Cheltenham Festival: Talking about a revolution

Feminism, horses, sex and slavery - Jane Smiley's novels are a potent mixture of all of them.

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 and personal relationships, and many have parallels with Smiley's life (not least her first published, Barn Blind, about a mother who owns a riding school): but there the connection ends.

"I grew up with the model of feminism that states the personal is political," Smiley explains. "Each household is a manifestation of a political, economic and cultural system. You can look into the domestic to look out again at the political, and then gauge who works, and who sacrifices what. Being a mother of small children has many greater facets than might be guessed from reading writers of, say, the Fifties."

Her quietly radical dissection of family life is most bitterly felt in A Thousand Acres, which imagines King Lear as an Iowa farmer splitting his 1,000 acres between three daughters. The twisted family relationships earned many comparisons to Chekhov's A King Lear of the Steppes but, when asked, Smiley denies she has read it.

"The real connection is to Kurosawa's film Ran, and to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I saw Rosencrantz when I was 18, and that was the first time I thought, oh, you can fiddle about with those classics. I was thinking already about A Thousand Acres when I saw Ran. Kurosawa changed the daughters into sons, which is slighting to the women. It reminded me that an uprising by daughters has a different meaning to an uprising by sons.

"There are places in my book where I discuss that; what it means to be a daughter. What you might call their `revolutionary natures' are often more radical, though less overt, than those of the sons, and maybe that's one of the lessons of feminism. Think of the revolutions that men have wrought over the years; they've come and gone, and everyone comments that things are basically the same as they were. But the revolution of feminism seems to have authentically transformed our natures and our societies. So the revolution of the daughters, though less violent and overt, seems actually to be transformative rather than just the same old thing again."

This inquiry into domestic roles has taken another new turn with Lidie Newton. Every bit as independent a heroine as you would now expect, in Jane Smiley's ninth novel. Lidie accepts the chores and duties of marriage, for which she is wholly unprepared, with gracious determination. Lidie Newton has been scrutinised in the context of Huckleberry Finn, and other texts relating to slavery, but there is an even greater likeness in tone to Cormac McCarthy's dark border novels. Lidie's fate is, if anything, anti-romantic; in a period of history that lends itself to sentimentality.

"I pride myself on no sentimentality, ever," Jane clarifies. "When you know something about the real hardships people went through, combined with the chicanery that went on - I love that word, chicanery: it's perfect for Kansas - I don't see why you should take a `respectful' view of history."

Smiley's interest remains firmly fixed in her characters and ignores the easy, evocative landscapes of Maynard Dixon and Zane Grey that are currently being dusted down again for films such as The Horse Whisperer. Unsurprisingly, one of the most vividly drawn characters in Lidie Newton is Jeremiah, the beautiful gray that Lidie impulsively buys. "I am obsessed with horses," Smiley confessed to her audience, citing a favourite quotation: "I recognise with despair that I am about to be compelled to buy a horse."

When she announces that her next book will be "about horses", I have visions of a reinterpretation of Ran - King Lear on horseback - but she quickly dispels such sombreness. "Epic sex with horses... ," she teases, as she ducks out into the cheerless rain of Cheltenham.

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