Books by Cheryl Olsen’s Bed

Ok, so this is a bit of a fudge, since all thirteen of her novels aren’t by my bed. But we went to Jane Smiley’s reading of Private Life at Book Passage in Corte Madera this week and there was a lot that’s share-worthy and it’s all about books, so I didn’t think you’d mind.

All the novels, and her four non-fiction books were on display, and Jane set the irreverent tone for the night with a quick children’s game of Duck, Duck, Goose, using the more grownup Sex, Sex, No Sex deliniations as she hovered over each title.

We found out that Private Life is based on her great-aunt and her great-aunt’s husband, and that Rose Wilder Lane (Laura Engle Wilder’s daughter, who was her inspiration for the Little House series) was in turn Jane’s inspiration for Dora, the main character’s modern sister-in-law. No spoiler alert needed, we also learned that “in the Scandinavian tradition, things start out bad and get worse.”

But wait, there’s more. On her other books, Jane had this to say:

• On A Thousand Acres (her Pulitzer-winning novel based on “King Lear”— In Shakespeare, the scene where Goneril and Regan are talking about the knights, the heartless possibility of taking over their father’s powers, “I thought, ‘why not?’ I was always on the girls’ side.”

And, “As I was driving from Minneapolis to Ames, through desolate landscape and weather, I thought, ‘I should set that Lear book here.’”

• On Greenlanders — “I got a Fulbright to Iceland (nobody wants to go there).” She adored Old Norse sagas, End of Time sagas . . . “and here’s one that happened!”

• On her biography of Charles Dickens — While other biographers had taken a Freudian approach, working from childhood to the novels, Jane decided her job was to interweave his novels into his life. She considers Our Mutual Friend Dickens’ greatest book.

• On young adult books (she’s written four; number three will be out in September) — Writing YA is “unbelievably fun! I grew up on these girls’ horse books. They’re all about power,” and how young girls negotiate it.

• On research for various books —

For 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel she read 130 novels (but not critics, she was quick to add).

For A Thousand Acres, she read the Wednesday agricultural section of the Des Moines Register

For Horse Heaven, she went to the race track, and wrote it off

For Moo, she gossiped with people at Iowa State about things like the kid who purportedly could pee across the interstate

Asked when she knew she could write, Jane recounted the tale of giving “Jeffrey Forgive Me” (which would become her first published short story) to a friend on their way to a reading by another author. At the same time the presenting writer grew quiet, the friend who was reading Jane’s story burst out laughing at a passage. Jane said, “That’s when I knew I was a writer.”

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2 responses to “Books by Cheryl Olsen’s Bed”

  1. Don

    Thanks, Cheryl.

    Reading Jane’s Greenlanders at this very moment in time, which feels like an end-time, which as Jane notes is very Scandanavian. Wish I’d read it when it came out 20 years ago, then I could’ve pressed it on my siblings and lectured them on the need to preserve lots of dried sealmeat. (And we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in today.)

    I am staggered that she read 130 novels.Talk about sustaining our tribe!

  2. Esther

    Books by the Bed is always something to look forward to, and causes my mind’s eye to have a stack this high – – your comments make me want to add more.

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