Of Serpents' Teeth in Iowa

UPDATED 01/13/1992 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/13/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

AFTER JANE SMILEY BROUGHT FORTH The Greenlanders—a dense, dark, historical novel about a 14th-century colony on the edge of the polar ice cap—she became something of a literary status symbol. Reviewers tended to say that while the 588-page book wasn't for the Judith Krantz crowd, they adored it, Smiley notes ironically, "because they were so smart and the average American reader isn't."

But Smiley's latest book has put the lie to her standing as an acquired taste. A Thousand Acres, published in November, has been selling briskly enough to make the best-seller lists. Yet in its way, this 371-page saga of a contemporary Iowa farm family is as ambitious as The Greenlanders. This time Smiley's aim is nothing less than to update King Lear by crafting the tale of a proud and prosperous Midwestern farmer who decides to turn his land over to his three daughters, thereby unleashing a bitter family feud.

The modern twist is an incest theme—which has intrigued some reviewers and offended others. While Gail Caldwell in the Boston Globe said the book "feels as anguished and inevitable as its dramatic progenitor, even as it stands separate and alone in the heartland of America," Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times complained that the element of sexual abuse "robbed Lear of his majesty." But when a woman contemplates Lear's evil, greedy offspring, Smiley says, "It occurs to her to wonder why those daughters are so angry. The only people I know who are that angry have a history that suggests abuse."

For Smiley, 42, who holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches writing at Iowa State University in Ames, working on A Thousand Acres was like "lifting a heavy stone, carrying it forward two steps and dropping it. It was exhausting." She researched the book by devouring volumes on farming, driving a combine and collecting information from "my informants," as she calls them—a half dozen men and women who have had farm experience and who had also suffered sexual abuse. "I didn't want a farmer to be able to pick it up and say, 'Well, she got this wrong,' or an abuse victim to say it wasn't dire enough," she says.

Smiley was raised a city girl, in a family of journalists and storytellers. Both her mother and a great-grandfather held newspaper jobs, while her father, a West Point graduate and career military man, was also a gifted writer. Around the dinner table in St. Louis, gossip usually won out over current affairs. "All we talked about was family history—who did what and why they did it," she says. "I am totally fascinated by people."

Smiley's own life has had its share of plot twists. Before finishing her degree in English literature at Vassar, she married Yale student John Whiston. The two eventually settled in Iowa City, where he attended graduate school at the University of Iowa and (before joining the Writers' Workshop) she toiled in a teddy-bear factory. The marriage broke up in 1973, but she got her career on-line with two well-received contemporary novels. She also embarked on an affair with guitarist and now aspiring screenwriter Steve Mortensen, but they parted after three years. In 1978 she married history student Bill Silag (father of Phoebe, 13, and Lucy, 9). When they divorced in 1986, she let Mortensen, who had also married and divorced, know through mutual friends that she wanted to see him again. After five months of long-distance romance between Ames (where she had moved in 1981) and L.A., they married in 1987. In the intervening years, says Mortensen, 44, he had occasionally recognized himself in Smiley's fiction—particularly in a character who lights a cigarette on the cylinder head of a BMW motorcycle going 80 mph. "I joked that she just wanted to get back together so she'd have some new material," he says.

"It's a tall order being married to the tallest woman in American fiction," adds the 6' Mortensen, referring to his lanky 6'2" wife. But Mortensen—who spends his spare time tending the fruit orchard behind their big house in Ames—doesn't mind being referred to occasionally as Mr. Smiley. "Jane is the most brilliant person I've ever met," he says. "It doesn't intimidate me that she has the dominant career."

It helps, of course, that Smiley—who delights in riding horses with daughter Lucy, baking bread and playing the banjo—refuses to take on the role of Ames's leading literary light. "She never says, I can't talk to you now because I'm in the middle of this chapter,' " says good friend Fern Kupfer, a fellow novelist.

Being a writer, though, is what has buoyed her through life's travails. "Even if my marriage is falling apart and my children are unhappy and my spouse is unhappy," she admits, "there is still a part of me that says, 'God! This is fascinating!' "

MICHELLE GREEN
BARBARA KLEBAN MILLS in Ames

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