Author Lee Smith (photo credit: Diane Matthews Photography)
The Friends of Hackney Library are pleased to welcome celebrated author Lee Smith as guest speaker at the Spring 2017 Book Signing, Lecture, and Dinner. The event will take place on Tuesday, April 4, 2017 in Hardy Alumni Hall on the campus of Barton College. The book signing and wine reception will begin at 6:00 pm, followed by dinner at 6:30 pm and the program immediately after. Books by the author will be sold both during the reception and following the program.
Lee Smith is the author of thirteen novels, including Oral History, Fair and Tender Ladies, Saving Grace, The Last Girls (a New York Times bestseller), On Agate Hill, and Guests on Earth, among others; four short story collections; an off-Broadway musical, Good ‘Ol Girls (based on the stories of Smith and her former student, author Jill McCorkle).
Her most recent work is a memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life (Algonquin Books, 2016).
Smith was born and raised in Grundy, Virginia, a small Appalachian coal-mining town less than ten miles from the Kentucky border, where her father owned a Ben Franklin five-and-dime store and her mother taught home economics. She received a bachelor’s degree in English from Hollins College (now University) in Roanoke, Virginia. This background gave birth to her deep understanding of and empathy for the people of Appalachia and its culture, which is reflected in the sense of place that infuses her work.
Smith was raised in a household in which stories were the currency of communication: “I didn’t know any writers,” Smith says, “[but] I grew up in the midst of people just talking and talking and talking and telling these stories. My Uncle Vern, who was in the legislature, was a famous storyteller, as were others, including my dad. It was very local. I mean, my mother could make a story out of anything; she’d go to the grocery store and come home with a story,” according to the official biography on Smith’s web site.
As a child of parents steeped in the art of storytelling, Smith naturally followed in their footsteps. “I started telling stories as soon as I could talk–true stories, and made-up stories, too. It has always been hard for me to tell the difference between them,” she says in “In Her Own Words” on her web site. A 2003 Southern Living interview with Smith reveals that during her time at Hollins College, she began to appreciate her family’s ability to spin tales from everyday life: “This language that I grew up with—this wonderful, spoken vernacular language—was beautiful and just so full of rich imagery.” Not only has her penchant for storytelling found expression in her acclaimed novels, but also in her short stories. Smith is described on the flyleaf of her short story collection Mrs. Darcy Meets the Blue-Eyed Stranger as “a master of the short story [who] has been compared with such luminaries as Katherine Ann Porter, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor.” She won O. Henry Awards for her short stories in 1979 and 1981.
That importance of storytelling has stayed with her. “Narrative is as necessary to me as breathing, as air,” she says. “I write for the reason I’ve always done so: simply to survive. To make sense of my life. I never know what I think until I read what I’ve written. And I refuse to lead an unexamined life. No matter how painful it is, I intend to know what’s going on. The writing itself is a source of strength for me, a way to make it through the night.”
A common thread weaves through her work, from her first story, written at the tender age of 8 on her mother’s stationery, to her latest works. Smith explains in “In Her Own Words” that she “was fixed upon glamour and flight, two themes I returned to again and again as I wrote my way throughout high school, then college. Decades later, I’m still at it.”
In addition to the O. Henry Awards, Smith has won numerous accolades for her writing, including the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction for Oral History in 1983 and Fair and Tender Ladies in 1989; the North Carolina Award for Literature, 1984; the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Literature, 1988; the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Fiction, 1991; the Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Award, 1995 – 1997; the Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1999; the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, 2002 for The Last Girls; admission to the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, 2009; the Thomas Wolfe Award, 2010; and the Lifetime Literary Achievement Award from State of Virginia, 2010. In 1991, she was elected as a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Her latest effort, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, is Smith’s most recent foray into nonfiction and explores the impact on her life and on her life’s work of a childhood rooted in Grundy. As her web site recounts,
Although her parents were raising her to leave Grundy, Smith loved every aspect of her hometown—set deep in the rugged Appalachian Mountains—from the Ben Franklin dimestore her father owned and ran for many years, to the music played down by the river bank, to ice tea and gossip on the front porch, to the drive-in theater where The Stanley Brothers played before the movie began. And while her education and travels took her far from Virginia, Smith’s appreciation of Appalachian culture never wavered. In telling the story of her enchanting childhood, revealing the mental illness that courses through her family tree, sharing her mother’s long-cherished recipes, and introducing readers to relatives, local characters, and people who changed her life, Smith portrays a time and place that most of us will never experience, a way of life that is fast disappearing.
Smith explains the inspiration for the 15 essays that appear in the memoir in this way: “I always knew I wanted to set down some thoughts and reminiscences based around these themes – about place, memory, and writing – but this project got a real kick-start recently when the entire town of Grundy was demolished as part of a flood-control project. . . . Only last August, the house I grew up in was bulldozed too.” Although the physical town of Grundy, Virginia may now exist only in memory, its influence continues to be felt in Smith’s work.
Praise for Dimestore has poured forth from myriad sources: Author Annie Dillard (a fellow Hollins alum and college rock band go-go girl), proclaims, “Here’s Lee Smith at her best. Dimestore is personal nonfiction, where her brilliance shines. Her wide warmth blesses everything funny about life and–here especially–everything moving and deep.” Pam Kingsbury of Library Journal concurs in a recent critique: “This memoir is Smith. . . at her finest. There is not one false note in the book. . . .This wonderful memoir—filled with tenderness, compassion, love, and humor—is highly recommended for fans of Smith’s fiction, lovers of Southern writing, and readers who are interested in the changes in small-town America.” Author Elizabeth Spencer says of this latest effort, “In Lee Smith’s memoir, Dimestore, readers will gladly join her, finding her writing with the same lively spirit that has always informed her fiction. She never turns away from her Appalachian roots, revealing that remote region with discerning affection.”
In addition to crafting her own works of fiction and nonfiction, Smith taught writing for many years at various institutions in the Triangle, including Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Caroline State University. She lives with her husband, writer Hal Crowther, in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Smith is currently at work on her next book, to be titled Silver Alert.
Admission for the event is $30 each for Friends of Hackney Library members; for Barton faculty/staff, students, and spouses. For all other guests, admission is $35 each.
For more information about invitations for the event, please contact Luann Clark at (252) 399-6329, or email the Friends at firstname.lastname@example.org. Space is limited, and after invitations have been issued, reservations for the dinner must be received by March 27, 2017.
This event is sponsored in part by BB&T.