Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Jane Smiley.
When I get up in the morning, the first two questions I have to answer are “What’s for dinner?” and “When should I go to the barn?” The rest of the day revolves around these important issues. The work will, of course, get done—at the moment I have two literary tasks. The first of these is to go over the copy-edited manuscript of my novel Some Luck, to be published in October of 2014 (I am trying to talk them into publishing it on my birthday, September 26th). The second is to read more Gary Shteyngart, in preparation for an interview I am doing with him, on stage in LA in mid-January. I am not writing anything just now—when I finish going over copy-edits, I will do a final rewrite of my novel Early Warning, a sequel to Some Luck, which is scheduled for April 2015. Both are part of a trilogy entitled The Last Hundred Years, which tracks the lives of three generations of an Iowa family, beginning in 1920 and ending in 2019. I am quite fond of it, especially of the characters, who I love but get to torment, and Knopf is enthusiastic also. Along with the copy-edited manuscript came a mock up of the cover. It is elegant and alluring—the best sort of cover.
It may be that tonight we will have left-overs. In the refrigerator are half a meatloaf, some matzoh ball soup, and the remains of last night’s extremely delicious pork chops. And tomorrow is a cooking day—because we were out of town on Christmas, we are having a belated Christmas dinner—turkey, garlic mashed potatoes, stuffing made from Whole Foods crostini, roasted Brussels sprouts, sugar cookies, and two kinds of ice cream. The guests will be a mix of steps, exes, and friends—this is California, everyone is welcome. Even so, I would like to cook something tonight. I would always like to cook something. This morning I made scones (no eggs is the key). I added a little too much milk, but they turned out beautifully brown and crisp. Maybe tomorrow morning, one will be leftover to split and put in the toaster.
It is a beautiful day, but of a sinister kind—we should have had more rain by now—this is the worst drought since 1949, the year I was born. There has already been a fire down in Big Sur—we missed it because we were in Europe, but the smoke was bad, and the omen for the rest of the season worse. After lunch, I will go to the barn (which is about a mile away). On the way there, I will stare at the brown hillsides and recall that last year, and the year before that, they were green by now, brilliant against the blue sky. I will worry about the hay supply and wonder if this is the year….
The year for what? I am sixty-four, and I have been wondering if this is the year for something since I was old enough to worry. Worrying has been a fruitful inspiration for me. The Last Hundred Years is full of worriers. My favorite character, a beautiful girl from Decorah, Iowa, has been worried sick since she was four, when her older cousin described to her in exquisite detail the drowning of a neighbor boy in a local pond. Of all the characters in the trilogy, this one is my favorite. She is not me, but she is part of me.
At the barn, I will take Ned, the six-year-old, down to the big arena and let him run around. He hasn’t done much in the last few weeks, so he is full of beans. He will kick up and squeal and gallop like the Thoroughbred he is, and he will make the circuit of the ring maybe six or eight times, top speed. Then he will stop and walk over to me, indicating that he is back to normal, and ready for a cube of sugar. Ned knows a few tricks—to come to the whistle, to turn left or right on command, to find a treat and eat it when told to do so. He has learned to be careful with his lips—to gently explore the top of the post or the mounting block with his lips until he senses the sugar, then to take it carefully so as to not knock it to the ground. Tomorrow, I might ride Ned.
When I am finished with Ned, I may ride Jackie, the old guy, but since I am just recovering from a bad cold, I might not push myself too hard, and instead come home and read.
I read a lot, mostly from my Kindles (one old-style, for slipping into a ziplock and reading in the hot tub, one Kindle Fire for reading in the dark). I have also been reading Shteyngart’s new book, a memoir called Little Failure, in hard cover. While I was in Europe, I read Absurdistan and Anthony Trollope’s The Kellys and the O’Kellys. The other day, I started Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and yes he is right—things used to be a lot worse, which doesn’t mean I can stop worrying. I have a reading chair, which is really a couch. Sometimes the Labradoodle lies across me and I rest the Kindle against her fluffy coat.
After dinner, we will watch a movie. There are about thirty on the DVR. Last night we tried Rome, Open City and Teen Wolf. Watched each for a half an hour then deleted. For me, it is only a knitting opportunity—I am about two-thirds finished with the back of a sweater for my husband, green light-weight cotton yarn from Greece with a little cabling. My son and my husband’s son are home for vacation. They come and go, eat something or find a restaurant, gossip or play video games. It is refreshing to have them around, and when we go to bed, we pretend that, if they aren’t back yet, we aren’t worried. They are both in their twenties now. On their own. Dogs in bed. Good night.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- I don’t think in terms of bests, just in terms of whether I enjoy it or not. I don’t think novels can be compared because every reader’s response is unique. I committed to a project for the Anthony Trollope Society that involved rereading He Knew He Was Right and The Kelly’s and the O’Kelly’s. I loved them both all over again, because of Trollope’s great ability to enter into the minds and feelings of all sorts of characters, including women characters.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Keep at it. Novelists are tortoises, not hares.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I don’t know, because I don’t know what is normal. I am reliant on Diet Coke…
By Jane Smiley