Questions for Jane Smiley on A Private Life
Q: Some of the characters in Private Life are based in part on members of your own family--your main character Margaret Mayfield on your great aunt, Frances See and Andrew Early on her infamous scientist husband Thomas Jefferson Jackson See, a naval astronomer whose increasingly implausible theories made him an outcast in the scientific community. Did you ever meet them?
A: I didn’t know my aunt at all, or her husband. She died when I was about two or three. She was my grandfather’s much older sister--he was the youngest of ten children and she was number two or three. But my mother and her siblings were quite fond of her. As for her husband, they thought he was just an eccentric family uncle, and I don’t think they realized how infamous he was in the physics establishment.
Q: How much of Margaret and Andrew draw from your aunt and uncle’s actual experience and how much is purely fictional?
A: There were only a few family stories that revealed personal details about them--for example that she drove an elderly Franklin and had a good sense of humor. My mother had visited her in the nineteen-forties, I think, and she remembered that my aunt loved Oriental art (a trait she shares with my character Margaret Mayfield). But almost everything else about Margaret is made up. I could not seem to get her sense of humor into the novel--the material was just too dark for me. My uncle is more famous, and there were plenty of stories about him--almost all of them revealing him as appallingly egomaniacal and obsessed. There was an article about him in a physics journal which described him, essentially, as the kind of scientist you were not supposed to be.
The important thing to remember is that Margaret and Andrew take some of their inspiration from these real people, but the story about them--that is, the plot of the novel--is entirely made up by me. All of the other characters and all of the events of the novel are fictional. For me, the center of the idea was in wondering what it would be like to be married to someone like Andrew, but there was no family evidence to say how my great-aunt felt about it. Just as one example, I had to prune both Margaret’s and Andrew’s family trees--both had countless brothers and sisters that would overwhelm a 300-page novel. I also had to concoct a fascinating mother for Andrew--but Mrs. Early is a theory on my part, not a portrait of anyone related to Thomas Jefferson Jackson See. While I was working on the novel, I thought of Henry James, and his fear of "developments"--that the inspiring material would proliferate and get out of control. I was also interested in the idea of Missouri and St. Louis at the end of the 19th century, after the Civil War and around the time of the World’s Fair. St. Louis is a beautiful but strange city. Because of climate and epidemics of disease, in the mid-19th century, it was considered one of the worst places in the U.S. to live, but it was actually very cosmopolitan and self-satisfied, with beautiful architecture and thriving commerce. Right in the center of things for some decades.
Q: Did you have to do any research into their lives? Into the science and astronomy that Andrew studies? Or the historical events this novel spans?
A: I visited their house in Vallejo and also Mare Island, where the U.S. Navy had a base and a ship-building yard from about 1850 through the Second World War, twice, and I also read about See. His Moon Capture theory was included in a book about the moon that was published a few years ago. He is a presence on the Web, but he is still considered too "Newtonian" to be respected for anything. The scandals in Dr. Andrew Early’s life are somewhat similar to the scandals in Dr. See’s life. The key for me was in trying to see things through his point of view--to make a logic system that made sense to him even though it didn’t make sense to anyone else. I think that it is easy for a novelist to understand a conspiracy theorist--the story gets bigger and bigger, and it all just fits together in one’s mind. The person creating the story simply cannot understand why it doesn’t make sense to others. I think the most telling article for me was a piece See published in the San Francisco Examiner called "The Ether Exists and I Have Seen It." The article was from about 1925, and included six-pointed figures See had drawn. Even to an English major like me, this was absurd. However, I think that if he were still alive, he would insist that he had predicted the discovery of Dark Matter.
Q: Andrew has all sorts of paranoid theories but he has a particular obsession with Albert Einstein who he believes is a fraud and also believes has come to California to spy on him (and on America). Why is he so fixated on Einstein?
A: I think if someone feels himself to be a great genius, then he is ready to joust with the one whom he considers his most dangerous rival. No one in Andrew’s life considers Andrew and Einstein to be on a par--except, of course, for Andrew. He becomes fixated on Einstein because he simply cannot accept Einstein’s ideas and can’t figure out how to stop them. He sees himself as a Lone Ranger type, preserving the truth from the encroachments of idiocy. There are so many novels and non-fiction works about geniuses who were right in the end. But what if the genius is not right in the end? There are more of those and Andrew is in that camp for certain.
Q: You have described this novel as "A parable of American life." What do you mean by that?
A: Andrew is a famous man and a genius. His town is proud to have produced him, and he is very conscious of his Americanness--he is the new man from the new world in the new century. And then he isn’t. But he never loses that sense of entitlement. Margaret seems to me like many well-meaning Americans who are caught up in the schemes of our more grandiose and overbearing citizens. What are they doing? How should we feel about it? Should we stop them? Can we stop them? If we can’t stop them, then what? When the people around you consider themselves visionaries, then you are in part responsible for their actions. That’s what I mean by her marriage being a parable of American life.
Q: You open the novel with the following quote from Rose Wilder Lane, "In those days all stories ended with the wedding." Why this quote?
A: Rose Wilder Lane wrote a book about growing up in 19th century Missouri called Old Home Town. She was an interesting woman in many ways--she was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and a very busy, well traveled, and prolific newspaperwoman, beginning in about 1900. Some people think that she ghost-wrote the Little House series--if not, then she certainly helped write it. She later became a libertarian, and one of the originators of modern Libertarianism. If you look at her picture, she has a plain but interesting face. I used her as the inspiration for the character of Dora and adopted her into the rich side of my St. Louis family, and set her up in a house by Forest Park, and sent her to Europe. I am very fond of Dora, and I think she represents a certain type of liberated woman of her day.
The essential question of the book, I think, is "what does marriage mean?" In those days, the choices were pretty stark, and so there are several different marriages in the novel. Margaret’s sisters are desirable--Beatrice because she has a claim to a large property and Elizabeth because she is young and charming and has good connections. Dora and Margaret are less desirable, and so the one has a subtly arranged marriage, and the other takes advantage of Progressivism to not get married at all. But the previous generation suffers, too--Dora’s mother is held in contempt by her husband and Margaret’s mother is widowed early and suffers considerable hardship both married and as a widow. So the real theme of the novel is marriage--who do you marry, how is the marriage to be lived through, what does it feel like to, more or less, place a bet and then live with the consequences?
Actually, most women’s stories begin with the wedding, but that’s not the story most novels that Margaret might have been reading addressed. Even now, the novels that continue to be most beloved, like Pride and Prejudice, end with the wedding. For Margaret, reading does not offer her a way to think about her life as it changes or the problems that the 20th century presents. I don’t think these issues have disappeared, either. Marriage is more of a choice now, but the issue of how do you co-exist for a long time with someone who may be very idiosyncratic is still a big one.
(Photo © Mark Bennington)
In her latest novel, after Ten Days in the Hills (2007), the Pulitzer Prize–winning author offers a cold-eyed view of the compromises required by marriage while also providing an intimate portrait of life in the Midwest and West during the years 1883–1942. By the time she reaches the age of 27, Margaret Mayfield has known a lot of tragedy in her life. She has lost two brothers, one to an accident, the other to illness, as well as her father, who committed suicide. Her strong-minded mother, Lavinia, knows that her daughter’s prospects for marriage are dim and takes every opportunity to encourage Margaret’s friendship with eccentric scientist Andrew Early. When the two marry and move to a naval base in San Francisco, Margaret becomes more than Andrew’s helpmeet—she is also his cook, driver, and typist as well as the captive audience for his rants against Einstein and his own quirky theories about the universe. As Smiley covers in absorbing detail both private and world events—a lovely Missouri wedding, the chaos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the wrenching death of a baby—she keeps at the center of the narrative Margaret’s growing realization that she has married a madman and her subsequent attempts to deal with her marriage by becoming adept at “the neutral smile, the moment of patient silence,” before giving in to bitterness. Smiley casts a gimlet eye on the institution of marriage even as she offers a fascinating glimpse of a distant era. --Joanne Wilkinson