A New York Times Interview With Author Jane Smiley

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Jane Smiley Wishes Readers Would Embrace More Diverse Books”:

“It’s always tempting for readers to read novels about people like themselves,” says the author, whose latest novel is “A Dangerous Business.” “One of the benefits of literature classes in school is that kids get an early exposure to people who are not like them.”

What books are on your night stand?

“Mythos: The Greek Myths Reimagined,” by Stephen Fry, “The Hollow Land,” by Jane Gardam, “Young Eliot: From St. Louis to ‘The Waste Land,’” by Robert Crawford, “Either/Or,” by Elif Batuman, “Grand Avenue: A Novel in Stories,” by Greg Sarris, “The Blessing,” by Nancy Mitford.

What’s the last great book you read?

“Horse,” by Geraldine Brooks. I’ve read all of Brooks’s novels, and plenty of books about horses and racing, but this one is a revelation. It jumps around the world (beginning in Georgetown, then zipping off to Sydney, Australia, later heading into the 19th century), and it turns into a quest to discover and reveal some of the mysteries of early horse racing. The style is conversational and amusing, even though the subject matter can be dramatic. Every character is carefully and believably explored, including Lexington, the horse, an excellent racehorse and one of the best sires, ever, whose closest relationship is with his enslaved caretaker and exercise rider, whose insights into Lexington are spectacular. There is plenty of drama, given the era (1850s), but Brooks handles it perfectly. She also reveals a lot about racing art and biological science. Best horse book I’ve ever read, including all of my own.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

I don’t quite know what you mean by “classic,” but I recently read “Kindred,” by Octavia Butler, and, if “classic” means a book that everyone should read and learn from, that’s the one. I bought it years ago, and it was sitting on one of my many stacks. I saw it, opened the cover, and read it in a day. The description of the narrator passing back and forth in time between being a slave in the family of some of her ancestors and living her current life in Los Angeles is transfixing.

About a year ago, I also listened to George Eliot’s “Felix Holt, the Radical” as an audiobook. I love to listen to audiobooks because you hear them word for word and can’t skim. When I tried reading Eliot’s book, I saw it as a take on the 19th-century British political system, and I didn’t finish it, even though I had always loved “Middlemarch.” But when I was reading it, I didn’t pick up on Eliot’s sense of humor, which is very evident in the audiobook. Felix Holt widened my sense of who George Eliot was and how she thought.

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

I’m not sure how to define “badly written.” I remember reading “Moby-Dick” about 20 years ago, getting through it with some interest, and forgetting everything about it by the next day. Around the same time, I read “Ulysses,” and even though I barely understood anything, the images that I envisioned while I was reading stuck in my mind. I also think that the archaic style of, say, 18th-century novels might seem like “bad writing” today, but the characteristics of an archaic style are informative about how the writers and readers thought about things around the time when the books were being written.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I grew up reading in the bathtub and in bed. I now read in our hot tub (104 degrees Fahrenheit). It is soothing to read and listen to the birds, to look at the flickering shadows or up at the stars, then go back to my book.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“The Year of Lear,” by James Shapiro. The standard belief is that we can’t know much about Shakespeare’s life, but Shapiro opens his life up by exploring in a detailed way what was going on when Shakespeare was writing “Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” He believably describes what a man of his time in his profession would have been witnessing and trying to understand while he was having to keep earning a living. While I was reading it, I felt like I was walking down the street with Mr. Bill.

“Bet the Farm,” by Beth Hoffman. This is an honest account of Hoffman’s attempt, with her husband, to save her husband’s family farm by moving to the farm, in Iowa, from San Francisco and assuming control, which is a lot more difficult (and eye-opening) than Hoffman had thought when they had visited her husband’s family from time to time, and then decided to make the move. We sometimes read news about farming, but this is a much more detailed description of how dangerous and alluring it is, both physically and financially.

What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

“David Copperfield,” because you have to read a Dickens novel in order to understand 19th-century England (both setting and language) and this is the smoothest one and the most easy to visualize.

What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

Whatever scared the pants off them the first time around. For me, that would have been “The House of the Seven Gables,” which I tried after reading “The Scarlet Letter” for school.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Isabel Wilkerson, David Hackett Fischer, Geraldine Brooks, Laila Lalami, Annette Gordon-Reed.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

I never feel guilty about reading a book, but I think Randy Rainbow would like me to feel guilty about “Playing With Myself.”

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

I wooed my husband by reading “Horse Heaven” to him as I was working on it.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a book recently?

The details of the westward movement in the United States, thanks to David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly’s “Bound Away,” about how and why the Virginia Colony spread west. The authors understand why the colonists left, where they went and how what they brought with them shaped American history. A book that was very personal to me was “The Broken Heart of America,” by Walter Johnson, about the very troubled history of the city I grew up in, St. Louis. As Johnson shows, “From the Lewis and Clark expedition to the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 and the launching of Black Lives Matter, many of the events that we consider central to the history of the United States occurred in St. Louis.” I found it somewhat depressing, but Johnson has hope. I was also a big fan of “The Dawn of Everything,” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, because it challenges the way we see our current world and compares it with the culture of earlier, and different, ways of living.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

I think the literary scene today is extremely diverse and exploratory. There are plenty of books about ecology, about the history of myth and religion, about aspects of history that we weren’t taught in school, about the lives and feelings of a lot of characters that didn’t get into the world of fiction before, let’s say, 2000. More and more books from other parts of the world are being translated into English, so our access to other cultures is expanding, too. I think the question is not what more authors should write about, but what more readers should read. It’s always tempting for readers to read novels about people like themselves. One of the benefits of literature classes in school is that kids get an early exposure to people who are not like them.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading?

I enjoy history, realistic novels, comic novels, the occasional mystery.

“A Dangerous Business” is a murder mystery — a departure from your other work. Which books got you hooked on crime fiction?

Actually, I did write a murder mystery — “Duplicate Keys” — in the mid-80s. I did it because I loved Agatha Christie, and I thought it would be a good way to learn how to construct a plot so that I could go on to write “The Greenlanders.” In my history of mystery-reading, I started with Nancy Drew, moved on to Sherlock Holmes, then to Agatha Christie and then to Dick Francis and Sue Grafton.

Who’s your favorite fictional detective?

Kinsey Millhone.

And the best villain?

The hound in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

What makes for a good mystery?

Complexity that is both not predictable while you are reading and understandable when you’ve finished, along with as much suspense as you can handle.

What books do you have in your stacks that you’ve completely forgotten?

Way too many. The latest example is “The Years,” by Annie Ernaux. I found it, picked it up, read the first chapter. I’m looking forward to it. And I do wonder where that copy of “The Reavers,” by George MacDonald Fraser, is.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

The World Book Encyclopedia.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

I don’t think they have.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Stephen Fry, P.G. Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford. I think that Stephen Fry would conduct the conversation, P.G. Wodehouse would talk a lot, but be very funny, and Nancy Mitford would glance toward me and roll her eyes every so often, then make a sharp remark that would give me a laugh. I would serve French onion soup, homemade pasta with mint-pistachio pesto, garlic bread, local salad and, for dessert, Shaker lemon pie with a side of homemade cherry gelato. Our dog would go up to everyone, even the ghosts, and ask for a treat, and she wouldn’t be surprised if one just appeared in front of her nose.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

“American Pastoral.”

What do you plan to read next?

Read: “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner,” by James Hogg, but it’s a reread. Listen: “The Last Man,” by Mary Shelley.

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