It’s a foggy Monday morning in Carmel Valley, Calif., and Jane Smiley is in her office (“the junk room, as my husband calls it”) at her mountainside home, chatting via Zoom about her love of horses. The author, who has written 31 books, including 1991’s Pulitzer Prize–winning, King Lear–inspired A Thousand Acres, owns three horses and goes riding five or six times a week. “I prefer horses to some humans,” she says with a laugh.
Smiley, 71, has featured horses in her work many times. There’s Horse Heaven, her novel set at a racetrack; her memoir A Year at the Races; and her two young adult series about all things equine. Her magical new novel, Perestroika in Paris, out in December from Knopf, is a return to the horse world. It’s about Paras, a French horse that escapes from her stall and goes wandering around the City of Lights. Along the way, Paras meets other talking animals (a melancholy dog, a lovesick rat) and an eight-year-old boy who tries to hide Paras in the house he shares with his nearly blind great grandmother. Named after one of Smiley’s own horses, Paras is a “very curious filly,” and the book, with its whimsical fairy tale elements, is unlike anything Smiley has written. “It was a constant, total pleasure,” Smiley says. “It’s truly one of my favorite books.”
The idea for Perestroika in Paris came to Smiley in 2009 during a trip to Paris with her husband, Jack. Jack is Smiley’s fourth husband—they’ve been together since 1998—and she describes him as her “ideal guy.” He is also one of her first readers. The pair crossed the Seine and were strolling through the Place du Trocadéro when Smiley thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if a horse escaped and came to this place?” Smiley says she worked on the novel for seven years. “But it wasn’t that it was difficult,” she emphasizes, “it was that I would say to myself, ‘Is anyone going to believe that I wrote this? How does this fit in with”—here she rolls her eyes and smirks—“my oeuvre?’ ”
That oeuvre is astonishingly wide-ranging. Smiley has written everything from a quiet children’s book about yawning (Twenty Yawns) to a violent 14th-century medieval epic (The Greenlanders). Her books have sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone, according to Knopf, and have been translated into more than 20 languages.
Smiley is always working on new books, often a few at a time, and she usually has a Diet Coke at her side as she does so. “I don’t drink coffee, and I feel like I need the caffeine,” she says. “I’ve tried to stop twice. The first time I just felt sleepy. The second time I didn’t feel sleepy, I just felt in total despair. I let that go on for a few days and then I had another Diet Coke and I perked right up, so what can I say?”
It’s hard to imagine Smiley as anything other than on-the-go. She was born in Los Angeles and raised in St. Louis, where she got her first horse in the ninth grade. She graduated from Vassar College in New York in 1971, obtained her doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1978, and studied in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar. She then raised three children in Iowa while building her literary career. In 1997, she moved back to California, and, since 2015, has been teaching creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Reflecting on her life, she says: “When I was in the eighth grade, my history teacher wrote on my report card, ‘She only does what she wants.’ ” Asked if that assessment holds to this day, Smiley emphatically replies, “Yeah!”
For Smiley, writing is about being bold and setting challenges. “You can’t spend your life making your way down a nice literary path,” she says. “You have to try things you didn’t know anything about.” Perestroika in Paris has pushed her into new territory, and she likes that it defies categorization. “Is this an adult book? Is this a YA book? I have no idea,” she admits. “I think it’s complicated. But, you know, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty didn’t start out as a kids’ book. It started out as an adult book. Then it became a kids’ book because somehow fantasy is only for kids. But I don’t agree with that. Adults can have fantasy in their lives, too.” Smiley adds that she wanted to publish the book in 2020 because she hopes it’ll serve “as a distraction from everything that’s going on politically. People are going to need a rest.”
“When you hear that a novel is going to be about a talking horse in Paris, that’s a funny thing, because it could be wonderful or it could be trite and cheesy,” says Smiley’s editor, Diana Miller. “I was so impressed with the way Jane made it elegant and sophisticated. It was totally charming and joyful. Especially given what’s been happening this year, to be working on this book is a really pleasurable escape.”
Molly Friedrich, Smiley’s agent, echoes that sentiment. “This book is like a universal embrace,” she says. “It’s an appeal to tolerance, kindness, and gentleness. Reading it kind of allowed me to metaphorically suck my thumb.” Friedrich began representing Smiley in the 1980s, when the author was struggling financially. “This novel is one of my favorite of Jane’s books,” Friedrich adds, “and that’s saying a lot because Jane often goes from strength to strength as she tries on different forms of fiction. There’s nothing normal about the trajectory of her writing career. There’s a nobility to her curiosity. She’s like Paras in that way, nudging around, endlessly interested in the way the world turns.”
One thing Smiley is always wondering is what her three pet horses are thinking. She shares an amusing story of the time she retained the services of an “animal communicator” (yes, it’s a thing) to tell her what’s on their minds. “The communicator told me that one of my horses wants to live in the house with me,” Smiley says with a laugh. “I’d let her, but we have too many stairs.” Smiley’s infatuation with her horses overlaps, she believes, with her chosen career. “I love horses because they’re idiosyncratic and beautiful, and it’s the same with writing books. What I love about them is how each one is different from the last one.”
Smiley takes a sip of her Diet Coke and glances out the window. The morning fog has lifted. “Looks like things are clearing up,” she remarks, happily. “I think I’ll have something to eat and go ride a horse.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.