Born in Grundy, a small coal town in southwest Virginia, Lee Smith has written seven novels and two collections of short stories. Emerging from her fiction is a strong sense of Appalachian life and voices that inhabit that region. Smith defies literary cliches. She is unpretentious, direct, and rather than carefully choosing her words, responds warmly and spontaneously to questions. One of the difficulties in editing this interview was trying to convey the pace of her speech and her propensity to laugh loudly and often.
I spoke with Lee Smith on December 4, 1991 at George Mason University where she conducted a visiting writers workshop and read from her recent collection of short stories, Me and My Baby View the Eclipse. She teaches at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. — Cathy Cruise
CC: Do you consider yourself an Appalachian writer or a Southern writer?
LS: People have called me both. But I really think there’s a big difference, and I think of myself as an Appalachian writer. For one thing, so many of the things I associate with Southern writing don’t apply to Appalachian writing, such as social class. I was really not aware of social class in Grundy. Grundy was too poor and too small, and nobody had a white house with columns. Nobody had a lot of land. Land was so poor, who wanted it? There were no blacks at all, so I never grew up with any sense of racial guilt, which is so much, I think, a part of writing about the deep South. It’s just something you have to deal with if you’re from Mississippi.
CC: Some people don’t like the term Appalachian Writer, because they feel it’s too limited.
LS: Well, I don’t think it’s too limited. I think it’s exact. And I don’t think that means it’s derogatory or limiting. I could read a book like Fred Chappell’s I am One of You Forever, and God knows there’s nothing limiting about the fact that he chose to set that where he does. Because it’s just a wonderful book. You don’t choose your material, you know. You’re just given it. Whatever it is, is what you’ve got, I guess.
CC: And you get material from your own background?
LS: Yes, I do. And other people’s families. I guess after I turned thirty or thirty-five years old, I started wanting to preserve a lot of things about mountain life. Things my children won’t even know anything about, because they won’t remember. Today, Grundy – except for the geography which is so extreme – it’s pretty much like any other small town.
CC: What was growing up in Grundy like?
LS: It was really very pleasant. Really nice. I was the only child of older parents who really never thought they would have a child, so they were just delighted to have me. I could have said, “Now I will be an axe murderer,” and they would have said, “Great, Honey!” And I had tons and tons of cousins and aunts and uncles and other family around. My grandfather was the county treasurer for about fifty-four years, and my father ran the dime store right downtown. So every day after school I would walk across the river to the dime store and get some candy, then go sit with my granddaddy. My uncle had a movie theater, and we got new movies about every ten days. We could go free, and so we saw everything about four times. I have all these movies committed to memory. They were all westerns, and movies like Operation Petticoat with Tony Curtis. Horrible movies.
CC: Do you still go back there?
LS: Oh, I go back all the time. My father lives there. He lives alone and runs his dime store, still, at 84. But it really is the ugliest place. That’s what I try to explain to people. They say, “Oh, you’re from the mountains. That must be beautiful.” I say, “It’s not beautiful. It’s the ugliest place I’ve ever seen.” Because not only is it straight up and down with no view, nothing scenic, no vistas. But also it’s been strip-mined, and what people have built they’ve crowded in along the creeks on the various hollers. So it’s really a hodgepodge of building and junk. And now because that area again is in such terrible economic straits, there are all these abandoned cars and buildings everywhere.
It’s a real interesting place, though. It interests me more than anywhere I’ve ever been. But I don’t think I could live there again. By the time I was in my teens, what I really wanted to do was get out of there, because you do have a sense of its being so confining. And there are so many relatives! And they still want to know what you’re doing all the time. They’re always calling up and saying, “So, I hear you got a new car!”
CC: Did you read much as a child?
LS: I read constantly because I had pneumonia a lot. Also, my mother loved it if I would skip school, so I would stay home with her and read. I had no idea what was good, though, because nobody in my family was a reader. They all thought my reading was kind of an aberration, but they didn’t discourage me. My father used to quote Kipling. He and my uncles would do sort of dramatic renditions of Poe and all, but that was the extent of literary exposure in my family. Still, they don’t read. I don’t think my father or mother either one ever read a book I wrote.
LS: No. Some people in my family have. It’s just not something they particularly do, but they’re pleased that I do it. In fact, my father called me up several years ago and said, “I’m down here in the dime store and I’ve got some ideas for you.” He said, “I’m looking at this book here and this book has sold millions of copies. I think you ought to try to write a book something like this.” And I said, “Well, what is it?” And it was Scruples, you know, by Judith Krantz. But he was serious. He was just sort of passing along a little tip. In a way, I think that’s very nice, because it’s not like my parents had any expectations or notions. My father sells my books in the dime store now and he’s real pleased with what I do. But it was always just my own thing, which was very nice.
CC: Did you start writing very young?
LS: I was always writing short stories. They were dreadful, but they were funny. My cousins and I used to publish a magazine called The Small Review. We would handwrite about twenty copies of all these poems and stories and editorials. I remember how we hated our music teacher, and once we wrote an editorial about why she couldn’t be nicer. Then we sold it to all the neighbors. And here’s this editorial about poor Rutha Boyd, the music teacher. It said, “She is mean and her house smells like meatloaf.”
CC: It’s amazing how you came straight out of Hollins College’s undergraduate writing program and were immediately published. How did that happen?
LS: Well, I’ve written a lot of really bad stuff. I was just reading this morning the journals of Ellen Gilchrist, Falling Through Space. And I was thinking how, in a way, I’ve written fiction the way other women write in their journals, because I started when I was really young, and I’ve just sort of done it all along. A lot of it hasn’t been very good fiction that probably shouldn’t have been published.
CC: How did that first publication come about?
LS: Well, it was bizarre and it wouldn’t happen today. This was late sixties – 1967. It was much easier to publish fiction then than it is now. There were so many more titles being published. I wrote my first novel when I was a senior in college, for an independent study course. And somebody published it the year after I got out of college. That was completely nutty. It would never happen now.
CC: What was it?
LS: It’s out of print now. It’s not bad. It’s not as bad as some of the other early ones. It’s called The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed. The narrator is a nine year old girl talking about her parents’ divorce. But it was just a stroke of incredible luck. Back then it was just a lot easier.
CC: What happened then?
LS: I kept writing, but my second novel was terrible and should not have been published. And my third should have been edited real heavily. The publisher that published those first three, Harper & Row, lost money on them. Then I wrote this fourth one, Black Mountain Breakdown, which is a problematic book. Harper & Row wouldn’t publish it, and my agent just said, “Well, sorry, honey.” And then I hit that point that most people hit it first. For about seven years nobody would publish me. Because if you’ve written three books that have done badly, you’re in an even worse position than a first-time novelist.
CC: How did you handle that?
LS: Well, I think at that point I began to learn to write. Something I should have done sooner, instead of just trading in on a certain amount of luck. I was teaching at North Carolina then, at UNC, and I started reading seriously and writing lots of things that I was just writing to learn from, not necessarily to publish. Every now and then I would publish a little story in some obscure magazine somewhere, but that’s all. I was starting to work on Black Mountain Breakdown again, and I couldn’t get an agent. I couldn’t get a publisher. It went to twenty publishers.
At that point, I signed up to go back to school and special education at UNC, because I was beginning to feel very indulgent. Also, I thought I would at least make more money teaching special ed than I made teaching creative writing part time. Then right before I started classes, literally the week before, my current editor, Faith Sale, took the book. So, I’m really lucky to be in print at this particular point, because I think I probably would have benefited from a writing program and not from getting published quite so young.
CC: So you feel writing programs are helpful to beginning writers?
LS: Oh, absolutely. It speeds up the process. I think there are things you cannot teach somebody, such as to have an interesting mind or to have an ear for language or a sense of story. There are a lot of things you can’t teach that have to do with technique. For instance, the whole notion of point of view is something you’re not going to stumble upon by yourself very easily, but it’s important to understand if you want to write. I think we have more really good fiction being written in this country now than ever before, and I think it’s because of the proliferation of workshops. The downside is that a lot of people who are pretty good writers may not be published because there just aren’t enough markets for all this fiction that’s just pretty good. And I don’t know what that’s going to do to these writers’ concepts of themselves. You know, how tied they are to the idea of being a writer. This is the only aspect of it that really bothers me. I had dinner last night with Michael Curtis, the fiction editor of The Atlantic, and he was saying it’s just unbelievable how many excellent stories they get. They publish twelve stories a year and they get 12,000 submissions! He said if writers say in their cover letters they’re in a writing program the editors will read their stories.
CC: That’s encouraging.
LS: Yeah. But still, he said for every story they do publish, they are down to 800 or so, and then down to maybe 80 or so. And finally it’s kind of a luck of the draw because there are so many really good stories. And one thing The Atlantic prefers to do is publish new writers. So if they have a really good one by Joyce Carol Oates and a really good one by an unknown, they’ll publish the unknown’s. They feel like that’s part of their mission, which I think is wonderful. But that’s so few stories. What happens to all the others? He said his hope is that they are published in the Georgia Review and The Black Warrior review and everywhere else. But it does worry me that some people who might be the best writers become daunted at some point because it’s so hard. There’s so much good writing going on.
CC: Which do you prefer writing, short stories or novels?
LS: Short stories. What I really prefer is real long short stories, though they have no real market. As I get older, I am more interested in what happens to people over the long haul, so I do like the kind of story that’s more like a collapsed novel. A big short story. Alice Munro writes a lot of short stories like that. I really like her.
CC: What other authors do you like?
LS: I love Alice Munro. I like Anne Tyler. I like Dick Bausch, Richard Ford. I was just teaching Ellen Gilchrist, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver. I read a lot of different people.
CC: Do you only teach fiction writing?
LS: No. I teach composition, different things. Right now I’m a shared person with Duke University where I work as a Fellow in the Center for Documentary Studies. It’s wonderful. They gave me some money for doing the research on this country music novel I’m working on. So they were funding my going around talking to the Carter family and so on, which was a lot of fun.
CC: Does teaching interfere with your writing time?
LS: I guess. But I like to teach too. I think people write too damned much anyway. That’s my basic theory. I’m always trying to write a little less, I think.
CC: What are your work habits like?
LS: They’re like nothing. I don’t have any. It just depends on what I’m doing. When I’m writing, I write as much as I can. And when I’m not, I don’t.
CC: You don’t write every day?
LS: No. I don’t have anything to say every day. When I’m on, I’m really on. I mean, I’ve been writing at least a year now everyday on this novel I’m just finishing up. This summer I was writing six hours a day every day. But other times I’m just not writing. And when I can, I like to write in the morning, but if I can’t I’ll write at night. It entirely depends on my work schedule.
CC: Do you write longhand or type?
LS: Longhand, and eventually I’ll type it. I’m going to learn how to use a word processor. I’ve just been waiting to get through with this book because I didn’t want to change everything in the middle. But I have realized I do need to be typing onto a disc.
CC: How do you start a story?
LS: I start with a character. I’ll think about the characters for a long time and have a person in mind. My problem, and I think the reason I turned towards doing certain kinds of research, is that I have trouble thinking about things for them to do. I can imagine them. I can imagine people in relationships and so on, but I don’t know what should happen in the story. So lots of times I lift what will happen from something I read in the newspaper or from something somebody tells me. Or, if it’s set in the past, something I find from some kind of research.
CC: What were your sources for the novel, Oral History?
LS: For years I went around taping people back home and writing down what they told me. It just gave me something to do, I guess. And I had this mass of material. Things from how to cure warts, to folk songs, to little bits of history, to diaries. People give me collections of letters and diaries when their family or friends die, and have for years, because they know I’m interested. So I just had all that stuff. At first I thought I’d make some kind of non-fiction book, but I very soon realized from my reading that there were already a number of wonderful non-fiction books about early mountain life, and the only thing I knew how to write anyway, really, was fiction. So I just tried to think of a novel that would incorporate as much of this as I could.
CC: What inspired you to write that book?
LS: I guess because more and more I have wanted to just write about where I’m from, because it keeps changing all the time. I wanted to show how the mountains, particularly right there in Grundy, have changed in the last hundred years – going from places where panthers lurked in trees and the rivers ran really deep and clear and had huge trout in them, to what we have now. Now there are more fast food places and more satellite dishes on the hillsides back home. And nobody sounds like me. Everyone sounds like Dan Rather. And I just began to get the sense of urgency about it. I also wanted to show how the character of the people has changed – from the very independent, almost mythic in stature, to everybody on welfare. I have friends who went to Grundy to study Passive Dependency Syndrome. They’re studying all my relatives.
So I wanted to write about those changes, but I didn’t have a plot until I hit upon that witch tale. I particularly love witch tales. And then I thought, oh okay, I’ll have her put a curse on all the women down through several generations, and that will be the plot.
CC: One of the most striking elements of Oral History is the authenticity of the voices that carry the tale. How did you decide on this method of narration?
LS: Well, I love to do different voices. At first I tried not to write from different voices, but it began to sound like Hee Haw, because there was such a contrast between the characters’ language and the language of the narration, which was standard American English. So I realized if I wanted to capture that language, which is what I wanted to do, I would have to have them speaking for themselves. So I junked 100 pages and went back and try to figure out how to do it in voices. Still, the publisher hated it.
LS: He thought it was the strangest book. It is a strange book. I had already published three or four novels and a collection of short stories, but nothing had particularly sold. Faith Sale was very sympathetic to my work, but this wasn’t the book she was looking for, because it is so strange. But she went ahead and did it, which was wonderful. It’s sold better than anything had before, oddly enough. It got really good reviews, which was a big relief to me because I felt she had gone out on a limb to publish it. But it just violates most things, because you are supposed to ideally have one character. Everybody in Oral History, you get to know and then they die. It’s just not the way a novel is supposed to go.
CC: But, going through generations, it’s not like a reader would be shocked by that, is it?
LS: Well, readers don’t like that, though. I mean, this is what any editor will tell you. Readers want one person to be involved with through the length of a novel.
CC: Why did you choose the letter form when writing Fair and Tender Ladies?
LS: With that book, I was trying to write a woman’s whole life. I had always wanted to do that, but I just couldn’t figure out how to handle the time. And then – this is so weird. I went to a yard sale. This old lady had died and her ugly daughters were selling all her things in the world. They had a big box containing all the letters she had ever gotten – all these things she had saved. They had taken them over to the drive-in and were selling them for a dollar. So I gave them seventy-five cents. I took them home and read them and they weren’t particularly literary, but I felt like I really knew this woman and her whole family.
With letters, you can cover so much time. You can allude to things that have happened, without having to have them happen, because they’re present in the work. Also, I’m interested in varieties of first-person narration. First-person with the illusion that it’s spoken is very different from written first-person. In letters, we always change what we say depending on the person to whom the letter is written. You just present certain aspects of yourself to different people. That is really interesting to me as a way to present a whole person. But I realized pretty soon I would have to have one person for her to write to. One character she could show her absolute honest, most true self, as if she was writing in a journal. So I made up a sister. I’m forever doing that to express another part of one of my characters.
CC: What are you working on now?
LS: A novel about a singing family, about women in different generations. It begins before the Civil War and goes through the nineteen-1970’s. It was so much fun to do, and I really did a lot of interviewing. It’s coming out in June.
CC: Where did you get the idea for that?
LS: Because I love country music. If if could have been a singer, that’s all I would have done. But, unfortunately, I can’t even carry a tune. So I’ve written songs all my life. I grew up hearing that music and I’ve just never gotten over it. I decided, well, I’ll write about it and it will give me a chance to listen to a lot of music and talk to people.
CC: How long have you been working on it?
LS: Three years.
CC: Is that a normal length of time for you?
LS: It didn’t take so long to write. I mean, I say I’ve been working on it three years, but I’ve been teaching several different places while I was writing it. I’ve actually only had one semester off when I really wasn’t teaching. So for a year I was more or less researching. I’ve still got one more little scene to rewrite, or to add in. So I’m still in the process of finishing it right now. It’s been such a pleasure, I hate having to quit.
CC: How many drafts do you normally write?
LS: A lot of it depends on how much pre-writing time I put into it. If I have lots of time to really think about a book and make little notes to myself, then I’ll sit down and pretty much just write it and won’t do draft after draft. But if I start writing, which I sometimes do, before I really know what it’s about, or before it’s clear in my mind, then I will go through more drafts. I wrote Black Mountain Breakdown about twelve times.
CC: Twelve times?
LS: It was just so hard for me to clarify in my mind what it was about. Plus, it’s awfully hard to write about a passive main character, because she’s not interesting. And it was a book about passivity in women, so it was difficult. I kept reading it over and over and over. On the other hand, when I wrote Fair and Tender Ladies, I had done a lot of research and I knew things I wanted to include in it, moments I wanted to have happen and so forth. So when I actually sat down to write it, I wrote it in about five months and didn’t revise that much. Oral History I revised quite a lot. Still, it remains a jumble.
CC: In your latest collection, Me and My Baby View the Eclipse, you write about supernatural occurrences. People speak in tongues, interpret dreams, spot UFOs. How do you write about such fantastic events and still keep them grounded in a realistic story?
LS: I don’t know. It seems to me people are really interested in those things. Including me.
CC: Do you believe in such things?
LS: Well I don’t know. No. I mean, I’m always dying to believe in those things, just like I’m dying to believe in God. And I never sort of do, finally. But I really wish I would see a burning bush. I wish I would see a UFO. I wish all this stuff would happen to me. And I’m really mad that it hasn’t. But just the possibility of it interests me.
My ex-sister-in-law was in a UFO sighting club in Iuka, Mississippi. It was a club of women – a bunch of Mississippi wives – who would go out into the cotton fields at night, with a little bourbon, and just sit there all night talking and looking for UFOs. Some of my favorite times used to be going to the UFO Club with Donna.
I also grew up hearing lots of superstitions, people curing warts by rubbing pennies on them and burying the pennies in the yard. That kind of thing was always going on in my house. And then there were witch stories and ghost stories. People would love to scare you to death.
When I was younger, I was always rededicating my life to Christ and hearing voices and things. But when I started dating I stopped all that. And ever since, I thought, but why won’t this happen anymore? Now I attend the Episcopal Church. I think one reason I go there is because I know nobody’s going to act up.
CC: You still go to church, even though you don’t believe in God?
LS: I do go to church. I don’t really believe it. But I keep hoping.
CC: Where do you want your writing to take people? Why do you do it?
LS: I don’t know. I really don’t. I mean, I never think about the reader or how they’re going to feel when they read, or what I want them to think, or anything. Writing is more of a compulsive behavior for me. All of a sudden, I feel like I’m going to be shot between the eyes if I don’t write a story. So then I write it. And if it gets published, great. And if it doesn’t, I still had to write it. Lots of times I won’t make concessions to have a story published, if I like it the way it is. I’ll just write another story. I really write stuff for myself, finally, and it’s great that some of it is published.
For more on Lee Smith, visit her website:
Cathy Cruise’s fiction has appeared in journals such as Blue Mesa Review, New Virginia Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Her awards include a 2001 Washington Independent Writers Award for Short Fiction, an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s 2014 Family Matters contest, and second place in New Rivers Press’s American Fiction series, Volume 14. Cruise runs the blog, Write Despite, with friend and fellow writer Karen Guzman. Her first novel, A Hundred Weddings, is forthcoming in 2016. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.