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Volume 26, Number 7 — July 2019

If You Don't Know Lee Smith ...

Best-selling novelist Lee Smith will visit Bristol, Va., in April. (Photo by Robert Haile)
Best-selling novelist Lee Smith will visit Bristol, Va., in April. (Photo by Robert Haile)

Lee Smith: In Her Own Words

By ANGELA WAMPLER | A! MAGAZINE | March 29, 2010

Growing up in the Appalachian mountains of Southwest Virginia, nine-year-old Lee Smith was already writing — and selling, for a nickel apiece — stories about her neighbors in the coal boomtown of Grundy and nearby isolated hollers.

Since 1968, she has received many writing awards, publishing 12 novels, including The Last Girls and Oral History, as well as three collections of short stories. The sense of place infusing her novels reveals her insight into and empathy for the people and culture of Appalachia. Literary awards have included the Lila Wallace/Readers' Digest Award, the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, and the Fiction Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Lee Smith: In Her Own Words

A! Magazine: Your new collection of short stories has seven new stories along with seven from previous collections. How did you choose just seven to represent all of your fine stories from the past?

I've been writing fiction for 40 years now, so that's a lot of stories. It was very, very hard to choose among them. I didn't want to pick too many. I didn't want to publish a doorstop, which often happens with retrospective collections. Instead I wanted to publish a manageable-sized book, a book you can take to the beach. I want people to carry my books around and read them, instead of putting them up on a shelf someplace. In the end I simply picked some of the stories that have meant the most to me personally, plus a few very early stories that had not found the wider readership of recent years.

I have always written fiction the way other people write in their journals or diaries, so this collection means a lot to me, reflecting all the phases and stages of my own life. Of course, I am not my characters — though often they are going through some of the same things I was going through when I wrote that particular story. My characters are braver than I am. They tend to live passionately — "full tilt boogie," as we used to say — making decisions and doing things that I would not. But they often voice my own thoughts and feelings. In the stories, I try to grab those turning points in their lives, after which things will never, ever, be the same again.

A! Magazine:
Do you see any recurring themes in the new stories?

Sure. At my age now, I am more interested in the "long haul" than the transcendent moment, that epiphany which is the province of the poet and the young writer. My husband and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary this summer. So my new stories "House Tour" and "Stevie and Mama" (my favorites!) are really about long marriages, how they change over time, and the relationship of the past to the present.

I am a writer to whom place is always an important theme, and some new places crop up in these new stories: Key West and Maine, for instance. But since this collection represents a life's work, the newer and older stories share recurrent themes as well. The lonely, brilliant little boy in my recent "Toastmaster" is much like Karen in "Tongues of Fire," "who feels like a stranger in her own family" — these are both stories about identity issues.

Family has always been the major theme in my writing, as it is here, represented again and again in stories like "Bob, A Dog" and "Intensive Care" (divorce); "Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger" and ""Happy Memories Club" (aging and what to do with Mama!). I love to write about the function of art in community life, such as my new story "Folk Art" or one of my very earliest, "Between the Lines," about a newspaper columnist in a tiny mountain town.

When you were younger, you often referred to the influence of Eudora Welty on your fiction. Today, many young writers throughout the South refer to you as the most influential literary figure on their fiction. In fact, the blurb on the Algonquin website calls you the "reigning queen of the bittersweet short story." Do you see yourself (as others see you) as the "grande dame" of contemporary Southern fiction?

Heavens, no! I don't see myself as a "grande dame" or "reigning queen" of anything! I am a working writer who has simply been very fortunate — lucky enough to grow up in Grundy, where I learned what a good story is and heard enough of them to last me a lifetime; lucky enough to go to Virginia schools where my passion for reading and writing was encouraged; lucky enough to be able to publish my stories and novels all these years.

Although writing may give you a great life, it will not provide you with a great living. So I have also been lucky enough to teach for most of these years, too. I am now retired from my professorship at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where we started an excellent MFA Program in Creative Writing. But I count my years of teaching there — and at too many other schools and workshops to name — as a great pleasure and an opportunity to pass on to new writers the attention that was so generously given to me. I have taken this as a serious trust and responsibility.

A! Magazine: In your long writing career, what have you hoped to achieve in your fiction?

I have always sought to tell the truth as I saw it. Paradoxically, I have found that I can do this better in fiction than nonfiction, because fiction can reveal truth in all its complexity. A novel is not a PowerPoint presentation. A novel is like a prism, or a kaleidoscope. When you hold it up to the light and turn it, the colors glow and deepen, the patterns change, and change again because, let's face it, human nature is complicated, and so is life, and honest art must be also.

In much of my writing I have tried to give a voice to those who don't have one — to speak for children, for instance, who are so often powerless in their own lives (Molly Petree in On Agate Hill); to illumine and honor women's lives, especially the older women I knew as a child, women who have spent their lives "doing for others" or working in jobs that are often ignored or even looked down upon (Fair and Tender Ladies). I have often written about mental illness and also about the environment. I have tried to preserve pockets of history, folklore, and ways of life in such novels as Oral HistoryandThe Devil's Dream.

A! Magazine: On your website you have a list of writers whom you recommend to your readers. Discuss briefly the writers that you are especially impressed with currently.

Let's just start with Appalachian writers, since we are blessed with so many excellent ones right now. Ron Rash has leapt into national prominence with his novel Serena, an achievement of breathtaking scope and intensity — plus, Serena herself is the most evil heroine I've ever encountered in fiction, period! Beloved young Kentucky writer Silas House's recent novel Eli the Good ought to be required reading in every high school. Not only is it a beautiful coming-of-age in Appalachia story, it is also very timely in its dealing with the aftermath of war through the character of Eli's father, a Vietnam veteran.

Currently I am really enjoying Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout, a group of related short stories set in a small town in Maine, much like any one of our own communities around here. Olive herself is a retired 72-year-old schoolteacher with decided opinions. You may not always like her, but you'll recognize her — even in yourself. This is happening to me right now, as I read.

A! Magazine: How much have you been involved with the off-Broadway production Good Ol' Girls? You must be very proud of that achievement.

I have been very involved in Good Ol' Girls at every step along the way, through multiple productions leading right up to our current run in New York City. It has been the purest pleasure of my entire creative life because it has been a total collaboration all the way. Here's how it happened: over in Nashville, brilliant young singer/songwriter Matraca Berg wrote a song named "Good Ol' Girls" and got the concept; she called one of my oldest friends, cult rocker Marshall Chapman, and said, "Hey Marshall, would you like to do a show called Good Ol' Girls?" Marshall immediately called me and said, "Hey, Lee, you wanna write a musical?" It took me all of 30 seconds to put down my novel-in-progress and say "Yes!" Truth was, I'd been writing about good ol' girls all my life, and I'd long had the idea of a country music musical, a revue, sort of like an all-girl Chorus Line with alternating monologues and songs. I roped in my ex-student and wonderful fiction writer Jill McCorkle for some feisty, contemporary voices, so we'd have some good ol' girls on the beltline as well as up in the holler. Then we recruited UNC professor/playwright Paul Ferguson who adapted our stories and songs and turned it into theater. We were off and running! And now, just a few weeks ago, all five of us were right there in New York for the Valentine's Day premiere. It's really unbelievable.

A! Magazine: Have there been any film versions done of your work? Have there been options of novels or short stories?

I can't even tell you how many films have fallen through — several right at the last minute, including Milos Forman's version of Fancy Strut; a PBS miniseries of Oral History, to be filmed in Buchanan County, Va.; and Family Linen, all set to shoot in Asheville, NC, this past summer until the hedge fund supporting it collapsed. It's gotten to where I never even tell anybody when I sell an option!

However, I have been truly blessed with wonderful stage adaptations, most notably by Barbara Bates Smith (no relation!) whose own one-woman show, Ivy Rowe, also played off-Broadway to wonderful reviews. I remember the New York Times called her show a "rare and heartfelt performance." Now she has performed it 700 times! Barbara also does her own adaptations of The Christmas LettersandOn Agate Hill. Best of all, she's got a new one entitled B. Smith Does Lee Smith, featuring stories from my new book, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger. Paul Ferguson, [Abingdon actress] Quinn Hawkesworth, and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival have also come up with fine adaptations.

A! Magazine: In several of your novels and autobiographical essays you refer to Bristol. Growing up in Grundy in the 1950s and '60s, what role do you remember Bristol having in the region? What childhood memories do you have of coming to the "big city" of Bristol?

For my cousins and myself, Bristol was the big city! "Going to Bristol" was a long trip, a major expedition [from Grundy]. We always got all dressed up and packed a little lunch — pimiento cheese sandwiches, maybe, or ham biscuits — in case we had a wreck. To this day, I can close my eyes and see all the landmarks on our way: the blazing coke ovens at Vansant; the company town hugging the mountainside at Raven; the heart-stopping Short's Gap; Claypool Hill, where those funny round hills like bald heads began; that mansion up on the hill near Lebanon (I used to pretend I lived there); then the incredibly gourmet Howard Johnson's Restaurant on Rt. 11 where I always ordered the clam chowder or the even more sophisticated Breaded Veal Cutlet With Tomato Sauce. I didn't know why everybody laughed when I once asked, "What does a veal look like?" After all, we didn't have any veals in Grundy.

In Bristol, we were sometimes dragged to Dr. Sexton, the dentist, and always taken to HP King's department store for new clothes which, in my memory, seem to consist mostly of plaid dresses with big white collars. For shoes we got to look down at our feet through a machine; to my surprise, my bones were long and green!

A! Magazine:
As you know, Bristol is engaged in a Community Read of Fair and Tender Ladies in conjunction with your April visit. Several years ago, there were some objections to the book being taught in a local high school that came in part on what may be called "religious grounds." How would you answer those critics? What would you tell readers that you were attempting in the novel?

I can't tell you how proud I am that Bristol has chosen Fair and Tender Ladies as its Community Read! This book is truly the book of my heart, my favorite among all the books I've ever written. It is a love story to Southwest Virginia, intended to memorialize and document an earlier way of life. I wrote it especially to honor the older Appalachian women I was privileged to know as I was growing up, women who had led hard lives that I consider truly heroic — though not in the eyes of the world, for these lives were mostly spent at home, taking care of children, tending to others, just "keeping on keeping on" — "trying to keep body and soul together" is another phrase that comes to mind. I love the old Appalachian dialect, the language I was born into — it's so specific, yet so poetic. I wanted to preserve it, too. So in a way this novel is also a hymn to language itself, and to literacy, and a plea for education.

Fair and Tender Ladies also means a lot to me because I wrote it during a particularly difficult time in my own life: I was going through a divorce, my mother was dying, and my son was very ill. I literally wrote it sitting by their bedsides. The main character, Ivy Rowe, got stronger and spunkier as things got harder and harder for me. Suddenly she took on a real life of her own, to become my best friend when I really needed one. Ivy Rowe had more spirit and courage than I did, and she got me through it. In the years since the book was published, Ivy Rowe has done the same for many readers who have written to me and told me their own stories. At last count, eleven babies that I know of have been named "Ivy" for her.

Though I did not write Fair and Tender Ladies for teenagers, I believe it has a lot to say to them — especially now, 22 years since I wrote it. In those years, our American culture has changed drastically for the worse, so that kids today can log onto the internet and find more shocking things in three seconds than they can find in this entire book. The same goes for television. Speaking as a lifelong teacher, I feel that this novel provides young people with a safe forum to address tough issues such as unwanted pregnancy, mental illness, and poverty. It also highlights the importance of education and celebrates our region's heritage. I like to think that it promotes self-esteem. I have never understood any objections to it on "religious grounds," either — though it is thought-provoking in that it presents several different kinds of belief: Ivy's husband Oakley is an exemplary church-goer and a true Christian; her evangelist brother Garney is a greedy, self-serving hypocrite; while Ivy finds her own way, quoting Ecclesiastes at the end.

A! Magazine: You have written about the influence of the late Lou Crabtree on your life and your writing. Tell the A! Magazine audience who Lou was and the influence that she has had on you.

Lou Crabtree was a sage, a genius, and a true original who certainly gave me the concept of writing as a way to make it through your life. My character Ivy Rowe was inspired by her. A native of Washington County, Va. — "born in the Hogoheegee," as Lou always said — Lou worked her way through Radford University in three years, starting at age 15, then taught in a one-room school, and married a farmer with whom she raised five children out at Smith Creek. But all the time — all the time — she was writing. She had suitcases and boxes filled with stories and poems when I first met her in a class I came to teach in downtown Abingdon in the early '80s. Some of those stories were later published to great acclaim as Sweet Hollow, for which Lou won many awards. A book of her poems came out later as well. I cannot tell you how many hours I spent with Lou on her Valley Street front porch, how much I treasure those hours, or how much I miss them now. Her humor, her originality, and her wisdom are irreplaceable.

A! Magazine: Do you return to Grundy very often? Is it anything like the hometown that you grew up in?

I do return to Grundy, though not as often as I would like to. The fact is that almost all my relatives have passed away now or moved elsewhere, most of them relocating to the Abingdon area. But I have always, always loved Grundy, though now it is nothing like it was when I was growing up — especially since they have razed all the downtown business area, including my father's beloved Ben Franklin dime store in which I spent a good part of my childhood. Due to continued flooding, Grundy is now being "relocated" to higher ground. It's still a work in progress, an expensive and unique effort. But no matter how much the look of the town may be altered, some things will never change — Grundy will always have the best people in the world.

A! Magazine: You now make your home in North Carolina where the new governor, Bev Perdue, is from Grundy, Va. Do folks in North Carolina think that Grundy girls are taking over the state?

Grundy girls are taking over the state! And Bev Perdue is doing a fantastic job as Governor!

— The Bristol Library foundation.

Read a Bristol Herald Courier story about Lee Smith's visit to Bristol. Click HERE.

Topics: Literature