Lee Smith wasn’t exactly born a writer, but her journey to becoming one of the South’s most beloved novelists began early enough.
Her first foray in putting pen to paper, and getting paid for it, was nonfiction: at age 9, she and some cousins wrote, and printed by hand, a newspaper called “The Small Review.” It sold briskly and even occasionally caused a stir. One story criticized a neighbor for being too grumpy, Smith remembers; another lamented a “mean” music teacher who “smelled bad” and would wrap poorly performing students’ hands with a pencil.
“We got in a lot of trouble,” she said.
Smith, who’ll be the featured speaker at Chatham Literacy’s “Spring for Literacy” event in May 17 (tickets are on sale now), grew up in the tiny coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia, nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains not far from the Kentucky border. As an only child to a teacher and a dime store owner, she says she was afforded plenty of time to read.
“And I was encouraged to read, a lot, and given a lot of time to write,” said Smith, 78, a N.C. Literary Hall of Fame member and New York Times best-selling author of 15 novels, four short-story collections and a memoir.
She describes herself as a child as “deeply weird.” Her first novel, composed at age 8, was written on stationery she borrowed from her mother. Smith was surrounded by natural storytellers and gravitated toward that herself: in her father’s Ben Franklin store, she’d watch, out of sight, and listen to shoppers talking — paying close attention to character, scene and dialogue.
The solitary nature of her upbringing was, she realizes now, a blessing.
“So, I started out early writing and reading, and I think ‘only children’ kind of had the luxury of doing that,” she said. “Because if there’s somebody around to play with, I would probably have been playing.”
After she graduated from high school, her parents sent the precocious Smith off to Hollins College (now University) in Roanoke, Virginia. Her mother hoped she’d find a husband; Smith found something else instead. Unbeknownst to her when she enrolled, Hollins happened to have one of the very first creative writing programs in the country.
“So I went there and just happened into what has been, ever since, one of the best writing programs at any liberal arts college in the country,” she said.
Smith pursued studies in the program and began writing fiction seriously.
“And, of course, reading, reading …,” she said. “Reading literature. So I was very lucky.”
Hollins’ undergraduate and graduate writing programs have produced a number of acclaimed writers, including Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Natasha Trethewey and Henry S. Taylor. Smith, in fact, teamed with another eventual Pulitzer winner, the future novelist and essayist Annie Dillard — not in a literary project, but rather to perform as go-go dancers for an all-girl rock band at Hollins, the Virginia Woolfs.
But writing was paramount to Smith, and by her senior year, she’d completed a draft of a book — it was her senior thesis — which earned her a coveted fellowship. Within two years, that thesis, now a novel entitled “The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed,” was published by Harper & Row.
She’s been a novelist ever since, publishing books while also teaching English and creative writing at the college level, including 19 years at N.C. State.
In the more than half century since “The Last Day” earned raves from critics, Smith and her work have been recognized with the North Carolina Award for Literature, an Academy Award in fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Southern Book Critics Circle Award, the Thomas Wolfe Award, the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Fiction, and two O. Henry Awards. Her stories and articles have appeared in various periodicals and anthologies, including Southern Review, Real Simple, Oprah Magazine, Redbook, The New York Times, Atlantic, and GQ.
The accolades come, in part, for the way Smith — who lives with her husband, journalist Hal Crowther, in Hillsborough — writes about the South. Southerners have a specific way of communicating, she says, which gives Southern literature its unique voice.
“Well, for one thing, people in the South will talk,” she told the News + Record. “You know, I live in Maine in the wintertime, and they don’t even talk, ever. If you ask for directions in Maine, or say ‘Where is such and such?’ they’ll say, ‘Go two blocks and turn left.’ If you ask for the same directions in Hillsborough or anywhere in North Carolina, and they’ll say, ‘Well, it used to be up there where John Dooley lived — and that’s where that wreck was; remember that school bus wreck?’ And this and that and this, and they’ll go on and on and on. It’s because we’re talkers in the South. And we’ve always had that desire to talk and communicate. And we’re very community minded. And as I say, writing is about talking. It’s about communication. And that’s where stories come from. Southerners are just much better storytellers.”
When she reflects on her success — which isn’t over yet; a new novel, “Silver Alert,” publishes in just a few weeks and has been described by reviewers as “remarkable” and “defy(ing) the laws of literary gravity” — one thing Smith recognizes is the role encouragement played as she developed as a writer. Every child, she says, needs and deserves it, too.
“I was encouraged enormously and tried to do that with my children and all the other children I’ve taught, and I’ve taught a lot at different levels,” she said.
It all began, Smith said, with her mother.
“My mother read aloud to me every night,” she said. “And that was my favorite thing in the world. When I think of so many, many things, I hear her voice, her soft Virginia voice, reading aloud to me. And we had books in the house, and we were always reading and being encouraged to read. I think that’s a major, major thing. And that’s why what [Chatham Literacy] is doing in Chatham County is so important.”
Chatham Literacy works with adults to develop their reading, financial and digital literacy skills and reach their educational goals. Smith said that work will become more and more important in years to come because reading development is being hampered by the time young people spend on digital device — and away from books.
“I think it’s the most important thing there is, and today, in particular, it has become urgent because so many people are just simply lost on their devices,” she said. “They’re on their phones and on their screens. It’s just terrible for the brain development and the intellect, and just the ability to relate to other people.”
In addition to teaching creative writing, Smith has done extensive work with literacy projects over the year, “particularly,” she says, “with people who are learning to read as adults for the first time.” She’ll share some of their stories, as well as read from “Silver Alert,” at Chatham Literacy’s event on May 17.
“And just talking about what I think reading has meant to me over the years,” she said. “I would never be … nobody would ever be a writer if they weren’t a reader first. And it’s so important in terms of empathy and learning about other people, and getting outside of the self, and the place where we come into the world. There’s a whole world out there, and it’s available through reading, and there’s nothing, nothing more important.”
Vicki Newell, the director of Chatham Literacy, called Smith “an extraordinary, iconic author.”
“We’re thrilled she’ll be our guest author at our ‘Spring for Literacy’ luncheon,” Newell said. “Lee’s presentation style through storytelling, her passion for literacy and the release of her new book make her somebody you don’t want to miss. I am so grateful and proud to have Lee’s support.”
Bill Horner III can be reached at email@example.com or @billthethird.