Smiley says Moo U. doesn't really exist, really

May 26, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Jane Smiley's latest novel, "Moo," is a work of fiction, a farce, an academic comedy, which describes life at an agricultural university in the United States. I know it was written with UC Davis is mind. Smiley denies it, but trust me on this one. It's all about UCD. Apparently, a lot of people have figured this one out because "Moo" is a paperback best-seller in Davis. It's a best-seller in other places, too, but I'm convinced people are buying it here because they know the cast of characters.

In a recent interview, Smiley said she was prompted to create the fictional Moo University because she lives in Ames, Iowa, and teaches at Iowa State University. "There was just so much funny stuff," she said "and I always wanted to write both a tragedy and a comedy on the same theme. 'A Thousand Acres' was the tragedy, the theme was American agriculture and technology, and 'Moo' was the comedy."

But she insists that "Moo" is not a roman a clef and that she had no inside knowledge about the academic goings-on at Iowa State, much less Davis. "I'm out of the loop," she said. OK, we'll believe her.

I asked Smiley, who has been teaching at Iowa State since 1981, if she ever thought she'd become such a famous writer. Smiley won a Pulitzer Prize for "A Thousand Acres" in 1992.

"I intended to be (a famous writer) but I didn't know if it would ever happen...I had grandiose ambitions...but the realization of one's ambitions is not entirely in one's own power so there was a lot of luck involved also.

"The biggest piece of luck was probably winning the Pulitzer. You go from being a wannabe to has-been in one changes your relationship to the world of letters because you get a lot of publicity."

I became a fan of Smiley's long before she won the Pulitzer. My favorite Smiley novel is the 1984 mystery "Duplicate Keys." I told her this.

"Oh, really," she said, sounding surprised. "I really wrote it for a craft purpose, because I wanted to learn to write a plot. I figured that a murder mystery plot was the one I was most familiar with and if I could learn to write that plot I would have that tool at my command and it sort of worked out that way."

"Duplicate Keys" is different from many other Smiley novels. First of all, it takes place not in the Midwest but in New York City. It concerns a group of friends from the Midwest in the late '60s who cluster around a marginally successful rock band and move to New York. When the story opens, these people are older, are in their 30s. The success of the rock band hasn't panned out and everyone else in the group has gotten straight jobs. Alice Ames, the main character, is a librarian. She finds two members of the band sitting their apartment, shot to death. At a certain point in the novel Smiley almost matter-of-factly reveals who committed the double murder.

"I had to pre-empt the reader's suspicion of who did it," she said. "My reader, who was reading each chapter as I finished writing, was about to guess who did I had to change the story from a who-dunnit to a why-dunnit."

Smiley has no plans to write another murder mystery. "Since I wrote that book there's been a real revival and burgeoning of the mystery form and there are lots of very good and very inventive mystery writers out there. I don't know that I have anything to add." She likes Sue Grafton and Dick Francis.

Smiley is currently writing a historical novel set in the American Midwest. She isn't eager to talk about it and give away any good parts. "I'm just at the beginning of the writing process," she says. She has a study in her Ames home which is so messy she doesn't ever set foot in it. She carries around her portable computer and when she has time, between riding her horses every day and racing after her 3-year-old son, she sits down in the living room and writes for a few hours.

Smiley was born in L.A. but her family only lived there for one year before moving to St. Louis. She grew up in St. Louis and went to college back East, graduating from Vassar in 1971. She went to graduate school in Iowa and has been there ever since.

She is always labeled a "Midwestern writer" but likes to point out that the University of Iowa wouldn't put her work in the Iowa collection until she'd been living in that state for 20 years. "They were much more reluctant to receive me than others were to hand me over," she said.

Many of her novels and novellas begin with the description of what appears to be an idyllic life in a pastoral setting. Her stories become something very different as she introduces themes of murder, incest and evil. I asked her where the dark side in her work comes from.

"The question is not where the dark side comes from but where the light side come from," she said. "Any serious novelist or serious artist who wants to keep producing has to ponder both the dark and the light."

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