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Monday, February 25, 2013

Lee Smith: "A Life in Books"

On Thursday, February 21, despite the terrible weather, about 130 people came to the University Center Theater to hear acclaimed fiction writer Lee Smith share with us her charming “life in books.” She spoke about the relationship between a writer’s real life and fiction. The event was enlightening not only for budding writers, but for anyone with at least a passing interest in writing. She began the event with a story about how two friends measured their lives—one friend saw her life terms of the people she came across, while the other said that she visualized her life in terms of time and places. By contrast, Smith said that she measured her own life in terms of books—first as a reader, then as a writer.

As a child, Smith said, reading actually introduced her to writing, since she just could not stand her beloved stories ending. She called herself an obsessive reader who read all night long; she then created her own chapters to her favorite books, which fulfilled her need to see her literary heroes and heroines live on. She soon began writing little books herself, and with her childhood friend Martha Sue, she began publishing a weekly, hand-crafted neighborhood newspaper which they delivered door to door on bikes for only a nickel.

Traveling around her neighborhood with her friend, they would see “really neat stuff” that later made its way into Smith’s fiction. In her Davy Crockett spiral notebook, she wrote down all of the scandalous sights she saw and included the date, time, weather, physical descriptions, and her reaction. She would use her discoveries later on in her life in her writing.Reading from her work, she recalled how they saw their fourth grade teacher necking on the couch with her boyfriend and smoking cigarettes.  She also claimed to see her neighbor running past the kitchen window wearing nothing but her apron, followed shortly by her husband wearing nothing at all and carrying a spatula – but Smith later admitted that she fabricated that story!

Smith’s first actual novel, published in 1969, concerns a nine-year old, strange girl similar to herself whose family is breaking up due to the mother running off with a man. Smith was excited to hear what her mother thought about her book, but her mother, concerned that the town would believe that she actually ran off with a man, proclaimed that she did not like it and actually threw it in the river. Her mother helped to censor Smith’s first and second book (the second book had sex in it, and her mother did not approve). Her hilarious anecdote of the creation of her first two novels showed how she incorporated events in her childhood and adolescence into her material.

After her first book, though, Smith said that she had used up her whole life up to that point and had nothing more to say. Luckily, she then became a reporter for the Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and through her new position, she covered the “All South Majorette Competition,” an enormous event where the winner would be named “Miss Fancy Strut.” The competition was filled with charming young ladies and their “bitchy” mommas, she said. Of course, she named her next novel Fancy Strut.  It is a story about majorettes and their moms; her third novel was a breakthrough for her as no one in the novel was anything like her. She said that writers had to eventually stop writing about what they knew and about what they could learn and imagine. That way, she said, writers would come to experience that great pleasure, as Ann Tyler put it, of writing so as “to have more than one life,” which Smith called the greatest privilege and pleasure in the world.

Along the way, Smith had also realized that the relationship between real life and fiction is more complicated than she would ever have guessed. She said that she also wrote to find out what she thought. For instance, in 1980, she wrote a novel entitled Black Mountain Breakdown, where the protagonist Crystal Spangler alters her image for the various men in her life. Crystal loses her own true self and ends up literally paralyzed, but the most terrifying aspect of her condition is that she is happy. When Smith wrote the novel, she understood she was in a marriage that should have ended earlier. By reading the words from her novel, she understood how she felt during the last part of her marriage and was able to then deal with its inevitable ending. She said that her writing gives her a record of her former self.

Smith also said that writers, through their work, often express what is mute or unvoiced in their personality and minds. Along with expression, she said that writing has also become a source of strength for her. She intended for her novel Fair and Tender Ladies to be an honest account of the lives of all the resourceful mountain women she had grown up with. As she began the book, two catastrophic illnesses struck her family, and she spent two years sitting by hospital beds. Smith said that she did not know what she would have done if she had not been writing her novel. The heroine of the story, Ivy Rowe, grew stronger the more Smith needed her and actually became her best friend. Afraid that her mother would die, Smith did not want to finish the novel and began to write slower. Her mother eventually died slowly, and then after her mother’s death, she wrote the last line of the book. To her, writing is comforting and therapeutic. 

Smith’s last point concerning writing was that it has given her a chance to run into all kinds of people. She said that at times, she would meet someone only briefly and get curious about them.  Then, she just had to complete that person’s story. To her, writing has been a journey. She ended by saying that writing is a great pleasure and pastime that she would recommend to everyone.

Lee Smith’s entertaining and insightful talk was made possible by MOCH, the River City Writers Series, and the Creative Writing club, with important assistance from Public Service Funds and Student Event Allocation.  Thank you to all who came out!

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