Jane Smiley is an author who doesn't shy away from ambitious literary projects. She penned "The Greenlanders," a saga about the dying Greenlandic civilization, in the epic Norse tradition. In "A Thousand Acres," she reinvented Shakespeare's King Lear in America's contemporary heartland — and won a Pulitzer Prize. She's composed numerous novels, five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. In her latest literary pursuit, the "Last Hundred Years" trilogy, Smiley explores America through a family whose roots begin in the fertile soil of a Depression-era Iowa farm. As Smiley follows a cast of captivating characters across multiple generations, she draws a stunning portrait of American culture through the past century. The final volume of the trilogy, "Golden Age," will be released Tuesday.
What made you want to explore the industrialization of farming in the Last Hundred Years trilogy?
Farming is the basis of any culture's life. You cannot live without food and so you cannot live without farming. But, for most people, once they're not in the countryside, they don't think about it. So I wanted to think about it. … The things a culture prides itself on will eventually destroy it. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is that Americans are so proud of themselves — it's sort of the way you are if you're an American: We've done so much for the world; we've invented so much. But the very things that we think we are proud of, such as commercial, conventional farming, can be the things that destroy us. I think that what the novel lets you do is talk about cause and effect; to go from the past to the present to the future.
What in your mind has changed most in our culture's relationship to food over the past century?
The corporatization of food. The combination of seed companies, pesticide companies, supermarkets and grain futures trading — there's an unbreakable hold that businesses have over food production now. What we eat is what corporations find profitable. …To me, the iconic representation of this is Rice Krispies treats, which I admit that I adored when I was a child. But what were they made of? Rice Krispies, marshmallows, butter and sugar. There would be absolutely nothing healthy about them, but you would be persuaded by pictures and ads to eat them. Once you tried it, you had to have it.
Our culture seems to have embraced everything about industrialized food. And it's been terrible for the land; it's been terrible for our health. I find it fascinating, actually. The way that a culture chooses to feed itself is really [indicative of] how that culture thinks of itself. So obviously we must be a culture that thinks of itself — that thinks of the land and the crops and the nutritional basis of our food — as much less important than some kind of instant pleasure from food.
How do you personally try to cultivate a healthy relationship with the food you eat?
I like to cook. I grew up in a family where everybody really loved to cook and I watched my grandmother, whose great pleasure was cooking. …When [my husband and I] get up in the morning, almost the first thing we talk about is what we're having for dinner. That sets the tone of the day and I know what we're going to shop for and what we're going to eat for dinner. And we're always sorry that dinner doesn't last very long. I love to cook dinner and I love to bake and I love to make ice cream — I like that part of my day a lot.
In "Golden Age'" you explore the consequences of farming with agrochemicals and genetically modified crops. What are your personal feelings about this?
I think pesticides always turn out to do more damage than the corporations who promoted them thought they were going to do — or said they were going to do. Because all pesticides are an experiment. And so they do the experiment and it turns out that all these animals are dying or these animals are damaged or these things have gone wrong with people.
Genetically modified foods are another experiment that Monsanto decided to foist upon the general public. There are two sides to that. There's a big controversy about whether genetically modified foods are actually dangerous. I feel that they are, and there's plenty of evidence that shows that they are. But the other side of it is, even if they aren't dangerous, the insistence by Monsanto that they now own the genome makes every farmer dependent upon paying Monsanto. It becomes a Monsanto monopoly where profit trumps everything else. And, to me, the two sides are equally outrageous.
An important symbol in the trilogy is the movement away from horse farming to tractor farming. I know that you are a horse enthusiast. How does riding and caring for horses balance your writing life?
As far as fitness and health, I think riding is good exercise. It uses up calories, but it's pretty easy on your knees and your hips because the horse is carrying your weight. But I don't do the really strenuous things like eventing or endurance riding. I just go and ride. And then in the course of taking care of the horses and tacking up the horses, you walk here and you walk there. So basically I'm out for an hour and a half or two hours, and that seems to be pretty good exercise.
I've had this experience a lot where I'm sort of scratching my head about whatever book it is, whatever I'm doing in the book, and then I go over to the barn and while I'm tacking up the horse or riding the horse, the thought comes to me of what to do. It's like any exercise that takes your mind away from the problem you're working on and the relaxation allows new thoughts to come in. But then, as you can see in "Horse Heaven" and other books I've written, it's also been an inspiration to me.