Books

Pulitizer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley's young adult novel is about a different kind of family - animal friends

Perestroika in Paris
Perestroika in Paris
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The idea for “Perestroika in Paris” first came to Jane Smiley just as she was getting to work on her massive and exceptional “Last 100 Years Trilogy” (“Some Luck,” “Early Warnings,” and “Golden Age”). The story of a horse who finds herself living in a Paris neighborhood not far from the Eiffel Tower had to wait while she worked on her ambitious story of an Iowa farm family, tracing their lives from 1920 to 2020 (the final volume was published in 2015, and from our current vantage point Smiley’s vision of the last five years seems pretty appealing).

Still, she kept the idea for her whimsical story in mind as she worked on her trilogy.

“I wanted to write the trilogy straight through, so I had to make it my first priority,” she said recently when I called her at her home in California. “But ‘Perestroika in Paris’ was a pleasure to come back to.”

That pleasure, she said, was grounded in humor and delight.

“I guess when the animals started talking to each other, it just made me laugh,” the author, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former teacher of writing at Iowa State University, remembered. “And then they kept talking ... It was fun ... I was happy to have them talk through me.”

It is easy to see how the new novel might have served as a literary palette cleanser for Smiley after the realistic fiction of the trilogy. The new book is a fairy tale — complete with a cast of animals who can speak to one another, if not directly to the humans in their lives — and brings with it the requisite happy ending. That, of course, stands in contrast to the demands of a family saga.

“Things can’t be happy all the time for everybody — especially over 100 years. I had to be realistic about what they went through and what they were facing,” Smiley said.

The initial spark for “Perestroika in Paris” flared, appropriately enough, when Smiley was visiting a horse trainer from Wisconsin who now trains horses in Paris. Wandering the neighborhood that would become the setting for the novel, she was struck by the large expanses of green space and also by the fact that the French horse mounted military had trained in the area. The kinds of questions that lead to novels popped into her head:

“Wouldn’t it be fun if a horse escaped from her stall and wandered here? What would she do?”

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The neighborhood offered a range of imaginative possibilities, in large part because it is not a hotspot of the tourist trade.

“It’s like a friendly, regular neighborhood. It isn’t touristy.” Despite its proximity to the Eiffel Tower, “people stand in line to go up the tower, but then, I guess, go to other tourist spots.”

Perestroika is based on Smiley’s horse of the same name (this is something of a tradition with the author; another of her horses served as the inspiration for her novel “Horse Heaven” and for her series of YA novels featuring horses). She knew that a horse newly arrived in Paris was going to have to make some connections in order to get by.

“I knew Paras was going to need a friend, and I thought it should probably be a dog,” she said. Keeping things in the family, she cast her own German shorthair, Frida, in the role.

But “Perestroika in Paris” is more than a buddy comedy, so the circle of friends needed to expand.

“Walking around the area I would notice the ravens,” Smiley said. She also spotted a statue of Benjamin Franklin in an impressive cemetery nearby. “So I knew where the raven would make his home.”

A rat and a couple of ducks round out the central animal cast. They are joined by a group of wonderful human characters whose lives are changed by their encounters with the animals.

Smiley’s love of horses dates back to her childhood.

“As a kid, I thought they were so unbelievably beautiful,” she said. She was an only child, and while she had a dog, the dog was “a nipper” who was not a great companion. She was convinced, however, that she knew what kind of animal could be a true companion.

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“In all of the books I read, a horse could become your friend. If you were patient enough and kind enough, they could reciprocate. I wanted that horse friend,” she said. That desire grew during her middle school years. “It’s hard to find a trustworthy friend. So I wanted that horse friend even more.”

It might have just been a childhood obsession. Smiley went to college and “I was happy and I had adventures...I thought (the interest in horses) was behind me. I was through with all that. And then I wasn’t.”

During the hot summer of 1988 when her son was 9 months old, a wrong turn brought horses back into her life.

“I went down the wrong road and there was this riding stable. I got out and I asked if I could take some lessons. They said I could. And within a week I’d bought a horse.”

People who are similarly inspired to purchase “Perestroika in Paris” might wonder where to look for it in their local bookstore. Will it be shelved with Smiley’s novels for adults — including the Pulitzer Prize winning “A Thousand Acres” — or with her YA novels?

“I hope it’s shelved in both areas,” Smiley said. “I did not want to worry about genre. I just wanted to write it and let librarians decide where to shelve it.”

And what did her publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf, think about that? “They gave up on that many years ago. I send something in and some of them probably roll their eyes and think, ‘How are we going to promote this?’” she said with a laugh. I joked that this must be a perk of being in possession of a Pulitzer, but she said that freedom predates her award. “They knew what they had and they had to make the best of it. And they have for all of these years,” Smiley said.

Knopf did have one request, however. Smiley calls her horse “Paras,” both in real life and throughout the book. Her publishers were convinced that the title “Paras in Paris,” despite its balance, would confuse people. “The publisher said we couldn’t use that title because people would think of paratroopers.”

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When I suggested that the name of a Russian economic policy might be similarly confusing to potential readers, Smiley agreed with a hearty laugh.

But no matter its title, “Perestroika in Paris” is a joyful story and a balm in challenging times.

Meanwhile, Smiley, an author whose career reveals a steadfast disdain for being pigeonholed, is at work on a murder mystery set in Monterrey, California. She lives in Monterrey County and says the project gives her an excellent reason to explore the beautiful and historic town.

She has also written a sequel to her 1998 novel “The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton,” a book that grew out of a road trip she took from Ames into Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and back to Ames. She was struck by the disparate geographies she encountered and how we tend not to think about these Midwestern states as significantly varied in terrain. “That was a real inspiration to me.”

“The All-True Travels” does not, perhaps, rank among Smiley’s most famous books. She notes it “gets some good reviews on Amazon” almost as an aside. Still, she’s hopeful that the sequel will find its way to publication. “We’ll see what happens,” she said.

The novel is among just a few of Smiley’s books I have not read, so I promise to bump it up my list so I will be ready for the follow-up. She suggests I read it and then write an imploring letter to her publisher calling for the sequel. I have a feeling, however, that she won’t need me in order to convince them.

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