A Conversation with Lee Smith

I believe it was Lee Smith who first made me fall in love with Southern Literature. I'm not sure, but I think so. I think it was Lee Smith who swung open the door to a golden room where I met and talked and ate and drank with Eudora Welty and Bobbie Ann Mason and Jill McCorkle and Ernest Gaines and Allan Gurganus and Natasha Tretheway and Silas House and ever so many more. I believe it was Lee Smith who made me love the conversations of her people, her characters, her place so much that I find myself here, this many years later, still listening for those voices, still going to those places whenever I get the chance.  I suppose it helped that her place was also my place at the time of this in-love-falling. I was born and raised in Tennessee, I live now in Georgia, but it is Southwest Virginia that made me who I am. I can say that without irony, for isn't it often our college years that reveal to us ourselves? As a graduate of one of the best places on earth - Emory & Henry College - I can say with great pride that it is Emory, VA that grew me right up and threw me out into the world as I am.

Emory is about an hour and a half from Lee Smith's homeplace of Grundy, VA. Grundy is a tiny, little town with an amazing story that Smith captures in one of my favorite things she's ever done: Sitting on the Courthouse Bench: An Oral History of Grundy, VirginiaThis book is really a project completed by a group of Grundy County High School students, lead by their teacher, Debbie Raines, but Smith brought the idea to Raines and worked with the group to bring the book to life. It is a most-beautiful collection of stories and photos, voices and faces, and I treasure my copy. When I bought it at the conference many years ago, I got my mama a copy, too. I got hers signed but didn't get mine. I'm not sure why. Shyness, maybe? The good news is I will get another chance at that signature next week when Lee Smith comes to town for the Celebration of Southern Literature. In fact, I'll be taking Ms. Smith to a nearby school event, so I'll get the chance to spend the whole morning with her, and I am so looking forward to that.

In advance of our meeting, Ms. Smith graciously agreed to answer some questions for the blog. I hope to get a review of her last novel On Agate Hill up later this month, but for now, allow me to introduce you to Lee Smith!

WE: You have a new book coming out later this year - Guests On Earth. What most excites you about this novel? What can you tell us about it?

LS:  Guests on Earth is set at Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, N.C., during the years 1936-1948, the year of the terrible fire in which Zelda Fitzgerald perished along with eight other women patients in a locked ward on the top floor. Her body was identified only by her charred ballet slipper---for the brilliant Zelda was still a talented dancer and choreographer as well as a writer and a visual artist.  In this novel  I offer a solution for the unsolved mystery of that fire,  along with a group of characters both imagined and real,  and  a series of events leading up to the tragedy.  My narrator is a younger patient named Evalina Toussaint, daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer. Evalina is a talented pianist who connects to Zelda on many levels as she plays accompaniment for the many concerts, theatricals, and dances constantly being held at Highland Hospital. As Evalina tells us at the beginning of this novel, “I bring a certain insight and new information to that horrific event which changed all our lives forever, those of us living there upon that mountain at that time.  This is not my story, then, in the sense that Mr. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was not Nick Carraway’s story, either---yet Nick Carraway  is the narrator, is he not? And is any story not always the narrator’s story, in the end?”

(WE: I am so looking forward to this book. It sounds like somewhat of departure while maintaining some important threads, some continuities that matter.)

WE: Most of your work has womanhood as its center. Would you consider yourself a feminist? Do you think writers have a responsibility to make political or social statements with their work?

LS: Of course I am a feminist----how can any woman not be a feminist? But I do not feel that a writer has a responsibility to make a political or social statement in her work. In fact, fiction written with this aim in mind is apt to be bad writing---too strident, too one-note, often with cardboard, emblematic characters rather than real people. A big exception is Barbara Kingsolver, whose work I admire enormously. She manages to tell a good story AND present very strong themes, as in her recent novel "Flight Behavior" with its strong ecological message. What I have found over the years is that I do best by simply writing a story as well as I can---a story that really means something to me personally----and if has any true merit,  then clear theme and meaning will emerge. In much of my own writing, I have tried to give a voice to those who don't have one---to speak up for children, for instance, who are so often powerless in their own lives (Molly Petree in my novel "On Agate Hill").  I have written a lot about mental illness. I have tried to preserve pockets of history, folklore, and ways of life in such novels as "The Devil's Dream," "Oral History," and "Fair and Tender Ladies." I have especially tried to illumine and honor women's lives--in particular, the older women I knew as a child, women who spent their lives "doing for others" or working in jobs that are  ignored or looked down upon. Often they had too many children and too little education. These are the women who just "keep on keeping on," to quote my mother--and I have always considered their unsung lives heroic. My own favorite character I ever came up with is probably Ivy Rowe in "Fair and Tender Ladies." 

WE: In 2010, you published a collection of new and selected works, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger. Was it hard to choose the stories to include? Or do those selections stand out as landmarks for you?

LS: Yes, it was awfully hard to choose which stories to include in "Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger"......actually, it was a very emotional experience for me. These stories cover 42 years. And when you look over the work of a lifetime, it is almost like reading a memoir---each story brings back the place and time in which it was written, the phase and stage of my life which produced it. The stories of youth are different from the stories of age, just as I am different from that scribbling girl who started writing so long ago. One of the biggest changes is that now, I am more interested in the "long haul" than the transcendent moment, that epiphany which is the province of the lyric poet and the young writer. My husband and I will be celebrating our 30th anniversary soon. So my new stories such as "House Tour" and "Stevie and Mama" (my favorite!) are really about long marriages, how they change over time, the relationship of past to present, the accommodations we all make in the name of love...I could never have written those stories earlier.

 In picking out the older ones, it was a  great pleasure to choose a few of my favorites that had appeared in early collections not widely sold or read ...such as "Bob, A Dog" or "Between the Lines"----it was sort of like asking one of your shy students who had never gotten to speak up in class to come forward now, and read her work aloud.

(WE: I recently read "Bob, A Dog" for the first time and it was thoughtful and difficult and good. I love this image of stories as reluctant but talented students.)

WE: You have identified James Still's River of Earth as a defining moment in your life - reading it, you recognized your Southern Appalachian home as a literary place, a place you could write about. Do you think that recognition and appreciation still occurs for young people, or has the genre broken down that barrier?

LS: Just because I grew up in the mountains didn't mean I understood or appreciated that heritage at the time. No, I thought I had to write about anything BUT Grundy in order to be a "real writer," a person I envisioned in a Parisian garret smoking Gauloises and  writing all night long. When I found "River of Earth" all by myself in the Hollins College library, it galvanized me--here were my own relatives, talking just like themselves, in one of the best novels ever written...and at the very end of the book, when the crops have failed and Daddy has lost his job, the family picks up and  moves yet again--to Grundy, my own home town, of all places! Suddenly I saw how the people and events in my own experience might be the stuff of real literature. Years later, I was amazed when the wonderful West Virginia novelist Denise Giardina told me how much it had meant to her to read MY work, in a novel named "Black Mountain Breakdown," just as Mr. Still's novel had meant so much to me.  Our professors always tell us "write what you know".....but often we don't know what we know until we come upon someone else who is using our material, the stuff of our own lives. It is a great gift to find the writer you need to read. Books themselves are often our best teachers.

(WE: Denise Giardina is wonderful. Just sayin'.)

WE: Speaking of genre, do you ever regret your identification as a "Southern" writer? Do you feel Southern and Appalachian literature is considered somehow less than literary fiction? If so, why? As a particular example, how do you feel about the timing of Jill McCorkle's Life After Life being released at the same time as Kate Atkinson's book of the same name?

LS: I have always thanked my lucky stars that I grew up where and when I did-- in the small, remote coal town of Grundy, Virginia---hearing the picturesque, lovely and specific Appalachian speech of the older generation---and the best stories in the world. I still haven't used them all up! 

But you are quite right in that these two excellent yet very different "Life After Life" books coming out simultaneously does illustrate the divide between "literary fiction" and "Southern fiction" in many people's minds. Except to Southerners, "Southern" still means rural, unsophisticated, dumber, "lesser than"----and all this is even more true with Appalachian fiction. Sociologist John Shelton Reed has aptly called Appalachia "the South's South"----despite  breakthrough  successes like  Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain", Ron Rash's "Serena," and Adriana Trigiana's Big Stone Gap books, the Hee-Haw stereotype is still entrenched in the average American reader's mind. 

It is my belief that after the initial flurry of publication (which is all about money, anyway, and clearly Atkinson's publisher has more money than Jill's----just as Atkinson already has an international following)  Jill's book will find its own way. People LOVE it. The themes in Jill's book are universal-----exactly what we are all dealing with in our own real lives---with a redeeming dash of humor thrown in, and writing that literally sings.

(WE: Look for my review of Life After Life later this week. I will finish it tonight, and it is making me tremble it's so good.)

WE: What emerging Southern authors are you most admiring of and why?

LS: There are so many exciting new Southern voices to admire that it's awfully hard to choose---but right now I am in the middle of reading Holly Goddard Jones's new novel "The Next Time You See Me" and it's just knocking me out. I don't know how she knows what she knows, at her age---the depth of all these characterizations is astonishing, along with her rich, gorgeous prose style. As somebody said on the jacket, this novel is a "a whole jukebox full of country songs." Holly will be in Chattanooga too, accepting an award for her fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers as well as reading her own work---I wold advise everybody to go hear her, and buy a book! I plan to get mine signed, and hang onto it.

I couldn't have asked for a better response because I will also be hanging out with Holly Goddard Jones next week. I have her book, it is next in line to be read and reviewed, and if you're lucky, you might just get an interview from her as well. Take Lee Smith's advice. And then, take mine: read Lee Smith. She just may be that writer you need to read. I know she was for me.

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