Lee Smith is a Senior Editor at The Weekly Standard. He has written for Slate, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, and major Arab media outlets. He is also a visiting fellow of the Hudson Institute…. More about Lee Smith
Paperback | $13.95
Published by Ballantine Books Sep 29, 1996| 368 Pages| 5-3/16 x 8| ISBN 9780345410399
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“Deft and assured . . . Smith’s seemingly effortless work is a considerable feat. . . . She is nothing less than masterly.” —The New York Times Book Review
“[LEE SMITH] RE-CREATES A VANISHED WAY OF LIFE WITH STUNNING AUTHENTICITY.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“SMITH OFFERS RIPE ENTERTAINMENT.” —People
“[She] brings the storytelling gift off the porch swing and onto the printed page with an often breathtaking vitality. . . . A writer of rare talent.” —Publishers Weekly
“A SPELLBINDING STORYTELLER.” —Newsday
“[Smith] has the gift of a McCullers or a Faulkner of catching the sorrow, irony, and humor indigenous to the Southern temperament.” —Booklist
A Conversation with Lee Smith
In 1981 a professor of literature at UNC–Chapel Hill suggested twenty-six-year-old Darnell Arnoult withdraw from a beginning fiction-writing class after just one assignment. Fortunately, Darnell didn’t give up so easily. She immediately signed up for a fiction-writing class with a different instructor—who turned out to be Lee Smith. From that moment, a hard knock became both a blessing for a young writer and the beginning of a long-standing friendship. Over twenty years later, Darnell is a published fiction writer, poet, and writing coach. Her collection of poems, What Travels with Us, will be available from LSU Press in Fall 2004.
Darnell Arnoult: Lee, what inspired you to write Fancy Strut? Lee Smith: In the early 1970s I worked as a newspaper reporter for the Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, covering absolutely everything—from albino squirrels and giant watermelons to political campaigns, murders, and car wrecks. Since I was a novelist on the side—I had already published two very obscure novels—I was delighted to find that this particular day job gave me endless new material for fiction. I had considered myself to be already “Southern” when we moved from Virginia to Tuscaloosa, but I’d had no idea. Alabama was like another country. I could never have imagined the array of bizarre and interesting characters or the amazing events I encountered every day on the job. Then I was assigned to cover the county’s year-long Sesquicentennial Celebration, which included a pageant run by a professional theater company that came to town just for this purpose . . . and I’m sure you can see where this story is going!
DA: In spite of the dark themes present in the novel, the narrative is playful and funny. The work feels airy and light. Did the novel come to you in a playful way as you wrote it, or did you know the whole story before you started writing?
LS: This is a big question, so let me start at the precise moment I knew I was going to write the novel. I had already covered the Sesquicentennial. Now I was assigned to cover a regional high school majorette contest held on the campus of the University of Alabama. When I got there, I was dazzled. It was enormous, boasting a wide array of categories such as Flame Baton, Improvisation to a Previously Unheard Tune, and yes—Fancy Strut! The girls were very sweet and the mothers were highly competitive, exactly as in the novel. And of course I interviewed Miss Fancy Strut right after she was crowned. She held her roses, she wore her tiara, and tears streamed down her face. For a minute, I couldn’t think of a thing to ask her. Finally I said, dumbly, “Well, how does it feel to be Miss Fancy Strut?” She cried even harder. Then she said, with absolute certainty, “This is the happiest moment of my life!” A chill went through me. Lord, honey, I thought. What if that’s true? What if this really is the high point of your whole life? You’re peaking pretty damn early, and it’s going to be a mighty long slide down the whole rest of your life. Suddenly, I started imagining Miss Fancy Strut at twenty-five, at thirty-five, at forty. I saw her pushing a daughter of her own into a majorette contest just like this one . . . and then I thought, I could write that! So I combined this idea with all my experiences covering the Sesquicentennial, and suddenly I had a novel. I also had mountains of material to draw from—my own memories, notebooks filled with notes, photographs, articles from the paper. Picking scenes and characters to draw from was like going to the candy store.
DA: There are so many cynical characters in Fancy Strut. Are you a cynical person?
LS: I don’t think of myself as a cynical person, but I’m certainly an ironic person, and I believe I’m a realist. Fiction is all about the inner life, and we all have our dark areas. This is what makes us human; this is what makes us interesting. I think of Fancy Strut as a comic novel— but, you know, tragedy is always the flip side of comedy. The two are very closely linked. I guess the reason I like humor so much is that I do tend to take a realistic, sometimes tragic view of the human condition—and we all need a laugh or two, don’t we? Something to take the edge off, something to keep us going. So I often find myself “writing funny,” as my son used to say.
DA: Which character came to you first?
LS: Miss Iona, actually. The former women’s page editor of the newspaper where I worked had been a similar lady. In the latter days of her reign, she, too, tended to embroider events to suit her own sense of style and decorum. At lunchtime I used to take my sandwich and go back into the morgue, as we called it then, to read her old articles. They were a riot! So my own Miss Iona was just an exaggeration of this real woman’s tendencies. But that’s what we do in fiction, isn’t it? We up the ante. So I made Miss Iona a complete anachronism, totally out of step with her changing world.
DA: It is evident from reading your work that place is crucial to your storytelling. When you wrote Fancy Strut, you were a young writer and, as you said earlier, from a different part of the South. How were you able to so capably render a small Alabama town? And how do you achieve such a rich sense of place in your work as a whole?
LS: Place is important in my work. As I am planning out any piece of fiction, I draw map after map—of the whole town, of the floor plans of the characters’ houses, of the surrounding area, etc. I have to see the entire world of the novel before I can move my characters around inside it. And, more abstractly, the use of “place” in fiction is also important in determining a lot of other things as well: voice, tone, the kinds of characters and their main concerns, the possibilities for their lives—often, the mood of the entire work.
DA: The history of Speed and the changes it undergoes as a community play such an important role in Fancy Strut. Do you think of the town of Speed as a character in the book? If so, how did that perspective help you develop the story?
LS: You’re right, Darnell. The entire town is definitely a character in this novel. And like the human characters, the town itself is in the midst of conflict—many major changes are on the way. So we have class conflict, racial conflict, a loss of old certainties and values as a rural town changes into a more urban community. I meant for the name of the town itself—Speed, Alabama—to be a funnybut- serious kind of oxymoron, embodying the slow, sleepy little town it still is, plus the faster, more modern, progressive town it is becoming.
DA: In Fancy Strut, set during the mid-1960s, the White Company uses the fear of lost history, disintegrating social barriers, and an eroding community identity as a way to prey on small towns like Speed. Today many small towns rely on cultural tourism as a way to celebrate the past and to infuse their slowing economies. What effect do you think the commercialization of history has had on the small-town South? Are we more savvy today about using our history? Can commercialization of the past have a positive impact?
LS: In this novel, the White Company is presented as evil, coming into towns it neither knows nor cares about, cannibalizing and commercializing their history in pursuit of the almighty dollar. But I wrote this book almost thirty years ago, remember, and things are very different now. Now we all have much more appreciation of our own special places and cultures. We are proud of our differences. We believe in the importance of our own histories, and we trust ourselves to write them down and take pride in claiming them in many different ways. When I was a little girl growing up in our remote mountain town, I was taught that “culture” was elsewhere, and that when the time came, I would be sent off to get some of it. Now we proudly celebrate our rich Appalachian heritage and the culture we didn’t even know we had. Every small town has its own Dogwood Festival or Blackberry Festival or whatever, celebrated with its own local music, foods, and crafts. I think this trend is definitely positive—in fact, I think it’s wonderful. It strengthens our sense of community.
DA: Fancy Strut is the third book in a long line of accomplished novels. As a novelist, you often experiment with point of view and storytelling technique. If you were to write Fancy Strut today, would you approach the storytelling structure the same way, or would you tell the same story differently? Would you tell it through the lives of the same set of characters?
LS: I don’t know what point of view I would choose if I were to write this book today. Each novel comes out of a very specific time and place, you know—you can never separate the book from the circumstances under which you wrote it. But actually this novel was a real breakthrough book for me as a young writer. My first two novels had been semiautobiographical books written in the first person—as most first novels are. But when I got ready to write my third novel, I had a sobering realization—I had used up my childhood, I had used up my college years. I had used up my whole life so far! Oh, no! I wanted to try another novel, but I had no material. What would I write about? Then, as I said, we moved to Alabama, I started working for the newspapers, and a whole new world opened up. Suddenly I could see beyond my old, used-up self into a world literally teeming with characters, people I wanted to write about, lives I could imagine. So many characters showed up for Fancy Strut that I actually had to cut some of them out after the first draft. The use of these multiple points of view felt exciting and liberating to me. DA: You have said several times in recent years that you write because you want to lead an “examined life.” So many of the characters in Fancy Strut are in the midst of self-examination, some more aware of it than others. Were you aware of that element in your writing twenty-five years ago when you were creating Monica and Lloyd and Manly and Bevo, or did that realization come to you later in your career?
LS: This question somehow reminds me of my aunt Millie, who used to call me up every time she finished reading one of my novels and say, “Well, I just wish you’d write something about some nice people for a change!” What she meant was, happy, confident people with no problems, no inner torment. But most characters in most novels are in the throes of questioning themselves or the world they live in. If you don’t have conflict—and it’s usually inner conflict—you don’t have fiction. The presence of conflict is what differentiates fiction from all other forms of prose narrative. And of course it is true that writing always allows the writer to examine her own attitudes, feelings, and problems as well, through the characters. I had never been a bored housewife myself, for instance, but I could see that possibility. Writing Fancy Strut allowed me to examine my own ideas about women’s lives and about small-town limitations and benefits.
DA: Do you see yourself in any of the residents of Speed?
LS: Actually I see myself in all the residents of Speed. One of my favorite quotes about the nature of fiction comes from Anne Tyler, who said, “I write because I want to have more than one life.” Maybe I do, too. It’s one of the greatest pleasures of the craft, to get to walk around in somebody else’s skin for the length of the fiction.
DA: You have created so many wonderful characters in your novels and stories. Would you revisit a character in another work? Is there a chance we might visit Speed again, see Bevo again?
LS: No. Somehow I’m never able to go back to them, though many people have made requests. In particular, they wish I would resurrect Crystal at the end of Black Mountain Breakdown. But somehow I can’t do it. If I ever did go back, I’d go back to Bevo—I always wonder how he grew up, and what he’s doing now.