For forty-five years Lee Smith has been publishing fiction that is chock-full of true-to-life characters and rooted in a strong sense of place. Her latest novel, the newly released Guests on Earth, is no exception. When Evalina Toussaint, the troubled orphan child of an exotic New Orleans dancer ends up in a famous mental hospital in 1936, she finds herself in the midst of a wild cast of characters, including the famous Zelda Fitzgerald. Evalina’s role as piano accompanist for all programs at Asheville’s Highland Hospital gives her a privileged insight into the lives and events which transpire over the next twelve years, culminating in the tragic fire of 1948 that took the life of Zelda and nine other women — a mystery that remains unsolved.
Author Michael Morris recently visited with Lee Smith to talk about her latest novel, the writing process, and one of Smith’s famous fans.
Morris: Twenty-four years ago I first heard you interviewed on The Bob Edward’s radio show. I still remember the short story from which you were reading, “Intensive Care.” After work, I went out and bought that short story collection and I’ve read everything you’ve written. I tell people that I became a literary stalker of Lee Smith! You have been a generous mentor and encourager not only to me but to many writers, including Jill McCorkle, Silas House, Tony Earley and Pamela Duncan. The list goes on and on. Who are some of the writers who have been your mentors and how have they helped shape your work?
Smith: Well, first of all, THANKS! But actually it has been entirely my pleasure to keep up with my students and other young writers and encourage them along the way. I was so fortunate myself in this regard that I have always felt a real obligation to “pass it on.” Though even as a young girl I had always dreamed of “being a writer,” it was mostly luck that the woman’s college I chose—Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia—-actually offered undergraduate and graduate creative writing classes, a rarity in those days. My writing teacher, Dr. Louis D. Rubin, had already started one of the very first creative writing programs in the country at Johns Hopkins University—where William Styron and John Barth were among his students. Now he had a bunch of crazy girls! because it turned out that there was a whole gang of girls just like me, drunk on books and writing, in that freshman class—Annie Dillard among them. We egged each other on, encouraged by “Mr. Rubin,” as we all called him—-even starting our own literary magazine, “Beanstalks,” when the official literary magazine wouldn’t publish us. We met at Mr. Rubin’s home along with other faculty and staff who also shared their own work with us—such a privilege to be in on the real creative process, to realize that literature was a process, and that it was written by real, LIVE people! They read our work as if it deserved to be read, which it mostly did not….but I learned early on how important close reading and real attention can be for a young writer, and I have never forgotten it. Our teachers kept up with us after graduation, too, writing us letters of recommendation, reading subsequent manuscripts, helping us find jobs…because it’s a long, hard apprenticeship to become a writer. And it’s awfully easy to forget that a writer is somebody who is WRITING, rather than somebody who is publishing…it’s hard to keep at it, and a kind word or a helpful suggestion can mean so much. I know. It did to me. So I’ve always felt that a teacher’s role continues long after that final class is over.
Morris: This year marks the seventh-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby. Since Guests on Earth takes place at the Highland Hospital in Asheville, NC where Zelda Fitzgerald spent her last days, what surprises about Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald did you uncover while researching the story?
Smith: I was surprised by the depth and variety of Zelda’s talent, for one thing. I had read her novel “Save Me the Waltz,” about a woman’s struggle to become a ballerina, based upon Zelda’s own experience—so I knew she was trained in ballet and also that she had one of the most remarkable voices in American literature—her writing is more like Virginia Woolf than anybody else, stylistically innovative and heavily imagistic, with the sense imagery all mixed up so that hours march, flowers talk, etc.—logic, sense, and verb tense often fly right out the window! But I really didn’t know that she was such a brilliant visual artist, starting with her famous paper dolls and moving into watercolors and oils. Much of her best artwork was done in the art studio at Highland Hospital, where they encouraged her and appreciated it.
I was also surprised by the strength of Scott and Zelda’s union, over time. Despite the fact that that they were clearly toxic for each other—their relationship what the French call ” folie a deux,” the craziness of two, enabling each other’s worst behavior—they also loved each other right up to the end, in their fashion. This comes through so clearly even in their last heart-breaking letters written when Scott was living in California with Sheila Graham and Zelda had been hospitalized for years. There was a continual regard, a sympathy, an understanding between them.
Morris: While researching Guests on Earth how much time did you spend in Asheville? What are some of your favorite things about the city?
Smith: I have been a frequent visitor to Asheville, over my whole life—-I remember dancing with my daddy at the Grove Park Inn when I was about eight, all dressed up—then visiting him when he was a patient at Highland Hospital in the 1950s. Decades later, I was often in Asheville visiting my son Josh who spent several helpful years at Highland Hospital in the late ‘80’s — inpatient, halfway house and outpatient settings– as he battled schizophrenia. So I had a very personal knowledge of the hospital and the city myself before I even started this writing project—the book I had known for years that I would write. Asheville right now is a city like no other, sort of a Sedona or Santa Fe of the Mountains. It’s buoyant, vibrant, filled with art and music and new restaurants and ideas and people—while keeping its former Appalachian identity and mountain beauty intact at the same time. There’s nothing else like it in the South.
Morris: Your daddy owned the dimestore in Grundy, Virginia. I imagine the store was a hub of activity where all sorts of characters came to shop. I’ve heard you say that as a child, you would eve’s drop on conversations. How did growing up in that environment influence your writing?
Smith: As a little child, my job was “taking care of the dolls” at my father’s Ben Franklin dimestore—-where I literally grew up. Not only did I comb their hair and fluff up their frocks, but I also made up long, complicated life stories for them, things that happened to them before they came to the dimestore, things that would happen to them after they left my care. I gave each of them three names: Mary Elizabeth Satterfield, for instance, of Baby Betsy Black. Upstairs in my father’s office, I got to type on a typewriter, count money, observe the whole floor of the dimestore through the one-way glass window, reveling in my own power—-nobody can see me, but I can see EVERYBODY! I witnessed not only shoplifting, but fights and embraces as well. Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything, yet is never visible. It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.
Morris: Oral History is another one of my favorite novels. I know how important the storytelling tradition is to you. How do you think social media is changing storytelling?
Smith: What a good question! I wish I knew the answer to this one. I think we all need NARRATIVE, simply to live…as human beings, we live on stories, our own and others. And now with social media, there’s simply more communication than ever before—VASTLY more communication than ever before. Everybody is telling their own stories all the time in every way—posting on Facebook, constant texting, email, and phone calls. One result is that fewer people are actually reading written stories–or-books, or newspapers—so that fiction especially— novels and short stories– are suffering: fewer printed, fewer read. Everything—the very nature and form of narrative— is changing.
Morris: Dolly Parton has often said that you are her favorite writer. You both do a lot of work promoting literacy — Dolly with her Imagination Library and you with the Hindman Settlement School in Eastern Kentucky. And not to mention you both have an infectious laugh and sweet spirits. What was it like to be invited by Dolly to have lunch with her at Martha’s at the Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville?
Smith: Well, Dolly Parton is one of my favorite people in the whole world. I love her music and everything she stands for—-honesty, fun, openness, regional pride, literacy, strong women. She and her producer picked me and my husband up at the Nashville hotel where we were staying for an academic conference. My husband had INSISTED on coming along after Dolly called and asked me out to lunch! When we walked into the restaurant, everybody in there burst into applause. I turned around and looked at my husband and he was waving back! Anyhow, I was wearing real high heels and more makeup than I have ever put on in my life—while Dolly said that she had “dressed down!” This was hard to tell! We just had a ball—-she is the only famous person I have ever met who is exactly the same in private as her public persona—Dolly is the real thing, and I think it is her genuine-ness that really speaks to people. People know, they can always tell. She is hilarious, too. For instance, at one point when she was trying to make her producer stay on his diet, I asked her how she stays so little (aside from the obvious!) She laughed and said, “Well, honey, I just get up every day and look in the mirror, and if there’s anything that doesn’t look like Dolly, I get them to cut it off!” Later on, she passed me her plastic surgeon’s card. But I am not going to tell you if I’ve ever used it or not.
Lee Smith is the author of sixteen books of fiction and the recipient of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award and the 1999 Academy Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Michael Morris is a certified fan of Lee Smith and the author of four novels, including Man in the Blue Moon, which was named a best book of 2012 by Publishers Weekly.