Cheltenham Festival: Talking about a Revolution Feminism, Horses, Sex and Slavery - Jane Smiley's Novels Are a Potent Mixture of All of Them
Urquhart, James, The Independent (London, England)
As I sneak quietly into the back of the huge chamber of Cheltenham's Town Hall, trying not to clatter through the rows of collapsible chairs, up on stage, Jane Smiley replies to a question with the laconic announcement: "I don't know if I've ever made a conscious attempt to do anything... except have an epic sex life." And she smiles wryly at the mildly startled laughter that she has teased out of this Friday afternoon audience.
This admission offers fascinating possibilities to pursue in my interview, but when I manage to corner her after the discussion, she is self-deprecating. "I'll say anything," she disclaims, scanning the floor. "But that was funny."
The first day of Cheltenham's Literary Festival is the last venue in an exhausting week for Smiley, promoting her new novel, The All- True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. Most of Lidie's adventures take place amongst the abolitionists and pioneer claimholders of Kansas Territories, where being "sound on the goose question" meant being pro-slavery. Menaced by Border Ruffians from Missouri (all extremely sound on the goose question), Lidie puts up a spirited, resistance to the pro-slavers. Smiley's research of the period has been meticulous. "It's a really, really fascinating moment in American history," she enthuses. "There is a history of slavery, but Missouri isn't quite the same as the old South. Kansas is where the North became the South. Everything in 19th century American history was present in Kansas in some way in 1855 and 1856." Certainly, Lidie's epic odyssey strongly challenges our received notions of gender and race on the volatile, pre-civil war frontier. Epic is not a bad epithet for Jane Smiley. The author of nine novels, she first made her name in the UK with A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer prize in 1993, and has since been made into a film. There is nothing about her that is on the small scale. At 6ft 2in, and an elegant 49 years, she must cut an impressive figure in the saddle of one of the thoroughbreds that she breeds and races from her California ranch. Her three ex-husbands and three children (the last born when she was 43) testify to a certain stamina, or wilfulness, in her first half-century. "When I was a child, on my report card it said - and it was meant as a criticism - she won't do anything she doesn't want to do," Jane boasts with a trace of pride. "And that's true of me now. I have a hard time engaging in activities I don't want to engage in." Growing up in "a regular suburb" of St Louis, Missouri, Smiley became "a dedicated country girl as soon as I was able to", mostly to feed her love of horses. The fact of her Californian ranch perhaps indicates her unswerving pursuit of this particular happiness. A graduate of the University of Iowa's renowned Creative Writing Program, Smiley sees the proliferation of writing tuition in America as benefiting particularly women of her own generation. "Access to the idea of writing or publishing serves as a ladder into what, in some countries is a small, tight world," Smiley confirms, while complaining about the meagre output of British women in their forties and fifties. "It's as though the guys went off by themselves and wrote a bunch of novels, and the girls weren't included." While inspiration, admittedly, cannot be taught, there is plenty that can: organisation, self-analysis, plot structures and the crucial habit of observation. "One of my many former husbands used to say, whenever there's a disaster, there's Jane looking on with interest," she admits happily. But she denies that any of her fiction is autobiographical. Certainly, all her novels focus very closely on domestic …
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Publication information: Article title: Cheltenham Festival: Talking about a Revolution Feminism, Horses, Sex and Slavery - Jane Smiley's Novels Are a Potent Mixture of All of Them. Contributors: Urquhart, James - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: October 16, 1998. Page number: 10. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.