At Home in Appalachia
an article by Jeanne McDonald, published 1996
As they say in the South, Lee Smith has never met a stranger. Five minutes after you meet her, you are exchanging intimate secrets and discussing weighty things-metaphysical issues, humanity, the really important stuff. Smith demonstrates an empathy and involvement with the concerns of others that are so sincere, you realize immediately that she herself has been on the same emotional plateau at one time or another. Her lively blue eyes are as friendly and approachable as a cool lake you can wade into, and her smile and expressions seem completely implicated with everything you are telling her. No wonder her characters are so real, her subjects so genuine. Lee Smith understands. She listens. And after her discovery of James Still, Smith began listening even more intently to the stories told in Grundy, taping them and writing them down. She coaxed her mother to retell tales from the past that she might have forgotten, talked to her father about ghost stories and legends of the region, and prompted her Aunt Kate to tell her version of the truth.
"Writing comes out of a life lived," James Still said once in an interview (Knoxville News-Sentinel, May 16, 1993). "For me, ideas are hanging from limbs like pears, from fences like gourds. They rise up like birds from cover." So it was for Lee Smith, who began to incorporate all those true tales and anecdotes from Grundy into her novels. Last year, at the beginning of her ninth novel, Saving Grace (Putnam, 1996), she quoted these lines from T. S. Eliot's "Little Giddings":
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
During the writing of her fourth novel, Oral History (Putnam, 1983), another revelation occurred. Smith discovered that the device of using first-person narrative gave her characters dignity and removed stiffness from the dialogue. Now she had place, story, and voice, the voice that had been in her head, in her ears, on the tip of her tongue, for years. The rhythms of the native dialect came naturally to her.
Even in the novels she had read as a child, Smith had fallen in love with the Southern literary voice. "Of course," she says, "it was impossible not to be influenced by Faulkner," and it was from novels like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying that she got the idea of multiple narrators, even though Faulkner's Deep South settings, with their Spanish moss, ruined columns, and crumbling old mansions, were a world apart from Grundy's dark hills and poverty-ridden hollows. There were no black people in Grundy, either. For Smith, Faulkner's world was so alien, it might as well have been a foreign country. The voices of Grundy that already existed in her head were reinforced by the characters in Eudora Welty's "Shower of Gold" and Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge." Although Smith is often compared to both these Southern writers, her own reading taste is broad and eclectic. She lists Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse as the "perfect novel," is an avid reader of poetry, and, with tongue in cheek, calls Shakespeare "real good." Smith could never be labeled as a "grit-lit" writer who reduces poor white Southerners to generic caricatures. She brings to her characters a decency and dignity that makes them as credible as any memorable character in English literature. Some people, however, equate Southern dialects with ignorance-in both characters and authors. Smith recounts an episode that occurred early in her career, when she gave a reading at Columbia University. As soon as she began to speak, several people got up and walked out of the auditorium, put off, she assumed, by her thick Southern accent. Others call her accent "lilting," "charming," and Newsweek summed up the impact of her work in a review of her fifth novel, Fair and Tender Ladies (Putnam, 1988): "Her work is about the moment when, as you look at or listen to a work of naïve art, it stops being a curiosity and starts to speak to you in a human voice."
Lee Smith made a giant leap into the mainstream when Oral History was published. With that novel, she became the titular queen of the new Southern regional movement, which Peter Guralnick, writing in the Los Angeles Times Magazine (May 21, 1995), defined as a "simultaneous embrace of past and present, this insistent chronicling of the small, heroic battles of the human spirit, a recognition of the dignity and absurdity of the commonplace." Guralnick includes among the movement's members Larry Brown, Kaye Gibbons, Cormac McCarthy, Jill McCorkle, Jayne Anne Phillips, Anne Tyler, and James Wilcox. Though they may have varied literary styles, all these authors, like Smith, write stories with an exceptionally strong sense of place.
"In the South," Smith says, "sense of place implies who you are and what your family did. It's not just literally the physical surroundings, what stuff looks like. It's a whole sense of the past. Even if I write a short story, I have to make diagrams of what the character's house looks like and where the house is in relation to the town." In fact, Putnam recently returned to her a map she drew when she wrote Oral History, depicting not only the physical setting for the novel, but also the geographical relationship of all the characters.
Oral History is the virtual prototype of the modern Appalachian novel, but it is also the book that broke Lee Smith out of the regional mold. "Lee Smith," says Guralnick, "is the latest in a long line of Southerners who transform the region's voices and visions into quintessentially American novels." Other novels by Smith that celebrate the "small, heroic battles of the human spirit" followed soon after: Family Linen (Putnam, 1985), Fair and Tender Ladies, The Devil's Dream (Putnam, 1992), and, in 1996, Saving Grace.
To further complicate matters, Smith realized that her marriage to her first husband, poet James Seay, was disintegrating, and she had two young sons to care for. From 1973 to 1981 she taught high school English and a variety of other courses and had actually enrolled in graduate school for training as a special education teacher when her friend Roy Blount, Jr., helped her find the New York agent who still represents her work-Liz Darhanshoff-and her literary career took off again. "Faith Sale at Putnam became my editor and remains my editor after all these years," says Smith, "and that ended the nonpublishing streak." She handled the temporary defeat as cheerfully as she handles all obstacles: "I have never had writer's block," she says wryly, "but I have definitely had publisher's block."
Meanwhile, back in Grundy, nobody had ever doubted that Lee Smith would grow up to be a famous storyteller, especially not Smith herself, who says she had been "romantically dedicated" to the grand idea of being a writer ever since she could remember. Like Karen, the teen-aged narrator in her story "Tongues of Fire" in the short story collection Me and My Baby View the Eclipse, Putnam, 1990) who Smith says is closest to her autobiographical double, she often pictured herself "poised at the foggy edge of a cliff someplace in the south of France, wearing a cape, drawing furiously on a long cigarette, hollow-cheeked and haunted."
As soon as she was able to spell, Smith started writing stories. "I loved it," she said, "because everything happened just the way I wanted it to. Writing stories gave me a special power." Her first "novel," written on her mother's stationery when Smith was eight years old, had as its main characters her two favorite people at the time-Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell. The plot involved their falling in love, heading west in a covered wagon, and converting to Mormonism.
At the age of 11, Smith and her best friend, Martha Sue Owens, published a neighborhood newspaper, The Small Review, which they laboriously hand-copied for 12 neighbors. Articles from the newspaper show evidence of Smith's budding talent for detailed observation as well as her curiosity about people's idiosyncrasies. Her controversial editorial, "George McGuire Is Too Grumpy," exacted an apology to the neighbor across the street, but it was indicative of Smith's dedication to truth in writing. For example, in the short story "Fancy Strut" in the collection Me and My Baby View the Eclipse, she writes, "Bob and Frances Pitt stayed in a bridal suite in the Ocean-Aire Autel at Fort Walton Beach, Florida, on their honeymoon, and had a perfectly all right time; but do you know what Johnny B. and Sandy DuBois did? They went to the Southern 500 at Darlington, South Carolina, and sat out in the weather on those old hard benches for three entire days, watching the cars go around and around." In another story, "Life on the Moon" (in Me and My Baby View the Eclipse), she writes: "Lonnie took the rug and the E-Z Boy and his clothes and six pieces of Tupperware, that's all, and moved in with a nurse from the hospital, Sharon Ledbetter, into her one-bedroom apartment at Colony Courts."
It is these "particulars of life" that are "splendidly observed," said reviewer Caroline Thompson, writing in the Los Angeles Times at the publication of Black Mountain Breakdown (Putnam, 1981): "They would make a Carson McCullers of a Flannery O'Connor proud. Smith already knows her characters intimately before she sits down to write the first word of a story. In order to keep her work spontaneous, she rarely revises, which is lucky, because she still writes first drafts in longhand. But she knows exactly what her characters are going to do because, she says, they tell her. In fact, she describes herself as the medium through which those characters speak. For her, voices are "easy to do. There's always a human voice that's telling me the story." It is easy for us as readers to accept her declaration that she is merely the vehicle for her characters' stories when we see how accurately she gives voice to those poverty-stricken daughters, wives, and mothers who live in the mountain "hollers" she knew when she was growing up in Grundy. Her empathy and her innate ability to recreate the events of their lives and the cadence of their voices are factors that help the reader understand-even love-those women who marry young, are weighed down by poverty and children while they are mere children themselves, and who usually die never having seen the world beyond the shadowy mountains where the sun rarely shows itself before noon. Most of Smith's novels deal with women whom Publishers Weekly (May 1995) called "spirited women of humble background who are destined to endure difficult and often tragic times." She draws her women so thoroughly-Crystal Spangler in Black Mountain Breakdown, Florida Grace Shepherd in Saving Grace, Ivy Rowe in Fair and Tender Ladies-that by the time you have finished her novels, you feel as if you have made two new friends-the character and Lee Smith herself.
Until Smith began to write novels, most southern heroines, like Scarlett O'Hara, were from privileged families. Poor white women remained in the background, unexamined and unworthy of star billing. But Smith changed all that by exploring their hearts and minds and resurrecting the dignity of Appalachian women. Saving Grace is the perfect example of a story and voice that Smith says "possessed her," much as Ivy Rowe's had in Fair and Tender Ladies. In fact, she was so involved with Ivy, a character she says helped her deal with the death of her own mother, that she was reluctant to give up the manuscript when her editor declared the book finished. Grace had already been speaking to Smith for a while when she went to the annual Flannery O'Connor Festival in Milledgeville, Georgia. She returned home to Chapel Hill, reread all the O'Connor works she could find, submerged herself in a torrent of writing, and delivered the manuscript to Putnam two years early. "I got taken over by Grace," she says. "It was the most compelling narrative that had ever come my way. But even when it was finished and I went to the post office to mail the manuscript to the publisher, I still hadn't thought of a name for the book. While I was waiting in line, the wife of the local pediatrician came in. 'What's the book about?' she asked me. 'And what's the character's name?'
"'Grace,' I told her," recounts Smith.
"'Well, there's your title, Lee,' she said. 'Call it Saving Grace.' And I did."
One reason so many Southern fans identify with Lee Smith is that she tells a story in the same convoluted way that they themselves do, using intimate asides, gossipy digressions, and personal references, just as any friend would tell a story in ordinary conversation. "The way Southerners tell a story is really specific to the South," Smith says. "It's a whole narrative strategy, it's an approach. Every kind of information is imparted in the form of a story." Ask for directions in the South? She laughs. "It's not just turn left. It's I remember the time my cousin went up there and got bit by a mad dog. It's a whole different approach to interactions between people and to transmitting information."
There is a fine line between the exaggerations and embellishments with which Southerners give details and what they define as a story. "My father was fond of saying that I would climb a tree to tell a lie rather than stand on the ground to tell the truth," says Smith. "In fact, in the mountains where I come from, a lie was often called a story, and well do I remember being shaken until my teeth rattled and [given] the stern admonition: 'Don't you tell me no story, now." But Smith was a precocious and imaginative child, and her dramatic views were reinforced by books that gave her an insight to the outside world that few others in Grundy were privy to.
Though none of her large extended family ever read novels, Smith discovered literature early. "Not for entertainment or information," she says, "but to feel all wild and trembly inside." Her favorites were "anything at all about horses and saints. Nobody ever told me something was too old for me because they didn't know, see? They hadn't read them. I read stuff that would have made my mother die-Mandingo, Frank Yerby, Butterfield 8, lots of John O'Hara. And Raintree County put me to bed for two days. I had to lie down."
Smith gave these same books to Florida Grace Shepherd to read in Saving Grace, and that is how Grace, like Smith, learned that there was much more to explore in the world. Still, it is the people Smith grew up with who provided most of the material and background for her characters: the minister and his wife, her grandmother, her friends who lived in the hollers, or the women who worked in her father's dime store and talked about babies being born "with veils across their faces." Although her characters may be eccentric or bizarre, they are always believable, and their dimension emanates from Smith's ability to slip into other people's hearts and minds. Even when the characters are flawed-shallow or evil or crafty-she gives the reader something to love in each one. Their weaknesses and vulnerability make them seem real, and every single one of her characters is the kind of person you can still meet in southern Appalachia today. You can still find the Randy Newhouse of Saving Grace at any roadside tavern in the South; you can still hear Travis Word preaching at any Southern fundamentalist country church; and you can see Virgil Shepherd on religious TV on any day of the week. In order to make these characters realizable, Smith gives them dignity. "Smith has great empathy for the poor," said Publishers Weekly in a 1996 review of Saving Grace, "uneducated country people who yearn for a transcendent message to infuse their lives with spiritual meaning."
A review of Saving Grace in The New York Times Book Review complained that Smith had made her characters "dangerously close to cliché," but anybody who has grown up in the South recognizes in Smith's stories his cousin, or an eccentric neighbor, or the man who runs the grocery store down at the crossroads. And Lee Smith knows human nature. When she wants more information for a story, she dives in headfirst. For background on Family Linen she took a job as a shampoo girl at a local beauty shop to learn firsthand how her characters' lives would play out.
Nothing is too demanding or exhausting for Smith. She is a woman who loves her work. In conjunction with her latest award-a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest grant, which gives her a generous financial stipend and a three-year sabbatical-she chose to affiliate with the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky, where, ironically, James Still was librarian in 1932. Besides the connection with Still, Smith is attracted to the area because it reminds her of Grundy, and she feels an affinity to the people there. She has been working with writing students at Hindman's Adult Learning Center and at other eastern Kentucky schools.
Smith has also been the recipient of the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Fiction (1991), the Sir Walter Raleigh Award (1989), the John Dos Passos Award for Literature (1987), the North Carolina Award for Fiction (1984), and a Lyndhurst Prize. She left Hollins College in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in English and $3,000 from her first major award, the Book-of-the-Month College English Writing Contest Prize, and embarked on a career that has spanned 30 years.
The affiliation in Kentucky has excited and energized Smith. "Watching people express themselves in language," she muses," is like watching them fall in love." She is particularly excited and inspired by the older participants in her workshops, especially the ones who have only recently learned to read and write. For the first time, she says, they are able to express on paper the scores of stories that have been stored in their heads for years. And-lucky for them-they have Lee Smith to help.
"I love to work with older writers," says Smith. "At North Carolina State University I have lots of older graduate students, but it's good to get out of the academic community where people are always deconstructing texts and talking about symbolism. This experience in Kentucky puts the emphasis on communication and how thrilling it is to read and write."
For both Smith and the adults enrolled in the literacy program, the ultimate fulfillment is seeing their words in print for the first time. "The publishers are Lila Wallace, Kinko's, and me," says Smith wit a laugh. "We've already printed two autobiographies in batches of 1,000 and we're selling out." Some of the manuscripts are being used by other writing workshops as models of how writing can be taught in the community.
Next year Smith will return to teaching at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She and her second husband, Hal Crowther, a syndicated journalist and columnist for Oxford American magazine, have recently bought an old house in Hillsborough, North Carolina, eight miles from their former Chapel Hill home. They've also purchased a cabin in Jefferson, North Carolina, where Smith grows dahlias and roses and nourishes 20 apple trees. The cabin and the surrounding woods remind her of Grundy and her roots and the people who have been her greatest source of inspiration.
But while she's living other areas of her life, plots are still buzzing around in her head, and she rarely takes a vacation from her stories. Louis Rubin, Smith's former writing teacher, has said of her: "Lee's a real writer. She writes all the time. She writes when she's down. She writes when she's up-that's just her way of dealing with the world."
"I write fiction the way other people write in their journals," Smith says. "It helps me keep track of time so I can see what I'm up to." Often writing helps her work through real-life trauma. It's her personal brand of therapy, the way she deals with whatever emotional ups and downs she inherited from her beloved manic-depressive parents. She never discussed their illness while they were alive, but it's something she is dealing with openly and honestly now. "Sometimes when I look back at something I've written, I remember what was going on in my life at that time, and I see how I worked it out through the writing." The deaths of both her parents in recent years and their constant history of depression have been overwhelming, but writing, she says, has actually helped her to work through and come to terms with such obstacles. Now, life generally seems balmy. "I want more time with Hal, more years," Smith says adoringly of her husband. (The two met at Duke University's Evening College, where both were teaching writing courses.)
Smith never loses her enthusiasm for teaching classes and workshops. Although she firmly believes that such programs have given rise to a proliferation of good writers, "The terrible paradox," she says, " is that even though there are more good writers now than ever before, publishers are publishing less literary fiction. In fact, almost nobody who is a good literary writer ever makes it any more." Among those who have made it, a few of her current favorites are Richard Bausch, Larry Brown, James Lee Burke, Clyde Edgerton, Ellen Gilchrist, Toni Morrison, Lewis Nordan, and Anne Tyler.
Smith's project that she calls "a stocking stuffer" was published by Algonquin in the fall of 1996. Although most of her books have been published by Putnam, she has always wanted to do a project with Algonquin editor Shannon Ravenel, her old friend from Hollins. Like Fair and Tender Ladies, which is an epistolary novel based on actual letters Smith found at a garage sale, The Christmas Letters is a novella composed of actual Christmas letters from three generations of women in the same family. But the resemblance stops there. "The new book also involves recipes," she says. "I guess I could tell my entire life story through food. You know how we went through that phase using Cool Whip and cream of mushroom soup? And then we went on to fondue, then quiche? Now it's salsa." Recently she has also been busy promoting her newest book, News of the Spirit, a collection of short stories and novellas released in September by Putnam, and is working on new stories.
Smith has come full circle, from discovering James Still's novel and becoming a friend of the author himself at the Hindman Center in Kentucky, to seeing her first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed, recently reprinted in paperback by Louisiana State University Press as part of a series of Southern reissues. Now she is working on the songs and stories of Florida Slone, a ballad singer famous around Knott County, and participating in a workshop for public school teachers in Kentucky. Meanwhile, she has donated her father's former dime store in Grundy to the town for the use as a teen center. And with all this boundless energy and enthusiasm for life, Smith continues to write incessantly and to support the work of others. She is fascinated by the writing of Lou Crabtree, a woman in her 80s in Abingdon, Virginia, who, like everyone else who meets her, has become Lee Smith's friend. "Until LSU recently published her collection, Stories from Sweet Holler, Lou had been writing her whole life without any thought of publication," says Smith, with her usual exuberance. "Once I said to her, 'Lou, what would you do if somebody told you that you weren't allowed to write anymore?'
"'Well,' Lou replied, 'I reckon I'd just have to sneak off and do it.'"
So would Lee Smith: she'd just sneak off and do it.