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From Barnes & NobleWhack-a-Mole!
"In 1958, when my father had his famous affair with Carroll Byrd, I knew it before anybody. I don't know how long he'd been having the affair before I found out about it -- or, to be exact, before I realized it. Before it came over me. One day I was riding my bike all over town the way I always did, and the next I was riding my bike all over town knowing it, and this gave an extra depth, a heightened dimension and color, to everything. Before, I'd just been any old thirteen-year-old girl on a bike. Now, I was a girl whose father was having an affair -- a tragic girl, a dramatic girl. A girl with a burning secret. Everything was different."
--from "Live Bottomless," by Lee Smith
Lee Smith is in Key West with her husband, on a week's vacation after the book tour for her collection of short stories, News of the Spirit. "There's this terrible game at county fairs called 'Whack-a-Mole,'" she says to me on the phone, in that delightful quick-to-laugh southern-sugared voice. "Do you know it?"
Can't say as I do.
"It involves a big hammer," she says, "and a big painted board full of round holes from which mole puppets erratically appear. To win, you must keep smacking down the moles.
"I always feel like that about my writing," she says. "Things come popping up -- stories and scenes, places and ideas -- and I think, No, not yet, and I keep hitting it and making it go down."
Smith is a writer with a seemingly endless supply of moles to whack -- she is filled with funny and unruly stories, all competing for her attention along with various other, heartfelt distractions. There are book tours, which at this stage in a career that includes 12 preternaturally readable books (nine novels, three story collections), she says, feel like a series of "little family reunions" in the bookstores that have supported her. "I'm a writer who writes about things that people in New York, the marketing people anyway, don't think can sell. Country music, for instance.
"My last novel [Saving Grace] was about Baptist fundamentalist snake-handlers." She laughs. It is the contagious laugh of an ideal friend. "I owe a lot to the people in those bookstores," she says, "who for years have come out to my readings and bought my book, enough that I keep getting to publish the next one."
There's also the heartfelt distraction of her teaching schedule at North Carolina State, where Smith typically puts as much work into her students' work as she does her own. "It can be exhausting," she says, "but I really love to teach. I love the contact with people who are so bright and so eager and still all fired up about writers and writing."
There are also the adult literacy classes in eastern Kentucky that, in the past few years, she's volunteered to teach. "For me, it brought back the whole thrill of reading and writing," she says.
But all mole-bashing aside, maybe the biggest challenge is knowing when a story is ready to be written, something that Smith says is more a matter of feeling than intellect.
"'Live Bottomless' was a story that for years I knew I was going to write," she says of the sharply observed coming-of-age novella that, literally and figuratively, is the heart of News of the Spirit. "I really did come down here to Key West with my parents, when they were trying to patch up their marriage. My mother and I really did see them filming 'Operation Petticoat' -- Tony Curtis and Cary Grant and that pink submarine. And the sign for the exotic dancers that said 'Live Bottomless.' And the Blue Marlin Hotel! It's still here! It's hardly changed at all!"
The autobiographical hooks are changed quite a bit however, says Smith, and they are now just the framework of the story.
That long-battered mole of an idea is certainly no worse for the wear.
"People tend to think that short stories are things tossed off between bigger things," Smith says. "I was a story writer first. Things always occur to me in story or novella length. There's just about nothing I love more than a story that's about 100 typed pages, that gives you the depth of a novel, where you can get into the characters and see how they change over time, where you can get all the pleasures of a novel without any of the drudgery."
It's a continued puzzlement to me why people who wished they read more but can't seem to find the time tend to spend what time they have more on novels than short stories. Almost invariably, stories are the fastest, best introduction to a writer's work. This is certainly true of Smith.
"Part of what I love about your novels," I say, "is the way they're so often made up of story-length set pieces, from different points of view." The much-imitated Oral History, for example. Or my favorite of all Smith's novels, The Devil's Dream: a lean multigenerational family saga and perhaps the finest fiction ever written about American music.
"That's my favorite of my books!" Smith exclaims, and then she laughs that laugh, and I am so charmed I am about to implode. "I'm so glad you liked it too!"
That book, she says, is another example of her mole-whacking theory.
"I grew up hearing old-time country music," she said. "We all grow up with music that's the soundtrack of our childhood. For me, that was it. I remember sitting out by the lake on a hot summer night, watching fireflies and swatting mosquitoes, and hearing my father's friend take out his guitar and start playing and singing that song, 'The Devil's Dream.' I always knew that I was going to write about that music."
There is a pause. We both think about this scene, Smith as memory, me as a dream she conjured up for me. Finally, Smith laughs.
"I just keep playing the game," she says. We keep talking for a while and somehow we get on to the subject of Elvis. "Elvis!" she says. "There's another mole that I keep whackin'."