By Ray Sawhill
Lee Smith’s books are homegrown rarities: serious literary works that incorporate the pleasures and strengths of popular art and folk art. The stories in her rich new collection, “Me and My Baby View the Eclipse” (Putnam), her ninth book, range from a parody of a Silhouette Romance entitled “Desire on Domino Island” to “Intensive Care,” which concerns a man whose second wife is dying. Like much of her work, it’s moving in ways that can take you entirely by surprise.
Smith grew up in Grundy, Virginia. “I had a sweet, middle-class upbringin’,” she says, “but lots of the kids I was in school with came from the mountains and the hollers.” In high school she was a cheerleader, was elected Miss Grundy High, and traveled the state participating in potato-salad competitions until “I was disqualified in Richmond because I didn’t wear a hair net.”
A few years later she was a go-go dancer, alongside her Hollins College schoolmate Annie Dillard, for an all-girl rock band called the Virginia Woolfs. The summer between her junior and senior years, she and a dozen girlfriends drifted down the Mississippi from Kentucky to New Orleans on a raft they’d built from two-by-fours and oil drums (“We were readin’ Mark Twain,” she explains). Two marriages, two sons, several journalism jobs, and a series of novels have followed.
“I’m always writin’,” Smith says, “but usually it’s not for a particular book. It’s like I’m wanderin’ around all the time, writin’ stuff down and thinkin’ about it, and eventually I’ll write a book and all that stuff will go into it. It sort of grows on you. It’s like havin’ a baby.” She’s fascinated by UFO sightings, the National Enquirer, mountain lore, soap operas, and ornamental cakes. On trips back to Grundy, dismayed that the town’s character was vanishing behind fast-food signs, she set out to preserve what she could of the region’s culture: “I had a closetful of this wonderful material.” Much of it wound up in her novel “Oral History.” At a garage sale a few years ago she spent seventy-five cents on a bundle of letters. Captivated by the woman who wrote them, Smith wrote “Fair and Tender Ladies.”
Smith makes the kind of contact with readers that some movie stars and country singers do; she makes you feel as if you’re sharing a common life. “People who write me after readin’ my books don’t want me to guru them,” she says. “They don’t even write me about my books. They just tell me stories about their own lives.”
- Lee Smith’s website.
- A review I wrote about Lee’s wonderful “Fair and Tender Ladies.”
- Another one of my favorite Lee Smith novels is “Black Mountain Breakdown.”
©1990 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.