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'Perestroika In Paris' Is An Anthropomorphic Tale Of Friendship

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I was about to describe Jane Smiley's new novel, "Perestroika In Paris," as the story of an unlikely friendship between a horse, a dog, a pair of ducks, a raven and a small boy. But from the start of the story, it seems the likeliest event on earth. Perestroika, a racehorse, wanders out of her stall and makes her way into town, where she encounters Frida, a shorthaired German pointer. They're in Paris, so what do you think they'd talk about?

JANE SMILEY: (Reading) Frida sat and regarded the horse. She said, what do you eat? The horse glanced around and said, what do you eat? Oh, it depends. Sometimes a little onion soup, a bit of steak if I'm lucky, lots of bread, cheese, old croque monsieur, the occasional leg of chicken or lamb, bones. It's a varied diet around here, heavy on the cheese.

SIMON: Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Thousand Acres" and other novels, joins us from Carmel, Calif. Thank you so much for being with us.

SMILEY: Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: How did these characters come into your mind and heart?

SMILEY: Well, Paras, or Perestroika, is based on a horse that I bred and who did spend a few pointless years at the racetrack.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah.

SMILEY: But I think it was in 2009, I guess. I was in France, and we happened to go to the Place du Trocadero, and I had never been there before. And I looked around, looked around, and I thought, wouldn't it be fun if a horse escaped and came here? This is a beautiful spot. There's plenty of grass. Well, that's a crazy idea. But I couldn't stop myself, and I decided just to get on with it and do it. So, of course, it involved lots and lots of research and lots and lots of French onion soup. And...

SIMON: Well, I admire your dedication to...

SMILEY: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...To the task. Frida, the dog, asks Paras, the horse, what amounts to the defining question for a racehorse - what are you chasing?

(LAUGHTER)

SMILEY: You always have to wonder - and I always did during the period when I had racehorses - why they were willing to run. And they're bred to do it, and they enjoy it.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMILEY: And that's what Paras likes. But she's a very curious...

SIMON: Yeah.

SMILEY: ...Horse. And that's why she escapes, and that's why she heads out on this adventure - just because she's curious.

SIMON: Yeah. Ducks come into their lives, too.

SMILEY: They're mallards.

SIMON: I beg your pardon.

SMILEY: (Laughter).

SIMON: Their names, Sid and Nancy, do I have to ask how they came to you?

SMILEY: I just couldn't resist.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMILEY: You know, back when Sid and Nancy were a thing, they always struck me as an interesting couple.

SIMON: Oh, yes. I'd say so.

SMILEY: And I do wonder if younger readers even know what I'm talking about.

SIMON: We'll explain. Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols - he and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, had, I think it's fair to say, not a healthy relationship. And for this traveling retinue of horse and raven and mallards and dog - they blend into the city. It's an absolutely extraordinary tribute to Paris that way that humans begin to look out for them, don't they?

SMILEY: Well, humans care about some of them and not about others.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMILEY: I should mention that the know-it-all in the book is a raven.

SIMON: Yes.

SMILEY: And he has a lot to say about the nature of Paris and how the animals and the humans fit together.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMILEY: It's a more natural and wild city than it appears from a human point of view.

SIMON: Totally different direction - you know, doing - I mean, I have read and enjoyed a number of your novels. I didn't know until recently, though, you're serious about knitting.

SMILEY: Yes, I am. I mean, I don't know what it means to be serious about knitting. I knit all the time, mostly when I'm watching movies on TV. And the great thing about knitting is that you can always concentrate on your knitting when there's violence in the movie. But the other thing is that knitting, like novel writing, is kind of a puzzle. You start out, and you don't - you have an idea, but you don't know exactly how you're going to put it all together. And as you continue, there's some point at which you've done the research, and you've put a bunch of stuff on paper. And then at some point, it gels. And you think, oh, OK, I have this figured out. And you just keep going. That doesn't mean that you don't have to revise it.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMILEY: It just means that you have the energy to get to the end. And that's the part I love about writing - how to put the puzzle together, how to make the characters interesting, how to have the plot makes sense.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMILEY: In my experience, the hardest part is to end it. The hardest part is to figure how to sew up all the bits at the end and then back off. But I like doing that, too. And, you know, some idea will come to you. And it's kind of like that sweater, you know, that you knitted for somebody else. Some people throw it in the back of the closet, and some people wear it all the time.

SIMON: Yeah. I thought "Perestroika In Paris" came to a beautiful end.

SMILEY: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: I do - I hope you won't take this in the wrong way, though...

SMILEY: (Laughter).

SIMON: I actually found a - I don't want to call it a moral - a lesson to the story. Is that all right?

SMILEY: Only if you tell me what it is.

SIMON: OK - with love comes responsibility.

SMILEY: Yes, I would definitely believe or say that that's what the animals and some of the human characters come to understand.

SIMON: Well, I think it's a beautifully done - well...

SMILEY: Thank you.

SIMON: I think it's a beautifully done story. And, you know, it's - it fits right into the holiday season, doesn't it? Because they're worried about the onset of the holidays.

SMILEY: Yeah, they are. And I don't know. I really enjoyed the fact that it starts in late November, and then it goes through the winter. And I enjoyed the fact of contemplating how this might work out through the winter - for example...

SIMON: Yeah.

SMILEY: ...How the horse might be fed through the winter. Why doesn't anybody report her to animal control - the horse, I mean.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMILEY: And so I had to come up with an idea about that. And it was just so much fun to contemplate all these things, to make it plausible and to make the reader suspend disbelief in order to keep going.

SIMON: I found it totally plausible - a horse and a dog...

SMILEY: (Laughter) Well, then, if you did, I take that as permission to keep on.

SIMON: Please. Jane Smiley - her new novel for mature readers who have young souls...

SMILEY: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Is "Perestroika In Paris." Thank you so much for being with us.

SMILEY: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BON IVER SONG, "HOLOCENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.