Jane Smiley on her book featuring animals: “It feels like a good time to be thinking about kindness and trying to get by.”

From a Los Angeles Times story by Stuart Miller headlined “For Jane Smiley in the year 2020, tough times call for furry tales”:

Jane Smiley earned a Pulitzer Prize for recasting “King Lear” as a modern tragedy on an Iowa farm and a National Book Award nomination for “Some Luck,” the first book in a century-spanning American trilogy. In other words, Smiley is a serious writer. But she doesn’t take herself too seriously as a person. . . .

“I used to sit and strum my banjo, which I don’t do very well, and my Jack Russell terrier would come running in and start barking and then do a little howling,” Smiley says on a phone call from Carmel Valley, where she relocated in 1996 after many years in Iowa. “My German short-haired pointer, who was incredibly graceful and lovely but would lay on the couch and look like she was in despair, would then stare at me from across the room and join in with the most beautiful howl.”

This anecdote clarifies the inspiration for a German short-haired pointer named Frida, one of two heroines in Smiley’s latest book, “Perestroika in Paris.” The novel has nothing to do with the Soviet thaw of the late ’80s; it is built instead on the unlikely friendship between Frida and a racehorse named Perestroika.

Smiley, who has ridden horses since childhood, writes about them frequently in essays, novels like “Horse Heaven” and young adult books like “The Georges and the Jewels.”

What makes this book unique, though, is that while “Perestroika” has several important human characters. . . Smiley mostly writes from inside the animal’s minds: Frida and Perestroika; a raven named Raoul; a mallard couple named Sid and Nancy; and a young rat named Kurt.

While Smiley has spoken publicly of her disdain for the outgoing president and his party, the book is no “Animal Farm”-style allegory. In fact, it is wholly apolitical. In an era beset by polarization and even violent tribalism, it feels like a gift to find a novel in which characters of different species — with different desires and instincts — come together to build a community.

“It feels like a good time to be thinking about the things in this book, about kindness and trying to get by,” Smiley says. . . .

This unusual tale is Smiley’s 32nd book and her 22nd since 2000. She traces the variety and volume of her work to an early passion for books. “I had a flashlight and would read under the covers and loved the sense of private engagement with the book,” she says.

In eighth grade, Smiley began taking Latin, which sparked an interest in its affect on English through Norman French; by the time she was at Vassar, she was fascinated by Old English, and in graduate school at the University of Iowa she studied Old Norse.

Her mother was another important influence; after divorcing Smiley’s father when Smiley was 2, she became a newspaper reporter. “She was an example, someone who has a typewriter on the dining table and has deadlines and bangs out the story she has to write,” Smiley says. . . .

At UC Riverside, Smiley teaches a pragmatic approach to writing. The goal is to be wholly nonjudgmental on the first draft. “I’m not someone who writes lots and lots of words per day. Usually it’s about 1,000 or 1,200,” she says. “I’m going slow enough to pay attention but going fast enough to have energy.” After that, it’s time to turn on “your reader brain” and edit. . . .


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