Bookstores celebrate Southern writer Lee Smith’s 45 years of publishing

CorrespondentOctober 12, 2013 

  • Author appearance

    Lee Smith will read from her newest book, “Guests on Earth,” at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Hillsborough.

    For dates and locations of other stops on her 20-city tour, visit leesmith.com/tour/

The year marks the 45th anniversary of North Carolina author Lee Smith’s debut novel, “The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed.” In recognition, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance and Algonquin Books have designated the week of Oct. 21 as Celebrate Lee Smith Week, with booksellers poised to highlight Smith’s body of work with in-store displays, online promotions and signed-book giveaways.

The author also will be hitting the road for a 20-city book tour in support of her latest release, “Guests on Earth,” being published Tuesday by Algonquin. The tour will include a stop in Smith’s hometown of Hillsborough.

It’s not often that so many people come together to celebrate the work of just one artist. But then again, Smith isn’t just anyone. She has gained a large and diverse following with stories that capture the essence of the rural South.

“Lee Smith’s work is loved by anyone with an appreciation of the spoken word and literary conversation; her books are where the two meet,” said John Valentine, co-owner of The Regulator Bookshop in Durham.

“She is so accessible, so honest, there is no pretension to her work. ...

“Her writing captures the details of living in a small town so perfectly; everything is very familiar to those that read it. She sees everything, and hears everything even more.”

Smith, 68, replies with a dose of self-deprecating wit when asked for her thoughts on the events scheduled to honor her work.

“Well, I’m still not sure that I’m anything really worth celebrating,” she says.

But, she adds: “I’ll certainly celebrate the readers that I have had over the years. They are the ones that have really made it possible for me to do this – and to keep on doing it.”

The author of 13 novels and four short story collections – among them the 2002 New York Times best-seller and Southern Book Critics Circle Award-winning “The Last Girls” – was born in 1944 in Grundy, a small coal-mining town in southwest Virginia where her father owned the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store and her mother taught home economics.

Smith moved to Chapel Hill in 1974, six years after her first novel was published.

“I had always dreamed of living in Chapel Hill,” Smith says. “When I was a college student at Hollins University in Virginia, I came down to Chapel Hill for summer school and just loved it.”

For the past 16 years, Smith has lived nearby in Hillsborough, population 6,300, with her husband, journalist Hal Crowther.

When asked if she has ever been tempted to move to a larger city with easier access to book publishers, the writer scoffs.

“No, absolutely not! I write about people in small towns; I don’t write about people living in big cities. My kind of storytelling depends upon people that have time to talk to each other.”

Living in a small town may be conducive to her writing, but her friends believe it’s simply part of Smith’s DNA to connect with those around her.

“Anyone that knows Lee realizes that she would make a community wherever she happens to live,” says Jill McCorkle, a successful short story writer and novelist who first met Smith while attending UNC-Chapel Hill in the late 1970s. “All you need to see is Lee in her walking shoes, speaking to everyone in town that she runs across on her walks.”

A college manuscript

Smith’s first novel was released in 1968, based on a manuscript she wrote while still in college. She says she then faced a bit of a writer’s lull. But not for long.

“I think what happens to young writers is that they use up every life experience that they have had up to that point for their first novel,” Smith says. “Then you have to come up with something for the second novel, but you really don’t have anything to say.

“A beginning writer would be wise to wait a little longer, until you have some new life experiences to go on, but I went right ahead and wrote a second anyway.”

Her second novel, “Something in the Wind,” was published in 1971, and third, “Fancy Strut,” in 1973.

Smith taught writing at UNC-Chapel Hill and at N.C. State. Now professor emeritus in N.C. State’s Department of English, Smith still enjoys opportunities to interact with students.

“Lee is such an exciting teacher to have,” says McCorkle, also a writing instructor in the English department at NCSU. “She shows up fully carbonated and is just always writing. I think she is just someone that can make a young student feel like this is all possible, just to write and actually get somewhere with it.”

Smith has a similar effect on the local independent bookstore scene.

“With Lee’s name anywhere on the bill, 100 more people will walk through our front door,” says Valentine.

“She’s the Michael Jordan of Southern literature; folks just want to be around her.”

Neighborhood bookstores

Smith returns the appreciation to the neighborhood bookstores she believes are so important to her success.

“I cannot overestimate the importance of the independent bookstore at this point, particularly for those of us who are trying to write serious fiction,” Smith says.

“The stores will order your books, and the store managers will stock them where they can be seen. They are more open to giving new writers a chance and to recommend their work to customers.

“To remain vital these stores have become centers for conversation, for learning, for discussion; they become little clubhouses in their own communities. They are keeping alive the interest in serious fiction, serious poetry and serious nonfiction within our communities.”

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