Lee Smith : Dimestore
Over the course of her distinguished career, Lee Smith has shown time and again that narrative is the fuel that powers her, both as a writer and as a person. With her new book, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life (Algonquin Books), Smith has brought her considerable drive for storytelling into the realm of memoir for the first time. Dimestore roams over the mountainous landscape of her Virginia upbringing. Smith details the people and places of her hometown, Grundy—the tiny coal-mining community where she witnessed the enduring customs of Appalachia meet the relentless upheavals of modern American life.
Dimestore also chronicles the evolution of Smith’s writing life, in addition to her roles as daughter, mother, and wife. Her many novels and story collections (Oral History, News of the Spirit, to name two exceptional examples) display a facility for lacing dramatic circumstances with wry humor, and in this respect, the essays of her memoir follow suit. Even when ranging over life’s most difficult truths, Smith’s literary vision places compassion in the foreground—a quality that has made Smith one of Appalachia’s most beloved literary voices.
EMILY CHOATE: Dimestore marks your first book of memoir. How has this book come into its story-driven form?
LEE SMITH: Though Dimestore is indeed my first book of memoir, I’ve been telling stories literally all my life, from my childhood when I often fell asleep on somebody’s lap on somebody’s porch while my family were all telling stories into the night. Consequently, I’m more of a storyteller than a writerly writer. Even today, so many years later, stories always come to me in a human voice–sometimes it’s just the voice of the story itself, speaking in my ear, but more often, it’s the voice of the main character or another important character in the story. So that first-person storytelling voice–personal narrative–comes naturally to me.
EC: Several chapters revolve around your hometown, Grundy, Virginia, including an account of the staggering changes Grundy has undergone during your lifetime. When a place of such significance to one’s own history and subject matter is altered so dramatically, how do you think the writer’s mind reckons with that kind of change?
LS: I guess this question depends upon how much the writer is tied to place. In my case, place is everything, probably because the Appalachian mountains where and when I grew up determined everything, closing us off, isolating us, yet giving us the whole natural world, the mountains where we ran wild as little animals enjoying a kind of freedom that doesn’t even exist in childhood today. So we had the mountains–and also the little town, where my father ran his dimestore for 55 years and my grandfather was the treasurer right across the street in the old stone courthouse and my mother taught home economics and we went to the Methodist church every time they opened the doors. In later years, after Mama’s death, I used to try to get my father to leave and move down to North Carolina where I lived. But he wouldn’t even consider it, calling Grundy his “standing ground.” “No, honey,” he said. “I need me a mountain to rest my eyes against.” I guess I do, too. This truth was brought home to me very dramatically when my hometown was recently demolished as part of a flood control project. I drove up there to see the dimestore blown up, along with about 50 other downtown stores and buildings along the Levisa Fork River. The house I grew up in–my parents’ only house, ever–was demolished a couple of years ago. Of course we all lose our hometowns–the places of our childhoods–as we grow up and things inevitable change back home…but rarely is this change so abrupt. At first I was galvanized, immobilized by the literal destruction of the dimestore, our town, our house, the awful red mud where everything had been. Then immediately I started writing, descriptions of all the places and people that had been there, who they were, the lives they’d led, the stories they’d told….
EC: To what extent would you, like your father, call Grundy your “standing ground”? Or have you come to locate that terrain somewhere else, either in a literal or more figurative way?
LS: Not only had my father been born and grown up in Grundy, but he was a lifelong merchant, remember. Everybody he loved, everything he owned, was right there, downtown, within that ring of mountains. It was his literal “standing ground.” For me, that term is now more symbolic, indicating how and when I first heard language–my continuing preference for the human voice, the storyteller, the tale–and the importance of place in my own writing…though now that place varies, often the rolling hills and old tobacco barns of piedmont North Carolina or the rocky coast and pointed trees of Maine. I have to “see” any place in my mind’s eye–and often draw it, in big detailed maps I scotch tape to the walls of my office–before I can send my characters about their business. Every story has to have its own standing ground.
EC: You write memorably about encountering Eudora Welty while you were a young student at Hollins College. Could you elaborate on her influence on your voice? Which of her works have lingered most in your mind over the years?
LS: Well, at the time I first encountered Miss Welty, I didn’t actually HAVE a voice in my writing. I’d been writing some very bad stories, because I didn’t know what my professors meant when they suggested gently to me, “Write what you know.” I certainly wasn’t going to write anything, ever, about Grundy, Virginia! Who would possibly want to read anything about those old hills and those old people? I was OUTTA THERE! setting my own stories relentlessly in places like London and outer space. But when Eudora Welty came to visit our class and read aloud her wonderful story “A Worn Path,” the epic journey of old Phoenix Jackson as she sets out walking to get the medicine for her grandson, encountering “the thorny bush, the scarecrow, the black dog, the young hunter and the lady” along the way…well, it was like a literal lightbulb flashed on in my head, as in a cartoon. Suddenly I knew what I knew. Hey! I thought with the awful arrogance of the 19 year old, this Miss Welty hasn’t been anywhere much either…so I began to write plain stories about small towns and plain people and the lives they led. As I read more of her work–ALL of her work, of course!–her wonderful gentle sense of humor came to mean a lot to me too–stories such as “Why I Live At the P.O.” and “The Petrified Man”–it was important for me to realize that a funny story could be a very serious story, too, that humor can allow us to venture into scary territory and yet come home unscathed. Also her sense of the mythic in everyday life enabled me to write stories based upon the witch tales and jack tales and other legends I had heard as a child.
EC: I have always appreciated that mythic and folkloric spirit in your work. Do you work consciously with those archetypal characters and narrative elements, or do they tend to emerge from somewhere less deliberate?
LS: No, though I love mythology and folklore of all sorts, I never put them in a story deliberately. I think any sort of symbolism or archetypal meaning must arise naturally from the particulars of any story itself–otherwise, the story will sound contrived, and perhaps trite. The writer must always be the last to know!
EC: In the chapter “Driving Miss Daisy Crazy; or, Losing the Mind of the South,” you write about southerners’ formidable capacity for denial, and you invoke Toni Morrison’s call to American writers to reckon with their diminishment of racial conflict and characters of color. How do you view southern literature at the moment—are southern writers making good enough progress in confronting denial?
LS: Well, this is a complicated question. Some southern writers are certainly making “good enough progress” in confronting denial–writers such as Toni Morrison herself, Natasha Tretheway, Tayari Jones, Rita Dove, Minrose Gwin, Elizabeth Spencer, Paulette Boudreaux, Sue Monk Kidd (I highly recommend “The Invention of Wings”) and Kathryn Stockett, who wrote “The Help” and encountered some flak from those who felt the African American voices were not authentic–which brings up the whole question, is this your story to write? I say YES, emphatically. I say we write any story which speaks to us about the human condition and attempts to give a voice to those who have not had sufficient power and agency in their lives. In my own case I have tried hard to honor the lives of the older Appalachian women I knew as I was growing up–women with too little education and too many children, but whose lives were often heroic in my view. We also need to confront denial of other issues in addition to race–we need to give voice to others such as the poor, the mentally ill, the immigrant population, the old, etc.
EC: Speaking of giving voice to those underrepresented groups, Dimestore includes several loving, empathetic tributes to people in your life who suffered from mental illness. How have you approached writing about the vulnerable subjects of other people’s lives in a memoir?
LS: So many people in my own immediate and extended family have dealt with varying degrees of mental illness that it does not seem like “other people’s lives” to me. It’s my life, too. A serious mental illness seriously affects everyone in the family. In “Dimestore,” I tell the story of my schizophrenic son Josh from my own point of view. But his siblings have their own stories, too–as do his father, and his stepfather…Furthermore, two out of every five families in this country right now are dealing with serious mental illness. So I am not writing about “the other” here–fact is, the other is US. I want to make that point. And the more we write, talk, and learn about mental illness, the less stigma will attach to these most vulnerable people among us, and the more community services and housing for them will improve.
EC: This book possesses a long-haul scope, ranging from small childhood in the 1950s to the present day. Has the experience of writing it shown you any new or surprising things about your own writing life?
LS: The more I wrote, the more I remembered…I think this is true for us all. Memory may be writing’s greatest gift. Now I’ve got a whole notebook filled with people and places and incidents that are NOT in Dimestore, but were very important to me and my own writing life–such as the experience of collaboration with three other women, North Carolina writer Jill MCorkle and Nashville singer/songwriters Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg on our country music musical show “Good Ol’ Girls,” which the New York Times called “A redneck feminist review.” Our close friendship has continued for over 20 years now, becoming a kind of support group.
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Lee Smith has published 13 novels and four collections of short stories, including the bestselling novels Fair and Tender Ladies and The Last Girls, winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Her new book is Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, a work of nonfiction. She is a recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the North Carolina Award for Literature. She lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. (Author photo by Diana Matthews.)
Emily Choate holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Chapter 16, The Double Dealer, Yemassee, Nashville Scene, and elsewhere. Her short fiction is a runner-up in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, and she has held writer’s residencies at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Vermont Studio Center. Emily lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.