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Smiley finds a sexy way around L.A. noir

Times Staff Writer

JANE SMILEY was walking on a sunny afternoon near the top of San Remo, a winding street in Pacific Palisades. This was the block where the 57-year-old novelist pictured the home of Max, the possibly past-his-prime Oscar-winning film director who’s at the center of her new book, “Ten Days in the Hills.”

It’s billed as a Hollywood novel, but it’s just as much a novel about sex, and it’s a novel that feels burrowed into Los Angeles’ landscape and real estate. Smiley uses a Decameron-like setup: A group of Max’s family and friends hole up together for 10 days in March 2003 that happen to fall just after the Oscars and just at the beginning of the Iraq war. They tell a lot of stories and have a lot of sex, both the relationship kind and the just-for-kicks kind, all of which Smiley describes patiently and in detail (more on this later; suffice it to say here it’s no surprise to learn Smiley has been anthologized a few times in the “Best American Erotica” series).

There’s a detour to a bigger and much more elaborate house owned by some shady Russians, but the heart of the book is in Max’s place on this green and pretty street, with its soaring glimpses of canyon between the closely set houses. They look spiffy but homey too. “You can see how these houses are modest, in their way,” Smiley said.

She had been inside one of them years ago. She had a friend who was Andre Agassi’s sports-medicine doctor, and when Agassi got engaged to Brooke Shields, Smiley went along with her friend to the engagement party at their place on San Remo. “I think it was this one,” Smiley said, standing in front of a tidy white house, by no means flashy or enormous-looking. From the street, on the night of the party, it had seemed an unassuming one-story structure, but when she went inside she saw that it unfolded to several levels built into the hillside, which made it feel cozy and intimate. And yet there was a spectacular view all the way to the Getty, and separate terraced outdoor areas.

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That house, for Smiley, represented a certain strata of Hollywood occupied by the characters in her book, who include 58-year-old Max; his down-to-earth 50-year-old girlfriend, Elena; his glamorous actress-singer ex-wife, Zoe; their serious-minded daughter Isabel; and Zoe’s Jamaican mother, Delphine, who still lives in Max’s guest house. Max may have an Oscar, and Zoe may be a national sex symbol with a hefty page on IMDB, but they are members of the working Hollywood that people often find to be surprisingly Midwestern.

“These are people who came from modest backgrounds, worked hard and were interested in what they were doing,” Smiley said of her characters. “And so they haven’t been living in the world of Hollywood as a playground for the fabulously wealthy. Because I just don’t see how a director or producer or anyone who wanted to have a long and productive career could party all night and do drugs and still do the work.”

Celebrity, whatever

SMILEY was raised in Missouri and lived for many years in Iowa until she moved to Carmel Valley, Calif., in 1997. There, she has happily immersed herself in writing her books as well as raising and riding thoroughbreds, blogging furiously against the Bush administration for the Huffington Post and, after three divorces, living harmoniously with the man she calls her “partner,” Jack Canning, a handsome, blue-eyed Eastern transplant and real estate agent turned contractor, whom she met when he did work on her house. Her horses race sometimes at Santa Anita, so she comes down to L.A. now and then, but not for long stretches. She has a 14-year-old at home and two grown children.

Smiley is 6 feet 2 and thin, neat but unfussy, and athletic-looking. For her, meeting, say, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro would probably have been a much bigger thrill than meeting Brad Pitt. When her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Thousand Acres” was made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange, Smiley was not involved, and she does not seem to have felt left out. She is the opposite of star-struck. “I got invited on the set once,” she said without any discernible excitement. “I went to the premiere.”

If one were to list the ways Jane Smiley is an unusual candidate for writing a Hollywood novel, this blase approach to celebrity and glitz would be a good starting point. In fact, all the usual tropes of the Hollywood novel are conspicuously absent from “Ten Days in the Hills.” It is not concerned with the bleak decline of its characters’ souls, or their bloated egos, or the willful destruction of American moviemaking by wicked studio executives, or the ugly truths lurking behind the pretty surfaces of Hollywood. The novel does not contain the words “Botox” or “liposuction.” Yes, the Iraq war casts a shadow over the novel’s privileged L.A. residents, and yes, there are shady Russian moneymen involved, but mostly it’s a book in which Hollywood is boiled down to its most life-affirming essences: sex, work and storytelling.

Why has it taken so long for a serious novelist to consider Hollywood and decide to ditch the noir, self-loathing and 24/7 angst?

Sitting in a Topanga restaurant, Smiley pondered the question. “Every single book about Hollywood talks about how crass and commercial it is,” Smiley said. “But what if we asked ‘How is it art?’ instead of ‘How is it money?’ ” Besides, she said, she is not a fan of the usual run of Hollywood novels. “Noir doesn’t appeal to me particularly,” she said. It’s not that Smiley doesn’t do darkness -- her early novella “The Age of Grief” is a prime example of her attunement to the minor key -- but, as she put it, “there’s a difference between dark and sinister.”

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Perhaps one explanation for the sinister cast of classic Hollywood novels is that they have tended to be written by insiders, literary men (mostly) who have tried the screenwriting game and left it disillusioned, if not broken or, in some cases, eventually, dead (think of William Holden, floating face down in the pool at the beginning of “Sunset Boulevard,” as a stand-in for all of them). Over time the genre moved toward noir.

But as in most things, technology opened the door for someone like Smiley, who has no personal beef with the Dream Factory, to offer a different perspective. She found a kind of backdoor route to insider Hollywood knowledge in the availability, right around the time she began the novel in 2003, of DVDs with directors’ commentary.

“I don’t know how I would have done it without that,” she said. “You would have a very hard time getting that person to talk for an hour and half about that particular movie. And so that was the sine qua non of this book -- it gave me a sort of sense of how movie people, especially directors, saw themselves.”

Sex and the hills

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BUT if the novel’s matter-of-fact take on Hollywood is in some ways the most daring thing about “Ten Days in the Hills,” it’s perhaps predictably making even more of a splash for its equally straightforward approach to sex. John Updike’s enthusiastic review in the New Yorker, for instance, showed the dean of the American adultery novel all in a lather about the rampant sex. “The sexual descriptions set a new mark for explicitness in a work of non-pornographic intent,” Updike wrote.

“My take on the Updike review was, first, ‘Did I really do that?’ ” Smiley said. “Like when you wake up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Uh-oh.’ But then I looked at the book, and first of all, I put that R on the back cover” -- a jokey fake MPAA rating for the book. “Obviously, it was playful, but I felt I had warned people. I had dealt with it. And then I realized, ‘Wait a minute. There’s a lot of explicit stuff out there!’ It’s not like being explicit is so new.”

Her theory is that Updike, whom she has met and calls “a truly twinkly eyed man,” wanted to endorse the book but, being an old hand at the game, didn’t want to do so in a way that her publisher could splash all over the cover as an advertisement. Updike, she said admiringly, is “tricky.”

Still, she said, she has been a little taken aback that people think the sexual detail in the book is so out there. She had not meant to shock. “What I found interesting, what kept me going, was trying to capture that experience we’ve all had. You’re talking or doing something with your partner, and you start making love, and all that other stuff doesn’t go away. You’re still thinking in some part of your mind, ‘Where is my shoe?’

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It was the mundane continuity of sex that struck Smiley the most. “I wanted these characters’ lives to go on, through the sex part and into the rest of the day. Because a novel works this way: You do something. You think about it. You do something. You think about it. You do something. You think about it. Sex is no different from that. You can’t treat it as different from that. Time doesn’t stop.”

As for how she shifted so easily between the male and female point of view in her sex scenes, she said it was easy. “Men talk about sex all the time. All you have to do is listen and you can mimic them.”

It’s hard for her, she said, to get away from the idea that it’s because she’s a woman that her characters’ sexual escapades have already become an issue. “It’s a sign of how women’s place gets bigger and smaller. We happen to be currently living in a moment where a lot of people have a lot to say about what women should be doing. And so how much sex I can have in my novel is going to be part of that discussion.”

In the ‘90s, Smiley went to see “Meet Joe Black” with Canning and found herself appalled at how little a typical Hollywood movie spoke to her idea of what sex and love are about. “You’re supposed to believe the love Brad Pitt finds when he enters our world is transcendent, worthy of our gaze.” It’s partly to do with being a woman, she thinks: Canning, she was surprised to see, was moved to tears by the movie, while she was left cold.

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“That’s not what I think love is. So, I thought, what would a Hollywood movie be like that would show what I think love is?” What Smiley wanted to see, she said, was “90 minutes of two people who actually spend time together and enjoyed communicating, and that communication would be through talking and sex.”

Hence the project Max talks about wanting to make throughout “Ten Days in the Hills”: a movie called “My Lovemaking With Elena,” modeled on “My Dinner With Andre.” Is he joking? It’s hard to say. But Smiley is certainly not, and in that you can see how she’s put a little of herself into each of her characters. Through Max, she has, in effect, brought her dream movie to life, and to hell with anyone who doubts its validity.

“You would never get it on the screen,” Elena says at one point. Max answers, “Just because of a little penetration? A little penetration embedded in a long conversation? I don’t know about that.”

maria.russo@latimes.com

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