Jane Smiley: 'I couldn't finish Philip Roth's American Pastoral. I tossed it'

The Pulitzer winner on her love of Trollope, her passion for cooking and the Ian McEwan novel she feels is overrated

The book I am currently reading
Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye is set near Duluth, Minnesota, but the scenery Geye gives the reader is the wilderness of Lake Superior and its history of shipping ore from the local mines to factories during the 20th century. A father and son are trying to reconcile before the father dies. It is wonderfully evocative of the characters and the bumpy history of their relationship.

The book that changed my life
A lot of books made me want to be a writer, but The Gourmet Cookbook by Ruth Reichl made me want to be a cook, and I cook even more often than I write. I was living in a rural area of Iowa – not even a McDonald’s in the neighbourhood – and my 6ft 10in husband needed to be fed. I would try out all kinds of recipes and enjoy just about every one. I still prefer my own cooking to most restaurants, and I still love to try out new recipes.

The book I wish I’d written
I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé. This one had been sitting around my house for years and I finally read it last year. I was amazed at Condé’s insights into Tituba’s life (inner and outer), but also at her portrayal of Tituba’s legal dilemma – her knowledge of herbal remedies is what gets her into trouble in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th century. It’s a brilliant exploration of the cruelty of Puritan society from the outside (with a cameo by Hester Prynne).

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is my own book; in order to write it, I read about 120 novels that I knew well (Pride and Prejudice), that I didn’t know at all (In Search of Lost Time), that were old (The Tale of Genji) or contemporary (Look at Me by Jennifer Egan). I learned something from every one of them and my sense of what to write and how to write it expanded.

The book I think is most overrated
Atonement by Ian McEwan. This really doesn’t make sense to me. When I got to the end, I could not figure out what had happened.

The last book that made me cry
The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson. This is a detailed history of the city where I grew up, St Louis, Missouri, and the cruel aspects of that history (not only slavery but also Native American removal plans hatched and executed at the juncture of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers in the early 19th century). The fact that lots of St Louis streets are named for those predators was new to me and very depressing. Can this country be saved? Only Walter Johnson knows.

The last book that made me laugh
The Housewife Assassin’s Handbook by Josie Browna book I taught in a class about comic novels. My students were put off by the novel’s bizarre mix of childcare and secretive violence, and they preferred Love Among the Chickens by PG Wodehouse. But Brown’s unorthodox surprises did make me laugh.

The book I couldn’t finish
As soon as the main character in American Pastoral by Philip Roth is asked by his daughter to kiss her in an erotic way, I tossed it.

My earliest reading memory
I loved Freddie and Flossie and Nan and Bert in The Bobbsey Twins at School by Laura Lee Hope, and since I was an only child, I thought life would be perfect if I only had a twin. I read this one over and over, and the only mystery about it was why, in this one, Freddie and Flossie were six and Nan and Bert were 12, while in The Bobbsey Twins at Home, Freddie and Flossie were four and Nan and Bert were eight.

My comfort read
Anything by Anthony Trollope. No matter what I’m reading or rereading (right now, Can You Forgive Her?) I am intrigued and reassured by Trollope’s insights into the minds of both men and women, as well as the undercurrent of good humour that runs through all the books (including one of my favourites, He Knew He Was Right).

The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley is published by Mantle on 18 February (£16.99).

• This article was amended on 11 February 2021. In American Pastoral it is the daughter who asks her father to kiss her in an erotic way, not the other way around as stated in an earlier version.


Jane Smiley

The GuardianTramp

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