Lee Smith writes what she knows in memoir ‘Dimestore’


‘Dimestore: A Writer’s Life

Lee Smith

Algonquin Books

$24.95, 244 pages

Lee Smith, author of 11 novels and four collections of short stories, always knew she wanted to be a writer. She often pictured herself “in the South of France, wearing a cape, drawing furiously on a long cigarette, hollow-cheeked and haunted,” and in one of her first stories, Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell fell in love, married and became Mormons.

The very last thing she wanted to do after leaving home — Grundy, a small coal-mining town in southwest Virginia where everyone knew everyone — was write about it.

Growing up in the shadow of mountains so high the sun didn’t hit her yard till nearly noon, Lee “never saw a tourist and nobody we knew hiked for fun.” Her mother, “a real lady from the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” tried to separate her daughter from the rural community surrounding them, deploring Smith’s tendency to trade her pimento cheese sandwiches at school for “cornbread and buttermilk in a mason jar brought by the kids from the hollers,” or to sneak out to tent revivals to hear the “hillbilly music” she loved.

During a time “when country wasn’t cool,” Smith says, “culture was someplace else, and when the time came, I would be sent off to get some.” When she landed at Hollins College, where her English professors told her to write what she knew, Smith was clueless: “I didn’t know what I knew,” she says. “All I knew was that I was not going to write anything about Grundy, Va., ever, that was for sure.”

In “Dimestore,” her heartwarming memoir-in-essays, Smith lays out the process by which she reversed that decision, gradually embracing the very heritage she’d sworn off, and came to create “plain stories about country people and small towns,” in the same “beautiful and precise Appalachian dialect I had grown up hearing as a child.”

Back then, Smith was so given to tall tales that her father noted she’d “rather climb a tree to tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell the truth.” By age 9, she was writing and illustrating her own stories. A voracious reader who hated for books to end, Smith added fan fiction to her repertoire: “Thus the Bobbsey Twins became the Bobbsey Triplets, and Nancy Drew’s best friends … were joined by another character named Lee Smith…”

The title essay recaptures the sweetly unsophisticated atmosphere of a long-ago Grundy, especially her father’s five-and-dime where Smith’s main “job” was to care for the dolls. Not satisfied with tidying their hair and dresses, she invented “long, complicated life stories for them, things that had happened to them before they came to the dime store, things that would happen to them after they left my care.” Watching customers behind her father’s one-way glass window was “the perfect early education for a fiction writer,” she recalls, rehearsals for “the position of the omniscient narrator who sees and records everything yet is never visible.”

Roughly chronological, “Dimestore” begins with Smith’s earliest memories of a town in which gossip and scandal, religious fervor and the eccentric behaviors of both family and neighbors would one day provide the material she used in books such as “Fair and Tender Ladies,” “Black Mountain Breakdown” and “Oral History.”

Some chapters invoke what Smith calls “our little hometowns of the heart”: a glimpse into her mother’s treasured recipe box, a rafting trip immortalized in her novel “Last Girls,” what she learned from her son Josh’s schizophrenia, a nostalgic glimpse of Christmases past and present, a talismanic book she gives to other writers. Tucked between them are essays focused more distinctly on writing and teaching and the many people who have inspired her on her path.

In “Marblecake and Moonshine,” Smith recalls her first exposure to Southern literature, when she got “drunk” on Faulkner and spent a day in the college infirmary after reading William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness.” She pokes gentle fun at her early fiction — stories of “stewardesses … orphans, evil twins, fashion models and alternate universes” — all of which ended when she discovered Southern masters like Eudora Welty and James Still. Seeing her own background in their work, Smith suddenly “knew what I knew,” and “the things of my own life occurred to me for the first time as stories.”

Though she has explored mental illness in recent novels — 2013’s “Guests on Earth” was set in Asheville’s Highland Hospital — many readers may be surprised to find it so prominent in Smith’s childhood. Both parents suffered from a condition they referred to as “kindly nervous,” a combination of depression and anxiety serious enough to warrant hospitalization. Smith worries that she, too, might succumb, until the day her mother’s psychiatrist assures her she’s a normal 13-year-old who can “just relax, and read a lot more books, and grow up.”

“Dimestore” shares the habits that may have saved Smith from her own tendency to get too “wrought up,” one of which was to approach storytelling “the way other people write in their journals,” in order to make it through the night. Fiction became her lifelong outlet, a means of sustaining and reaffirming the connection to her work, as well as a way to preserve the rich mountain culture she so loved as a child.

“This is an enviable life,” she says, “to live in the terrain of one’s heart. Most of us are always searching, through our work and in our lives: for meaning, for love, for home. Writing is about these things. And as writers, we cannot choose our truest material. But sometimes we are lucky enough to find it.”