Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Paying Attention

Lee Smith talks with Chapter 16 about writers and writing, memories and remembering

Lee Smith is a national treasure, pure and simple. The author of thirteen novels and four story collections, she added a memoir to her accomplishments last year with Dimestore, now out in paperback. In it Smith explores her formative years in Grundy, Virginia, and the people and places that made her a writer. The book is a treat for the many longtime fans of Smith’s books or anyone drawn to the craft of writing.

Photo: Diana Matthews

In the generous and thoughtful interview that follows, Smith, a former Nashvillian, reflects further on her writing life, the way her stories have been shaped by certain books, and the significance of place in her work, among other subjects. She is a voice of encouragement for anyone who feels summoned to put words on the page. “I want to live an ‘examined life,’ in Plato’s famous words, and writing allows me to do this,” she says. “Publication may be the least important aspect of writing for me.”

Chapter 16: How does being a writer feel different to you now than it did decades ago? Or does it?

Lee Smith: Being a writer feels very different to me now than it did decades ago. A young writer is all heart, all emotion, often chaotic—all drive and desire. A young writer is writing straight out of the dramas and traumas of her childhood, of her family of origin, of the time and place where she first heard language and saw the sky and the grass and loved or feared the people and things around her with a pure intensity she can still recall—that childhood when she was a tabula rasa, when all those experiences printed hard. I have heard it said that no writer ever has a completely happy childhood, which is probably true. What makes a story is conflict, of course, and if there’s no conflict, there’s no story. As writers, we are often given our first and strongest material by the circumstances of our birth, though it may take us a while to understand that, or be able to access it.

This was certainly true for me. When I went off to college, I already “wanted to be a writer,” though I had very unrealistic, grandiose notions of what that might mean, or what I should write about—certainly nothing that had ever happened in Grundy, Virginia, that remote little coal-mining town where I was born! I was picturing my writer-self in a garret in Paris with a black cape, a long cigarette. But what was a garret? I didn’t have a clue.

Gently but firmly, my writing teachers kept repeating, “Write what you know,” but I didn’t know what that meant. Once I finally understood—going back to that weird child I used to be, the people and places I had grown up among—the writing process itself took on a breathtaking intensity, almost like prayer, that made the doing of it as meaningful for me as whatever I managed to come up with on the page.

Now, over fifty years later, I have lost most of that intensity, but at this age, it’s almost a relief! Writing itself means as much to me as ever, though it is a more deliberate, conscious, contemplative process these days.

Chapter 16: What books have you returned to over the years for guidance and inspiration?

Smith: I want to emphasize that books have been fully as important to me as a writer as the events of my own real life. Experience means nothing to a writer unless she can figure out how to use it, and often this insight is best gained through reading a wonderful book that has come out of another writer’s similar experience, or a similar place and time.

In my memoir, Dimestore, I wrote about the day that Miss Eudora Welty came to my writing class at Hollins College in Virginia, sophomore year. I had never heard of her, this funny-looking lady from Mississippi with a nice voile dress that buttoned up the front exactly like the dresses all my aunts wore. I was not impressed—no cape, no cigarette. And I was in a real slump about my own writing at the time. I kept getting C+ on my short stories, along with that cryptic advice “Write what you know.” Then Miss Welty began to read her short story “A Worn Path” aloud in her fast, light voice that seemed to sing along with the words of the story. And I was suddenly right there, in Mississippi with Phoenix Jackson as she sets out through the woods on her mythic journey to get the medicine for her little grandson. I was, well, enraptured. Transported. I couldn’t breathe.

Immediately after Miss Welty’s visit, I read everything she had ever written. And it was like that proverbial light bulb clicked on in my head—suddenly I knew what I knew! With the awful arrogance of the nineteen-year-old, I decided that Eudora Welty hadn’t been anywhere much either, and yet she wrote the best stories I had ever read. Plain stories about country people and small towns? Maybe I should try that.

So I did, though I still couldn’t seem to set my stories in those deep mountains I’d grown up in, or use the colorful Appalachian dialect of my youth, my own first language. This didn’t happen until I encountered the beautiful and heart-breaking novel River of Earth by Kentucky writer James Still, a book I just happened upon one day in the library. I was astonished to see my own hometown mentioned at the end of this novel, as the beleaguered Baldridge family sets off yet again to find work. “I was born to dig coal,” Father said. “Somewhere they’s a mine working. I been hearing of a new mine farther than the head of Kentucky River, on yon side Pound Gap. Grundy, its name is… .” Grundy? In a book? And not only a book, but one of the best books I had ever read. Every word rang true. I finished the novel, burst into tears, and started back again at page one.

Later on, when I was struggling to write a historical novel, which was just lying there inert upon the page, William Faulkner’s use of multiple narrators in As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary opened up a whole new way of writing a novel for me. I could just let all my characters speak for themselves! They could tell the entire story in alternating first-person sections. My novel Oral History sprang to life.

Virginia Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness was similarly freeing and enlightening. In fact, even today, I somehow need to read her novel To the Lighthouse every year. This is also true of Absalom, Absalom, which seems like a slightly different book to me each time. Or maybe I’m the one who’s changing, getting older, understanding things differently. More recently, I have enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s collections of related stories—I’ve taught Olive Kitteridge several times, and I’m reading Anything Is Possible right now. She’s such a good writer, and these related stories create a really fascinating form. Now I want to try it myself.

Chapter 16: These days, what’s gratifying to you about the writing life?

Smith: In large part, the same thing that’s always been gratifying about it. When you’re a writer, you’re always looking out for stories, listening for stories. This becomes what Flannery O’Connor called A Habit of Being, the title of her collection of letters. Everything is there, always there, right in front of us if we will only bother to listen and look and learn, if we will only pay attention. All of life becomes richer and deeper and oh so much more interesting as a result. I love this.

I believe that we only live once, that this is all there is, and I don’t want to miss a thing. No matter how painful it may be sometimes, I want to live an “examined life,” in Plato’s famous words, and writing allows me to do this. Let me emphasize that I mean writing of all kinds, too—fiction and nonfiction journal entries, poems, notes to myself, whatever. Publication may be the least important aspect of writing for me.

Chapter 16: What, if anything, could you really just do without?

Smith: I’m a merchant’s daughter, so I really do understand the necessity of marketing a book. But a lot of public appearances or an extensive book tour really kills my writer’s soul, stops my creativity. I know other writers, such as Ron Rash, who go on working in motels and on the road, but I really can’t do that.

Chapter 16: Is there a subject you’ve long wanted to explore in a novel or stories, but haven’t dug into yet? What do you think has kept you from going there?

Smith: Yes, though I often think in terms of places rather than subjects. I have spent a lot of time in Maine for the past twenty years or so, and there is so much about this rocky coast and huge mysterious interior and its people that really fascinates me, but I’ve set only one story in Maine so far because I don’t think I know enough yet. I think I would have to spend the winter there.

Chapter 16: I direct a literary center in Nashville, and I find that people are overwhelmingly interested in writing creative nonfiction these days—memoir and essay, as opposed to fiction. Now that you’ve worked in both genres, what do you see as the pleasures and challenges of each? Did writing a memoir seem like a distinctly different practice from writing fiction?

Smith: In my opinion, fiction is much, much easier. For one thing, it’s often hard to figure out what the truth really is, or even what really happened at any given time or place; several times when I was working as a reporter, I interviewed three or four people who had witnessed the same event, and heard three or four completely different stories! It’s really true that the truth is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s always the storyteller’s tale. So I have always felt that I can tell the truth better in fiction than nonfiction. You can just re-arrange the facts to prove your point or emphasize your theme. Reality is so messy. In fiction, you are free to create some order, to give a shape to the chaos of real life. Plus, I have to admit that I have always enjoyed making things up!

That said, why this memoir? I mentioned that I have always been a writer very tied to place—in particular, my little hometown in that narrow valley between the looming mountains. So when a big flood-control project demolished it—fifty or sixty stores downtown, including my father’s dimestore; then my parents’ home, the only house they had ever lived in—I was devastated. I didn’t even have pictures to look at, to remember how it was. Almost all of those had been destroyed in the recurring floods which preceded this drastic effort.

Suddenly, I found myself writing word pictures like crazy, character sketches and memories of the people and places that were gone, the life that was lived there. It was deeply satisfying, so I just kept on, and thus I found out the real secret of Why to Write Memoir: the more you write, the more you remember. And at my age, this is a wonderful gift! So I have gone on to write about other experiences and people who have meant a lot to me along the way, realizing a lot about myself (and the elusive nature of truth) in the process.

Chapter 16: The Central Appalachian region has been showing up in a lot of my reading lately: Dimestore, of course, but also Matthew Neill Null’s gorgeous collection Allegheny Front, even a devastating New Yorker piece of reportage about the heroin epidemic in West Virginia. And of course this area also featured heavily in election coverage. In your view as a native, how does this area speak for, and to, America today?

Smith: I’m surprised you didn’t mention Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, which has been a well-deserved bestseller for a long time, though I wish he had also dealt with the devastating effects of Big Coal on the region. But all these books and reportage (and there’s a lot of it still going on) have focused on Appalachia because it is a petri dish for much of the nation and its problems right now, especially our many rural and small-town disenchanted, disenfranchised, drug-dependent, unemployed and under-served and under-educated American citizens, who are so desperate for change that they elected Donald Trump. Right now, Appalachia is rural America writ large, and I’m glad people are paying attention.

[This article appeared originally on August 3, 2017. It has been updated to reflect new event information.]

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