Lee Smith on the art and craft of storytelling
Published: February 27, 2009
|Award-winning author Lee Smith grew up in a family of storytellers. Her novels and short stories resonate with this Southern oral tradition. She often writes in first person, letting her characters tell the story. Below she comments on point of view, her writing process and influences. You can read a full interview with Smith in the April 2009 issue of The Writer.|
You generally use a first-person narrator in your writing and rarely use the omniscient voice. Could you talk about that choice?
If I try to write in a more distant, truly omniscient third-person point of view, it's harder for me. The omniscient point is a lot of work because you're responsible for so much more. The writer has to decide all these things. The authorial choices and responsibility that one has to take are just terrifying in terms of deciding whose head to go into. [With omniscient point of view] everything is determined by the author, whereas if you let your character be the speaker, there are limitations as to what they can know, what they can repeat, what they did, what they saw. You don't have to make so many decisions.
Did you ever go into the wrong person's head?
I've done that a lot. My problem is that sometimes I become infatuated with somebody who really is not going to have a damn thing to do with the story.
I wrote a whole section of Oral History from the witch's point of view, and it was very bad. It read like a bad imitation of Faulkner. It was sort of like a witchy version of Benji. My idea was that [the character] wasn't a witch at all but an abused daughter who worked for her father and was really crazy. I was writing her voice in this particular way. Given the way she'd been mistreated and the kind of life she led, she had been mistaken for [a witch] and all these legends had come to surround her. Finally, I didn't use it because I realized if I did, it would explain away all the mystery and ruin the book. So I had to regretfully put her back in her cage and leave her there. I think that's one of the hardest things, and I often err in deciding what to tell and what not to tell.
It's a delicate balance, then, between telling too much and not enough?
I do think that in serious fiction we have to weigh the space for the reader to operate. The reader really wants to participate—as least I as a reader always want to participate. In literary fiction, there's a space for the reader to participate and become a very important part of the story. If you tell too much you insult the reader, whereas if you don't tell enough you mystify the reader, which I sort of did in my last book [On Agate Hill]. I don't think I tell quite enough at the very end. There's a murder—and I thought it was perfectly clear whodunit, but I've gotten questions from readers, and I see that it wasn't quite clear enough.
Another thing I love is the unreliable narrator because we know what he knows but we also know more than he knows. We see more about him and whatever he's talking about than what he sees himself. I love this. In the last part of On Agate Hill, there's an unreliable narrator who is, in fact, the murderer. As he's telling his story, we should realize why this event happened and why he would have done it. I think I counted on my readers maybe slightly too much. It's a very fine line.
One of your characters in Oral History is presented through his diary entries. Why did you do it that way?
I used a diary because I felt that the character [who was a teacher and an outsider] was at such a remove from his own emotions and so bound up in what people would think of him. He was overanalyzing everything, sort of an agonized Hamlet figure, a would-be artist, but he's not really an artist. I guess I went to the diary form for him because it seemed to show his distance and his inability to act.
In my research I had read many, many diaries of outsiders who came into the mountains to do good. Of course, when you do that you keep a journal because you want everybody to know how good you did. That kind of style was something that I was finding in journals of that period.
You use flashbacks in The Last Girls as your characters reflect on their college days. When going between the present and the past, how do you avoid confusing the readers?
When I was a younger writer and particularly in love with the short story, everything would be immediate—the whole story would be contained in the present moment. But as I've gotten older, I have become really, really interested in the play between past and present and the relevance of what happened in the past [to] what is happening now. I use flashbacks because this is something that really absorbs me. It's always a little risky because it can seem so contrived. You know someone looks at a gardenia and remembers the gardenia she smelled at the dance in 1922. It's very hard to do it in such a way that it doesn't seem contrived. Yet often it's very important because we can't understand the relevance of the present moment unless we know something that's happened in the past.
Do you have a first reader?
When I finish something, I do have some trusted readers—my agent, who has been my agent for a million years, and my husband, who is a great reader, a great editor. I have a number of friends who are writers, and that's helpful too. You're all going through the same kinds of things. Writing has really formed my sense of community.
Do you have exercises you use with students?
Among the reading they do, I have them pretend that two pages have fallen out of a book and they have to write them. It's real helpful. Say you pick Virginia Woolf or Faulkner, and you have to replicate the style. That really does make you understand that writing is not about what happens, but about the way it's done.
Could you talk about one of your influences as a young writer?
I remember that when I was reading some Appalachian writers, I stumbled on James Still's great novel River of Earth. It's a novel where [an Appalachian] family is out of work again. The crops have failed, and they're getting in the car and going elsewhere to look for work. And the father says, "We're going over here to Grundy, Virginia, because there's a mine still working over there." I couldn't believe it, because that was the name of my town. I couldn't believe that my own town was in a novel, and it was a fabulous novel. It's a wonderful book.
• • •
|Lee Smith's reading list:|
1. Strange as This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake
2. My Antonia by Willa Cather
3. Miss American Pie: A Diary of Love Secrets and Growing Up in the 1970s by Margaret Sartor
4. Cost by Roxana Robinson
5. Away by Amy Bloom
6. Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff
7. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
8. Mohawk by Richard Russo
9. Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky
10. Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties by Robert Stone
Works by Lee Smith
On Agate Hill (2006)
The journey of young girl through adulthood, as she survives the upheavals of the Civil War and Restoration. Smith's first historical novel chronicles her life through love, betrayal, motherhood and a murder trial. The Atlanta Journal Constitution writes: "[A]uthor Smith is in full command of her talent for strong stories and evocative characters, and her always fine, shining prose is extra-pearly here."
The Last Girls (2003)
Four old college friends take a reunion trip on a Mississippi riverboat. As each looks back at her experiences from a different perspective, the novel explores relationships, regrets and the abiding nature of friendship. Inspiration came from a trip down the Mississippi that Smith took with 14 other girls when she was in college.
The Christmas Letters (1996)
In the epistolary style of Fair and Tender Ladies, tells the story of three generations of women. The Chicago Tribune wrote: "Bless Lee Smith's heart! Once again, the novelist from Chapel Hill, N.C., has proved that nobody knows Southern women better. Once again, she has crafted a sparkling little gem of a story brimming with wit, charm, heartbreak and even, this time, recipes."
Saving Grace (1995)
The story of Florida Grace Shepherd, the 11th child of a traveling evangelist who takes up serpents and gulps strychnine to confirm his faith. Like other Smith heroines, Grace is cut off, not just from Jesus, but from herself, too, and every decision she makes, everything she yearns for, comes to seem like a betrayal of one sort or another. One reviewer wrote that Saving Grace deals with "questions of sin and salvation in a way that invokes the spirit of Flannery O'Connor."
Fair and Tender Ladies (1988)
This epistolary novel chronicles the life of Ivy, a tenacious mountain woman who remains cussedly dedicated to the ideal of perseverance, despite the many formidable obstacles she faces. It is considered by many to be Smith's most fully realized and artistically successful work.
Oral History (1983)
Probably Lee Smith's most ambitious works, the novel tells the stories of several generations in an Appalachian community. Smith follows an oral tradition of storytelling, incorporating family history, legendary figures diaries, mythic events.
For a complete list of Smith's novels and short-story collections, go to www.leesmith.com.
Elfrieda Abbe is publisher of The Writer. She has interviewed many authors for the magazine, including Rick Bragg, Margaret Drabble, Alan Furst and Alexander McCall Smith.
--Posted Feb. 27, 2009