Novelist Lee Smith delivered the John Hersey Memorial keynote address to start off the second session of the Seminar Thursday night and it was, in turn, funny and heartrending. Smith described her own journey to becoming a writer: “I think mostly we write because we’re good at it and we’re really terrible at everything else,” she said. And, she said, “I was a deeply weird child,” who started writing to extend books she loved and just didn’t want to end (though she often added herself as a character in the extended plots). “Even the Bobbsey Twins rapidly because the Bobbsey Triplets,” she said. Her favorite books were “anything at all about horses and saints” and her all-time favorite book was called “God’s Girl”: “Not only did I love Joan of Arc, I wanted to be her.”
When she went off to college and wrote her first novel, her mother was Not Pleased, fearing the neighbors in their small Virginia town would see her in a character who runs off (even though, as Smith pointed out, her mother was still there). Since Smith’s father ran the Ben Franklin five-and-dime, the only place to buy books, and the librarian was her mom’s friend, there was no finding the book in her hometown. The second book met the same fate “because there was sex in it,” Smith said.
She later became a journalist and found much more rich material, in places from an Alabama majorette contest (her third novel was “Miss Fancy Strut”) to the mountain women whose voices were disappearing among a flood of fast food restaurants and satellite dishes.
Then Smith described how she came to write her most recent novel, “On Agate Hill.” Her son, Josh, died at 33, of heart failure, brought on by medications he had been taking for half his life for bipolar disorder. Lee’s grief and rage were oceanic. She finally sought psychiatric help; her doctor took out a prescription pad and wrote a new order: She was to write for two hours a day. So she did. And Josh is there, a blues musician who shows up at the end of the book. “Writing is a source of nourishment and strength,” she said. “It cannot bring our loved ones back, but it can fix them in our memories as they were in life.”