April 2016

Lee Smith

Memories of home
Interview by
The author of Fair and Tender Ladies and many other beloved novels reflects on her Virginia childhood and her beginnings as a writer in the new memoir, Dimestore.
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The author of Fair and Tender Ladies and many other beloved novels reflects on her Virginia childhood and her beginnings as a writer in the new memoir, Dimestore.

At what point did you decide to collect these essays as a memoir? Was that something you had in mind from the start?
I can tell you exactly the moment I decided to publish Dimestore: the day when my childhood home—the house my parents built and lived in for over 60 years—was demolished as part of a massive flood control project. The only thing I have left is the brass doorknocker with the curly “S” on it, for Smith, which a kind neighbor salvaged and put in a homemade box frame for me to keep. My father’s dimestore had already been blown up along with about 60 other stores lining the main street of Grundy, Virginia.

Even though I’d known for a long time that all this was coming, I was devastated. Place has always been paramount to me as a fiction writer—especially this place, this little town, these mountains. Immediately I found myself writing sketches, like word photographs, of all the people and places that were gone. I kept it up. Eventually I had the long title essay “Dimestore,” and then I decided to write some more, also adding and expanding some other occasional pieces and talks I had written over the years.

Is it harder for you to write about yourself than to write fiction?
Yes! It’s much harder! I have always believed that I could tell the truth much better in fiction than in nonfiction: You can juggle the chronology, switch the facts around to make your points, emphasize some elements and ignore others, write a novel from several different points of view in order to present everybody’s motivations. With nonfiction, you’re stuck with the little old boring stick-in-the-mud piddly SELF (though I should add that many of these Dimestore essays are actually more about other people who have made a big impression on me and on my writing along the way.)

Did you ever feel as though your parents might be watching over your shoulder as you wrote?
No, I’ve never really felt that way. Since I was an only child born to them late in life—a big surprise since they’d been told they could not have children—they were unconditionally OK with whatever I did. If I’d told them, for instance, that I wanted to be an ax murderer, they would have gone out and bought me the ax.

Tell us about your "writing house" that your father built on the edge of the Levisa River.
My writing house kept changing because the river kept flooding—every time, my father would build it back or make me a new one, mostly little prefab storage sheds with a table and a chair and an old wooden box to keep my books and treasures in, perched on the side of the riverbank.

Do you have any memorabilia from your father's dimestore? Or something you wish you had?
I really wish I still had my own little typewriter which Daddy kept right there in his upstairs office on the long desk where I could observe the entire floor of the dimestore—all the aisles—through the one-way glass window, reveling in my own power—nobody can see me, but I can see everybody! I witnessed not only shoplifting, but fights and embraces as well. Once I saw a woman put a big old Philco radio between her legs, under her coat, and waddle right out of the store!

I have lived in North Carolina for many years now, so Grundy is no longer my literal “home,” yet psychologically—and speaking as a writer, now—it still is. I think we are forever formed by what we first see and the way we first hear language, in my case that rugged ring of mountains and the unique mountain dialect, the soft Appalachian speech of all those older family members telling stories on the porch while I was going to sleep in somebody’s lap. So, even today, stories still come to me in a human voice, and I just write them down. I’m not so much a writer as a listener and a storyteller.

If you could time travel, how would you spend a perfect childhood day?
It would be summertime and I would get up early and eat some of Mama’s biscuits and drink some coffee with a lot of milk in it and then run out the door and go sit under my "dogbushes" as I called them (a big clump of forsythia bushes). It was like a secret room under there—where a whole town of my imaginary friends lived. So I’d check in with them, find out what was going on with everybody. My best friend was Vienna, named for those little flat cans of Vienna sausages which I always took under there and shared with my dog Missy—Vienna herself had red hair and a very dramatic life, but my friend Sylvia could FLY! Then after a while I’d go get my best real friend, Martha Sue, and some of the other kids who all lived along the river there in Cowtown, too, and we’d head for the hills, literally, climbing up into the mountains across the road where we’d run like wild Indians all day long playing cowboys and Indians, forming club after club, climbing cliffs and outcroppings, building forts, swinging on grapevines, exploring caves, and enjoying a degree of freedom seldom found in childhood today. The only kind of twitter we knew about was birdsong. We’d stay there until somebody rang the big bell to call us home.

What was it like being a go-go dancer with Annie Dillard in your all-girl rock band, the Virginia Woolfs, at Hollins College?
It was wonderful. Hollins not only had an excellent creative writing program—long before most colleges—but encouraged (or at least tolerated) all kinds of creativity. We first performed at a Hollins literary festival, then went on the road to UVA, Washington and Lee, etc. We all had go-go names—mine was Candy Love. I wore a glitter top and white boots and a cowboy hat.

Is there a piece of advice you'd like to be able to give your 20- or 30-year-old self?
SLOW DOWN. (Which is exactly what Jerry Lee Lewis said to my good friend, the rock and roller Marshall Chapman, which she did not, and which I did not either.) As a young woman, I was just drunk on literature, on fire with novels and poetry and writing, I’d write all night long. Now I’d say, slow down, honey. Read. Just because you like to write doesn’t mean you’ve got something to say. Know what you’re talking about. Learn about history and psychology and science and everything else in this big world. It’s not all novels. And don’t throw yourself into everything so much, don’t fall in love all the time, don’t get married so fast . . . slow down. Life is long.

How did you manage to achieve the delicate balance of writing about both great joys and deep sorrow, such as the death of your son?
Thanks but I don’t think I’ve achieved “that delicate balance,” though I’m always trying, and I believe that the writing itself keeps me up on the tightrope. Writing is inherently therapeutic. It can be a source of nourishment and strength for us all. Simply to line up words one after another upon a page is to create some order where it did not exist, to give a recognizable shape to the chaos of our lives.

Writing is an addiction, you say, and early in a project you feel a "dangerous, exhilarating sense that anything can happen." What's been the most surprising thing to happen during your writing?
So many surprising things have happened during my writing that I don’t know where to start. Thing is, if a character really does “come to life” on the page as you write, she’s liable to do anything. Anything! Mine are always having religious fits or running off with men.

During the writing of Dimestore, the wonderful surprise has been that the more I wrote, the more I remembered—and at my age, memory is the best gift of all.

What's on your reading list these days?
Well, right now these books are not only on my reading list but actually on my bedside table: wildly different one from another, I just realized. But all fascinating. OK, here we go:

American Housewife, stories by Helen Ellis, which I just finished—wild, hilarious, dark and subversive stories satirizing young American domesticity.
• The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All by the extraordinary poet C.D. (Carolyn) Wright, who recently died much too soon.
• Binocular Vision, stories by Edith Pearlman, just knocking me out. I have never read her before.
• The novel Stoner, by John Williams, kind of a cult book which people swear by and I haven’t read yet.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Dimestore.

This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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By Lee Smith
ISBN 9781616205027

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