A CONVERSATION WITH LEE SMITH
Nancy Grisham Anderson: You have spoken about a packet of letters, bought for seventy-five cents at a yard sale, that gave you the idea for Fair and Tender Ladies. How did Family Linen begin? Did you know from the beginning that it would be a murder-mystery?
Lee Smith: Family Linen started with a news story in the Raleigh newspaper. Under hypnosis, a schoolteacher had recounted a terrifying childhood experience: years before, she’d witnessed her mother kill her father, then chop him up and stuff him down an outhouse. The teacher confronted her mother, a pillar of the community, who immediately drove her car out into the middle of a tobacco field and shot herself. (In my memory the car is a white Cadillac, though it probably wasn’t, my memory being a little too “creative,” in general.) Then they dug up Daddy.
Well! I love this kind of thing. I am a person who has a dresser drawer full of lurid clippings. I cut the article out of the paper and took it with me over to Reynolds Price’s house, where we were going for dinner. He met us at the door, waving the very same clipping. “Have you seen this?” he asked in glee.
“Yes,” I said, “and I’m going to write about it.” The minute I said it, I knew it was true.
“No, I’m going to write about it,” Reynolds said. “Tell you what — I’ll flip you for it.” He took out a quarter. “Heads or tails?” he asked.
“Tails,” I said.
He flipped; I won.
“You’ve got a year,” he said.
So I set to work with a vengeance, not researching the actual case, but making it all up. I didn’t want to know anything more about the real people involved, because I already had several characters who’d been walking around in my head for months, looking for a novel to inhabit. Candy, Arthur, Miss Elizabeth, Fay, Myrtle — all they needed was a plot. “Okay!” I told them. “We’re in business!”
I was delighted. Plot is always my weakest point, and here was one all ready-made, as if I’d walked into a store and bought it off a sale rack. I got right to work.
NGA: Family Linen is such a rich title, from its suggestion of everything from “dirty linen” and family heirloom linens to the weaving of the warp and woof of stories into a tight fabric. At what point did you select the title and why?
LS: Wow, Nancy. I love your generous interpretation of the symbolic meanings in the title of this book! I probably ought to take credit for the richness of my allusions; “thank you,” I should say, and just shut up! But honesty forces me to admit that I always have the hardest time in the world coming up with titles.
I wanted to name this one The Lives of the Stars, with its echoes of Fay and her National Enquirer fixation; Sean’s video games; and that sense of a flickering, dynamic current of real life deep within us — some kind of real feeling, of authenticity — that my characters are always trying to get in touch with. Well, the publisher hated The Lives of the Stars, as well as all the other titles I could think up. Then I hated all the titles they could come up with! Finally, Family Linen was suggested by my editor’s assistant’s boyfriend. I am not kidding! When we look at a printed book, it’s already an object, and it seems so inevitable, I guess. So permanent. But just remember that it was a creative project, literally in flux, right up until the very moment it went to press.
NGA: Verner Hess’s dime store calls to mind your father’s store, which was part of your childhood. Are any other details — settings, events, characters — based on personal experience?
LS: Yes, my dad ran his Ben Franklin dime store in Grundy, Virginia —that’s the far southwest corner of the state, a remote Appalachian coal mining town — for 47 years, so many of my own fondest memories take place in this dime store, where I literally grew up. When I was a little girl, my job was “taking care of the dolls.” Not only did I comb their hair and fluff up their frocks, but I also made up 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. I helped make the Easter baskets every Easter — this memory found its way into Family Linen. I spent hours and hours upstairs in my father’s office, observing the whole floor of the dime store through the one-way glass window and reveling in my own power: nobody can see me, but I can see everybody! I witnessed not only shoplifting, but fights and embraces as well. Thus, I learned the position of the omniscient narrator who sees and records everything, yet is never visible. It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.
So, the dime store is the most obvious autobiographical detail in Family Linen, though of course there are little bits and pieces of me everywhere. A writer is like a magpie: you pick up shiny, interesting tidbits from every aspect of your life. Fiction has to be made from the stuff of real life if it is to be believable. For instance, my grandmother, Chloe Smith, prided herself on being a “real lady.” She wasn’t a poet like Miss Elizabeth, but she was genuinely artistic, with a real aesthetic sense. I don’t know where she got it from, actually, living in a place where that was a rarity. When she died, I went through her house with my first cousins, choosing things to keep, just like in the book.
Many of the details of Lacy’s life came from mine. I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and teaching at the Carolina Friends School during the time I was writing this novel.
NGA: You have created a fine balance of humor and sadness, or even absurdity and horror, or tragedy, in Family Linen. How do you maintain that balance of contraries?
LS: This is a good question, Nancy, but the answer is that I honestly don’t know! What you’re talking about is tone, of course, and it just simply never occurred to me that I had to stick to humor, or tragedy, or whatever. In real life, humor and tragedy walk hand in hand, so I think this can be true of fiction, too. I like to mix it up.
NGA: Critics praise your handling of multiple points of view, an approach you returned to in The Last Girls. What prompts your selection of such a challenging approach to storytelling? What is your process for creating these multiple voices?
LS: Having done a lot of real oral history work, I am fascinated by the way you can interview six people, say, who shared the same experience, and you will get six completely different stories. I think we underestimate the extent to which we experience the same events differently, and create very different narratives from them. When you interview different members of the same family, their stories often bear very little resemblance to each other; sometimes it’s like these people came from totally different families. We remember things the way we choose to, the way we need to — what did really happen? Often, we never actually know. The best we can do is listen carefully to everybody’s account, and come up with our own version of the truth. Since I am interested in various storytellers’ versions of the story, I often find myself using multiple characters, each one with his or her own agenda, own fears and desires and beliefs. Then the reader gets to figure out the truth.
NGA: In Family Linen, several voices — in particular, Sean, Fay, and even Arthur — are not crucial to the unraveling of the plot, but they add such intriguing and unusual perspectives. What motivated the inclusion of these characters?
LS: Often the peripheral characters’ viewpoints can be the most intriguing. Look at the housekeeper in Wuthering Heights, for instance, or Nick Carraway, who tells the story of The Great Gatsby. I’ve always loved to tell a story through a minor character’s point of view. In this novel, I especially liked Fay. I loved her voice; she was literally whispering in my ear while I was writing her sections. And, of course, I’ve always been fascinated by publications like the National Enquirer and the Midnight Sun; writing this book legitimized my passion. Whenever I came home from the grocery store with several of these tabloids, I could swear to my husband that I was “doing research” for Fay’s sections.
Sean is probably in this book because I was raising two boys during the time I was writing it — so I really did attend Parent Effectiveness Training workshops. I spent a lot of time ferrying the boys to video parlors, which were all the rage then. Also, it was very useful to me, as a parent, to write from Sean’s point of view. I think it helped me to understand something of how my own boys might be thinking and feeling. Writing from the point of view of somebody NOT ourselves is always a very useful exercise, you know, in general — it enables us to walk in somebody else’s shoes for a while, to empathize with and perhaps understand that person a little better. It expands our imagination and our humanity.
NGA: Even with your concern for female characters, you give males a voice, even a sympathetic voice. In Family Linen, readers hear from Arthur and Sean but not directly from Dr. Don Dotson or Gary Vance or Clinus. Why did you select Arthur and Sean as “storytellers,” and not one of the other males?
LS: It’s not really a conscious selection process. Before I start, I do a lot of what I call “pre-writing” — jotting down pages and pages of notes about the characters, doing any necessary research, making maps of settings and notes on important events, for instance. I try to plan it all the way through. I even write the last sentence of each novel on a piece of paper and stick it up on the wall in my study, so I’ll have something to aim toward. But then once I get going, I just let it rip! I could write from anybody’s voice in a multi-voice novel like Family Linen — so I just wait to see who’s going to speak up next. Because no matter how carefully you try to plan ahead, writing a novel is always a voyage of discovery. That’s the fun of it.
NGA: Throughout your career, critics, scholars, and readers have praised your celebration of ordinary women living ordinary lives. In this novel some of the women are middle-aged, trying to cope with problems in their daily lives while maintaining some sense of their own identity. And there are older women and younger women in the novel with their own struggles. What do you want readers — female and male — to find in the lives and stories of these women?
LS: In my writing I want to explore and celebrate the basic human condition: the courage and grit of ordinary people doing the best they can, which is what most of us do, I believe — the best we can. I think of this novel as a kind of hymn to family, that most fraught, most unlikely, probably most emotionally charged of all groupings on the earth, yet often, the most enduring. The family in this book is clearly one of the most dysfunctional on earth, yet we end with a celebration — an epithalamion, a wedding. Life goes on!
Another of my beliefs is exemplified in Candy. I have long felt that women often function as artists in their families and in their communities — though we don’t usually think of it that way because their art is so useful. The hand knit sweater is used until it’s worn out; the homemade cake is eaten; the quilt is put on the bed. Candy creates beauty in her shop all day long, giving each woman a better image of herself. In the community, she shapes the aesthetics of whatever necessary and important ritual marks the passage of our time on the earth: weddings, christenings, funerals. In this novel, she’s clearly an artist figure.
NGA: In The Last Girls, Harriet, one of the central characters, muses that “it’s always the storyteller’s story.” In stories and interviews, you often stress the importance of storytelling as the way for individuals — real and fictional — to find meaning in their lives. Do the members of Miss Elizabeth’s family find the meaning and the resolution they need in Nettie’s version of her sister’s story?
LS: I believe that the members of Miss Elizabeth’s family do find the meaning and resolution they need in Nettie’s version of the story — and also through the events surrounding Miss Elizabeth’s death and the discovery of Jewell’s body. Let’s see: Candy’s longstanding and very difficult relationship with Miss Elizabeth is finally addressed and eased; Arthur finds new love with Mrs. Palucci; Myrtle gives up her affair with the exterminator and begins to assume her new role as the “matriarch” of the family; Sybill is vindicated; Sean gives up some of his anger; Lacy comes to terms with her history, herself, and her failed marriage, and is enabled to look toward the future. The family, wild and crazy as it is, re-groups and continues.
NGA: Scholars and critics are forever trying to put labels on writers — a New England writer, a Southern writer, a western writer, a romance writer, an Appalachian writer, a feminist writer. If you had to label yourself, what would you choose? Regardless of the one you choose for your general category, how would you classify Family Linen?
LS: If I had to choose, I’d call myself an Appalachian writer. I grew up in the mountains; my first language was the Appalachian speech of my parents and grandparents. The first and some of the best stories I ever heard were told to me in this accent. So I was blessed with a rich legacy. But since the circumstances of my own later life (marriages, jobs, kids) have taken me farther afield, I’ve written stories set elsewhere, too.
Family Linen is certainly Southern — the themes of family, community, and the past are so strong here — but it’s not really Appalachian. So let’s call it a Southern mystery novel, albeit an unorthodox one. I’ve always loved to read books of this genre — Margaret Maron and Michael Malone come to mind as favorite authors.
NGA: As you say, Family Linen is “certainly Southern.” However, some of the contemporary characters do not appreciate the importance of past, place and family. Are some of their struggles the result of separation from, or ignorance of, their heritage?
LS: Yes. Lacy, in particular, is struggling with identity issues in this novel; that’s why she keeps repeating that old mountain goodbye phrase, “Don’t be a stranger” — which means, of course, “Come back.” But we do inevitably become strangers, in a way, when we leave our hometowns to “go off” and get an education, for instance, like Lacy did, or when we enter new and different worlds through travel, work, or experience. This is what Thomas Wolfe meant in his famous quote, “You can’t go home again.” The struggle to move from past to present is very real for us all. This reminds me of William Faulkner’s line that in the South, “The past isn’t dead–it isn’t even past.” Nettie is the character in Family Linen who remains most closely in touch with the family’s past and heritage; therefore, she’s the one who can understand Fay’s death and Elizabeth’s story.
NGA: In retrospect, is there anything in Family Linen that you wish you had done differently?
LS: There certainly is! I expected the reader to solve the mystery easily. Now I wish I had made the identity of the murderer more clear. I thought it was perfectly understandable, even though many hints come to us through Fay’s fractured viewpoint, but some very intelligent readers over the years have failed to “get” it. You know, we fiction writers are always walking a tightrope between “telling too much” and “not telling enough.” Here, I apparently didn’t tell quite enough!