Lee Smith


A Conversation With Lee Smith

BALLANTINE BOOKS’ ANNOUNCEMENT in August 1989, that they would issue a paperback edition of Fair and Tender Ladies within a year of its original publication could only delight anyone acquainted with Lee Smith’s fiction. Ballantine also said that it would simultaneously reissue her last four novels and her collection of short stories, Cakewalk (1980). By doing this, a hard-nosed trade publisher recognized the reader appeal and critical acclaim which has placed Lee Smith at the forefront of Southern writers during the 1980s.

When she read from her work at The College of Wooster in November 1988 — the occasion which led to the Artful Dodge interview with her — I suggested to the audience during my introduction that her success might give heart to any undergraduate who aspired to write. Participating during the 1960s in the writing program founded by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., at Hollins College, during her senior year a draft of her first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed (1980), and some short stories gained her one of twelve national Book of the Month Club Writing Fellowships. Her second novel, Something in the Wind (1971), the portrait of a young college woman, confirmed that a notable talent had found publication. Growing out of her newspaper coverage of the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, sesquicentennial celebration, her next novel, Fancy Strut (1973), introduced the fine, often sharp humor that has become a trademark of her stories. But — in retrospect — one realizes that not unlike Faulkner in Mosquitoes and Pylon, Lee had not yet found her territory, her place.

Black Mountain Breakdown (1981) was the first of her novels to gain wide critical attention. It is, as she herself has said, a dramatization of the consequences of passivity — the terrible state that results when a woman accepts too easily the roles given her by men. The reader last sees Crystal Renee Spangler in catatonic withdrawal, lying in her childhood bedroom. Black Mountain Breakdown to this day remains the darkest chronicle in her fiction.

It also suggested what was to become, with further experimentation and ingenuity, Lee Smith’s territory. A native of Grundy, Virginia — a coal mining town just over the mountain from West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee — Lee turned to Appalachia to remythologize the South in a manner that is uniquely hers. Oral History (1983) signals her first venture into this undiscovered country. Critics praised the use that Lee made of myth, ballads, and superstition — those aspects of Appalachian life that brought the young student Jennifer back to her mother’s family to tape their doings as a project for a class in Oral History. Like her protagonist, Lee herself emphasizes the importance of her research into the history and the cultural artifacts that have shaped the lifestyle of Appalachia. Out of that research she has shaped a fictional world that is solely hers.

Lee Smith has quite properly been ranked with the finest Southern writers — Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Ellen Glasgow, William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, among them. However, it is through her dexterity in exploring her own special, mythic terrain that she gives fresh dimensions to the characteristics she shares with her predecessors. I look forward to her next novels. And I, for one, hope that she incorporates that voyage down the Mississippi into one of her upcoming fictions. —Thomas D. Clareson


Daniel Bourne: Do you see yourself as much a part of the community you write about as gossip columnist Jolene B. Newhouse does in your story “Between the Lines?”

Lee Smith: Probably not as much, but I certainly do see myself as a big part of the community. Even though I have been teaching school for years and years, I don’t see myself as an academic person but more as a part of Chapel Hill or a part of my hometown of Grundy, Virginia, when I lived there. I don’t have a sense of myself as being in the academic community-whatever that means.

DB: Do you see Jolene B. Newhouse as an artist in the same way you are one?

Smith: Yes, she is. But I wasn’t seeing myself in her character at all. I was just seeing her as a woman functioning as an artist. She’s writing down the history, marking the ritual, naming the things that need to be named, paying attention to the things that need to be paid attention to.

DB: And she edits reality—

Smith: She edits reality, right. She doesn’t just put out life itself. It’s very highly distilled and concentrated — with a lot of artifice. I’ve spent a lot of time reading Virginia Woolf, and in general I like to think about various kinds of women who function as artists within their communities. Whether they’re making ornamental cakes, or whether they’re doing your hair, or whether they’re writing a newspaper column — they’re functioning as artists in a way that interests me. It’s not product oriented like I think a male artist’s approach is. It’s much more organic.

DB: Have you always had this idea of the writer as being a part of his or her community? Was there some point where you went into this romantic phase of making the writer someone separate, better?

Smith: Well, I think I did go through that phase. Certainly for the last two years of college, maybe for the last three, I was very obnoxious. I went around taking myself very seriously. I wore a black turtleneck sweater, stayed up all night, and was just impossible to be around. Then later it happened that my first husband, James Seay, was in charge of the visiting writers who came to the various campuses where he taught, and I had to entertain these personages and I very soon realized how ridiculous a lot of this notion of a priestly vocation was when having to deal with writers, particularly poets. Poets are terrible. You know — the business of taking yourself very seriously while having little to do with what is really writing. I finally just got more interested in the work and much less in the personalities involved.

DB: Isn’t the writer somehow special though? Don’t you have the sense that they have one foot in and one foot out of the water?

Smith: Well, they do have to have one foot in and one foot out. They have to know enough about the community that they are writing about so they really are a part of it, and yet they have to have the necessary distance to write about it as well. They have to be involved, yet also distant. I was just reading about Faulkner on the plane — how though he lived in Oxford, Mississippi, all his life and was of that community, he wasn’t really in it. I think all writers have to be separate from their community enough to see the community, enough to write about it. If you’re completely enmeshed in something you can’t see it. You have to have the distance.

DB: There has been some comment recently about women writers creating heroines that have harsher lives than the writers’ lives themselves. Do you think this is true of your writing, and do you feel that this could potentially create or perpetuate a negative image of women?

Smith: Well, this is very difficult, and I have discussed this with several of my extremely political women friends. One of them came to me after I published the novel Black Mountain Breakdown, which I thought was very much a woman’s statement, a feminist statement. It’s a cautionary tale, if you will. It’s a book about the dangers of being passive. At the end, the heroine is lying flat on her back being fed jello by other people. She is literally, completely, immobilized by her passivity, by her failure to act and take responsibility for her own life. So I thought I had made a really strong feminist statement. My friend came to me, furious, and said, “If you want to be a writer the most important thing you should do is be creating these women characters that are self-realized, functioning.” But you know, that isn’t the nature of fiction. The nature of fiction is people who can’t cope as well as others. It’s conflict. If everybody is just functioning great and they are all self-realized, it’s not fiction. It’s something else. I don’t know what it is.

DB: It’s like the Socialist Realism ideal that “great workers” should be the only subject of fiction.

Smith: And as a result, there’s no story.

DB: So in regards to feminist literary criticism, at least radical criticism, there is a place where you part ways. Is it a matter of a differing concept of women as well as art?

Smith: I don’t think so. No. I think it’s just that you finally have to make a decision whether you want to voice a theme, whether you want to be didactic, or whether you want to tell a really good story, to meet the exigencies of story-telling. Whether you want the story to be good, or whether you want the message to be clear. I decided long ago that I wanted the story to be good — which means that the message is sometimes more ambivalent, more ambiguous, than it would be otherwise. Life is complicated and muddy, and so is good fiction. I don’t believe that fiction serves a moral purpose. I think it’s nice if people can learn something from fiction that is of value to them, but you should write an essay if you want to get something specific across. Or — at least in my own work — I feel I can’t mix the two very well.

DB: Recently I’ve been reading John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. It’s hard to pin him down on what he means by moral. The best I have been able to figure out is that moral literature enhances life, is this definition enough for you?

Smith: That is good enough for me. And I think the highest calling of all is to write that kind of fiction. But, referring back to the question you asked me earlier in the day — about Helen selling out at the end of my story “All the Day’s of Our Lives,” how she refuses the promotion at her job and decides to let her next door neighbor court her — actually my interpretation of the ending is even a little more cynical than yours. She is saying yes to life-but only to life such as she can conceive of it. Unfortunately, she can’t conceive of being a self-realized person, and taking that job and doing this and that. Unfortunately, she’s trapped, and when I wrote the story what I had in mind was that she is trapped forever — by these romantic ideas of love she has. That’s why that rainbow is arcing over the lawn-sprinkler at the end. She is completely trapped by these notions of romance fed by the T.V. and the surrounding culture. So the ending’s pretty cynical. She’s saying yes, but she doesn’t understand as much as maybe the reader does.

DB: She is trapped, but it’s not necessarily because she’s female, it’s because as a individual she is satisfied with T.V. reality.

Smith: She doesn’t know anything else. She hasn’t had a chance, really.

DB: The protagonists in your stories do seem to exist on different wavelengths than the people surrounding them. Like Michael in “Not Pictured,” they are always “staring away from the group.” Are they misfits, or are they really each and every one of us seen from a fresh perspective?

Smith: I guess a story’s main character is always the person who doesn’t fit into the world of the story — for whatever reason. So each one, in his or her own way, is a kind of misfit. Sometimes at the end they will decide to just go on their way, and other times they will try to fit in — maybe like Helen is going to try to do. I am real interested in the idea that some people are just separate. I think from time to time we are all in a panic of what to do, how to be our own selves and yet function in society.

DB: I was very much taken with the point of view in your story “Cakewalk.” Basically you have portrayed everything through the internal discourse of the proper older sister, everything is from her point of view. The sympathy, though, seems to shift to Florrie, the free-spirited younger sister.

Smith: I had so much fun writing that story. I loved Florrie. I had been to the North Carolina State Fair where they have a section for ornamental cakes, and there I saw all those cakes that are in the story. I saw Mt. Saint Helens before and after eruption. And I saw a woman that just started the whole story in my mind.

DB: And you recognized a fellow artist.

Smith: I thought so. Yeah, it seemed to me like that.

DB: I noticed that Michael in “Not Pictured” was the only instance in Cakewalk where you use a male persona. Was this choice conscious?

Smith: No, actually I have written a number of other stories where I have a male protagonist. It’s just when you pick which stories are going to go in a book you try to pick the ones you think are better. Overall, I thought some of those stories with male protagonists didn’t work as well for me. So it wasn’t a conscious choice in that I was attempting to write a book specifically for women with all female protagonists.

DB: Why do you think the stories with male persona were less successful? What do you think of the current debate concerning the idea that males can’t write about females and vice versa?

Smith: I don’t know what to think about it. As a whole, I think it is sort of hogwash because I can think of a number of men who have written very well about women and vice versa. But I personally have trouble with the male protagonist. I really write much better from a female protagonist’s point of view, but that’s not true for numerous other writers.

DB: Last night you said that the story is always the teller’s tale, that history — personal or social — is a subjective enterprise. In “Cakewalk” where the story belongs to the older sister, where she holds all the cards in her presentation of her younger sister, why is it that the reader comes away with a reading Stella did not intend?

Smith: I guess that’s the convention of the unreliable narrator, of the unreliable narrative. If it is done right, the sort of “point man” can feel one thing and the reader can come away with the opposite. Certainly Stella’s view of Florrie is very different from the view that I want the reader to take of Florrie and of Florrie’s way of life.

DB: The old granny narrator in your novel Oral History says that she can’t tell her own story, only that of others. Does this point out the situation of the novelist, turning attention away from his or her own life in order to better listen to the lives of others?

Smith: I think it does. What she goes on to say is that if I told my own story I would be all hemmed in by the facts. But to make a good story, you have to feel free to embroider, to do what you want. We were talking about the necessity for a little bit of distance in transforming autobiographical material into fiction. You can’t do it while you’re living there, while you’re right in the middle of it. You have to get distance. And, of course, one of the oldest forms is making it be “about” somebody else. It’s like when a student comes in your office and says I have a friend who. . . , and immediately you know that it is going to be them. But to tell it they have to have a “friend.”

DB: So there is some sort of reticence involved in writing, that you don’t necessarily want to divulge your own fragility, to disturb your own emotional privacy.

Smith: That’s right. I think also that often it’s because the writer doesn’t really understand her own feelings. But if we write about it and have a character who is sort of bearing the freight, who is carrying the emotional baggage, then we can, in a way, deal with our own feelings and ideas without flat out having to take responsibility for them. It’s kind of like cheating — and very interesting.

DB: Last night, there was indeed a shift between the way you talked while introducing excerpts from Oral History and when you were reading the text itself. Were you conscious while writing the book of tapping in on a voice distinctly different from your own? It might have been a voice you knew, grew up with?

Smith: No, I wasn’t. But, no matter where you live or how you live your life, when it comes to writing there is something about the way you first heard language. How, when you are really into a story, this is the voice that often comes. I was just reading — again, because I was teaching it — Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle.” The voice is so good. It’s almost like English in translation, which fits the fact that English is the woman protagonist’s second language. It’s so authentic. And who knows if when Tillie Olsen was writing it, she was or wasn’t conscious of using those inversions and all those other particular ways of speaking. It’s just that when you get deeply into those characters, that is how they speak, that is how they think.

DB: I’ve sometimes found that beginning writers have less trouble with dialogue than with the voice of the narrator. Is it because this narrational persona is hard to develop, because it is harder to listen to yourself than to others?

Smith: Well, I don’t know. In my case, because early on I was a journalist as well as a writer of fiction, I made much more of a split between fiction and non-fiction than many other writers have done. In my own mind, I still feel I either write fiction which is not autobiographical in any traditional sense or I write non-fiction, which is often autobiographical. The two don’t overlap with me. There is never a character that is thinly disguised as me. That is, there might be other people thinly disguised in my fiction, but I’m not there usually. However, Max Steele, whom I used to teach with at the University of North Carolina, has said that all fiction is finally autobiographical in certain senses that are not on a one-to-one relationship — “I am this character,” or vice versa. I am also reminded of Anne Tyler’s remark that she writes because she wants to have other lives. But I think a lot of what I do and what I have observed in my own students is that they will try on other hats in their fiction. They will write about somebody doing something that they would never do in their life, but are fascinated with. Or possibilities, things that might happen in a family that almost, but didn’t, happen in theirs.

DB: Actually I had in mind something a little different. For instance, one student recently showed me a story that, for the most part, is composed of his grandfather telling various stories that I found out later the writer himself made up. That part of the story is absolutely wonderful. But when he quits the voice of the grandfather and shifts to being the narrator the level of the language drops drastically. I wonder, again, if it might be a matter of him not treating his own presence there on the page as a character that needs to have its voice brought out as well as he has already created the voice of his grandfather.

Smith: I think so. I think we can’t imagine our own characters as nearly as well as we can imagine others.

DB: In your stories, “The Seven Deadly Sins” and “Horses,” I noticed a different aesthetic at work. They in some ways seem like prose-poems, and the landscape seems to be a bookish one —metaphor, cultural/scientific allusions, etc. — more language-based than narrational. Have you expanded on this type of writing since then? Or were they just glorious experiments?

Smith: Oh, every now and then I’ll do something like that. I went through a phase in my twenties where I was particularly fascinated with Nabokov, Barthelme, Borges. I have always been really fascinated with language. Then, in the last ten years that fascination with language has been more centered in my culture, where I’m from. Taking those ideas and that close perception of language that I think you get when you read writers like Borges and putting it all back into your own past. So I did have an earlier phase, and those stories are from that early phase.

Thomas Clareson: One thing that comes through explicitly in the reactions to your earlier novels, but including Oral History too, is that you seen to have an affinity for fantasy.

Smith: I do, I guess. I grew up hearing ghost stories and also being real religious. People still believed in hauntings and weird stuff. They still do today. It does make life more interesting, not to mention fiction.

DB: There does seen to be a slight bit of magical realism in your story “Georgia Rose,” where you have a juncture of Southern realism and the supernatural.

Smith: I love South American writers. I love magical realism, all that kind of thing. In both my novels Oral History and Fair and Tender Ladies there is a lot of that creeping through.

DB: Is Georgia Rose’s problem then a supernatural one, or is it basically the result of her personality, a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is her interpretation of her fate her worst enemy?

Smith: Well, I don’t know. I have to confess that I know somebody like that. Somebody who professes to be able to see the future and can never have very many successful relationships, because as soon as she embarks on one she sees how it’s going to end and she just abandons it.

DB: So — self-fulfilling prophecy or oracular insight?

Smith: I don’t know, but I was just fascinated with the idea. In fact, I don’t know her anymore; she was very difficult to be around. I guess you could say this was a psychological problem, but what if it really is true? That is where the starting point of the story is. What if this person really can see the future, then what?

DB: In Oral History you had a chapter that would explain that the witch was not really a witch, but your editor talked you out of using it. Why is it that this sort of ambiguity is vital to the art of fiction?

Smith: The mystery?

DB: Right. The fact that she might be a witch and she might not.

Smith: It does make — and my editor said bluntly that it would make — a better book if you don’t explain away the mystery. And that’s always true, particularly when you think about what is good fiction and what is not. Good fiction allows a much larger space for the reader to live in, a much larger area of ambiguity, a much larger space to breathe. Bad fiction, like generic fiction, is tied up with a very pretty bow all the time, and there is no space for the reader to be a real participant in the story. So I think what you have to do is leave as large a space for the reader by telling as little as you can and still making the story coherent. The amount of that space is really the difference between good fiction and shawky fiction: “Then when the rose bloomed I realized I loved him all the time.”

DB: It sounds like you have a very fine editor. What is the publishing house?

Smith: It’s Putnam’s, which is not noted for terrific fiction. But on the other hand, what this editor has done, this Faith Sale, is really very, very good. Since you brought up the other kinds of fiction that I was interested in before, it is interesting to note she also edits Pynchon and Barthelme and Barth. It’s real funny. It would be interesting to get inside her mind and see what in the world the kind of stuff I do has in common with these other people that she edits. Now she is editing Vonnegut. It’s a strange thing.

DB: Did it take you a while to find her, to find an editor who liked your work enough to work with it?

Smith: Essentially I have had two completely separate careers. I was real lucky and started out publishing quite early — right after college. I was living in the Deep South, and just sort of sending these things to New York and they would sort of be published. I didn’t pay much attention to it. Then there came this point where Harper & Row, who had published my first three novels, said — and this was at the point when publishing itself had changed a lot, and Harper & Row got into all this sort of bottom-line cost accounting — and they said, “Sorry, honey. You haven’t sold any books. Too bad.” And they turned down my fourth novel. My agent in New York, whom I didn’t have a close relationship with either, said the same thing — “Oh well. Sorry, honey.” So then I didn’t have a publisher or an agent. It took a long, long time to find new ones. I found a new agent first. I decided this time I needed a close personal relationship, so I found this woman who liked the new novel, the fourth novel, a lot. But then she went to Tibet to find herself on her fortieth birthday and she never came back. So then I didn’t know what to do, how long I was obligated to stay with her. So that lasted about a year. It took a long time, and during that period I had really decided to stop trying to write fiction, except just occasionally. Just go back to school and get another degree and teach special ed so I could make more money teaching. Just kind of forget the whole thing.

DB: A voice on the verge of being extinguished.

Smith: Absolutely, because I had written this novel and here I was sending it around myself. It had been to like fifteen publishers. Nobody was interested. Finally, a good friend of mine, Roy Blount, hooked me up with his agent who really liked the book, and she found Faith Sale. It was a real long time — six or seven years, I guess. At the time I thought I was just being self-indulgent, but I was writing some stories all along. And thank God for the Carolina Quarterly, because a couple of stories came out there and made me not quit altogether.

DB: Have you had other readers that have helped you to shape your texts?

Smith: Actually, Faith has been the most helpful. The agent that I have now, whose name is Liz Darhansoff, is also very active. She doesn’t just say “yes I will do this or no I won’t,” but also suggests things. But those are the only two who have ever suggested substantive changes. I really think since I started working with them my writing has improved a whole lot.

DB: Having lived most of your adult life in a two-writer household, has that helped or hurt the creative process, or have both careers, both writing processes, been distinct from one another?

Smith: My first husband was a poet, and my second husband is a journalist. I think in both instances that it’s been helpful. If I had been married to other people they might have expected me to keep house more, shall we say. I think it is very helpful indeed. Writing is like a plant that dies very easily when it feels like it is in hostile ground. I teach a lot of continuing education classes with women who want to write, but are made to feel like that is a very bizarre and indulgent thing for them to do. They feel a writer is somebody who is publishing, not somebody who is writing. If you are around other people who care about writing and reading and words, then you feel comfortable doing it. Obviously, if there is competition, then it becomes different. But to my mind, that just hasn’t happened with me, because the genres involved are so different.

DB: So you haven’t really shown each other your work much.

Smith: No. I just read my husband’s column every week so I know what it is he is doing.

DB: Getting back to the idea of the writer and the community, does your sense of community extend through time as well? Do you feel yourself a part of the Appalachians in the time before you were born?

Smith: I suppose I do, really, because I have spent so much time with older people. I was an only child, and when I was growing up I spent an awful lot of time with my grandfather and great-uncles and so on. My grandfather was the County Treasurer for forty years and I used to go campaigning with him up in all the hollers. On Sunday afternoons we would eat Sunday dinner about six times because you would have to sit down with everybody and talk and eat all this chicken and dumplings. I really do have a sense of place that goes back beyond when I was born.

DB: Can you remember any of the first stirrings of this sensibility?

Smith: No, but I think I was a really weird child because I was always reading and mooning around, as my mother put it. I was always interested in old stuff. I remember one thing as a little child — I think maybe this is in one of those stories in Cakewalk — I remember I was looking at some old family pictures and being profoundly upset, at the age of seven or eight, at the pictures where I wasn’t there. I kept saying, “But where am I?” because I felt like I should be there, even in the really old ones. Later, I remember realizing about death, but this fear of not being born was much greater than any fear of death that came after. I felt like I should have been there somehow. So I did start out with that sort of feeling, and I don’t know where it comes from. My father loves old men. He would just sit around with old men all the time. The courthouse is right across from my family’s dimestore and they are always sitting over there chewing tobacco, and my daddy was always sitting there with them, and my Uncle Curt was always over there. It’s the way I grew up.

DB: Last night you said that “there is a heart of mystery in the past that we cannot put in a Museum of Appalachian Culture.” Is it to get at this heart the major reason you write?

Smith: Yeah, I think so. I feel like this is true for all of us who are compelled to do the kind of thing I do. Appalachia is changing. In fifty years or a hundred years, everything will have changed drastically. Even now there are these dishes where people are getting T.V. reception in the most remote hollers and coves. So I do feel a sense of trying to catch it before it goes.

DB: Tom Clareson mentioned last night how your work remythologizes the South. I can see how it might be a different South than that of Faulkner or Tennessee Williams—

Smith (laughing): It bears almost no relationship whatsoever!

DB: But how is this a different mythology from female writers like Porter, McCullers, Welty, Shirley Ann Grau, and so on?

Smith: Well, I don’t think it’s different in the way they write about characters, perhaps. I think it is different in the culture that is dealt with, rather. Where I come from is a rougher culture. It really is. The country I am from is not full of well-educated people. We don’t have Harvard-educated lawyers drinking bourbon on the veranda — we just don’t have that. We don’t have the wealthy, neurasthenic mother lying on the pillows and being fanned by the help. There are just lots of things that we don’t have in terms of culture and centuries of breeding. Now, with Eudora Welty, I do feel more of a kinship with a lot of her characters because many of them are the simple people, Mississippi hill country rather than Delta, though with some of them you do get into the Delta. When I first read her work it was very important to me because it did seem to me suddenly, when I read her as a very young woman, that a lot of the people I knew could be in her stories. Not all of them, but some of them.

DB: Do you know Shirley Ann Grau’s stories? Her swamp stories take place in the black communities along the Gulf Coast, especially in the real delta — where the river meets the sea and you can’t tell the land from the water.

Smith: Yes, I have read several of her novels and I really like them, but again they seem very different. It seems to me like you could be asking her all these same questions and she would have her own kind of culture that she’s working with.

DB: So this idea of your remythologizing the South needs to be tempered with the fact that there is no “South”?

Smith: No, I don’t think there is a South. The South is several distinctly different things.

DB: Are you familiar with Jayne Anne Phillips’ work? She seems to me to be writing out of the West Virginia side of the mountains. Do you feel any affinities?

Smith: I feel a whole lot of affinity. I know her and we have talked about this. I also feel a lot of affinity with Bobbie Ann Mason. I also felt a lot of affinity when I first read The Doll Maker by Harriet Arnow. It just knocked me out. I also feel a lot of affinity with Fred Chapell’s work. I think Fred Chapell is really a genius. I love both his poetry and his fiction that comes out of Appalachia. This guy who killed himself — Breece B. D’ J. Pancake — I feel close to his stories. So there are people I have an affinity with, but they are specifically sort of Appalachian. Fred being the biggie, as far as I am concerned.

DB: When you want to reconstruct a given time, a landscape, do you approach the research of it in any specific way?

Smith: Yeah, I think what I do is try to saturate myself in it for a while. Even though I feel I don’t need to, even though I think I know a whole lot of stuff-I know the language I am going to be using and so on — I will get several things to read that will be written in heavy dialect or will be about a certain time period. Just saturate myself in it. Get a whole bunch of books to look at. Pictures. I’ve got recordings of real old ballads and mountain songs. For instance, I was up in the mountains a couple of weeks ago and I went up to Hot Springs, North Carolina, which is like the end of the world. I wanted to find this house of this woman who as a child collected all these ballads. So I went over there and it turned out to be the wildest place. The house has been turned into an inn. There was this religion professor who got disaffected in the sixties and just left and moved into this remote house. He sort of runs it like an inn — but there is no sign, so most people who come there are on foot off the Appalachian Trail. He just cooks and whatever he cooks you can eat. His name is Elmer and he is real surly. If pressed, he will admit that yeah, he does rent out rooms. I’m going to go back there and stay. Once you happen upon it then you get to come, but otherwise you have to know somebody.

DB: Do you interview people with a tape recorder?

Smith: I do that all the time — whenever I’m home. It’s just plain interesting. After you become an adult-child then you have to have something to do when you go see your parents. So what I do is just walk around and talk to people and write stuff down. Nobody seems to mind.

DB: They would probably prefer that you did it rather than someone from Schenectady, New York, coming down.

Smith: You know, my father is a very popular man in that county, and there is a high tolerance in Appalachia for deviant behavior. I’ve been kind of mooning around since I was born. Nobody expects anything different out of me. They don’t mind, so it’s all right.

DB: Yesterday on the way to the airport, Tom told the story of your going into a beauty shop for a shampoo to listen to the way they talk, their gestures, and so forth.

Smith: Actually, I worked there. I have a good friend who was a beautician in The Kroger Plaza Beauty Coiffure, and she gave me a job.

DB: Is it spelled with a K or a C?

Smith: No, it’s spelled right, but it is named The Kroger Plaza Beauty Coiffure — that’s its name. I was going to write this book, and I did have in mind a real tough beautician character, but I didn’t know how to describe doing hair. I needed to get seeped in what somebody would be doing and thinking and seeing. So I asked this friend of mine who had been cutting my hair for years if I could come down and work at The Kroger Plaza. She said yes, so I worked there for three weeks. I had one of these things that says “Sharon” — it was great. But they would never let me do anything but shampoo. They wouldn’t let me cut hair.

DB: Your mentioning last night that you were the aristocracy of your area was very interesting, how the townkids were privileged in some way.

Smith: It was because our fortunes didn’t depend on whether the mines were working or not, whether the unions were striking, and so on. Our fathers just didn’t get killed right and left, or lose their arms.

DB: So this was your distance, your one foot in and one foot out?

Smith: Yeah, it was. There was also the fact that, and I don’t know why this happened, my father had notions that for some reason other people didn’t have. My Uncle Vern went to the legislature and my father, when he was fourteen or fifteen drove him, and so during this time when he was in Richmond he got these ideas, I think. Then later he sent me off to St. Catherine’s — although I didn’t want to go away to high school. Nobody I had ever known had gone to prep school. But who knows where my father got the notions he did? People that he met, certain things that sort of appealed to him — God only knows. He went to William and Mary, actually, for. . . well, actually only for football season. He played football and then took off. But he was different — at least a little bit. He had this book of one hundred poems and would go around and declaim all these poems he had memorized. He and my uncles would recite “The Road to Mandolay,” and all this kind of stuff. So I grew up a little bit different because my household was a little bit different. My mother was from the eastern shore of Virginia, so she was called a foreigner. She’s from Chincoteaque Island, where the wild horses are. So even though my family is very heavily entrenched in the community, my growing up was different, even from my first cousins.

DB: In one of your stories from Cakewalk, this Paul goes away to college and his sister goes away to boarding school. The point of view is that of the common people who live in the company houses. Reading the story I had the feeling that living in the company houses was your upbringing, your point of view. But really you were the girl who went away to school.

Smith: Yeah, that would be more accurate. But I always felt sort of guilty about it because my cousins and best friends didn’t. They stayed, so I felt a sort of split. I think all writers do. They feel that split between the community and themselves, or they wouldn’t write — just to resolve that split.

DB: The stories in Cakewalk do seem to be a little more about townsfolk than in your novels. Is there a reason for this? Or does the setting seem to work better for you in a short story?

Smith: I think it’s because the stories were written a little bit earlier. I think it took me a while to sort of go with my gut instinct. At the time I was also a reporter — as I mentioned before — and when I first started writing fiction I felt I needed to stick a little closer to the truth.

TC: So your house was in the town, and so you wrote from the town’s perspective.

Smith: Right. I grew up in the town, but I still had all these deep mountain experiences, these talks with my older relatives. So then I started doing research, and decided I would just sort of make this leap and do it whether I had been there or not, just sort of assume I knew more than anyone else what it might be like or might have been like and just set some things back in time and in a different social situation. But, yes, I was a town girl, and there is a difference. Our house was down along the creek, in Grundy, and all the hollers run up from it. But I was always fascinated with the mountain kids, and went up with them and spent the night there. I had cousins that grew up in a company town and I would stay with them. But I was always the town girl, always writing, the one whose father was weirdly bookish, the one who was always sent away to school.

DB: Do the people you write about read your books?

Smith: Sure! Yeah!

DB: You said that in your father’s store your books are on sale.

Smith: By the popcorn machine. That’s where they are. And a lot of the time I’ll send different people different books that have stuff they have told me in them. Nobody has ever objected. Well, maybe they do, but the fact is my father is a very popular man (laughs), so when he dies maybe I’ll be sued by eighty-five people, but at the moment everyone seems to be pleased.

TC: But as you’ve said before, many of those eighty-five people would be related to you.

Smith: Right. I think maybe I told you that I always use real names of people, which always gets me in trouble to some extent. For instance, in Oral History I talk about the Cantrells — and there’s a lot of Cantrells in that county.

DB: You were talking earlier about the geographical limitations of Appalachia, that many people haven’t even left the own counties. Referring back to Helen in “All the Days of Our Lives,” is this her problem, the fact that her only journeys are made on TV?

Smith: I write a whole lot about that kind of insular vision, being unable to imagine another life beyond. And I think it probably has to do with where I grew up. You can’t imagine the way the mountains are there. My mother used to complain and complain because the sun didn’t come up until eleven. It had to get really high before it hit your yard. So I could understand people who had this claustrophobic sense — whether it’s cultural, biological or literally geographical. My dad was literally trying to propel me outside of that, and if he hadn’t done this I don’t know how I could have done any of the things I have.

DB: So could one of the distinctions between your South and all those other Souths be that where you come from the sun doesn’t come up till eleven?

Smith: I think it is. I remember talking a lot about this with my first husband who was from Mississippi, from an equally poor kind of region. But he said the road there would go on as far as you could see, through the Delta, and you knew it went to New Orleans, and you knew it went all those places. It was just different. And even as a child he knew people who had been places and had come back. Also, there’s such a lot of clannishness among the mountain people that’s not amongst Deep South people. And a great deal of distrust.

DB: At least two characters in two different stories in Cakewalk hold back from further contact with people because the have already told too much about themselves. Do you think that goes back to that clannishness and distrust of others?

Smith: Absolutely. My cousin is a judge, and has told me again and again that most murders up there are people killing other people in their own family, but if someone else kills someone in your own family, then you go kill him.

TC: The difference between domestic and foreign affairs?

Smith: That’s right. We can take care of our own, thank you. Even if I hate my cousin, I get to kill him — not you. You can’t touch him.

DB: You mentioned earlier about wanting to write a book about a raft ride down the Ohio and Mississippi you made with some women friends from Hollins College before your last year of school.

Smith: It’s the idea of a voyage, I guess. We were all ready to graduate from college and were simple-minded in a way. Just sail down the Mississippi. And in the interim so many things have happened to us, so many things that have happened to other women our ages. I just think it would be interesting to read. Actually, it wasn’t all women. There were two boys. Maybe some of the parents wouldn’t let us go for whatever reasons without them. But when we built the raft it turned out too big. It was in the class of craft that the Mississippi River Commission says has to have a captain. So we were stuck. Here we were in Paducah. We had it built and were ready to go, but we couldn’t because it takes years to get a captain’s license. But it was wonderful. There was this old folks home there called the Irvin S. Cobb. And the doors of the Irvin S. Cobb opened — it had once been a hotel but now it was an old folks’ home — and an incredible-looking ancient gentleman in a white three-piece suit emerged and said, “I will take them down the river.” He was a retired pilot, and he took us. His name was Captain Gordon Cooper. He just sat there under an umbrella the whole way.


Return to Interviews