s series A Good Horse. For her 13th piece of fiction, the alumna of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop has drawn from her own family history to create Private Life, telling of the difficult marriage between Capt. Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early and Margaret Mayfield. The novel spans the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, moving from Missouri to California’s Bay Area, and addresses the balance of power in a marriage and gender roles. The author used elements from the lives of her great aunt and uncle to shape her characters.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Smiley talks about how she was drawn to her relatives’ lives. “I was just interested in these characters,” Smiley speaks of her great aunt and uncle. “She was really a normal person, said to be fun and enjoyable, and he was a true crackpot. He thought he had all of the answers to the biggest questions. How do you love a person who has that take on the world?” Of the book, she also cautions: “Literature is full of geniuses who are vindicated. The genius in this story is not vindicated.”

On the dynamics of their marriage, the author comments, “He demands humility from her. Margaret realizes that if she agrees with him, it’s sufficient. If he has a sense that she doesn’t agree with him, he focuses all of his attention on her to conquer her – not in a sexual way, but as an intellectual conquest. I was drawn to the paradox of their relationship.”

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