Lee’s new memoir, Dimestore will be published in March, 2016 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Click to hear Lee Smith read a portion of The Last Girls.

Official Biography

Lee's childhood home in Grundy, VA

Growing up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern 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 the nearby isolated "hollers." Since 1968, she has published eleven novels, as well as three collections of short stories, and has received many writing awards.

The sense of place infusing her novels reveals her insight into and empathy for the people and culture of Appalachia. Lee Smith was born in 1944 in Grundy, Virginia, a small coal-mining town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, not 10 miles from the Kentucky border. The Smith home sat on Main Street, and the Levisa River ran just behind it. Her mother, Virginia, was a college graduate who had come to Grundy to teach school.

Lee's father, Ernest
Her father, Ernest, a native of the area, operated a dime store. And it was in that store that Smith's training as a writer began. Through a peephole in the ceiling of the store, Smith would watch and listen to the shoppers, paying close attention to the details of how they talked and dressed and what they said.

Lee's mother, Gig
"I didn't know any writers," Smith says, "[but] I grew up in the midst of people just talking and talking and talking and telling these stories. My Uncle Vern, who was in the legislature, was a famous storyteller, as were others, including my dad. It was very local. I mean, my mother could make a story out of anything; she'd go to the grocery store and come home with a story."

Smith describes herself as a "deeply weird" child. She was an insatiable reader. When she was 9 or 10, she wrote her first story, about Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell heading out west together to become Mormons--and embodying the very same themes, Smith says, that concern her even today. "You know, religion and flight, staying in one place or not staying, containment or flight--and religion."

Lee as a young girl
As a teenager, Smith became interested in some of the more extreme forms of spiritual expression. She says that one time at summer camp she heard the voice of God--speaking directly to her. "I told everybody about it, and they put me in the infirmary and called my parents." She also traveled to churches in Jolo, West Virginia and Big Rock, Virginia where the congregants were known to "take up" serpents during services. "It was mostly just to gape and gawk," she says, "but now I have this real interest in all this kind of thing." Snake handling as a prelude to religious ecstasy is featured prominently in Smith's novel, Saving Grace.

After spending her last two years of high school at St. Catherine's in Richmond, Virginia, Smith enrolled at Hollins College in Roanoke. Perhaps because life in Grundy had been so geographically and socially circumscribed, Smith says when she entered Hollins she "had this kind of breakout period--I just went wild."

Lee at the beach with her two boys, Page and Josh
She and fellow student Annie Dillard (the well-known essayist and novelist) became go-go dancers for an all-girl rock band, the Virginia Woolfs.

It was 1966, during her senior year at Hollins, that Smith's literary career began to take off. She submitted an early draft of a coming-of-age novel to a Book-of-the-Month Club contest and was awarded one of twelve fellowships. Two years later, that novel, The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed (Harper & Row, 1968), became Smith's first published work of fiction.

Following her graduation from Hollins, Smith married James Seay,  a poet and teacher, whom she accompanied from university to university as his teaching assignments changed. She worked for newspapers and raised two little boys, but found little time for her own fiction. By 1971, though, she'd completed her second novel, Something in the Wind, which garnered generally favorable reviews. But her next novel, Fancy Strut (1973), was widely praised by critics as a comic masterpiece.

In 1974 Smith and her family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she taught high school and finished Black Mountain Breakdown (1981), a much darker work than her readers had come to expect.

Lee Smith
Because of that, and despite her earlier successes, it took Smith five years to find a publisher for her next novel. So she turned her attention to short stories, for which she won O. Henry Awards in 1978 and 1980.

While writing stories, Smith says she discovered an "intrusive, down-home narrative voice" that allowed her to write about the kind of people she'd known back home in Grundy, using Appalachian dialect without sounding like “Hee Haw." She would expand on this more colloquial voice in all of her subsequent work.

Shortly after the publication of Black Mountain Breakdown, Smith published Cakewalk (1981), her first collection of short stories. It was also about this time that her marriage broke up, and she accepted a teaching job at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she taught for 19 years. In 1983 her fifth novel, Oral History, became a Book-of-the-Month Club featured selection, exposing Smith for the first time to a wide national audience. Then in 1985 she published Family Linen and married journalist Hal Crowther, to whom she dedicated the new book.

Lee with her husband, Hal Crowther
Since then, Smith has published Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) and Me and My Baby View the Eclipse (1990), her second book of short stories. In 1992 she published The Devil's Dream, a generational saga about a family of country musicians; in 1995 her ninth novel, Saving Grace, and in 1996 the novella The Christmas Letters came out. News of the Spirit, a collection of stories and novellas was published in 1997.

Smith reached a wider audience with New York Times bestseller The Last Girls (2002), which was inspired by an actual raft trip she made down the Mississippi River with other Hollins girls in 1966. The Last Girls was also a “Good Morning America” Book Club pick.

On Agate Hill, an historical novel set in piedmont North Carolina during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, was published in Fall 2006.