Author Lee Smith's Trip Down the River

Lee Smith’s eyes are honest and clear blue. Her laughter surfaces easily and often. And though she loves to talk, she listens, too, kindly, thoughtfully, all the while watching, taking in what she finds important, snatching tidbits from life to feed her curiosity—perhaps stashing fuel for another book.

Author of nine novels and three collections of short stories, Lee started collecting fuel for her latest book, The Last Girls, 37 years ago. As a junior at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, she and 15 other girls in her American literature class were so inspired by reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, they decided to have a raft built and take their own trip down the Mississippi River.

The cost of the raft, a 40-foot wooden platform constructed on 52 oil drums, was $1800. “Each of us had to come up with a certain amount of money,” Lee explains. And when that wasn’t enough, the enterprising young ladies raised money as a group. “We did a blue jeans commercial for Wrangler, a Chicken of the Sea tuna commercial, and a Rayovac battery commercial,” says Lee, matter-of-factly, as if every young person thinks to raise money this way.

Finally, on June 9, 1966, at Paducah, Kentucky, the Rosebud Hobson was launched and the girls’ 950-mile journey down the Mississippi to New Orleans began.

They headed down the river with absolute confidence
that they would get where they were going.
--From The Last Girls

The life’s journey that brought Lee to this point began when she was born in the small coal-mining town of Grundy in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia. Her father operated the town’s dime store. Her mother, who came from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, was a former home-economics teacher.

“I was an only child born to older parents who had been given to understand that they would never have a child,” explains Lee. “They were so surprised and delighted [to have me] that they were incredibly supportive of any little interest that I had.”

And Lee’s interest was in books, reading them and writing them. “Being an only child, you do spend a lot of time alone, and this made me an avid reader,” says Lee. “I would read all night long under the covers with my flashlight. And luckily I was sick a lot.” She says this with not a trace of her usual laughter. “So I got to stay home from school. And I would just read and read and read.”

In a way, Lee’s reading led to her writing. “I wrote little books all the time because I couldn’t stand for the books that I loved to end,’ says Lee, “so I wrote more.”

Also influencing her writing was the fact that stories were told well and often in Lee’s family. Her father came from a big mountain family of storytelling Democrats. Her mother, notes Lee, “was one of those Southern women who can—and did—make a story out of then air, out of anything—a trip to the drugstore, something somebody said in church.” Lee can still hear her mother prefacing such stories with “Now promise you won’t tell a soul . . .”

“I wrote my first novel on my mother’s stationery when I was eight,” says Lee, who also remembers the little newspaper she wrote at age 11. Her cousins wrote out copies, and the children would sell them door to door for a quarter. Lee laughs. “It was a nickel at first, and then everybody was so happy to buy it that we upped the ante real fast.”

The author’s real-life literary career began early, too. The senior thesis Lee wrote in 1966 at Hollins College evolved into her first published book, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed, published by Harper & Row in 1968.

Then two more novels followed before the course of Lee’s life changed direction. No one seemed to want her fourth novel, Black Mountain Breakdown. Her editor retired. Her agent did not believe in the book. And Lee’s marriage was breaking down, leaving her with two young sons to care for.

They expected to be taken care of. Nobody had yet suggested to them that
They might ever have to make a living or that somebody wouldn’t marry them
And look after them for the rest of their lives.
--From The Last Girls

Thus, Lee became a high-school English teacher and taught from 1973 to 1981. Thinking she would like to teach special education, she even enrolled in graduate school. Not until a friend directed her to a new agent did her writing career get back on course, surging forward with what is now a continuous succession of stellar, beloved books: Oral History, Family Linen, Fair and Tender Ladies, . . .

Drawing from her own life experiences, Lee peoples each of her books with characters so real, you miss them when the last page is turned. She ends her books with lines so meaningful, you hold them in your heart long after the book is closed.

And Lee’s newest book, The Last Girls, is no exception. “For 35 years I’ve tried to figure out a way to write a book that had something to do with this experience I had as a girl,” she says of her rafting trip.

Then at a literary festival, a book-club member asked, “Why don’t you write about us?” She referred to her and Lee’s generation, back when it was not politically incorrect to refer to young women as “girls.”

And with the forceful revelation that simple question inspired, Lee “got back on the raft” and wrote about the uneven course that life took characters much like herself, resulting in a reading voyage you will surely want to take.