Conversations with Lee Smith
Edited by Linda Tate
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"I lead a kind of staid life, actually, and oftentimes the characters will do things i would never dream of doing, or be ways i would never dare to be."
How does a girl from Grundy, Virginia, become a successful writer? The interviews and profiles in Conversations with Lee Smith tell the story of one woman's discovery of her coal-mining hometown as a potential "literary place."
In this first book of interviews with Smith, she revels in character and sense of place as cornerstones to her art. "What interests me most in writing are the characters," she says. "I have a lot of trouble thinking of plots, but I love to create the people. I think a person that you create is coming out of some aspect of yourself."
Smith's career spans three decades-beginning in 1968 with the publication of The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed-and includes ten novels, three collections of stories, one novella, and numerous essays, nearly all of which, since 1980, have focused on her native Appalachia.
It is through conversation with others that Lee Smith (b. 1944) lives and breathes. Social to the core, defined by her love of talk, her penchant for a story, Smith-like her most memorable storytelling characters, from Granny Younger to Ivy Rowe-comes alive through her own voice. Reading a conversation with Smith is like sitting on the porch with your first cousin, all the old stories tumbling out in a rush.
In interviews, Smith tells why we hear echoes of the novelist's life in Crystal Spangler, the main character in Black Mountain Breakdown (1980), who is literally immobilized by her passivity. While Smith's own story in no way resembles the particulars of Crystal's, Smith reveals in these interviews her own struggle with the assigned gender roles of her region.
Forthright and direct, Smith traces the arc of her career as she talks. In research she conducted for her breakthrough novel Oral History (1983), Smith discovered that the power of her voice lay at home. In Fair and Tender Ladies (1988), Smith created the remarkable Ivy Rowe at a time when she herself personally needed a strong role model. Smith then moved on to The Devil's Dream (1992), a multigenerational tale of the evolution from traditional mountain music to commercialized country music. Just as Smith herself found her voice as a writer when she went home to her mountain roots, so too Katie Cocker-the Dolly Parton-type star of the novel-reconnects with her mountain heritage.
As she talks about these novels and her other works of fiction, Smith beckons us to come close and listen and joins her characters as a strong Appalachian woman in her own right.
Linda Tate is an independent scholar and was formerly an associate professor of English at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.V. She has written A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South (1994) and has been published in such periodicals as Mississippi Quarterly, Resources for American Literary Study, and Journal of Appalachian Studies.
Photo of Lee Smith, credit: David G. Spielman224 pp.