My wife Kristy and I celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary last month. I fell for her in high school, in part, because she was a reader. She was a reader long before I was, and for years she told me, “You have to read Fair and Tender Ladies.” Lee Smith’s story of Ivy Rowe, a girl who grows into womanhood and finds her strength in the Appalachian Mountains, is Kristy’s favorite novel of Smith’s. And for years I shrugged the suggestion off even as I delved into Hemingway and Cheever and Barry Hannah and Toni Morrison.
And then I did. I read Fair and Tender Ladies with the momentum of a child running downhill until I hit bottom. The last line of the book has always brought my wife to tears, and I felt as though I knew her even better than I had before. This is the power of literature.
Over the years, luck and fate would smile on us and we came to know Smith personally a little bit. We’ve been to readings, we’ve gone out for drinks, we’ve corresponded. For a couple of avid readers, getting to know a favorite author is the equivalent of a film buff sharing a tub of popcorn with Martin Scorsese. When I won the fiction contest in this magazine back in 2010, Smith sent me a complimentary and encouraging email. I printed it and clipped it out, and it’s pinned to the bulletin board in front of me as I write this. I read it any time I feel I need a little push.
And I return to her prose for a push as well — her novels and short stories — and now the collection of essays that make up the new memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). Here, Smith is open and honest about writing, about the South, family and its secrets, change, and loss. It is nostalgic and poignant, funny and sad, and has been compared favorably to Eudora Welty’s memoir, One Writer’s Beginning.
As prolific as she’s been over her four decades of publishing, she’s never before written book-length nonfiction. So why now? “ . . . [A] writer cannot pick her material any more than she can pick her parents; her material is given to her by circumstances of her birth, by how she first hears language,” writes Smith in the essay “Driving Miss Daisy Crazy; or, Losing the Mind of the South.”
Smith’s material throughout her career has blossomed from one place: the hard-scrabble earth of Grundy, Virginia. It’s coal-mining country where her father was raised and would later own the Ben Franklin dimestore. Her mother was from a family of means on Chicoteague Island off the coast of Virginia, the daughter of an oyster magnate, a “high roller and harness racer,” she writes. The yin and yang of their backgrounds would become the backdrop for Smith who was, by her own admission, an oddity among the mountain folk of Grundy.
“I was this weird, overly imaginative, little child who would pretend to have pneumonia all the time so I could stay home from school and just read books for days on end,” she said recently from her vacation home in Maine (she lives the rest of the year in Hillsborough, North Carolina). Speaking with her by phone is like catching up with a favorite grandmother as she laughs easily at her own stories. In fact, like your grandmother, she began our conversation with a tale of woe involving a hacked computer. Despite this blip in her vacation, the laughter is there as always. In the essay “A Life in Books,” she writes about the use of humor to talk about the scariest things — “things we couldn’t articulate and deal with otherwise. It is another way of whistling past the graveyard.”
Smith is known for her fiction and novels that include Fancy Strut, Saving Grace, The Last Girls, On Agate Hill, and The Christmas Letters, among many others. Writing nonfiction does not come naturally to her, yet the voice of the storyteller shines through the facts and timelines. “I just think you get to a point in your life where you really want to remember things, and for me the best way to remember anything is to write it down,” she said. “To me, they’re not so much about me as they are about people and places that have meant a great deal to me.”
Smith is one of the great creators of place and setting, and she was spurred further into her nonfiction by the loss of a particular place. “The dimestore would be demolished along with three dozen other Main Street stores and a score of homes as part of the drastic and daring $177 million Grundy Flood Control and Redevelopment Project . . . ,” she writes in the essay “Dimestore,” portions of which are taken from her 2005 Washington Post story on the event after witnessing the razing of her father’s store.
Other essays touch on the tangible aspects of memory with a recipe box kept from her mother’s kitchen, annual trips to Baltimore for “lady lessons” with her grandmother and aunt, her summers in Maine and the book she carries along, and the tragic loss of her son at the age of 33. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder while in high school, he would eventually die of acute myocardiopathy brought on by weight gain due to an antipsychotic drug. A line of depression runs through the Smith family, and she writes openly about how it affected both of her parents in the essay “Kindly Nervous.” But it’s the essay “Good-bye to the Sunset Man,” framed within the story of taking her son’s ashes to scatter in the waters off Key West, that will jar a reader to the core.
Smith’s mother and father both suffered from depression, her father being hospitalized off and on at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where Josh would later be hospitalized. (The institution’s most famous patient, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, is the subject of Smith’s last novel Guests on Earth.)
Family illness is the very subject Smith might have learned to avoid in conversation during those summertime “lady lessons.” And certainly Miss Daisy, the name she’s given her conscience, a metaphorical minister of manners detailed with great humor in the essay prior to the one about her son’s death, would have warned her against discussing such history. But the illnesses of her son and parents are her story, too, she told me, and part of the reason she wanted to bring them into the light is to help erase the stigma of mental illness. “If we can just talk about it and speak openly about it then we can help each other, we can understand more, we can work towards better facilities in the community,” she said.
Asking a writer to name the favorite book she’s written is akin to asking her to name a favorite child, so Smith considered the question carefully before offering Oral History and Fair and Tender Ladies as two important works in her canon and her life. Throughout the more challenging times in her life, it was the writing that saw her through, a regular schedule of writing even being prescribed at one point by her therapist. Fair and Tender Ladies was written during a period that saw her divorced from her first husband, her mother’s death, and Josh’s hospitalization. Protagonist Ivy Rowe, she said, became her role model. “Terrible things kept happening to her and she just got gutsier and stronger while meanwhile I was falling apart,” Smith said. “She was the friend I needed and she just got me through a really hard time. I always loved her.”
Smith grew up hearing the stories of her elders and it was the cadence of those voices that led her to her own, she said, with Oral History. “That was the first one where I finally figured out how to use my own language, which is the Appalachian language which is very close to real dialect,” she said. “My fiction is always very much about language and I just could never do that, I tried and tried and tried. I wrote a hundred pages and then I threw it away and decided I would just pretend like someone was taping each one and each character would tell his or her own story. So I just let them speak and it was the first time I was able to write and use my own native language.”
Smith still works every morning — writing by hand on a legal pad — to craft honest stories that help her to remember and celebrate her past and her place. They are stories that help us all to know ourselves better as readers, as mothers and fathers, as parents and spouses. Smith writes: “This is the main thing that has not changed about the South, in my opinion — that will never change. We Southerners love a story, and we will tell you anything.”