When I caught up recently with author Lee Smith, she wasn't at her writing desk. Smith, with her husband at the wheel and the couple's dog in the back seat, was somewhere along the Florida Keys. They were headed home to Hillsborough, North Carolina, from Key West, where Smith had spent, as she termed it, some "escape" time. The trip, however, didn't mean an escape from writing, which Smith did during her stay and as she's been doing on an award-winning basis for decades — 10 novels and four collections of short stories so far.
Key West, she said by cell phone, has been for Smith a good place to write, and why shouldn't it? One T-shirt for sale on Duval Street, she recalled, said it all: "Key West: Where the Weird Go Pro." And Smith herself added jokingly: "If you're a writer in search of interesting people, in Key West you will find them!"
This week finds Lee Smith again on the road. She'll be at the University of Memphis, guest of the school's River City Writers Series, which is bringing Smith to town in partnership with the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities, on Thursday, February 21st. She'll be meeting with writing students and the public. She'll be reading from her work. And she'll be talking about writing in general. The topic: "A Life in Books."
"I've written over my whole lifetime and especially from the time I was a writing student myself," Smith said. "In Memphis, I'll talk about how writing changes, how it moves from when you're young and writing about the great traumas and dramas of your own life, until you kind of use up your life. And then what happens? Where do you turn? How do you continue?
"One of my favorite quotations comes from Anne Tyler, who said, 'I write, because I want to have more than one life.' And so, you begin to write about people other than yourself, which becomes infinitely fulfilling."
Smith's most recent collection of stories, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, proves the point. Smith explained:
"These stories illustrate exactly what I'm talking about. Some were written when I was a young, wild writer. Some are more recent and deal with the long haul — long marriages, how we change over time. I think I'll never write a memoir. But when I look back at this collection, it does go through the stages and phases of my life."
And that includes this writer's earliest stages and phases.
"My earliest short stories were published in some very obscure places," Smith said. "And when it came to doing this collection, I got to pick stories that never found a wider readership. It was like, you're the teacher and, looking back, you wish you'd picked that shy, little girl in the back of the classroom to come forward. With Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, I got to pick her."
One of the main characters in Smith's forthcoming novel, Guests on Earth (due in October), is hardly the shy, little girl in the back of the classroom. She is Zelda Fitzgerald, and the setting is a mental institution in North Carolina, where, in 1948, Zelda died in a fire. It's a setting and a story that allows Smith to explore the twin topics of art and madness and women and madness.
"I've been working on the book for four years. But I've been thinking about it for years and years," Smith said. "I've always been in love with Zelda Fitzgerald. It's been a real labor of love."
Hillsborough, outside of Durham, North Carolina, is a town Smith loves too. In addition to being a magnet for writers, it's a rare town, where Smith can walk to the post office, the grocery store, and Purple Crow Books, which Smith recently wrote of in My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places To Browse, Read, and Shop.
Memphis, for Smith, is another town with literary associations. She called herself "a big admirer" of the U of M's writing program, but she's looking forward, during her stay, for something off the books.
"I'm hoping to eat some ribs," Smith said. "Hear some music on the side."
Lee Smith discusses "A Life in Books" at the U of M's University Center Theater on Thursday, February 21st, 6:30 p.m. For more information, contact Cary Holladay, creative-writing faculty member and director of the River City Writers Series, at email@example.com.