Best Sellers & Blue Ribbons: Jane Smiley Talks Horses
When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley released her novel Horse Heaven in 2000, she was taking on a tough audience: realism-demanding equestrians. But Smiley’s intimate portrayals of horses and humans in their spider’s web of interconnected lives quickly became a horse lover’s favorite. More than a decade later, we’re still in love with Horse Heaven and her other equestrian titles: her debut novel, Barn Blind, the non-fiction release A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck, and the young adult series that begins with The Georges and the Jewels.
Jane Smiley’s work, which includes more than a dozen novels, short stories, and non-fiction, covers a broad spectrum of territory: everyone from Iowa farmwives to Hollywood insiders goes under her microscope. The resulting inspection of human personality and interaction startles, amuses, and, sometimes, saddens.
Whoops, did I say ‘human personality’? That’s not quite the whole story. Thanks to Smiley’s personal herd, readers explore the personalities of horses with unparalleled depth.
Her horses, of course, were the very first thing I asked about when I spoke with Smiley on the phone. “I’m down to four horses,” Smiley tells me. “Two geldings and two mares. They’re very cute, and they’re all Thoroughbreds.”
Some of them gain starring roles in Smiley’s writing. Others sneak in, uncredited, but very much part of the narrative. “I notice how much they get into my work, even if they aren’t named characters,” Smiley admits.
Although much of Smiley’s work is unrelated to horses, having them nearby is key to her writing. No matter what the subject, when writer’s block strikes, horses lend inspiration: “They give me a break from writing; when I’m stuck and I go over to the barn to get on a horse, it will snap into place. I’ll call my home phone and leave voice message.
“That might happen while running, but I doubt it. There’s something about relating to horses that goes beyond physical exercise.”
Letting horses speak
Horse Heaven was released in 2001 and became a national bestseller. The Washington Post summed it up: “Expertly juggling storylines, she investigates the sexual, social, psychological, and spiritual problems of wealthy owners, working-class bettors, trainers on the edge of financial ruin, and, in a typically bold move, horses.”
The sexual, social, psychological, and spiritual problems of horses?
“I am really interested in personality,” Smiley explains, “And what surprised me when I came back to horses in my forties was how much personality they had. As a teenager we think of them as living cars. Mr. T,” —Smiley’s first horse as an adult— “had this distinct personality. He had a plan. The idea that horses are carrot-and-stick beings is ridiculous. They have feelings and fears and desires.”
So horses speak, sometimes in a chapter to themselves and sometimes slipped quietly into the narrative, as in this scene after a flighty filly drops to the ground upon being tacked up for the first time:
“The four of them, groom, trainer, groom’s assistant, pony, stood around the filly in a circle, regarding her. The groom’s assistant thought she was dead. The groom thought she was a pain in the ass. The trainer thought that she was too complicated for a man whose heart was no longer really in his work, now that he had taken up golf as a sideline avocation and had a two-sixteen tee time on the resort course. The pony could not remember ever making such a big deal of anything as this filly made of everything.”
As horse-people, we casually give horses personalities. “If your horse does something peculiar, you always wonder why, and give them intention and personality. It’s just automatic,” Smiley says.
But Smiley takes conjecture to a genuine study, thanks to the advantage of watching her own horses grow up before her: orphan foals, dysfunctional mothers, and life-long behavioral characteristics that manifest themselves on the very first day of life.
“It fascinates me to engage with their personalities,” she says. Describing an underweight foal who had constant medical attention: “Her personality was shaped by early imprints by people. It’s flattering when she is interested in you, but she can always get specifically mad at you. My five-year-old is an extremely affectionate animal, dog-like, and it’s really seductive to have a horse that treats you like a dog would.” And, she notes, “When you have horses with the same bloodlines, you see nature versus nurture working itself out. Related horses have similarities.”
Individuality shines from day one. “The foals so clearly announced themselves; their own ways of doing things. There is a photo of Jackie staring off into the distance; that’s who he is — a sentinel horse. His personality announced itself the very first day. Once I’d had kids and noticed their distinct take on things, it fascinated me that horses had distinctions from the day they were born. And mares shape them. One mare was a terrible mother who spent days crying for her friends and yet cried for the foal if you took the foal away. A mom who couldn’t care about her baby until her baby tried to be independent. They were reunited later and the filly spent all of her time [with her mother]. Do not tell me horses do not have strong relationships… that was one thing I had to write about.”
In A Year at the Races, Smiley delves even deeper into personality and relationships, and again, not just of the trainers, owners, and fans, but of her horses. Jackie, the sentinel horse, gets a thorough analysis through the course of the book, as does Persey, the mare whose inattentive mother molds her into a fearful, difficult horse.
And then again, there’s the animal communicator angle. Confronted with a maiden who just didn’t seem to be extending himself in his races, Smiley, at her wit’s end, called an animal communicator to ask the colt just what his problem was.
“Did he want to win?
He didn’t know yet.
I felt this was a typical Pisces sort of conversation.”
Pleasing a picky crowd
Barn Blind, released in 1980, has flown under the radar in a manner impossible to imagine in today’s world of debut novels. Barn Blind, though critically acclaimed, was something of a writing exercise: “I tried the horse-family novel,” she says. “I was casting about for something to write about. I had not gone back into horses yet – it had been about seven years since I’d been involved with horses. I picked them because it was self-contained and it seemed like a good place to start.”
Twenty years later, a horsewoman again, Smiley wrote Horse Heaven and found her books in the hands of a whole new audience. “I was giving a reading and people were lining up, and for the first time it was squirrelly looking guys with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths,” she laughs. The racetrackers had arrived.
“I loved that book, and it’s probably my favorite,” Smiley says. So why, I had to ask, doesn’t she write more horse stories for the adult market?
“It’s a select audience,” she explains, describing a gruff horseman who admitted he didn’t trust her until he read her description of Mr. T’s conformation. “The horse audience will toss the book out of the window if the voice isn’t expert. The audience isn’t big, and they’re critical, although they’re enthusiastic when they’ve committed. Sometimes you can make it work and sometimes you can’t. It’s not an easy audience to write for.”
Instead, Smiley writes about horses for children, with her young adult series about a girl named Abby, beginning with The Georges and the Jewels. “It’s easy for me to put myself in the mind of a fourteen-year-old. She keeps her mouth closed, and that’s how I was.
“I grew up with Sweet Valley U and I wanted Abby to be more realistic than that. Abbey’s first horse doesn’t go to the Olympics! I wanted it to be about the ups-and-downs of horse ownership, and be very real.”
“Real.” That’s the one word that sums up Jane Smiley’s equestrian work best. It’s all so very real.
Natalie Keller Reinert is an author and horsewoman from Brooklyn, New York. A lifelong Thoroughbred enthusiast, she is founder and editor of Retired Racehorse Blog. Her first novel, The Head and Not The Heart, was released in 2011. Follow Natalie on Twitter at @nataliegallops.
Every week, Dappled Grey sends our subscribers our free weekly Style Guide. Peruse our fabulous previous editions here.