The first time I let go of literary legend Lee Smith it was my own damn fault. The second time, I was coerced and too much a coward trying to fit into graduate school to speak up. The third time, I had to—I don’t think Lee appreciated my grip on her arm at a Richmond book signing, nor my pleading, “Lee, I need endurance like you’ve got. Could you give me some, please?”
But the first time, I was living in Durham, and rather than just continue to dream about becoming a better writer, sitting at my desk in my little duplex on Chapel Hill Road, I decided to learn more about what readers like and how to reach them. I got a job at the local paper as an editorial assistant and quickly established myself as someone who could be counted on to do book reviews. I reviewed Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek, and based on the fact that I didn’t screw it up and obviously loved literature, I was awarded the opportunity to interview Lee Smith for the launch of her fourteenth and soon to be a New York Times bestselling book, The Last Girls.
I’d read two of her novels, Saving Grace and Fair and Tender Ladies, and one collection, Me and My Baby View the Eclipse, and was beginning to be able to articulate what I admired most about her writing: Southern women with real problems, who were multi-dimensional, emotionally complex, and seductive on the page. These women were not trying to be Northern. Behind all that wonderful character development was a sort of gothic drama that, in my humble opinion, only four other Southern authors reached in scope: Pat Conroy, Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner. Based on this opinion, I was thrilled with the chance to interview Lee. I was also very intimidated. After all, Lee Smith, to me anyway, is the dark goddess of fiction writing. As professed to author Jill McCorkle in an online interview, Lee stated, “I have always been a person who takes a dark view, I guess. I was an often sickly, very emotional, and profoundly weird little child who read all the time, loved ghost stories, and asked unanswerable questions in Sunday School.”
The art editor at the Durham paper put me in touch with Lee’s research assistant, and next thing Lee was inviting me to come to her house for an interview. Do you know what this greenhorn did? Declined the offer.
I look back at that time, and wonder what was I thinking? Even though I’d been entrusted with the assignment, I was new to reporting. I didn’t realize when you get a once-in-a-life opportunity to visit the writer whose work you admire most, you go. I believe my 42-year-old reasoning went something like this: I knew I was horrible at shorthand, had trouble recording exactly what people say and was thus prone to embellishing, and I believed that if I went to see Lee Smith in the flesh, I might easily get distracted by her house, the kind of furniture she’d chosen, the family photos, the way Lee looked at me with such attentive, searching eyes—she always seemed to have such searching eyes on all her book jackets—and not only that but Hal Crowther (journalist and essayist and Lee’s husband), might walk into the room. I’d read his columns in the Independent Weekly. I was just plain nervous about the whole thing and didn’t want to mess up. So I did what I thought was safe; I spoke to the dark goddess of fiction writing over the phone.
After taping and transcribing our conversation, I put in a few asides, arranged the text how I liked it, and showed it to the art editor who made a few suggestions. A photographer went to Hillsborough to get the photo. I still have the clipping from Sept. 27, 2002.The caption reads, Lee Smith: On Her Way to a Best Seller.
To remember what I let go of that time, I keep the clipping in a laminated scrapbook, second shelf on the bookcase next to my desk. In the photo, Lee’s wearing a sage green jacket with a pressed silky buttery looking blouse and hand-carved turquoise jewelry, and she’s leaning back in an elegant but sturdy office chair. I imagine the wood in that chair is mahogany or a gleaming oak. There are green plants reaching behind her with long palm-like fingers. Her eyes are bright, her teeth white, and she looks as majestic and thoughtful as someone of her writing prowess should.
Ten years later, the image still holds up behind the laminate.
Five years after interviewing Lee, I approached her again, this time for my Master in Fine Arts at Queens University. There are several requirements to graduate, and second only to finishing and revising a thesis signed off by an advisor was the requirement to lead a craft seminar. I had an idea. I was going to learn, and ultimately teach my fellow students, how to write complex characters such as the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in a way that not only invites the reader to enter the world of the character but to sympathize and become complicit in the character’s actions. Flawed characters have more to teach us about life, my craft advisor pointed out over coffee, because they allow us to look at our shadow sides from a safe distance—through a book.
My advisor generously came up with two examples for me to study: O’Connor’s grandmother and Amy Hempel’s narrator who abandons a dying friend in the hospital in the story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”
Later, through research, I would come across other examples, my favorite from Lee Smith’s 1985 novel Family Linen, Fay, who sleeps with, is abused by, and has a child by her sister Elizabeth’s husband. Someone kills Jewell Rife in the book but I wasn’t sure who because Fay’s niece Sybill seems to think Elizabeth did it. By that time, I’d read more about how to make characters believable, even unreliable narrators, in Janet Burroway’s instructive text Writing Fiction, and I’d read and re-read Family Linen. I emailed Lee Smith with questions about how she set about making the character of Fay so compelling. I wanted to know what was making me empathize with Fay. Was it Fay’s delusional and yet believable way of relating to the world through TV shows and tabloids? Fay’s inner rambling, "JR was so mean to dig up Pamela’s first husband it was as Elizabeth would say in poor taste" reveals a fear of discovery for possibly what she’s done, burying her sister’s husband in a well. Then, later, “Lively Ann-Margaret grew up in a funeral parlor which is where Elizabeth is now” shows the glittery distance from which Fay begins to process that her sister is dead from a series of strokes.
I also needed to know, who killed Jewell Rife?
In her customary way, Lee was responsive and revealing about her characters. She wrote, “Fay is unreliable because she’s crazy; others might be unreliable because they are too old, or too young, or have a particular axe to grind. To answer your question directly,” she continued, “Fay probably ‘came to me’ because there has always been so much mental illness in my family. I grew up with a strong empathy for people like Fay. I didn’t think of Fay as unsympathetic myself; in fact, I sympathized with her entirely. Jewell had taken advantage of her; had sex with her, abused her—and apparently had promised that he would take her away to the beach on a trip—something he never intended to do, of course.”
Lee confirmed, “So Fay DID kill him.”
After gathering all this material, and other examples from contemporary authors, I wrote my craft paper and sent it to my advisor. When she read the parts about Lee’s character Fay, she commented “Will others know the story?” Where I let her influence me the most, however, was what she wrote in a separate letter: “Stick to three stories to illustrate your points. You can reference classic works that everyone has, or should have read, but that’s it.” She also wrote, “Trust yourself.”
Sadly, for me, and for my grad school peers and faculty, I did not trust myself. If I’d trusted myself, I would have kept the example of Fay instead of replacing her with my advisor’s suggestion, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Everyone knows Bovary. I could have introduced someone new—someone my fellow students might initially say they’d never met before, but then after reading, might identify as family or a friend, or even themselves, who were as vulnerable as Fay, seduced and then betrayed. Given similar circumstances, what might happen? What might people do if their lives were different and no one was watching?
I wanted to talk about Fay.
I’m sorry, Lee. I don’t why I didn’t trust myself to stand up to my advisor from the New York publishing world and share what I’d learned from you.
The last time I saw Lee was two years ago in 2010. She was reading a selection from her collection Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger, “House Tour,” at Sam Miller’s in Shockoe Slip, and I was in attendance with colleagues, who were fellow adjuncts from the University of Richmond. I’d moved to Richmond, the city of my birth, where I’d gotten the sweetest teaching deal.
After Lee read, I stood in line for her to sign my book, and when it came my turn, I said, “Lee, it’s so good to see you. I interviewed you for the paper and you recommended me for my MFA program.”
Then Lee Smith put her hand on my arm and pulled me closer. “Tell me what you’re working on now,” she said, and I unloaded about the thesis and how I was finding it difficult to teach and write and keep my head clear to hear what my characters really wanted to say, or according to her, what I really wanted to say. I said I needed endurance to keep writing. She reached for the book I’d brought for her to sign—on that day it was On Agate Hill—and she wrote: To Wendi—a wonderful writer—cultivate endurance!
I thanked her and wrapped my hand around her arm. I did not want to let go. Maybe I was hoping for some sort of transference of writing energy, or that through touch she would impart the wisdom and the generosity of her essence.
Then I realized there were about thirty people waiting behind me, probably with the same hope, and that this was the third time I’d have to let go of Lee Smith.
[Editor's Note: Wendi Berry's craft essay will appear in Issue 29.]
Wendi E. Berry is a native Richmonder who also happens to love North Carolina, particularly Durham and the Outer Banks, though through the years, she’s developed a fondness for East Hampton, her sister’s influence. She teaches college composition at the University of Richmond and J. Sargeant Reynolds. Don’t ask what her favorite song is and expect her to stick to that answer because it changes every day.
Q: This essay represents a powerful metaphor about how to live life, in general. What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this?
A: I’m not sure what you’re noticing when you say “how to live life.” I guess I can say there’s a three-part structure; three times I interact with Lee, and each time I let go. Some might say that those three times could signify a beginning, a middle, and an end. I hope that won’t be the last time I see Lee. Guess we all have to live without knowing where the middle is because the end is assured. That’s what is surprising me now as I write this, that I have no way of knowing where “the middle” is.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: “Put more love and more light in your writing. It’s too dark. If you care, the reader will care. Show what the character wants and have her go after that.” That was from David Payne during my first semester at Queens University of Charlotte. Every day, I do my best to do what he suggested.
Q: Besides Lee Smith and her work, what three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I read a lot fiction because that is what I spend most of my time writing, and it’s what I want to write. When I was living in San Francisco in 1990, I read Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and fell for Lucy Marsden in the scene when she’s in a rest home competing with another woman for the one man still kickin’. I believe a main reason I moved to North Carolina was because of that book. I wanted to meet Gurganus, and I did. Living in Durham for 15 years, I read mostly North Carolina writers: Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies, Jill McCorkle’s The Cheerleader, Doris Betts’ The River to Pickle Beach (I named a cat after Doris.). I remember David Payne’s Ruin Creek affecting me profoundly because it’s a sympathetic story of a family in trouble. I received an advance copy as a gift from someone I was dating in 1993. Now that I’m back in Richmond, all I want to read is Dostoevsky because it’s so psychological. Katya’s betrayal of Dmitri, the sensualist brother in The Brothers Karamazov, is terribly astounding, and yet it’s inevitable.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: When I was finishing my MFA, there were many mornings when I wrote at Panera Bread on First Colonial Road in Virginia Beach because my little beach cottage there was such a disaster. Let’s just say, mice would die under the floor and they smelled. Now that I’m back in Richmond, I’ve made a nice quiet place in my apartment in the Museum District. Sometimes the guy in the apartment above drops his weights on the floor and his seven cats run races over my head, but most of the time it’s a good deal and I get something done in the morning before I teach. I had two Richmond friends die within 12 months of each other this past year, one from cancer, the other from suicide, and they’re my patron saints. The other day I saw a little girl dressed as Wonder Woman, and I felt like Britta was watching over me.