Lee Smith: A life spent developing character

Author Lee Smith shares an essay about growing up in her daddy's dimestore

VIDEO : Author Lee Smith reads from her new book "Dimestore"
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VIDEO : Author Lee Smith reads from her new book "Dimestore"

To reach the upstairs office where she writes, Lee Smith rides a motorized lift chair recently installed in the grand hall of her Victorian farmhouse.

“Would you look at this thing!” she shrieks in mock indignation. Recovering from knee surgery and procedures to treat skin cancer on her nose, the quintessential good ol’ girl – at 71 more good and girlish than old – ascends the clapboard wall like she’s on a parade float, extolling the contraption’s hidden virtues (“It is good to to send boxes up and down the stairs”), in exactly the sort of screwball Southern scene she’d put to page.

Women throughout Smith’s fiction struggle, literary critics have noted, scrambling to break out of a bad situation or, as outsiders, to fight their way in; always searching for their voices and for higher ground.

I was uncomfortable the whole time doing this book.

Lee Smith

Smith took hold of her own voice long ago, publishing her first novel at age 23. Within the pages of her new book, “Dimestore: A Writer’s Life,” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) the writer becomes the main character. A compilation of 15 essays culled from articles and talks, it’s a memoir of her personal and writing lives, a handbook to how the latter got her through the former. As Smith’s first book of nonfiction, it’s also a bit of a revelation. After 13 novels and four short story collections, a lauded writer telling her own story might seem inevitable, or at least effortless. Smith does not hesitate to damn the experience, sentencing it as “terrifying.”

“I was uncomfortable the whole time doing this book,” she says. “In fiction, you have a control you never could in real life. I’m real glad I did it, but it was very unsettling.” Handling friends and family is not the same as handling characters. Her husband, the writer Hal Crowther, describes the process as watching her work with explosives.

“Dimestore” may prove to be a work that connects wildly with readers. Because truth is often more powerful than fiction, and because the tale she has actually lived so far to tell is rendered keenly, irrepressibly and without self-pity. Lee Smith, the person, emerges as one of nonfiction’s great protagonists.

VIDEO : Author Lee Smith reads from her new book "Dimestore"

Consider, as a character sketch exercise, the facts of her life: An only child, growing up in a remote coal-mining mountain town born late in life to parents who suffered mental illness often requiring hospitalization. Let her father, when well, run the town dimestore and dote upon his child, encouraging her to read and to dream of one day leaving. Let her be cared for by a host of aunts and uncles, scattered from Birmingham to Baltimore. Make her a gregarious beauty, elected homecoming queen in high school, awarded a tiara, a steam iron and luggage set. Turn her out from the poverty and withering environment of Appalachia to attend Hollins College, where she discovers love and a talent for writing, spends part of a summer riding a giant raft down the Mississippi River in homage to “Huckleberry Finn” with a passel of friends she will keep for life, writes her first novel to acclaim, falls for a poet and marries him, becomes a reporter at the Tuscaloosa News alongside the future editor of the New York Times; gives birth to two sons before she’s 27. Make her a teacher and working mother struggling to find time and energy to write. Introduce adult-sized pain: Put her through divorce. Mark one son with the mental illness that plagued her past. But word after word, book after book, keep her writing.

VIDEO : Author Lee Smith reads from her new book "Dimestore"

Let her find love again with an irascible Northerner, a writer of nonfiction and her seemingly polar opposite, thus blending a family of teenagers. Let death take her mother. Flood her hometown. Take her beloved father, on the day after he has to close the dimestore. Keep her writing. Send the comforts of fame, a devoted following who write books about her books, name babies after her characters. Send fortune, too, so she can open a sushi restaurant where, for the brief chapter of that one son’s adulthood, he can play the jazz piano. Immerse her in the lives of a river of would-be writers, encouraging coal miners and college graduates that the story they are living is of utmost importance, all the while writing stories that inspire song and redneck feminist cabarets, win literary awards of consequence. Let her cling to the lightness within. Make her strong, constant and generous to others, to a fault.

Let one son grow up to become a writer. Then take the troubled son. Have him lie down one night and not wake up. Slow the next decade with grief; plague her body with illness: psoriatic rheumatoid arthritis to attack her joints, especially her hands. Now take the place that is the wellspring of her strength. Mow down her hometown and put up a Walmart Supercenter. Award the joy of grandchildren. Keep her writing, living, laughing, expecting to see and feel the sun even if it isn’t yet on her mountain and the morning is dwindling.

What reader would believe a person living through all of that?

In her bright kitchen, with Betty the Lab at her feet, she spreads the table with stories she wrote as a child, yellowing news clippings of the raft trip, her mother’s recipe box. The reality of her own story jumps the comforting divide of fiction. There is a tremble in her smile.

“I’ve had a great life, a wonderful life,” Smith says, without irony or regret.

Writing as caring

Sense of place, particularly Appalachia, marks her work. Sense of responsibility marks her lifestyle. Caretaker is how friends and family invariably describe Lee Smith. Gracious in the face of any situation, which isn’t easy, or frankly, normal.

“In our family, there were people who were strong people, and people who couldn’t handle the stress, so the role kind of got handed to you,” explains her cousin Randy Sinisi, who is Smith’s age, grew up with her in Grundy, Va., and now lives in Denver. Cousin Lee was not one to take to the couch. “I don’t think Lee knows how to not to take care of people.”

I owe my career as a writer to Lee Smith.

author Sarah Dessen

In her books there are always too many characters, Crowther notes, which is also true in her life. She keeps friends, and is drawn to high-maintenance, fragile souls. He is forever telling her she doesn’t have to write the check or read the 400-page manuscript. But he can’t stop her and doesn’t try.

“She has a tremendous sense of tolerance for other people’s weaknesses,” he says.

At two points in her life, doctors gave Lee Smith powerful medicine. The first happened when she was a teenager at boarding school. The psychiatrist treating her mother invited her to lunch, where he asked if she feared that she would suffer mental illness because both her parents were sick. Of course, she did. He diagnosed her a nice normal girl who would turn out just fine.

VIDEO : Author Lee Smith reads from her new book "Dimestore"

“Probably the best gift anybody ever gave her,” Sinisi says.

Smith discovered writer was a form of caring. She has taught almost her entire writing career, taking oral histories, spending nearly 30 years leading adult education classes at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky, but also at Duke and UNC, and serving as the Writer in Residence at N.C. State University. Her office is perpetually piled with the manuscripts of hopeful authors, the shelves with books of the many she helped to launch.

“I owe my career as a writer to Lee Smith,” says Sarah Dessen, who lives in Chapel Hill and has cemented her place as a best-selling author of young adult fiction. Dessen grew up with Smith’s sons, and for a few years, she worked as a personal assistant to their mother. Smith was not only willing to use her connections to get Dessen an agent, but she also provided a living example of a writer’s routine. As Dessen ran errands, Smith was working, writing at her desk, at the boys’ soccer practice, whenever she had a moment.

When Smith learned that her hometown, Grundy, Va., was going to be plowed under, she contacted her old friend, Grundy High School English teacher Debbie Raines, and implored her to have students take oral histories. Smith taught 20 students how to interview, worked with Raines to draw up questions, edited the manuscripts and found a publisher. “Sitting on the Courthouse Bench, An Oral History of Grundy, Virginia” came out in 2000.

The students adored Ms. Smith, Raines says, but they didn’t really grasp her literary reputation. After the project was over, Raines took them on a field trip to Atlanta. Touring the Margaret Mitchell House, they entered a room featuring books by noted Southern authors. One student spotted Smith’s photograph and the rest swarmed the display.

“They said, ‘What is SHE doing here?!” Raines says, a story that makes her laugh whenever she tells it.

Raines says that Smith has never severed ties with her hometown, that she is always sending money to help pay costs for students to have more opportunities. After the oral history project, she wrote every single student a college recommendation.

Writing to the light

Writing is also coping, and that is what Smith, in “Dimestore,” most eloquently explains.

The death of her son Josh, who suffered from a form of schizophrenia and died of a heart condition in 2003, was the hardest thing she’d ever had to bear. Even close friends didn’t realize how deeply she was struggling. This was the second instance of powerful medicine: Finally, a psychiatrist she was seeing pulled out his prescription pad and wrote “write two hours of fiction every day.”

Thus came the Civil War-era murder novel “On Agate Hill,” the darkest of Smith’s stories. She wrote her way up and out, Crowther says.

This is going to happen to you. People die. Your town changes. You have to get it down while you can.

Lee Smith

The message of her book, which is the message of her life, is clear: Write through the hard times to remember the good times and good people. Write to live an examined life.

“This is going to happen to you,” Smith says. “People die. Your town changes. You have to get it down while you can. It’s just that for most people, it doesn’t happen all at once or quite so dramatically.”

In an essay called “A Life in Books,” she writes, “No matter what I may think I am writing about at any given time – majorettes in Alabama, or a gruesome, long-ago murder or the history of country music – I have come to realize that it is all, finally, about me, often in some complicated way I won’t come to understand until years later. But then it will be there for me to read, and I will understand it, and even if I don’t know who I am now, I will surely have a record of who I was then.”

“Fair and Tender Ladies” endures as Smith’s most popular work, and if memoir and oral history can preserve the memory of those gone, then that book is proof that fiction can bring them into the world. By Smith’s count of fan mail, there are 14 real-live babies named after the main character, Ivy Rowe.

Loss, light. The sun will reach the mountain, even after part of it has been leveled.

“Dimestore” puts Smith on an ambitious book tour that swings through the South, up through Washington, D.C., New York City and back. The next couple of months will be physically grueling, on the road so much. Those close to Smith express concern. She doesn’t, except the idea of reading an essay about Josh in public. When it’s nonfiction, you relive the pain a little each time.

Crowther comes in to the kitchen and pours coffee. Betty starts barking. It’s a nervous reaction, Smith explains, a function of old age.

“We’re all in a new phase over here,” she declares. “So now I’m just going to write about old people.” The next book, in fact, is already simmering away in the imaginary cast-iron pot on the stove in her head. A novel she will call “Silver Alert.”

Driving back from Florida recently, she and Hal saw signs of a Silver Alert. A man in a blue Porsche Carerra had gone missing, which immediately captured Smith’s attention.

“For like two hours, I was obsessed with the situation, wondering what could possibly be going on with this man in a blue Porsche? Who was he, where was he going?

Later, on the phone, Crowther picks up the thread. “She said what if the guy was just a little bit off, had a caretaker, and they were getting a pedicure when the woman said she’d never been to Disney World. He couldn’t believe it, was incredulous. So they set off….”

She told Hal the story for hours. Within 100 miles, she had the book nearly written in her head.

Mary E. Miller is a freelance writer living in Raleigh.


Lee Smith will be reading from and signing books at:

▪ 6 p.m., Tuesday at Orange County Library, 137 W. Margaret Lane, Hillsborough. Sponsored by Purple Crow Books.

▪ 7 p.m., Wednesday at The McKimmon Center, 1101 Gorman St., Raleigh. Sponsored by Quail Ridge Books. With the QRB purchase of “Dimestore,” receive up to two tickets that will allow seating in a reserved area and also admission to the after-program signing line.

▪ 12:30 p.m. May 1, Umstead Hotel & Spa, 100 Woodland Pond Drive, Cary. Sponsored by Walter Magazine. $75 includes three-course luncheon with wine pairings.