In which some authors cannot be resisted, even in hardcover, Mrs. Goodwillie bakes a Bible Cake, Ms. Joshilyn Jackson does not recommend falling in love at gunpoint, and Mrs. Lee Smith writes a book because "people's hearts need to be prompted to ache."
October 20, 2013
There are some writers whom her ladyship, the editor, considers “I can’t wait” writers. Writers who she adores so much that the moment she sees they have published a new book, she feels she must have it. Right at that moment. If there were lines to purchase brand new books in the same way there were once lines for new album releases and concert tickets, her ladyship would be camped out on the sidewalks, waiting for the doors to open and getting into fights with the people who tried to cut in front of her.
Her list of I-can’t-wait writers is getting longer and longer (there are so many good writers!) but one person who has been on the list since she first created it, since before Oprah had a book club, is Lee Smith.
So if this particular newsletter seems somewhat Lee-Smith-weighted, now you know why. Lee Smith has a new book, and her ladyship can’t wait to read it..
And neither should you! This week has been designated "Lee Smith Week" by people who really should be in charge of choosing our national holidays, so to celebrate they are giving a free signed copy of the new novel, Guests on Earth, every day, starting today. Visit facebook.com/ReaderMeetWriter to enter to win.
her ladyship, the editor
Lady Banks' Commonplace Book
Noteworthy poetry and prose from her ladyship's bedside reading stack.
My mother, Louise Toussaint, was beautiful, and kind, and I loved her with all my heart. My early childhood was spent in our tiny apartment upstairs over the Bijou on the rue Dauphine, in New Orleans’ French Quarter. I remember the shimmering curtains that swelled in the breeze and billowed to pools on the floor, and the enormous mahogany and red velvet divan that floated like a boat above the old Persian rug. I could see myself, that funny little girl perched upon this great ship, in the huge gilt mirror that covered the wall across from it. My first actual memory is of holding myself up in my bed by the fancy grille work at the open window, looking out at the flashing red neon lights across the way: GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS. I fell asleep every evening in their rosy glow, to the shouts and laughter of the streets below, and even in the deepest night, to the rich, round notes of saxophone or trumpet floating out on the air and the clip-clop-clop of a horse down the cobbled stones and, sometimes, a woman’s high-pitched laughter. Often I woke to find that Mamma had dropped into bed with me, still fully dressed and exhausted when she came in toward dawn to kiss me goodnight.
The books lying open on her ladyship's kitchen counter.
Mrs. Goodwillie’s Bible Cake
“P.S. Mama, it’s fine with me that you pass my Christmas letters around it you want to. Andsince I know you are expecting aanother recipe from me, here it is, courtest of Mrs. Eugenia Goodwille at church, who is fatas can be, and always wears this bright green hat. I wish you could see her! Anyway, here goes--we have got a real tradition now, haven’t we?
Mrs. Goodwillie’s Bible Cake 1 cup butter (Judges 5:25) 3 1/2 cups flour (1 Kings 4:22) 3 cups sugar (Jeremiah 6:20) 2 cups raisins (1 Samuel 30:12) 2 cups figs (1 Samuel 30:12) 1 cup water (Genesis 24:17) 1 cup almonds (Genesis 43:11) 6 eggs (Isaiah 10:14) 1 tsp. honey (Exodus 16:31) pinch of salt 2 tsp. baking powder (1 Corinthians 5:6) spice to taste (1 Kings 10:10)
Follow Solomon’s advice for making good boys and girls and you will have a good cake (Proverbs 23:14)
--Lee Smith, The Christmas Letters (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2002) 9781565123762
Deodorize musty books. Keeping books in humid conditions can cause mold and mildew to grow and multiply, resulting in a musty odor. The first plan of action should be to place these books in a dry environment, but beware—musty books can pass their mold onto clean books, so this should be a preventative action. In their book, Haley’s Cleaning Tips, Rosemary and Graham Haley recommend placing the book in paper bag with some loose baking soda. Let the book sit in the bag for approximately 10 days before shaking the baking soda off. You can also try unscented kitty litter or cedar chips.
If you are pressed for time, you can also try propping the book up in front of a small fan with its pages fanned out, then spraying Lysol from behind the fan. This should not be done on rare or valuable books.
If you notice mildew on pages of your book, sprinkle some cornstarch on the affected areas and let sit for 24 hours before dusting off.
To dry a damp book, buy calcium chloride from a hardware store (often used for slippery sidewalks instead of salt). Bake 1-c. in a 250°F oven for 1 hour. Put the calcium chloride in a sealed container with, but not touching, the book and leave like this for 2-3 days. Once it is dry, roll with Absorene. 9780451227164
Parapalooza! Paragraphs worth spreading: Joshilyn Jackson reads from Someone Else's Love Story
I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.
For single mom Shandi Pierce, life is a juggling act. She's finishing college; raising her delightful three-year-old genius son, Nathan, aka Natty Bumppo; and keeping the peace between her eternally warring, long-divorced Christian mother and Jewish father. She's got enough to deal with before she gets caught in the middle of a stickup in a gas station mini-mart and falls in love with a great wall of a man named William Ashe, who steps between the armed robber and her son to shield the child from danger.
Shandi doesn't know that her blond god has his own baggage. When he looked down the barrel of the gun in the gas station he believed it was destiny: it's been exactly one year since a tragic act of physics shattered his universe. But William doesn't define destiny the way other people do. A brilliant geneticist who believes in science and numbers, destiny to him is about choice.
Now, William and Shandi are about to meet their so-called destinies head-on, making choices that will reveal unexpected truths about love, life, and the world they think they know.
Someone Else's Love Story is Joshilyn Jackson's funny, charming, and poignant novel about science and miracles, secrets and truths, faith and forgiveness; about falling in love and learning that things aren't always what they seem--or what we hope they will be. It's a story about discovering what we want and ultimately finding what we need.
King's best asset is her ability to create a glowing array of characters in this story. We see how Helen's timidity makes her appear weak to Emmet's friends. We see how Emmet's pomposity is his own worst enemy in his relationship with Helen. We see how Emmet's friend Tansy is so quirky and full of herself that she can't relate to Helen. And these characterizations go on and on. They are so full and so rich that the reader does not want to lose track of any of these characters when the book ends. Moonrise
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum is starting a fundraising effort to preserve illustrations of the American writer's famous 1845 poem, "The Raven." Museum officials hope to raise $60,000 for the nearly 130-year-old illustrations by English street artist James Carling. The 43 works of watercolor and ink bring the haunting lines of the poem to life. The images of death and torment were once an important part of the museum's collection and were on display for 40 years. But the illustrations, now stacked in a series of worn cardboard boxes, were glued to cardboard, causing them to darken and deteriorate over the years. Saving the Raven
I went to school in North Carolina. We studied the American Revolution every time American history came up, and nobody ever mentioned anything that happened south of Maryland. Nobody ever mentioned anything happening around here. It turns out that King’s Mountain, which is about 26 miles west of Charlotte, was called by Thomas Jefferson “the turning point of the war.” And I thought people ought to know about it. Q&A with Sharyn McCrumb
All around Wilmington [NC]'s Brooklyn and Northside neighborhoods – along Red Cross Street, N. Fourth Street, N. Fifth Avenue and Nixon Street – brightly painted boxes are springing up. The boxes, some of them disused newspaper racks, others specially constructed, contain dozens and dozens of books, mostly paperbacks but some older hardcovers. Passersby are welcome to reach in and borrow as many books as they like. They can return them when they're done. Little Libraries
To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee is back in court. Only weeks ago, the 87-year-old writer settled a dispute with her former agent over an alleged "scheme to dupe" her into assigning the valuable copyright to her book. Now, she's alleging that a museum in her hometown of Monroe County, Ala., is exploiting her trademark and personality rights. Harper Lee sues hometown museum
The name Allan Gurganus, author of the famous but now long-in-the-tooth Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, is virtually synonymous with Southern lit, that tetchy genre that nestles in what’s safe and comfortable while exposing a sometimes raw and ugly truth. The Hillsborough resident, best known for his 1989 chronicle of the feisty 99-year-old woman who captured readers’ hearts, is back with his first book in more than 10 years. Local Souls is a trio of novellas tied together by the shared locale of Falls, N.C., a fictional burg near Rocky Mount on the banks of the Lithium River (and let us not forget that the chemical element lithium is highly flammable). Alan Gurganus 9780871403797
Pat Conroy’s fluid, florid voice has infused American literature for the past three decades with songs and laments from a changing South, told through the battered, flawed souls of narrators and characters who found root and flower in the writer’s own family and history. Pat Conroy’s Death of Santini 9780385530903
When MFA graduate and Blue Bicycle Books manager Sara Peck set out to write Yr Lad Bob, her recently published chapbook, she did nothing haphazardly. "The book itself is based on this group of poets that were writing, mostly together, between the mid-30s and mid-50s, and they were also writing to each other. Sara Peck
Special Collections and Archives at Kent Library at Southeast Missouri State University has acquired a letter written by an ancestor of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner. Roxanne Dunn, assistant in the special collections and archives at Kent Library and graduate assistant A.J. Medlock obtained the letter from Ste. Genevieve, Mo., resident Pat Parker. Medlock met Parker through a Civil War digitalization project called "Crossroads and Confluence." Robert Hamblin, emeritus professor of English and founding director of the Center for Faulkner Studies, said there have been "bits of evidence" that Faulkner had a connection to the Falkner family in Ste. Genevieve. The letter is written by J.W. Falkner, whose brother left Ste. Genevieve for Mississippi and became the great-grandfather of the author. Hamblin said the letter, sent to Ste. Genevieve in 1863, talks about family relatives in Ripley, Miss. Faulkner ancestor letter aquisition
STARS Authors on tour:
What are "STARS" authors? These are authors listing in the Southern Traveling Authors Registration Service--a directory of authors who live in, or are traveling in the South and are interested in meeting with book clubs, civic groups, classrooms, and readers of all kinds. The STARS directory is brought to you by Southern Indie Booksellers, who want to connect readers with their favorite writers.
A bookstore. In downtown Greenville. A long-held desire by city leaders, visitors, Governor’s School students and just about anyone who loves to stroll into a bookstore while walking down a pretty street, the bookstore is the result of a partnership of a magazine publisher, an author and a bookseller. New bookstore in Greenville, SC
Almost four years after opening a store on Northside Drive in Macon, Gottwals Books is moving to a site on Riverside Drive. Gottwals, which currently has about 3,200 square feet of space at 3780 Northside Drive, will be moving into the former Crate clothing store at 2834 Riverside Drive, said Shane Gottwals, who owns the business with his wife, Abbey. The new location has about 5,000 square feet of space. Gottwals Books in Macon to expand
“This is a haunting story about the treatment of mental illness in the early 1900s. Focusing on Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where Zelda Fitzgerald died in the fire that destroyed the hospital in 1948, the story is told through the voice of Evalina Toussaint who was sent to the hospital as a young child. Evalina’s narrative is an example of the brutal early treatment of mental illness, when some patients became subjects for medical experiments. Any fan of the Fitzgeralds, the medical profession, or the history of medicine in the early 1900s will enjoy this book.” —Jackie Willey, Fiction Addiction, Greenville, SC
Not surprisingly, given Lee Smith’s body of work, her new novel, “Guests on Earth,” is much more than advertised. Greatly anticipated as a look into Zelda Fitzgerald’s fire-consumed stay at Highland Hospital in Asheville, it resonates most of all as a cry of love for society’s misfits. The book’s first epigraph is a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his and Zelda’s daughter, Scottie: “The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” In this era of defunded mental health facilities, people’s hearts need to be prompted to ache. Rob Neufeld, Black Mountain News
Many will pick up Lee Smith’s “Guests on Earth” to again be swept into the irresistibly tragic and titillating life of Zelda Fitzgerald; there’s been a surge of historical novels this year about the wife of “The Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald. But just as Zelda’s life consisted of much more than just being Scott’s wife, Smith’s novel is much more than just a story about Zelda. Minneapolis Star Tribune
Bookseller Recommendations: Staff Picks from Oxford Books & The Alabama Booksmith
Most of the world knows Elizabeth Gilbert from her blockbuster memoir, Eat Pray Love, but I am partial to some of her earlier work: the novel Stern Men, based on Maine’s lobster wars, and the fascinating profile The Last American Mountain Man. The Signature of All Things is a return to the historical saga beginning with the story of Henry Whittaker, an impoverished English botanist who becomes the wealthiest man in Philadelphia by producing quinine, but focusing on his equally brilliant, ambitious daughter Alma, born in 1800. Her ventures into science, art, the spiritual, business and love are enthralling and surprising. Written in a beautifully archaic voice, meticulously researched, the story takes the reader on expeditionary voyages around the world and into the heart of 18th and 19th century life, history and philosophy. Highly recommended: Buy, Read, Love! LH
No Regrets Coyote John Dufresne
Every time I read one of John Dufresne’s books, I’m struck by how good he is as a writer. His new one is no different in this regard but it is a bit of a departure in that it is a noir. Wylie “Coyote” Melville is a volunteer forensic consultant with the Eden, FL police department. When he begins to make noise that a case ruled murder-suicide was in fact staged, his life starts to get a lot more complicated. Shot through with humor, suspense, and offbeat characters, No Regrets, Coyote will remind fans of his stellar first novel, Louisiana Power & Light, but also appeal to those who love Carl Hiaasen, Donald Westlake, and Elmore Leonard. CM
From the Alabama Booksmith Blog:
Last Chance for Justice by T.K. Thorne is a book made all the more notable for what it isn't rather than what it is. It's not a treatise on the Civil Rights movement, or an in-depth analysis of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Church bombing, or a crime drama. There are other books that deal with those topics, at considerable length: stories that have already been told and explored in depth.
Instead, it is a concise and clear account of the investigation into the bombing, after the case was re-opened in 1996. It is the story of the intense, focused work and determination, combined with a healthy dollop of luck, that resulted in the convictions of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, two of the four perpetrators (of the other two, Robert Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985; Herman Cash died in 1994, never having been charged). It is the tale of the remarkable partnership between FBI Special Agent Bill Fleming and Sergeant Ben Herren of the Birmingham Police Department (and later FBI analyst), as they sifted through mountains of evidence and tracked down innumerable leads to arrive at the truth. More than anything else, however, the book is about the process of the investigation, rather than the result.
I love crime shows (okay, I might be a little addicted), but even when the writers throw in ambiguities and loose ends, complicating the plot, they're almost always ... certain. This isn't Law & Order (forgive me, Dick Wolf), where the case gets wrapped up in an hour, despite all the surprising twists and shocking turns. It's not Criminal Minds, trying to get inside the head of a killer, to figure out why someone does horrible things: for once, the motive behind the crime is pretty clean-cut. It's not even Cold Case, where after X number of years, the case still gets solved in an hour. This investigation was a long, painstaking, drawn-out process of elimination, following up dead-end after dead-end to eventually arrive at the truth.
Thorne, herself a former captain with the Birmingham Police Department, humanizes the investigation, painting clear portraits of everyone involved, and yet manages to keep her narrative as objective and straightforward as possible. Her account is unashamedly matter-of-fact, following the evidence trail and laying out the sequence of events as clearly as possible. There is no speculation here (unless it pertains to the investigation), and very little judgment. She makes no pretense of getting inside the perpetrators' heads, sticking completely to the facts.
Over a decade later, it's tempting to take the investigation, trials and convictions for granted, even now, just past the 50th anniversary of the bombing. Thorne's clear, concise prose, as precise and direct as a legal brief, is almost misleading, tricking the reader into seeing the whole process from start to finish as a fait accompli. In fact, the exact opposite was true, which is really the whole point of the book. After thirty-plus years, this case could have easily languished in obscurity, spent forever labeled with a question mark. Even once Herren and Fleming began work, there was no guarantee that they would successfully be able to bring the case to trial - let alone get a conviction. The sheer amount of evidence they had to sift through was daunting, setting aside all the numerous and considerable roadblocks in their way. Along the way, there were innumerable points where the investigation could (and almost did) fail, shut down by the lack of evidence. This is a story that desperately needed to be told, to be shared.
Could this case have been successfully brought to trial at any time in the thirty-plus years before it was re-opened? Would it have resulted in a conviction? I don't know. The passage of time was both the enemy and the ally of the investigators in this particular situation, and it would be so easy, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, to treat the outcome as inevitable, to believe that justice would have eventually been served. Failure was not only an option, it was a very real possibility, making success all the more remarkable ... and memorable. 9781613748640
Jamie Fiocco, the owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, talks to one of her local authors, the novelist Lee Smith.
Jamie: This book obviously draws a lot from your actual life, and your experiences with relatives at Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C. I’m sure a lot of this material had to have been pretty charged, emotionally. How and when did the muse for this book “find you;” was there a moment when you knew that this was the right time to write Guests on Earth?
Lee: For me, each novel comes from deep within my whole life as I have lived it up until that point—there will always be some idea, some image or emotion or experience that just won’t go away, rising to the top rather than receding in memory as the years pass….and then there will come that moment when it finds its own time. By which I mean, that point when you start thinking about it all the time and you know you have GOT to start writing that book. It’s like somebody is holding a gun to your head.
This is exactly how it was with Guests on Earth. And it took many years to get to that point, even though the visual image which started it all was perhaps the most dramatic I have ever witnessed.
Asheville, N.C. , late 1980s. My son Josh and I were walking up Zillicoa Avenue toward the mountaintop mental hospital during a particularly brilliant winter sunset. The entire arc of the sky shone red behind the crenellated battlements of castle-like Homewood, one of Highland’s most interesting older buildings. Of course this reminded me of the dreadful fire of 1948 which killed Zelda Fitzgerald and eight other women.
I had just been reading a collection of the Fitzgeralds’ letters, and some of Scott’s words written during their courtship came back to haunt me, too: “I used to wonder why they kept Princesses in towers,” the romantic young officer had written to his Alabama beauty Zelda Sayre, repeating the image he was obsessed with, wanting to keep her all for himself.
She had replied, “Scott, I get so damned tired of being told that—you’ve written that verbatim, in your last six letters!”
So the notion of an imprisoned Southern princess became a part of the dramatic image of the red sunset, the battlements, the fire. Okay, I thought at the time—this is going to be a novel, and I am going to write it. Whenever I can stand it were the words I did not say then, meaning whenever Josh gets better, whenever I can gain enough distance and perspective on this place and all the people who have lived here. I wanted to honor these special “guests on earth,” and show that very real lives are lived within these illnesses. That took a long time, in part because Josh (who did get better) died of a heart attack at 34, making this material very charged for me; but finally here is the novel, ten years after his death, and 65 years after Zelda’s.
Jamie: A lot of this story hinges on Zelda Fitzgerald, who has become almost mythical of late. When did you first find yourself drawn to her, and why? What makes her such a compelling character?
Lee: I have always thought of Zelda as mythic, iconic, larger than life. Like so many other English majors, I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t in love with the Fitzgeralds—both of them—the brilliant novelist F. Scott and his glamorous, flamboyant wife Zelda. I read The Great Gatsby over and over again. I also read everything else I could find written by them or about them, our first truly American celebrity couple, quivering at Zelda’s declaration: “ I want to love first, and live incidentally.” Well, me too! I wanted to be her. I was fascinated by Zelda’s zaniness, her Southern-ness, her frank sexuality and utter disregard of custom and rules as they lived uproariously in hotels and rented rooms in several countries. Zelda seemed to represent everything exciting and nonconformist. But the gilded life turned dark, then much darker, as alcoholism, infidelity, and mental illness took their toll. Now their lives became symbolic—the dark side of that lucky, shining coin. The parallel to Gatsby’s tragedy was clear, too—great wealth and good fortune can end in utter ruin. Theirs was a particularly American story, and a truly tragic fall.
Jamie: A follow up to the previous question: why not zoom in entirely on Zelda? What made you choose Evalina for this story’s central voice?
Lee: Zelda Fitzgerald’s voice is one of the most distinct in all literature—her imagistic, impressionistic style is more like Virginia Woolf’s than anyone else’s. She uses a wild kind of synesthesia, mixing up all the senses at once, so that trees dance and hours march and flowers speak. Past and present merge, as logic and tense fly out the window. See? It’s sort of catching, and now I’m doing it myself….well, I do attempt to write from her point of view briefly, several times in this novel. But frankly I have too much respect for Zelda Fitzgerald to copy her style and steal her voice in this way throughout. Scott did enough of that already!
The second reason is that the more I learned about the unsolved mystery of the fire and about the hospital itself—the kinds of remedies and theories in vogue at the time, and the kinds of people (especially women) who were sent there, I realized that I had a larger story to tell. So I chose another narrator—a young piano prodigy who becomes the accompanist for the many theatrical and musical events happening at the hospital, thereby gaining entrée into all these interesting lives .I’ve always like this observer-as-narrator point of view….like Nick Carraway in Gatsby.
Jamie: As an indie bookstore, I must ask: what role have the Mom & Pops played in your success?
Lee: Listen, I’m a merchant’s daughter! My father ran his own dimestore in southwest Virginia for 52 years, never closing despite continuing floods and lack of business; he died on the last day of his going-out-of-business sale. This is true. I was there. From the time I could walk, I loved to “go down to the store” with Daddy, often sleeping on a pallet underneath his knothole desk while he worked far into the night. Struggling to keep afloat, he used to do everything himself. I always worked there, even as a little girl, when my job was “taking care of the dolls.” So I have the greatest interest and appreciation for the “Mom & Pops.” Furthermore, I know that the independent bookstores have been solely responsible for whatever success I might have had over all these years—I ‘ve never been able to write “blockbusters” or the kind of suspenseful novels that reach a mass market. I have written exactly what I wanted to, frankly, or had to, or loved. Writing is my passion, my addiction, my religion. Writing is how I live. So I owe everything to the Mom & Pops. I know that Indy booksellers have told people about my books, again and again. I envision my books being literally taken off a shelf and handed over—hand to hand— from a bookseller to a reader who would not have known about them otherwise. This is still true. Thank you.
Jamie: You’ve published so many wonderful books, so I wonder—do you still get nerves? What’s the best part about releasing a novel (and the worst)?
Lee: The answer is, Lord yes! I am a complete wreck right now. I love to write, but I hate to publish. Because once it’s out, it’s not your own book any more…you lose all these people that you’ve been living with so intimately every day for four or five years, people that you know better than your own relatives….Right up until the very minute that you finish the novel, these people are real, active, on the page and in your head. No matter what you’ve got in your outline, the truth is that they can still just up and do anything. Anything! But once you finish their book, that’s the end of them. Their time is past, their lives are over. You’ve killed them, and it feels really horrible.
The good part of releasing a novel is that you get to go out of your room (where you have spent the last several years writing the book) and meet some REAL PEOPLE! I think this is very important, to meet your readers and talk with them and get their take on everything. Because writing IS a means of communication, remember— a two-way transaction—it ‘s like a see-saw. It requires a reader on the other side. And it is such a treat to talk with the readers. This is the best part of a book tour.
Jamie: Guests On Earth follows a long and important tradition of chronicling mental health and institutionalization in fiction. Do you have any favorite works of fiction or reportage that deal with mental health? What makes them great, to you?
Lee: There are number of excellent novels and memoirs dealing with mental illness and its treatment. To my mind, this is a very important body of literature—probably the MOST important way to de-stigmatize these illnesses and understand those who deal with them, patients and families alike. These books give mental illness a human face—and a beating heart. We come to know and care for these characters and narrators; we stop seeing them as other. And the truth is, with serious mental illness present in 2 out of 5 American families, they aren’t other: they are US!
Over the years, some of my favorites have included:
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath Darkness Visible, a memoir by William Styron More recent books include: Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick And a very recent memoir: Haldol and Hyacinths by Melody Moezzi
Jamie: How has teaching writing in NC State’s writing program impacted your own work? Do you find inspiration in your students’ work and feedback?
Lee: After starting out as a newspaper reporter, I taught writing for 30 years, the last 19 of them at North Carolina State, which I loved. I took early retirement in order to have more time for my own work—because the energy you put into your students’ work is the same energy you put into your own—-and there is a diminishing amount of that as you get older. But I LOVED teaching—and still do, at frequent workshops and “visiting writer” stints here and there. I feel more comfortable in the classroom than anyplace else on earth. I am always energized by young people—and frankly, I’ve learned more from my students over the years than they have ever learned from me! It has been a privilege and a pleasure.
Jamie: What’s your writing process like? How has it evolved since you started writing?
Lee: I write best in the early morning, before the concerns of the day come crowding in. I never check my email before I start. Finding that isolated “time to write” is actually the hardest thing about being a writer—especially at first, before you’re published, when it’s hard to justify the time it takes, which is a LOT of time. There’s always something else you ought to be doing, such as the laundry or taking your mother-in-law out for lunch. I tell my students, just remember: A writer is somebody who is writing, not somebody who is publishing. And over the years, I have come to understand that publishing may be the least important aspect of writing, anyhow. The writing process itself is therapeutic, whether we are writing fiction or poetry or in our journals. Simply putting down words in some order on the white page helps us clarify our own thoughts and understand ourselves and others so much better. Even lists are helpful. Fiction is my own preferred form; I have always written fiction, I think, the way others write in their diaries.
My stories and novels reflect all the phases and stages of my own life. Of course, I am NOT my characters—though they are often going through some of the same things I was when I wrote that particular story. But my characters are braver than I am. They tend to live passionately—“full tilt boogie” as we used to say in the mountains where I grew up—making decisions and doing things that I would not. At my age now, I am more interested in the “long haul” than the transcendant moment, that epiphany which is the province of the poet and the young writer. So my later stories (in Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger) are often about long marriages, how they change over time, or the relationship of the past to the present. I could never have written these stories as a younger woman. Similarly, perhaps, the historical novel has now become my preferred genre—I am fascinated by the working of time throughout our lives—expectation versus reality, who we imagine we will be versus who we really become. And what about fate? Or accident? Or character?—is it a constant or does it depend upon what befalls us? History so often sweeps us up, beyond our control. These are big themes and it takes a large canvas to work through them.
.......And now, I’ve got to quit answering these excellent questions and start packing my suitcase, because my book tour starts tomorrow (October 8th), fittingly at Malaprops in Asheville, where “Guests on Earth” takes place ………….so I’ll see you there, or at Quail Ridge in Raleigh or Flyleaf in Chapel Hill or the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond or Joseph Beth in Lexington or Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham ….….I look forward to seeing every one of you someplace along the way, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Let’s sell some books!
6. The Tilted World Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly, Morrow, $25.99, 9780062069184 14. Lookaway, Lookaway Wilton Barnhardt, St. Martin's, $25.99, 9781250020833 15. Guests on Earth Lee Smith, Shannon Ravenel Books, $25.95, 9781616202538
8. Men We Reaped Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury, $26, 9781608195213 11. Empty Mansions Bill Dedman, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Ballantine, $28, 9780345534521 15. Jamie Deen's Good Food: Cooking Up a Storm with Delicious, Family-Friendly Recipes Jamie Deen, Kyle Books, $29.95, 9781906868970
TRADE PAPERBACK FICTION
13. The Chaperone Laura Moriarty, Riverhead, $16, 9781594631436 14. A Thousand Mornings Mary Oliver, Penguin, $16, 9780143124054
TRADE PAPERBACK NONFICTION
14. The Book of Questions: Revised and Updated Gregory Stock, Workman, $8.95, 9780761177319
8. Creole Belle James Lee Burke, Pocket, $9.99, 9781451648140 9. Black Fridays Michael Sears, Berkley, $9.99, 9780425269046
1. Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses James Dean, Kimberly Dean, Harper, $17.99, 9780062275561 5. Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes Eric Litwin, James Dean (Illus.), Harper, $16.99, 9780061906220
3. Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures Kate DiCamillo, K.G. Campbell (Illus.), Candlewick, $17.99, 9780763660406 4. Looking for Alaska John Green, Speak, $9.99, 9780142402511