The answer depends entirely on which horse you're talking about. In Horse Heaven
, we meet horses bound for glory and others who suffer an endless succession of days locked in filthy stalls, neglected by their owners. Smiley
takes us to the backside of Belmont and Hollywood Park, to breeding farms, veterinary hospitals, and auction houses where owners bid small (and not so small) fortunes on the prospects of young, untested, but immaculately bred fillies and colts. We wake up with trainers at five a.m. to be at the barn by six and take our morning walk past the stalls. We sleep in late in Paris and laze around in bed, contemplating acquisition. We run hard among brilliant twelve hundred pound beasts.
In 1992, A Thousand Acres, Smiley's retelling of King Lear from the perspectives of the three daughters on an Iowa family farm, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Whether she's writing a tragedy, epic, comedy, or romance, each of her ten novels rush forward with a seemingly effortless narrative flow, building character and conflict from the inside out through an abundance of sly detail. In Horse Heaven, like the rest of her work, it's often in those details, the asides, that the story comes to life. "I hated writing screenplays," Smiley explained. "It nearly bored me to death. There was too much white space on the page. It's that white stuff I like writing."
Dave: I hadn't read much of Horse Heaven before I assumed that you must have horses so I was somewhat gratified to learn that you do in fact have more than a dozen. This book seemed more personal than some of your others. Did that made writing it any different?
Jane Smiley: I do have a great passion for horses, and if I didn't have horses I don't know what I'd do all day. When I was writing about horses, it just added to my pleasure. I'd get up, read something about horses, then go feed the horses. I'd get rid of the children by sending them off to school, then I'd write about horses and read more about horses. Ride the horses, feed the horses again . . . it was really wonderful.
But every book you write is like telling a dream in the morning when you get up. No subject is interesting to another person unless you see the process of writing as communication and come to an understanding of what that means.
Originally, the book was a lot longer. It's funny because horse people come up to me and say, "Oh, I wish it had gone on and on forever," and I know they're not kidding, but I think other people are probably grateful that it went through an editor.
Dave: There are about ten different plots working side-by-side, characters scattered across the country, many of whom never cross paths. As you were writing, did you find that one story would get ahead of the others? How did you keep all those lines moving at the same pace?
Smiley: I divided the narrative into months, and once I did that I knew where the horses would be, what the possibilities were for plot twists during that month.
Originally I had the six horses: two, two year old fillies; two, two year old colts; the five year old gelding; and the eighteen year old gelding. The characters clustered around them. I had the month-by-month progression of their two year old years, then their three year old years. It wasn't difficult to organize because once they were located in a place and time they had to do certain things.
Dave: There are points in the book where the horse isn't quite telling the story, but we're experiencing scenes from his or her perspective. On one level I'm reading that wondering how you manage to pull it off - because you're walking a fine line there; it would be very easy to lose authority and seem ridiculous - but you do pull it off. At those points in the story, it's clear that you know the subject intimately.
Smiley: When you spend a lot of time with horses, you talk constantly about how things might appear from their point of view because they're always doing unaccountable things. You're always inferring motive and narrative continuity into their actions. The next step is that you infer a longer sequence of narrative.
But I didn't want to do that in the same way with all six horses. I wanted to cultivate different modes of getting into a horse's mind. For example, one horse is repeatedly in contact with an animal communicator, and that woman doesn't communicate with any of the other horses.
For Limitless, on the other hand, he's something of a cipher, and his handlers recognize that. He communicates one thing, which is: I want to go, I want to go, I want to go. If you look at any of the great athletes, they'll practice and drill, practice and drill, until they get it exactly right. In addition to their fantasies and dreams, they share a physical need to repeat the process that the rest of us would bore of very quickly. I considered Limitless to be a great athlete, and I didn't feel like he was any different from a human athlete in his yen to do that thing he was built to do.
So each horse had his or her own different personality and agenda.
Dave: You were talking about The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton in another interview but you said something that I think could be applied to Horse Heaven. Lidie, you said, "sees real things that look fantastic rather than fantastic things that look real." Some things in Horse Heaven are beyond the everyday, but for the most part, the story is rooted in fairly ordinary life.
Smiley: But if you go to the movies and you watch the horses come on...maybe this doesn't happen to other people, but when I go to the movies and horses come into the picture, they bring a whole different feel. It's especially true now that I see horses so much and I can read their expressions better; sometimes the horses' expressions are in contrast to what the actors are saying.
Horses bring an aspect of strange and mysterious beauty every time they enter. One of my favorite examples is the movie Into the West. In the beginning of the movie, these children take a horse they've saved into an apartment building and up the elevator. There's such beauty and strangeness to the horse being in each new venue.
Dave: It was a beautiful day here today, which you can't take for granted in February, and I was downtown walking with my dog at lunch when two policemen on horseback passed us in the street.
I love that about Portland, to be downtown among the asphalt and tall buildings and have horses appearing around corners. It changes the mood entirely. A police car driving by would have an entirely different effect.
Smiley: They look at leisure, and yet in power.
Dave: When A Thousand Acres was made into a movie, you said you were glad you're a novelist and that you wouldn't want to be a moviemaker. Why? What do you enjoy about being a novelist?
Smiley: The wonderful thing a novel offers that very few other art forms do is the opportunity for extreme complexity. Movies can't attain the same level of complexity, except visually, and once they do they become more and more difficult for the viewer to take in.
A lot of movie theory that interests me is about how there's always something extraneous or wrong in a movie frame that breaks the illusion. It might be a continuity problem where the actor's coat is buttoned and in the next frame it's not. It's very difficult to control complexity, so you tend to simplify a little.
Novels can get more and more complex, since the reader has the time and the leisure to become accustomed to the complexity, taking in a bit at a time. You can write about subtle, refined complexities, and that's what interests me, how complex life is, the kaleidoscopic nature of interweaving stories and the proliferation of personal contacts, joined simultaneously with a single-minded perception of it all which causes things to fall into a pattern and come to have meaning. I don't think there's anything more interesting than that.
Dave: Your books are all quite different. It's clear that each time you're aiming for something new. Yet they're all remarkably readable; they flow. Horse Heaven goes all over the place - the book begins with a list of the cast of characters - whereas the structure of A Thousand Acres is more recognizable...
Smiley: ...more compact.
Dave: When you approach a new book, clearly part of the challenge is to keep the reader interested and to tell a story you haven't before, but how much are you driven by telling a story in a different way than you've done before?
Smiley: Generally, my intention is to do something I enjoy this time that I missed out on doing last time.
After I wrote A Thousand Acres, I missed telling jokes, so I wrote Moo.
After I wrote Moo, I missed having a linear story, and that's why I wrote Lidie.
After I wrote Lidie, I had completed the project I'd given myself, which was to write an romance. And it was then very clear to me that in horse racing, epic, comedy, tragedy, and romance are present all the time, simultaneously.
I originally wanted the four younger horse characters to be manifestations of those four genres with Justa Bob being a manifestation of realism and Mr. T being the manifestation of magic or folklore - you know, the talking horse. I don't know that that system was sustained, I think it kind of broke down - I had much more dramatic endings for the tragic characters in mind - but to me Horse Heaven was about finding a place where all types of stories meet and interweaving them, all different forms of narrative, and coming up with more than any one type could say by itself. It said things by juxtaposition.
Life's really like that at the racetrack: it's tragic one minute and fabulously comic the next.
There's a point in the book where Dick is talking to a rabbi, and the rabbi says, "Highly ritualized, isn't it?" This appeals to the rabbi. One of the interesting things about racing is that it's chaotic and completely unpredictable, yet it's probably as ritualized as any human activity. American racing is always the same; English racing is always the same. The ritual is born of the fact that they want to compare the horses on a level playing field. It's an outgrowth of a practical consideration, yet it's a kind of controlled chaos. When you see a horse move so fast that you can't even imagine where the strength and the drive comes from, what you feel?
You can look at a picture of Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes and it's obvious from the picture that he's totally relaxed. His ears are pointed back, but their not pinned back. He's off the ground and his legs are curled up under him. Ron Turcotte [the jockey] is turning to look at the timing as he goes by. He doesn't even care where the other horses are, he just wants to see if they've set another track record. The other horses, many of them great horses, are thirty-one lengths behind! You have to say to yourself, "Where does that come from? How did we get lucky enough to see this happen?"
It's amazing to me that aside from a few writers, no one has taken horse racing as a literary subject. It just blows me away. Plenty of nonfiction writers have written about it and done a wonderful job, but not a novel. I thought it was an incredible oversight.
Dave: About the way your books change, one to the next...what it reminded me of was Bruce Springsteen.
Smiley: Is that right?
Dave: Mostly I was thinking about the fact that you won the Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres and followed it up with Moo, which couldn't have been more different, less commercially secure. After Springsteen reached his first peak of popularity and he appeared on the cover of Time, he released Nebraska, a four-track tape he made alone in his basement, singing and playing acoustic guitar and harmonica.
Smiley: I was just listening to that the other day!
Dave: My first Springsteen album and still the one I enjoy the most. It's funny though because it was a radical departure for him at the time, but if you listen to it now, who could it be other than Springsteen? Your books, also, are familiar regardless of their subject or style. They share a sharp insight into character and a common sense of pacing, an easy narrative flow.
Someone asked you about winning the Pulitzer and you said it was like going from a wannabe to a has-been in a moment. I thought that was such an interesting way to put it. Granted you were successful before you won the award, but all of a sudden you were a Pulitzer winner and in many peoples' eyes nothing you'd ever do would measure up.
Smiley: You could win the Nobel!
Dave: Exactly! There's only so much to shoot for. What's left to do? You could write a better book, but it probably wouldn't be as well recognized as the first blockbuster.
Smiley: How the book seems to me has always been more important than how it appears to others, and the only book that ever woke me up in the middle of the night and had me saying "Oh my God I can't believe I wrote that, it's so much outside what I think of as my capacity" is The Greenlanders.
That wasn't a very popular book, though it has a passionate following, most of whom live in Minnesota, I suppose. Because it wasn't a hugely popular book, it was mine. I adored it. Nothing I've written since has approached it. I was inhabited by those people. As I was writing it, I felt every single word was absolutely true and perfect. It came to me as a rough draft. There's no rewriting in it except for parts in the first fifty pages.
I still see images from it. There's one at the end: the leaves of the angelica opening up in the spring. After I wrote that book, nothing that happened to me ever impressed me again. Nothing.
I love Horse Heaven, and in its way I like it as much as The Greenlanders, but once you've been through the experience of being truly inspired, taken over, it's not so terrifying and intimidating again. You get used to it. For me, The Greenlanders was the turning point in my life, not winning the Pulitzer. The Pulitzer is a glancing blow from outer space.
Dave: An award may or may not be as meaningful, but it brings more people to your books.
Smiley: And there are still a lot of people who've only read A Thousand Acres, and that's fine, if they never read any of the others. Even so, fame is not something you experience yourself. Other people experience it about you. If you try to experience it, you're doomed to fail. You're already the most famous person in your life because you're you. That's true of everyone in the world. Trying to get outside your boundaries is a fruitless endeavor.
Dave: You've written a lot of essays for magazines. Is there any plan to publish them together?
Smiley: My guess is that it will be posthumous if at all.
Dave: Not your own doing?
Smiley: Sometimes I toy with the idea, but they're so scattered in terms of content, everything from impulse buying for fashion magazines to the state of marriage in our times for Harper's. I don't know what the organizing principle would be, unless it's just that I wrote them.
Dave: What's generally the impulse for you to write one?
Smiley: Money, usually. I have the soul of a hack writer.
Dave: Do you come up with an idea and contact a magazine, or does an editor come asking for a story?
Smiley: I usually get a call from a publication. I love to be told what to write about. For example, I wrote the essay about marriage last June when Harper's called me up and said they wanted to put me in their 150th anniversary issue. I asked what they wanted me to write about. They said, "Well, Russell Banks is writing about this, and Thomas Lynch is writing about funerals, so and so is writing about this, but nobody's writing about...marriage."
A friend of mine had recently gone to Hawaii and suddenly gotten married; it was so unexpected - really, people's jaws dropped - and that got me and my boyfriend thinking about marriage. Once I'd sat down and pulled a few ideas together, the essay came out. But they sparked it, not me. I like that, being given an assignment, a deadline and a figure.
Dave: Another essay you published in Harper's drew an enormous amount of attention, the one about Huck Finn and Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Smiley: It generated a huge amount of antagonism, and that really did surprise me because I truly believe de gustibus non est disputandam, "about taste there is no disputing."
All I wanted to say in that essay is that I found Huck Finn boring and I found Uncle Tom's Cabin much more interesting than anyone had ever suggested it could be, but the response from male America was mind-boggling. I couldn't believe it. People attributed all kinds of bad qualities to me - I was on drugs, I was stupid, I didn't have any artistic talent to begin with. I wondered about that, the virulence of the response. Was it because these people had recently read Huck Finn or did it simply count as some kind of boyhood icon, the Huck Finn lifestyle, that I wasn't allowed to demean?
The great irony was that I think Samuel Clemens would have agreed more with me than with them. He stopped writing Huck Finn for three years after Huck and Jim passed Cairo, Illinois. He didn't know where to go next. And he never thought it was particularly good, or at least that's what he said. In addition, he'd also made it a point to destroy the posthumous fame of James Fenimore Cooper because he hated The Leatherstocking Tales. Cooper was quite popular in Clemens' day, so he wrote an essay that made Cooper look ridiculous, so I also didn't think he'd be opposed to a little debunking.
It was amazing to me. After about the fifth packet of nasty letters came to me from Harper's, I said, "Well, that's enough for me!"
Dave: What have you been reading lately?
Smiley: I just finished writing a book about Charles Dickens for the Penguin series, so basically for the last year I've been reading Dickens.
The novel I'm working on now is about the 1980s. Before I knew we were going to have a Republican president, I wanted to write about the Reagan and Bush years. My editor kept saying, "I don't know who I want to win the election for the sake of the book. Maybe Bush." But for the sake of the country?
So I've read a lot of nonfiction books about the eighties and savings & loans and economics. One of the most interesting was a book called The Great Wave. It's about inflationary cycles in Western Europe from about 1350 into the twentieth century. It sounds dry as dust, I know, but it tells you everything you need to know about why people around you are doing what they're doing. It's one of the best books I've ever read.
Dave: That sounds like a bit of a change of pace from Horse Heaven.
Smiley: It is and it isn't. I've always been interested in capitalism and money. When I started writing Horse Heaven, the first thing I did was reread Fernand Braudel and his history of capitalism. I did that consciously because horse racing and thoroughbred horse breeding rose along with capitalism in Britain as an outgrowth of the aristocrats. It wasn't a middle class sport by any means. It uncannily represents the way capitalism works. Horses are very expensive, and betting is like betting a futures market, even though the future is very short. The theories of betting are like the theories of Wall Street speculation: there are the number crunchers, the ones who purely read the racing form, the ones who go by profits and earning reports, and there are the ones who go by instinct. It's a little model of capitalism.
Dave: Where is your next book set?
Smiley: It's set...somewhere.
Dave: Really? You don't say?
Smiley: Actually I'm not being coy. It's not set in a precise location. What interests me is not a particular region but a particular type of region, a beautiful area just a little ways outside a city.
All the savings & loan boys were local boys. Even the biggest, baddest ones came from places like Kearney, Nebraska. That fascinates me.
Dave: Do you see yourself writing novel after novel, indefinitely?
Smiley: I do love to write novels and I keep coming up with ideas, but like everyone else I wonder where the literary world is headed. I don't know how the Internet is going to affect book publishing and distribution, but there comes a time in every artist's life - Bach is a good example - where the things that are still complex enough to interest the artist are really too complex for his audience. He ceases to be interesting to his regular audience. I don't know if that's the direction I'm headed, but it's an interesting pattern in the lives of artists and musicians and writers who have long careers and try lots of different things.
Dave: As long as you're writing for yourself, you're writing for yourself.
Smiley: But as long as you have a household and eighteen horses to support, you're also writing for an audience.
Dave: That poster on the wall...have you read the book, Wild Life by Molly Gloss?
Dave: It deals with these issues. It's about a woman who lives near here, on an island in the Columbia River, around 1905, a single mother who raises five children by writing western romances that she sends back to her publisher in New York, but at heart she's very much an artist and a literary person. She's telling the story, and she's entirely aware that what she does is hack work, not art but commodity, yet as the book opens she's mourning the death of Jules Verne.
Smiley: I'm probably one of the most fortunate people in the entire world because I've never had to compromise. My consciousness is relatively mainstream, so I've lucked out by finding an audience. Mostly my audience is women like myself, good readers, women of my generation who are educated enough to buy books.
I just wrote this biography of Dickens. He knew when he was writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood that he was outmoded. He was trying a new form. I don't think he was doing it in order to retain his audience, but I think he was aware that he'd passed his point of being able to communicate with his peers. He did a wonderful job in Our Mutual Friend, which I think is his greatest novel in some ways, but it wasn't very popular. The Mystery of Edwin Drood was a much simpler novel, and it was very hard for him to stay within the form of the mystery.
But the question of betraying myself has never come up in my career. I don't know what a person who has never had to compromise does as she and her audience diverge, if they do. I don't know if I need to worry about that. That's the future. I can't say.
Jane Smiley visited Powell's City of Books on February 27, 2001. She's taller than I expected, "a tall drink of water" I think the expression would be among her native Iowans. She's also left-handed, for what it's worth. We spoke for almost an hour before heading across the street where a full crowd in the Pearl Room anxiously awaited her.