In the realm of American literature, award-winning novelist Lee Smith occupies an exceptional position. Rare is the writer who is both beloved and respected, terms that are usually considered mutually exclusive in the publishing world, but over the years she has managed to become both with her sense of place and down-home characters.
There’s the hardscrabble Appalachian Mountains of Ivy Rowe in Fair and Tender Ladies, and the North Carolina Piedmont of Molly Petree in On Agate Hill. Then there’s the Southern odyssey of Florida Grace Shepherd and her father, a snake-handling preacher, in Saving Grace, and the Hoot Owl Holler home of the Cantrell family in Oral History. Such works have garnered her mounds of critical acclaim and comparisons to legendary Southern wordsmiths including Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, not to mention accolades ranging from two O. Henry Awards to the Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
But what has most endeared Smith to her faithful readers is her natural grace and unparalleled generosity. Through countless interviews, readings and public appearances, her fans feel like they know her personally, and with good reason. When she takes to the stage to give a reading, she charms the audience with her inviting, conversational voice and infectious, uninhibited laugh.
A recent reading at the Appalachian Writers Workshop, an annual gathering held during the dog days of summer on the campus of the Hindman Settlement School in Eastern Kentucky, offers a typical Smith anecdote. While reading an essay in front of a packed room, she abruptly stops in mid-sentence to relate a childhood tale about visiting her maternal grandmother in Baltimore. As she describes various family members who were present, the audience whoops and cackles, and Smith herself is overcome with laughter, which provokes an even greater roar from the crowd. One would be mistaken to consider this a performance. Although her charisma and stage presence is undeniable, those who know her can attest that this is the authentic Smith: animated and void of pretense.
Born in the coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia, in 1944, Smith spent her childhood observing and eavesdropping on customers in her father’s dime store—a perfect laboratory for an aspiring writer. A self-confessed “deeply weird” child, she wrote her first story when she was nine or ten, a tale in which she imagined Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell becoming Mormons and moving west together in a covered wagon. These themes of glamor and flight and religion still show up in her work today.
Two years after graduating from Hollins College (along with fellow scribe Annie Dillard) in 1966, Smith published her first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed. Although her second novel, Something in the Wind, was well received when it appeared three years later, it was not until the release of Fancy Strut in 1973 that critics and readers finally began to take notice. Twelve more novels have followed since, along with four collections of short stories, the most recent of which is Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, published in 2010 and released in paperback earlier this year.
Now, as Smith is putting the finishing touches on her as-yet untitled thirteenth novel, she talks to Julep from her summer home in Maine with her eyes fixed on an approaching fogbank.