Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Horse Opera

By Ben Winters

MAY 15, 2000:  Ten minutes into a phone conversation with Jane Smiley, whose new "Horse Heaven" is her third novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Thousand Acres," I hear the familiar click of call waiting on her end. "Excuse me," says Smiley. "I'm going to get that. I think it might be the stud farm."

While Smiley fields the call, I glance down my list of questions and scratch off "Still interested in horses?" It seems that writing a massive novel (600 pages -- and that's the edited version; Smiley jokes that "some university press will release the full length after I'm dead") all about the world of the race track and the horse farm hasn't exhausted the writer's interest in equines.

"Every trainer who can talk tells stories, every jockey, everybody," she says. "There was this trainer who finally got his horse to the Derby, and the day before, the horse reached over and bit his pony." (Horses, I know from Smiley's book, are partnered with ponies to act as companions during training and on race day). "The pony kicked him, he got a gash on his leg, and he was out of the Derby."

"Horse Heaven" is full of such dramas: Emergency veterinary surgery on a birthing mare; a triumphant come-from-behind victory at a French race track; a father pulling his son out of school on a weekly basis to play the ponies. Smiley paints on a broad canvas, but she explains that it all started with horses; specifically, it all started with her own horse, who in "Horse Heaven" becomes an old gelding with a famous past named Mr. T.

"I have a lifelong interest in horses," Smiley explains. "But as far as the novel, Mr. T came first... I found him in Southern Wisconsin, and he turned out to have been a race horse, but I didn't know that when I bought him. He was wonderful, and everything else came after."

Citing the influence of last year's award-winning "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham, Smiley expresses a desire to scale things down a bit on her next outing: "I would like to write something more intimate and more refined... this book is an opera, sort of, and I wouldn't mind composing some chamber music next time around."

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