Lee Smith, Inspiration, and Narrative

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“Everything that rises must converge.” — Flannery O’Connor

Today, I had the opportunity to meet author Lee Smith at a luncheon and reading event hosted by the Friends of the Appalachian State University Library. It was a fantastic event for many reasons, but not least because Smith’s novel Oral History was conceptually influential for my story in Athena’s Daughters.

Oral History is about a generation of women living in Hoot Owl Hollar, and the ways their lives are impacted by a cursed heirloom. I read it as part of a course on Appalachian literature in college, and one of the things that first struck me about it was its rich use of dialect in establishing unforgettable character voices. Anyone who has grown up, lived, or spent time in the Appalachian area (and for the record, in the South it’s pronounced “Appa-latch-an,”) will find familiar and compelling elements in her work.

After lunch, we were able to listen to a reading from Smith’s new book, Guests on Earth, which focuses on Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, from 1936-1948. 1948 was the year in which one of the facility’s most famous residents, Zelda Fitzgerald, died in an arson fire along with several others receiving insulin shock treatment in a locked ward. Smith talked extensively about how her personal childhood fascination with the Fitzgeralds and with Zelda in particular was connected to her own family experience. Her father was a patient in that very hospital in the 1950s.

The Flannery O’Connor quote which kicks off this post was how Smith began her prepared remarks, and how she described being inspired to write this book over time. Elements in her life rose for a number of years and finally converged into the inspiration for this particular story.

During her signing, I was able to talk to Smith briefly about how her work impacted my story and to tell her a little about the anthology. She was very warm and encouraging. We also chatted about my former creative writing program, and about the Athena’s Daughters release date. I hope she’ll get to check out the book once it comes out in June.

Until then, I’ll be reading hers!

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