Lee’s new novel, Guests on Earth was published in October, 2013 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

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In Her Own Words

by Lee Smith

Photo by Susan Raines
Although I don't usually write autobiographical fiction, my main character in one of the short stories from News and the Spirit sounds suspiciously like the girl I used to be: "More than anything else in the world, I wanted to be a writer. I didn't want to learn to write, of course. I just wanted to be a writer, and I often pictured myself poised at the foggy edge of a cliff somewhere in the south of France, wearing a cape, drawing furiously on a long cigarette, hollow-cheeked and haunted. I had been romantically dedicated to the grand idea of 'being a writer' ever since I can remember."

I started telling stories as soon as I could talk--true stories, and made-up stories, too. It has always been hard for me to tell the difference between them.

Lee as a child
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. In fact, in the mountains of southwestern Virginia where I grew up, a lie was often called a story, and well do I remember being shaken until my teeth rattled with the stern admonition, "Don't you tell me no story, now!"

But he was hardly one to talk. Both my mama and my father were natural storytellers themselves. My mama--a home ec. teacher from the Eastern shore of Virginia--was one of those Southern women who can--and did--make a story out of thin air, out of anything--a trip to the drugstore, something somebody said to her in the church. My father liked to drink a little and recite Kipling out loud. He came from right there, from a big mountain family of storytelling Democrats who would sit on the porch and place 25 dollar bets on which bird would fly first off a telephone wire. They were all big talkers.

Lee and her mother, Gig
I got hooked on stories early, and as soon as I could write, I started writing them down. I wrote my first novel on my mother's stationery when I was eight. It featured as main characters my two favorite people at that time: Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell. In my novel, they fell in love and then went west together in a covered wagon. Once there, they became--inexplicably--Mormons! Even at that age, I was fixed upon glamour and flight, two themes I returned to again and again as I wrote my way throughout high school, then college.

Decades later, I'm still at it. Narrative is as necessary to me as breathing, as air. I write for the reason I've always done so: simply to survive. To make sense of my life. I never know what I think until I read what I've written. And I refuse to lead an unexamined life. No matter how painful it is, I intend to know what's going on. The writing itself is a source of strength for me, a way to make it through the night.

The story has always served this function, I believe, from the beginning of time. In the telling of it, we discover who we are, why we exist, what we should do. It brings order and delight. Its form is inherently pleasing, and deeply satisfying to us. Because it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, it gives a recognizable shape to the muddle and chaos of our lives.