Excerpted from Good Faith by Jane Smiley. Copyright © 2003 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CONVERSATION WITH JANE SMILEY
Q: What gave you the idea for GOOD FAITH?
A: My boyfriend told me a story about some people he knew in the 1980’s. His story meshed with thoughts I had already had about the failures of deregulation. I have always considered "James Watt" fighting words. In addition, I wanted to write another novel about what Barbara Ehrenreich used to call "the worst years of our lives."
Q: In reading GOOD FAITH, one can't help but think about the recent events in Corporate America, Enron specifically. Was that on your mind as you wrote this novel?
A: I was almost finished with the novel when the Enron story broke, but as early as the California energy crisis of 2001, I was sure that there was some double dealing going on. Enron, the White House, and all of Bush’s oil patch Republican friends seemed to be too cozy by half as far as I was concerned.
Q: GOOD FAITH is full of details about house building, selling, development, Savings & Loans, etc. What kind of research went into this novel?
A: I read several books, including one called Fraud 101. I consulted my memory and the memories of lots of others. I have always been interested in houses and real estate.
Q: Many people think of the 1980s as a rather grim decade. Why did you want to tell this story against the backdrop of the 1980s, and do you think there are lessons we learned coming out of that time?
A: Actually, I think only intelligent people think of the 80s as a grim decade. I think too many people think of the 80s as lots of fun, or as a time when there was "a new dawn for America.” I think of the 80s as the beginning of a tragic civic decline that resulted in the stolen election of 2000 and the national chaos and uneasiness that we have today. The 80s were when the government gave the corporations permission to do whatever they wanted, including not paying taxes, not following health and safety regulations, shamelessly exploiting the environment, not contributing in any way to the public good.
Q: This novel follows HORSE HEAVEN. So, who do you like writing about more, animals or people?
A: Animals and animals with people.
Q: GOOD FAITH picks up on some of the themes you wrote about in A THOUSAND ACRES—land, money, greed, good intentions—on a very different landscape (Suburban New Jersey). What is it about land that can make people crazy?
A: The idea that it is limited, that all the good spots are almost taken.
Q: You last book was set in the world of horse racing. This book the world of real estate and investing. Both examine the idea of Risk and "Betting on a sure thing." So, do you think there is any such thing as a sure thing?
A: Change is a sure thing.
Q: So Jane, there are some very steamy sex scenes in GOOD FAITH. I have to ask A) how the idea of sex fits in with the idea of risk and investment, and B)are these fun to write?
A: Sex fits in with everything
B: These were, because I liked Felicity and Joey and I wanted them to have a good time.
1. Having given Joe Stratford the role of narrator, Smiley gives her readers a great deal of access to Joe’s thoughts. What difference does it make that the novel is narrated in first person rather than third? Why does Smiley give us the story from Joe’s perspective?
2. What kind of a person is Joe? What does he think about himself, his marriage to Sherry [pp. 15–16], and his life? How accurate are his judgments about himself and other people?
3. Look closely at a couple of scenes in which Felicity and Joe are alone together. What specific details of Smiley’s writing style affect the reader’s experience of their love affair? Does Felicity love Joe? Does he love her? If he does, why does he not pursue her more actively?
4. Discuss the main elements of Felicity’s character. What is admirable about her? To what degree is she a typical dissatisfied homemaker motivated by boredom and restlessness? Is she playing a game with Joe for her own amusement? How important is the conversation between Felicity and Joe in which she tells him, “You do tempt me to find the limits of your kindness” [see pp. 141– 43]?
5. What do secondary yet vibrant characters like the Davids, Gottfried Nuelle, and George Sloan contribute to the novel’s world? Do they create a sense of realism? Are they there for comic relief? How important is humor in Smiley’s writing?
6. In what sense is Jane Smiley interested in exposing certain truths about small-town, middle-class America? What points does Good Faith raise about how ordinary people respond when they seem to see a chance to increase their wealth and raise their social status? What social concerns might have motivated Smiley to take on a novel about the 1980s? How is the present social climate different, and how is it similar, to those greedy years?
7. Is Joe a man who is looking for others to tell him what to do? Consider the descriptions of his relationship with Sally Baldwin and with his ex-wife Sherry. Consider his relationship with Marcus, and with Felicity. Is passivity a major flaw in Joe? Might it be considered a part of his charm?
8. What effect has Joe’s upbringing had on his character? Discuss his relationship with his parents and his rejection of their religious life. How strong a sense of ethics does Joe have? At what point, if any, does he begin to act and think more like Marcus?
9. How does Smiley present Marcus Burns, and how does she develop his character? What are his attractive qualities? Does Smiley imply that Marcus had talents that were somehow misdirected? What propels him into criminality?
10. What is Marcus’s appeal to Joe? On what is their friendship based? On page 413 Joe describes the after-effects of Marcus’s betrayal and wonders why, since Marcus had already received the money from the loan, he also took Joe’s savings. What might have been Marcus’s reason for delivering this deeply personal blow to Joe’s self-esteem?
11. Is this novel concerned more with character or with plot? To what degree is the element of surprise important to the story? Is there a sense of inevitability about what is going to happen to Joe, and to Joe’s money? If so, how does this affect the reading experience? What, if anything, is surprising about the final chapters?
12. The novel raises interesting questions about real estate development, the value of the countryside, and one’s sense of place. Can you infer Smiley’s feelings about the widespread transformation of the American landscape during such periods as the 80s? What human emotions drive the forces of change?
13. Is it surprising that central characters like Joe, Gordon, and Felicity escape prosecution? What conclusions can the reader draw from Felicity’s involvement with Marcus and Jane?
14. Is it surprising that central characters like Joe, Gordon, and Felicity escape prosecution? What conclusions can the reader draw from Felicity’s involvement with Marcus and Jane?