9/10/2014 LEE SMITH—DISTINCTIVE VOICE OF SOUTHERN DIGNITY
Last month, in my review of Lee Smith’s novel Guests on Earth, I talked about the dignity and respect that Smith gives to her characters, not just in her latest novel, but in all her novels. This month I want to tell you more about that particular writing skill and about another of Smith’s strengths, a detailed attention to setting. I also promised to tell you about Smith’s personal connection to Guests on Earth, which is tied to her deep sense of place.
Over the years, Smith has published 13 novels and four collections of short stories. She’s won numerous writing awards, including the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and a Southern Book Critics Circle Award. But she says Guests on Earth is special.
In Guests on Earth, she tells the stories of men and women, including author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who went to Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C., to be treated for various mental illnesses. Working with a mesmerizing mixture of real-life and fictional characters, Smith reveals the community that developed at the hospital and elements of the hospital itself.
“This novel is, indeed, very close to me,” Smith said in an email, “and very precious because of the time I spent at Highland myself—both as a little girl visiting my father there in the 50s, and decades later when my son Josh was a patient there for a couple of years (both inpatient and outpatient) in the late 80s—all helpful stays, I might add. Though some of its methods as detailed in the novel (1936-1948) are antiquated to us now, it was the ‘top of the line’ in its day.”
In an article on her website, Smith explains that she was with her son near the hospital in Asheville, when she realized that she would someday write about Highland and the horrendous fire that happened there in 1948, killing Zelda Fitzgerald and eight other women—someday, she says, when she could stand it. So, 10 years after her son’s death and 65 years after Zelda’s, the book was written.
Although Highland is especially meaningful to Smith, she treats all of the places she writes about as if they’re the most important location in the world. She says on her website that she likes to have maps for everything. For one of her novels, Oral History, she had a big map drawn on the wall. Even for her short stories, she draws diagrams of houses. She has to know exactly where she’s going to turn her characters loose, she says. As a writer, I understand this feeling. My fictional town of Tanner, North Carolina, where my novels and many of my short stories take place, has an exact location and a definite layout of streets.
Perhaps Smith’s understanding of the importance of place stems from her respect for towns and regions and the effects they have on the people who live there. Critics say the definition of a regional story is one that absolutely could not happen anywhere else, a characteristic often true of Smith’s writing. But even more significant than the respect she has for the places she writes about is the respect she has for her characters.
In Guests on Earth, many of the characters are mental patients. About these patients, Smith said in her email, “I wanted to speak out—to show that very real lives are lived within these illnesses—that people suffering from these brain disorders are not the ‘other’—they are us!”
Showing real lives is characteristic of Smith. In some of her novels, she writes about everyday people like the ones she knew when she was growing up in Grundy, Virginia, in the heart of Appalachian coal country. She also writes about middle-aged women commemorating a rafting trip they took in college and about the daughter of a religious zealot who believes in the sanctity of handling poisonous snakes. And there’s my favorite of her characters, Stella Lambeth, who has “run the cosmetics department at Belk’s for twenty years and looks like it.” And so many, many more characters, each a unique individual who Smith obviously thinks has merit in this world.
When authors write about people with little education or no experience outside their small town or about people who make poor choices, it can sometimes be difficult not to treat those characters with condescension or even mild derision. But Smith never offers a hint of any attitude other than recognition of their dignity, and that attitude is instilled in the reader as well.
Maybe one reason Smith has such regard for her characters is that they talk to her. When she began to write fiction, she tried to write in third-person point of view, but she says on her website that the characters wouldn’t come to life that way. She had to let them tell their own stories the way they tell them to her, so she switched to first-person point of view and never looked back.
Part of channeling those stories onto paper is writing first drafts of her novels in long hand. In a short documentary on her website, Smith shows the first draft of Guests on Earth, a collection of lined legal pages covered with writing, scratch-outs, and additions.
Even though these characters talk to Smith, I wanted to know if she had to do more research to turn them into the living, breathing people who inhabit her pages. Her reply: “I do so much research you wouldn’t believe it! In fact, it is very hard for me to ever stop researching and start writing the novel…I have to force myself. There’s always more to learn…even when you know that you have ‘enough’ for the purposes of the novel.”
When Smith combines her research with her love and respect for people and her love and respect for place, the result is a voice that is distinctive, authentic, and honest. Any of us, including Zelda Fitzgerald, should be honored to have Lee Smith tell our story.