Jane Smiley

Jane SmileyJane Smiley is the author of The Age of Grief, The Greenlanders, Ordinary Love and Good Will, A Thousand Acres (which was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1992), Moo, Horse Heaven, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton and most recently, Good Faith. She was born in Los Angeles and grew up in St Louis, attended Vassar College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Jane Smiley taught at Iowa State University from 1981 until 1996. She has written essays on politics, farming, horse training, child rearing, impulse buying and a wide variety of other subjects for magazines such as The New Yorker, The Nation, Allure, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine and countless others. Jane Smiley lives in California with her three children, three dogs and sixteen horses.

Good Faith is the story of a group of small town real estate people—builders, brokers, bankers and developers—who are presented with the possibility of a big-time payoff. The protagonist, Joe Stafford, is a middle-aged real estate broker on the mend from a recent divorce. He is well liked, honorable and moderately successful. He crosses paths with Marcus Burns, a former Internal Revenue official, who has big dreams and big plans. It is the early '80s, one of the periodic so-called golden ages in America, where acquisition and consumption are more than economic indicators.

Robert Birnbaum: I noticed in Gail Caldwell's review of Good Faith she said she was getting irritated by the good mood that was manifested in this novel…

Jane Smiley: [laughs] I haven't seen that review, so I don't know what kind of good mood I'm in.

RB: Well, her tongue was well placed in her cheek.

JS: It was definitely a good mood that I was in, last year, when I wrote the book. Not necessarily that I am still in it.

RB: Of course. Although I think Caldwell was looking back two or three books, to Horse Heaven.

JS: Well, yes I was in a good mood then.

RB: Okay, as long as we are dwelling on it [laughs], how does your mood affect your writing?

JS: I actually consider myself…I have written in a lot of forms but I consider myself a comic writer. And I didn't intend for Good Faith to be taken as a comic novel, at least when I was writing it. I was pretty sour. But the thing I found out when I—even when I started rewriting the first hundred and fifty pages or so was that it sort of went down easy. I found that about All-True Adventures of Lidie Newton too. I wanted it to be satiric and to have a streak of cruelty because that's what the period had. But she had a kind of liveliness in her makeup that gave the novel a streak of not so much of…it gave the novel a….

RB: Buoyancy?

JS: Buoyancy. Because she was a buoyant person. It came out at the same time as Russell Banks’ novel Cloudsplitter. It was near in time to Cloudsplitter, and it was in the Charles Frazier/Cold Mountain era. It came across to a lot of people as maybe too light compared to their takes on the same period. I hadn't meant it to be light at all. I had meant her to have some vitality, which she would have needed to survive. So maybe I can't be— maybe I'm like one of those clowns we used to have when we were kids, the ones that popped up and you would smack them and they would fall down and then pop up again. Maybe that's just the way I am.

RB: Intending to write comically seems to be more difficult than writing seriously, what I mean is…

JS: I do write seriously, but maybe intending to write soberly is what you are getting at. But I do intend to write soberly. But somehow after Moo I lost my really deep investment in sobriety [both laugh] as a literary tone. And I became lively and satiric. Some people would say that if you can't detach yourself from the world we see around us then it would pretty much, pretty soon bury you under.

RB: Would this admission of being a comic writer surprise anyone?

JS: Some would, some wouldn't.

RB: Okay. Well, I am playing a pigeon hole game here. You are mainly called a social writer. References to Henry James and Charles Dickens and even Tom Wolfe abound in talk about your work. Good Faith may be identified as comical and satiric, but I don't see you called that.

JS: No, I think I am essentially a realist writer. And with an interest in social constructions, not necessarily social issues. More the 'how does it work of the world' that we see around us. I am interested in those things. The comic part comes in my desire, for one thing, for the characters to connect with one another rather than to feel isolated from one another. And also in my pleasure in absurdity and in a good joke. I think a lot of things are hilariously funny, and that's kind of the way I live my life. And I also believe that it's only possible to live if you can detach yourself and detach your sort of sense of what's going on a little bit and take a kind of observational position on everything. "Is my marriage breaking down?" "Well, let me watch that." "Is the country falling apart?" "Well, let's observe it and see what we can learn from it." "Over here at the race track have we lost all our money?" "Well, yes but…"

RB: [laughs] Yes but?

Some people would say that if you can't detach yourself from the world we see around us, then it would pretty much, pretty soon bury you under.

JS: "Let's step back here and see what it means." And so as you detach yourself, as soon as you are observing from a state of detachment, then you are in the realm of irony. Then you are moving toward the realm of the comic. Because irony is about being detached. You can be detached and annoyed and you can be detached and more lighthearted or you can be detached and pensive. Being detached is the first step to being comic.

RB: You remind me of a talk I had with Percival Everett, who mentioned something about there not being any much gained from anger, that he couldn't engage these things that angered him and that he was more inclined to step back and poke at them.

JS: Well, yes that is a definite strategy. At the same time it's no time to stop being angry. Maybe one should be angry as a citizen and a little more detached as a writer? I think there is a lesson in the work of Charles Dickens here. When Dickens was foaming at the mouth enraged, he was beyond the power of his own eloquence to express his rage at the Crimean War. He absolutely detested what the War Office and the Foreign Office were doing in England during the Crimean War. And the result of his upset was a series of essays and also the novel Little Dorett. When we look at Little Dorett we can see that his vision was very dark. And in some sense, it has a very tangled plot, which he has to, at the end of the novel, he has to write a few pages to tell you what actually happened. To me that's a sign that his mind wasn't working with the great efficiency that it always had before. He attempted to pack too many themes into the novel. At the same time he didn't totally lose his sense of humor. He didn't totally lose his ability to view people and things from a distance. And to depict them. He then went on to write different novels that were more successful and were a bit lighter until finally he wrote Our Mutual Friend, which is my favorite and in which the style is perfect, the characters are fabulous and all the parts of the novel are beautifully integrated with one another. So, we can say we have reached a stage of terminal anger as citizens now, but then, years from now, we are going to look back and say, "Did we revive and make another effort, have another go at trying to make it better?"

RB: And that would be the value of literature, to encapsulate those moments that others are fulminating about.

JS: Well, yes to me—people always talk about how Don Quixote is the greatest seminal modern novel. But to me the seminal piece of fiction for the modern era is not Don Quixote but the Decameron by Boccacio. He wrote the Decameron during the Black Death in Florence in 1348 to 1351. The very first thing that the characters in the Decameron do is that they look around themselves and say “we have to get out of here” and they betake themselves to a beautiful, idyllic spot in the countryside, away from the plague. And they begin to tell stories. And the Decameron is really remembered by most people for the erotic content of the stories. But to me that's not the interesting part about it. What's interesting is the determination or the resolution of the people, the characters to create a space inside the disaster where they contemplate all kinds of things. Fun things, crazy things, tricky things.

RB: Normally a role played by religion.

JS: Yes and many of the stories of the Decameron are about how foolish the religious people around them have become and so they substitute narrative for prayer. Though people think that the Decameron runs over ten days actually it runs over fourteen days because on Sundays and Friday they take a break to do religious devotion. I think…

[Rosie, who is sitting at my feet, interjects]

Rosie: Rrrrrrrrrrrrr.

RB: [laughs]

JS: That's very…I'm glad we are not on the radio with this chorus. I think it's very inspiring to know that you can write such a lively book, a book with so much sensuous appreciation of beauty and delight in what we generally look back on as one of the darkest periods of human history.

RB: I'm trying to think of 20th-century books that attempted the same thing. I am tempted to say Catch-22 but it took you right there and it was quite dark.

JS: Well, there hasn't been a book that I know of that has said, "I'm going to take us away." Though even as I say that I think [pause]—something comes to mind, something is fluttering in my mind—but the other wonderful thing about the Decameron is that served as a source for early fiction writers. There are stories from the Decameron in Don Quixote and it was a quite fertile source for early novelists and fiction writers.

RB: Any new translations of the Decameron?

JS: The one that Penguin used by T.K. Williams is fairly new and it's quite good.

RB: Dante seems as a classic reference point to overshadow everyone from that period. It's almost like a religion.

JS: Not to me.

Jane SmileyRB: This could be a new wave.

JS: Anybody can be revived. That's the wonderful thing about earth's biggest bookstore, and we are not just talking about Amazon.com. We are talking about the kind of rush by the publishers and academia to pull everything out of the basement and put it on the shelf. I think that's an unalloyed good. Because it makes every book revivable. I was just in New York, and I was interviewed right after three guys from the New York Review of Books who were pushing their series of revivals, and so revival is good. Revival is something that has to be done.

RB: I hate to throw a wet blanket on this; I am told that the NYRB series isn't doing well.

JS: It doesn't matter. It matters if it is on a shelf. Because then the person can be revived again.

RB: You are taking a longer view.

JS: Yeah, I am. I am taking a medievalist's view. That's what I studied in graduate school. And when you are a medievalist you don't study what's good, you study what's left. And you try to find good things in it. So you come to appreciate every fragment of every bit that's left. And try to glean something from that fragment, whatever it is.

RB: Let's get back to Good Faith. I am a little confused about the fictional town of Portsmouth, which is supposed to be 90 miles from New York and also it is referred to as being located in the Rust Belt, which I don't think of as being proximal to NY…

JS: Want me to tell you what that little town is?

RB: Yes, eventually. But having said that, something about the way I read it this book made me feel like it was Midwestern.

JS: Oh, I don't know what can I say. I'm from the Midwest. I don't know where you grew up, but the Midwest is not the Midwest. I grew up in St. Louis, which looks like the Midwest.

RB: It's the South.

JS: Yeah and if you grew up in one of the middle-sized towns in Illinois it's not the same as growing up in a middle-sized town in Iowa or Kansas. The Midwest is really quite diverse, historically and ethnically and religiously.

RB: And it's quite large.

JS: Yes.

RB: Being transplanted, I have spent years observing the ignorance of coastal people about points west.

JS: [laughs] That's true and one of the things that the characters in Moo talk about, one of the older women in the novel says, "Yeah, they went out to one of those places that they have slaughter houses. Where would that be?"

RB: [both laugh]

JS: So anyway the town that Portsmouth is meant to be has a motto: “It's what blank blank, makes the world takes." So there is a town like that not far from New York. An old, industrial town. You are just thinking about the wrong side of the river. You have to think of the Rust Belt on the East Side of the Hudson River rather than on the West Side.

RB: I was fascinated by your setting a novel in 1982 which marks another land rush towards brand orientation and conspicuous consumption and you mention only one brand.

JS: Well, I had also mentioned Diet Coke but Diet Coke didn't come in until the end of the year. Can you believe that? Didn't you think that Diet Coke was with us forever? I thought about that, was I going to do that. And I thought, "No, I didn't want it to be a costume drama of a particular era." Where the reader was constantly saying, "Oh, I remember that. Oh, I remember that." I don't even remember that. I got a book that said what the movies were and what the popular music was and the fashion. I looked at the pictures and stuff but somehow it just didn't fit in. That's not what these people were thinking about. They weren't hip. That was the point. They weren't hip.

RB: Joe the protagonist listens to ten-year pop songs and actually does—what seems to be—ballroom dancing.

JS: It's kind of retro. But I thought it would be distracting to have a lot of…

RB: It would be. So after reading Good Faith and also Independence Day, I feel like I might as well get my broker's license.

When you are a medievalist, you don't study what's good, you study what's left. And you try to find good things in it. So you come to appreciate every fragment of every bit that's left. And try to glean something from that fragment, whatever it is.

JS: Well, you and everyone else. That is one of the commonest things that people do, is a get a real estate license. In the hope that they will fall into some good luck.

RB: Real estate seems to be a huge preoccupation.

JS: Some places in the country, that's one of the few things that it is safe to talk about. Like in the Midwest you can talk about sports and you can talk about your house and what the kids are doing at school. That's about it. Otherwise, you might end up being intimate.

RB: There is the weather too. But you see this as a tendency to avoid intimacy with safe topics?

JS: Yes there is the weather, always a fecund topic of conversation. I think its true in the Midwest, not so much elsewhere. Houses are the way you talk about—I was listening to an old Garrison Keillor tape the other day. And what happens is the guy who owns the SidetrackTap buys a boat, and he is so happy and he loves his boat. And yet when they ask him about it down at the bar, He says, "Aw, it's a pain in the neck. Have to do this and I have to that." I was laughing so hard. I think that's the way people talk about their houses. They love them and are proud of them and they pay a lot of attention to them and fix them up. And yet when they come up in conversation, it's really important not to seem to be bragging about it.

RB: Or to engage in another American pastime, complaining.

JS: That's true, but we don't complain in California.

RB: Because of what, the air?

JS: I don't know. Peer pressure.

RB: [both laugh] What's the transition been like for you to move from Iowa to California?

JS: I love California. It was like the lid opening up and the flowers blossoming.

RB: Could I infer that you didn't love Iowa?

JS: I did like Iowa in many ways. I always thought and I said this at the time—nobody can accuse me of saying this in retrospect—I said living in central Iowa was very similar to living in Siberia. There wasn't a tremendous amount of stimulation, but friendships were warm and I got a lot of work done and from the point of view of a parent, schools were good and the children were safe on the bus and it had a lot of virtues. But it certainly wasn't California. You didn't wake up every morning and look out the window and gasp.

RB: Which is what you do now?

JS: Yeah. My house has nice view and the sun is shining.

[Rosie again]

RB: Rosie, no. Sit down.

JS: How old is she?

RB: Six.

JS: She's really a good-looking dog. I haven't seen a Lab I thought was good looking in ten years.

RB: She is a very good dog.

JS: I can see that.

RB: Can we also infer that your good mood will continue?

JS: [laughs] It's just going to get better. I wrote a piece for the Washington Post and it was published on Sunday, September 10 (2001) and they asked me to write about autumn. And I wrote about now having moved to California that I now felt that I could dispense with all the pleasures of the seasons. I didn't care about summer. When autumn came around I didn't care. I just liked to wake up every morning with the same thing going as went on the day before. And, of course, the next day everybody's life changed. But it's still my dream.

RB: Is that true?

JS: Yeah.

RB: Not about your dream but about everybody's life having changed.

Author Jane SmileyJS: On September 11th? Well, I don't think history changed. But I think that the way most Americans experienced themselves and their lives changed. At least for the time being. And even if the average person was to kind of get back to other way he or she was before. The government has changed. The government is still resonating with the fears of that period and is responding to its ever-deepening fears by getting more and more aggressive. So the government will force change upon us, even if we don't want it. I think that it's a pity, but I also think that the hijackers in some sense achieved their goal, because they changed the way the government looks at itself and its duties and responsibilities towards its people. And not for the better.

RB: Yeah. Though I question whether this particular regime would have looked at its responsibilities to its constituency with any sense of beneficence.

JS: It would not have looked differently with regard to domestic policies, but it would have been less fearful and aggressive with regard to foreign policy. Bush didn't even have a passport, so what did he care?

RB: Would you write a political satire?

JS: No, because I don't know anything.

RB: What did you know about real estate and development? You went to lawyers for advice (who didn't want to be named in your acknowledgements).

JS: I bought a bunch of houses [laughs] over the years. I knew at least that much about real estate.

RB: It troubled me little that Joe is a decent and smart guy and that Marcus Burns euchres him. Everybody seemed to see what was coming except him. How does this happen?

JS: This happens because he was the last on the boat rather than the first. Also his friends and his family and his partners, they were sucked in first. And so what is he going to do? Then, it becomes a social question, "What are you going to do?" Are you going to say, "No I'm not going to do it"? That is Marcus Burns' stroke of genius, to get himself accepted in the Baldwin family.

RB: The patriarch of the family doesn't accept him. Although he does view everyone with suspicion.

JS: Burns solved his tax problem, what was he going to do? I think everybody in the family knew that the boom was coming down on that tax problem. And so then once the guy has solved your tax problem, it's not just that you are beholden to him. It's that he can go back and unsolve it again.

RB: A happenstance that one son, Norton, the voice of doom continually suggests.

JS: Because Norton has always been a malcontent and a crab and a sourpuss, nobody wants to listen to him. That often happens. The thing that fascinates me always about social groups is the lens that each person brings to every discussion of what could happen or what might happen. And the way that that allows the other people that they know to discount what they are saying, even if the are telling the truth. I think of in the Iliad, the figure of Cassandra. Clearly her family were standing around saying she always says that kind of thing, you know. She was always waking up with some kind of dream; saying disaster is in the making. "C'mon, get it off it! Don't be so crabby." I think that is a funny and interesting thing about people that know each other, is that the better they know you the less likely they are to pay attention to you and what you are saying. [laughs]

RB: Have you ever written a sequel to a book?

JS: No.

RB: Ever intended to?

JS: I was going to write two sequels to the All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, but my agent said, "No the first one tanked, don't you dare."

RB: [laughs] And you listened. Maybe a prequel? I bring this up because I found the most interesting character to be Betty, the Baldwin mother, the most admirable. She has this Cheshire cat, sphinx-like quality.

JS: I'll tell you a story about that. After Horse Heaven came out, I was up in Saratoga at a fundraiser for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and they said we would like to auction off the opportunity to be a name of a character in your next book. I said, "Okay." So I was sitting around at the fundraiser and they auctioned off that privilege or ten thousand dollars. And to the wife as it turned out of the Culver Golf club fortune and her name was Betty Bazzance. So afterwards, I said, "What do you want your character to be like?" She said, "First of all, my maiden name was Betty Baldwin and want it to be that. And second of all, I want the character to be like a woman I used to know and was really fond of who even at seventy or seventy five would go surfing and was just game for anything." And so I came home and I knew that she had to be of a certain generation to be named Betty. And I already had the name for the main character and so having that name Betty Baldwin and that little bit of a characterization from Betty Bazzance, sort of got my mind percolating and that's how the Baldwin’s got their name and that's how Betty got her nature, from that Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation auction.

RB: That is a little odd, isn't it? But how do you start a story?

The government has changed. The government is still resonating with the fears of that period and is responding to its ever deepening fears by getting more and more aggressive. So the government will force change upon us, even if we don't want it.

JS: Anything can be an inspiration. Sometimes life is the inspiration. In this case it was, because someone had told me the story of some real-estate dealings in the '80s and that was the inspiration. In another case, literature can be the inspiration, which is the case in A Thousand Acres—King Lear was the inspiration. And sometimes language itself can be the inspiration, and in this case, the name Betty Baldwin was an inspiration for making things a certain way. For me I only write—I will not say only write—I have a great pleasure in improvisation when I write. And so I don't have to plan everything ahead of time. I really like the idea of picking up this piece and picking up that piece and holding these three or four pieces in my hands and then seeing what is generated from that. Dickens was similar. He might have an idea in his head about what a character might do, but he combed directories and graveyards for name and a lot of what the character was like would rise out of the names that he found. And he also, he was a great improviser.

RB: He serialized. He didn't complete something and then break it up…

JS: No, no, right. One time when he was writing David Copperfield, he went into a store to buy some paper and the woman ahead of him in line was asking for the next episode and he, alone in all of the world knew that he hadn't even begun. He wasn't even worried or intimidated by that. He told Forester it was kind of exciting.

RB: You strike me as a happy, contented writer.

JS: Is that impossible? [laughs]

RB: No, but there is something of an effort to attach suffering and deprivation and misery to the task of writing….not for you?

JS: When I was writing The Greenlanders. I began to see my writing in a different way. I began to see it as not a possession of mine. But as something that came to me and then went away from me. And I began to see it as a lake or a river or an ocean of material I dipped into that was always there. So as long as I could dip into it I could keep going with it. And that gave me a great sense of the richness of the material and the interesting nature of the material around me, and it demoted my sense of my responsibility. All I had to do was dip into what was out there. I didn't have to be constantly be pulling it up, bucket by bucket from my own probably narrow and shallow little basin. I think many writers feel some kind of, the burden of origination or at least the burden of originality. But I feel it's more that, you are standing there and literature makes a swing through you. And you can't help coming up with something original because you are you. And so I think originality is the default. For the novel—I don't know about other stuff.

RB: That sounds right, but it seems to require experience and confidence.

JS: One of my experiences was teaching. I would get undergraduates who were eighteen or nineteen years old and the first time they handed me their fifteen papers and I read through them I knew their names because those fifteen papers were all very distinct from one another. They weren't good. They weren't even minimally competent in many cases. But being who they were was not a problem with them. The question is then if you are teaching writing isn't, "Are they original?" it's "Can they put the parts together? Do they have any sense of where they are going? Is their imagination rich or is it thin? How do I propel them forward toward writing something that is worth reading?”

RB: I find this an astounding conclusion. The forces that weigh against originality are so great in this society that I think it very hard for people to individuate themselves. Maybe when someone decides to go into writing they have already unshackled themselves somewhat.

JS: I never mixed up one student with another. Sometimes I could tell that they had been reading a lot of a certain kind of science fiction or thriller or whatever. But as soon as I invited them to engage, to bring some of their own personal experience to the stuff they had been reading [snaps her fingers] the work changed and they got better. So what I tell students or workshop people now is, don't worry about being original, worry about telling the truth with conviction. If you tell the truth with conviction whatever you write will be interesting, if it's interesting then someone will want to read it. It may not even be true. You might turn around in ten years and say, "Well that wasn't true" because I was mistaken. But if you tell what you think is true with conviction that it is true, then people want to read it. And they will follow your writing until you actually know what you are doing. And they will keep reading it. I have written a lot of novels over the years, and they have been quite different from one another. My stepfather used to say that you can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. My experience is, you can't please some of the people some of the time. Every reviewer, every reader will throw out Good Faith and say, "What a piece of dreck," and read Horse Heaven and say, “This is fabulous.” Or throw out the Greenlanders and say “How could I possibly make my way through this horrible piece of writing?” but love The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. Or even not like my work at all. So you can't ever think that you are going to write this universally acclaimed, beloved, marvelously understood novel. Because the novel is too particular for that. And so what you can do is, you can try a little bit of this and a little bit of that and have some fun. And recognize that even though the Christian Science Monitor reviewer panned every other book you ever wrote, he liked this one.

RB: [laughs]

Jane SmileyJS: And so, Hallelujah. My other essential principle of fiction writing or novel writing is that everyone who is engaged in art is free. That is their most essential quality. And for a novel writer and reader, you are free to do what ever you want. And the novelist has to respect the reader's freedom to not like the novel, to not finish the novel, to not buy the novel because it is the freedom that is essential to art. There is a woman going around talking about a book she wrote, called Reading Lolita in Tehran. I heard her on the radio a couple of weeks ago. And she said this very thing. That the young women that she was reading Lolita with, in secret in Tehran—that was their only experience of freedom, was how they felt about Humbert Humbert and how they felt about Lolita and whether they could keep reading the book or not. And it was a sufficient experience of freedom to maintain their sense of integrity and to maintain their sense of hope. To me that is the essential characteristic of art. So if I am a novelist and I want to write whatever I want, then I have to accept the reader and the reviewers' freedom to throw it out the window. And I think that's great. I think that is the most great thing.

RB: Would you be saying the same thing if had an unsuccessful career as a novelist? How would you know?

JS: I don't know [both laugh]. But I hope so.

RB: I hope so too, otherwise you would be of a type familiar on the American landscape…

JS: Exactly. But if I have an unsuccessful career as a novelist, I am still on the shelf. With some of those guys who are waiting for revival and I can always have a successful posthumous career as a novelist.

RB: Artists do make something and in one way or another leave a trail. As opposed to the great majority of people that make nothing except the sometimes tortuous effort of feeding and clothing and sheltering themselves and their loved ones.

JS: That's right.

RB: So in that way you can say, "Artists, writers, are really lucky."

JS: That's what I say everyday.

RB: You live on a ranch?

JS: I live on acre of land with a house. The horses live at somebody else's ranch. That is a couple of miles away. And those are the people who are luckiest, the horseback riders. But the second luckiest are the artists.

RB: Right. What about the horses?

JS: You know, we can't even get in to that. That's a long, long conversation.

RB: In Good Faith there is a way in which you point out that people see their lives as defined by their occupations.

JS: How many businessmen do you know?

RB: Enough to think that is true.

JS: Yeah that is the temptation of American life. I remember noticing this quite a few years ago. That I knew people who had gone to law school and then I woke up to the fact that fifteen years later they were talking like lawyers and thinking like lawyers. That's the fallout of working a forty-eight-hour week or a sixty-hour week or whatever. It's not that you want to become your job. It's that in some sense that's the result. But the great thing in America is that when you are forty-eight or fifty or whatever, you can wake up and look around and say, "I have another plan." I met a guy and he was the head of Middle Eastern Studies at Berkeley. He had literally written the textbook on the Middle East at Berkeley. And the University of California came to him and said, “We can't afford to keep you on because you have such a high salary. But the pension plan can afford to keep you on, if you want to retire." So at something like fifty-two he retired and took up the violin. And he was really happy. When I met him he was in is early sixties, he had been playing the violin like mad for ten years and he went all around the world and joined little quartets and chambers groups. And every so often he updated his Middle East textbook and he was happy. And that's what people get to do in America. If they want to.

RB: Yes, that's the source of admiration and fascination around the world, our great Second Chance society. On the other hand these days, many people are reengineered out of work and seem not to be able to find gainful employment.

JS: He is not paid for playing the violin either. He's lucky in his pension plan. I don't discount the resilience and originality of any single individual. The question is not, "Are these individuals themselves unable to recover from the blows that government and the economy are dealing them?" The question is, "Does the government and the economy have the right as well as the ability to deal them these blows?" And who decides?

RB: I'm with you.

JS: I was reading about the prime minister of France administering the bad news to all the future pensioners that it's not going to work and he has demographics on his side, I am sorry to say. But there is something gratuitous about what is going on with our government. There is something gratuitous about the government handing a trillion dollars to the million most wealthy people in the country and telling everyone else essentially go figure something out.

RB: 'Gratuitous' seems to me to be a mild word here. What's next for you?

JS: I am finishing up another book about horses, a non-fiction book. A book about the nature of equinity interwoven with a few of my experiences in the strange alternate universe of the race track and then I am also working on a non-fiction book about the nature and history of the novel. It's lots of fun.

RB: Do you write all the time?

JS: Um huh.

RB: Always to publish?

JS: Oh sure.

RB: I was thinking about the demands and pressure of publishing.

JS: I find the more that comes the easier it comes rather than vice versa. I tried to slow down and the energy got attenuated and fell off. If I give myself permission to be lazy pretty soon I am lying around in bed reading books and not doing anything. So I have to give myself a little kick and get out and do it then I find my energy rising rather than getting tired.

RB: Well, good. Thank you.

JS: Oh, you are welcome.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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