As a nine-year-old, Smith wrote stories about the people of Grundy and sold each story around town for a nickel. She has said that she made up stories as a child to keep from telling a lie. In one interview, she claimed that writing was therapeutic for her, that there had been "a lot of mental illness in my family. Once when I was a girl, both my mother and father were in separate psychiatric hospitals at the same time."
At age eight she wrote her first novel, Jane Russell and Adlai Stevenson Go West in a Covered Wagon, on her mother's personalized stationery.
At Grundy High School, Smith frosted her hair and won a beauty contest. After her sophomore year, she enrolled at St. Catherine's boarding school in Richmond. In interviews Smith has said that her father sent her to St. Catherine's because he was afraid, justifiably, that she would marry her high school boyfriend. She experienced culture shock at St. Catherine's and a heightened sense of class consciousness, an issue she would explore in developing the characters of Richard Burlage in Oral History (1983) and Brooke Kincaid in Something in the Wind (1971).
Smith's newspaper columns were humorous, mostly light satires. As a freshman she wrote a parody of the Twenty-Third Psalm for Hollins Columns based on the sunbathing habits of the Hollins girls. For her sophomore year her parents gave her a Porsche and offered her the Hollins Abroad program. She quickly became the foreign correspondent for Hollins Columns, writing: "Things to do in a (Paris) café: 1) practice looking very bored; 2) practice looking very sad; 3) scribble violently in a little mauve notebook."
Smith's Hollins Abroad program came to an end, however, when, defying the rules by staying out all night, she was sent home from Paris. Although she was expelled, Rubin intervened and arranged for her to work at the Richmond News-Leader and meet with his friend, the columnist, James J. Kilpatrick. Smith came away from her time in Richmond with three life-long gains: a view of an equal-partnership marriage between Kilpatrick and his wife, a sculptor; newspaper experience that led to her job with the Tuscaloosa News; and media exposure that would prove key to the success of her first novel.
Smith was readmitted to Hollins for her junior year and the tone of her journalism turned more serious, once criticizing her fellow students for their apathy toward a Howard Nemerov lecture. In her senior year, she was the co-editor of the college yearbook, The Spinster, and continued writing journalism and fiction. By that year she and Annie Doak Dillard shared a regular newspaper column called "Out of My Mind."
Between her junior and senior years at Hollins, Smith and fifteen other Hollins students took a well-publicized raft trip down the Mississippi River from Paducah, Kentucky, to New Orleans, Louisiana. During the eleven-day trip, the women endured rough waters, mosquitoes, cold, and rain. At the trip's end, the raft broke from its moorings and the two outboard motors were stolen, but there was still enough for Smith to draw upon for her novel The Last Girls (2002), which became a New York Times best seller.
Melodramatic plots and foreign locales characterized Smith's earliest attempts at fiction—work, she has said, that garnered her mostly Cs. Her stories about fatal fires at Christmas and stewardesses jet-setting to Hawaii were not successful, but when she began to write about ordinary life in the speech patterns of Grundy's denizens, she hit her stride. A story first called "The Wading House" was later revised for Dillard's creative writing class and became "Little Arthur," which was published in Cargoes, the Hollins literary magazine, in 1964, her sophomore year. The story tells of a young girl's loss of innocence through experiences of rape, adultery, and death. Eventually, "Little Arthur" became Smith's senior creative writing thesis, earned her a Book-of-the-Month Club writing fellowship, and was published by Harper & Row as The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed (1968), her first novel.
Smith's former News-Leader boss, Kilpatrick, compared The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed to To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) in his column and the book sold 10,000 copies. Instead of attending Columbia University with her fellowship, Smith, newly married to poet James Seay, instead bought a refrigerator and other household goods to set up their home.
Another story, also written for Dillard's class, began life as "The Red Parts," was published in Cargoes in 1966, and later was expanded into the novel Something in the Wind, published by Harper & Row. The female protagonist in this novel attends a private school for young women in Richmond and discovers, like Smith did at St. Catherine's, that "We were all alike, everyone, but I was with them and not of them and I had not known it before."
Working at the Tuscaloosa News and raising two young sons, Smith drew upon her reporting experience for Fancy Strut (1973), a baton-twirler tale called a "comic masterpiece" by critics and optioned for movie rights. Supporting herself with various teaching positions, Smith had difficulty selling her fourth novel, Black Mountain Breakdown (1980), a dark story of a woman paralyzed by her own passivity. She was writer-in-residence at Hollins in 1977 when she wrote the story "Paralyzed" that became the novel. She has said she later realized the book was about the breakdown of her marriage.
Along with humor, Smith deals with society's victimization of women and the limited roles it offers them. Family Linen (1985) is dedicated to journalist Hal Crowther, whom she married that year. In the novel, a rapist, once discovered, is murdered. Ivy Rowe, the strong heroine of Fair and Tender Ladies (1988), overcomes all obstacles. That book, like On Agate Hill (2006), her twelfth novel, is an epistolary work.
Her acclaimed sixth book, Oral History, was her break-out novel. The New York Times Book Review raved that the book brings "the rural folk (of Faulkner and Welty) back to life again." Chosen as a featured Book-of-the-Month Club selection, this family history, told through multiple narrators, brought Smith's fiction to a national audience for the first time. The story begins with an academic who wants to capture her family's past through tape recordings, but ghostly voices come through the recorder revealing the century-old history of the Cantrell family.
In several of her books Smith blends Appalachian ballads with colloquial language, a style that has been called, less than charitably, "K-Mart Realism" or "Grit Lit." Another critic has written that Smith's "particulars of life … are splendidly observed … They would make a Carson McCullers or a Flannery O'Connor proud." She is, one reviewer has stated, "that rarity," having written, in Fancy Strut, "a genuinely funny book that is satiric without being mean."
In a 1989 journal article, Smith wrote that she feels "almost a duty to help other, younger writers." Jill McCorkle writes that Smith encouraged her to believe that, "as a 19-year-old from a small town I had just as much to say as anybody else." In her 2007 debut novel, One Fell Swoop, Virginia Boyd thanks her "mentor Lee Smith, whose work inspired me from the very beginning and whose encouragement and wise counsel I would be lost without."
When she received the 1988 North Carolina Distinguished Service Award for Women, Smith addressed the crowd: "Speaking strictly as a writer, I frankly don't know whether I have been of any service to anybody at all; but in my work … I have tried to write about the kind of woman whose life is not usually recorded."
- The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed (1968)
- Something in the Wind (1971)
- Fancy Strut (1973)
- Black Mountain Breakdown (1980)
- Oral History (1983)
- Family Linen (1985)
- Fair and Tender Ladies (1988)
- The Devil's Dream (1992)
- Saving Grace (1995)
- The Christmas Letters (1996)
- The Last Girls (2002)
- On Agate Hill (2006)
- Cakewalk (1981)
- Me and My Baby View the Eclipse (1990)
- News of the Spirit (1997)
November 1, 1944 - Lee Smith is born in Grundy, Virginia, a coal mining town about ten miles from the Kentucky border.
1963 - Lee Smith enrolls at Hollins College in Roanoke. She writes for the school's newspaper, Hollins Columns, and literary magazine, Cargoes.
1968 - Harper & Row publishes The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed, Lee Smith's first novel. The story tells of a young girl's loss of innocence through experiences of rape, adultery, and death.
1983 - Lee Smith's break-out novel, Oral History, is published.
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First published: April 16, 2009 | Last modified: June 17, 2009
Contributed by Mariflo Stephens, a fiction and humor writer who reads her work on public radio. The founder of Northwood Press, she has received grants for her fiction from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Her work has appeared in many publications including the Washington Post and the Virginia Quarterly Review. Stephens is a contributor to Simon & Schuster's publication The Barbie Chronicles.