Lee Smith: “Dimestore”

I first fell in love with Lee Smith’s fiction nearly thirty years ago when I was a cook at Le Conte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On my afternoons off, I’d sit on my cabin porch, reading first Lee’s novel Oral History, later her novel Fair and Tender Ladies. She created characters with such powerful voices – women and men of Appalachia who spin yarns through story and song. Granny Younger’s voice and Ivy Rowe’s letters have stayed with me all these years.

The more I followed Lee’s career, the more I was drawn in. So it was an honor years later to edit a collection of previously published interviews with her. Gathering these interviews in Conversations with Lee Smith was like sitting on the porch drinking sweet tea and hanging out with a long-lost but beloved cousin.

Last year when Lee published her newest book, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, I was more than delighted. In the interviews I had collected, Lee had told bits and pieces of her story – but now came Dimestore, a collection of personal essays, roughly arranged in chronological order. Taken together, they read like a memoir.

The reader who picks up Dimestore will learn about growing up as an only child in Grundy, Virginia, her parents, Gig and Ernest, her time spent in her father’s Ben Franklin dimestore, her parents’ struggles with mental illness, and Lee’s resilient coping strategies. As the book goes on, the reader learns also about her son Josh and his diagnosis of schizophrenia at age eighteen. Along the way, the reader sees how Lee’s love of storytelling and passion for writing literally saved her life.

One essay in the book stands out for me above all the others. “A Life in Books” began as the keynote address at the 2007 meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). I was fortunate enough to meet my best friends, Amy Young and Jennifer Soule, in Atlanta for the conference. And of course, they were right there with me in the front row for Lee’s speech.

By this time, Lee and I had long since met and become friends, and we had talked about the mental illness that ran through both of our families over many generations. And I knew that her son Josh had recently died of complications of his schizophrenia. I had sent a card and made a donation to the group home where he lived.

But little did I expect that Lee would talk openly that night about the heartbreaking loss of Josh and about the role her writing played in helping her to recover her own life. I wasn’t the only one who was deeply moved by Lee’s honest account that evening. Indeed, there were no dry eyes in the auditorium as the audience leapt to its feet in a long-standing ovation.

I’m so glad to see Dimestore published. In addition to “A Life in Books,” which appears near the end of the book, I highly recommend the entire volume. The author of thirteen novels and four short story collections, Lee Smith leaves her fictional worlds behind and lets us see behind the curtains into her own life.

To learn more about Dimestore, read the Huffington Post’s interview with Lee Smith and Publisher’s Weekly interview with her, then listen to Diane Rehm’s interview with her and Frank Stasio’s North Carolina Public Radio conversation with her about the book. You’ll also delight in visiting Lee’s website.

You can read excerpts from the book: “Raised to Leave: Some Thoughts on ‘Culture’” and “Finding My Way Home.” When you’re hooked (and I know you will be!), get your hands on a hard copy of Dimestore.

Listen: Listen to Lee Smith give her 2007 speech titled “A Life in Books,” published as an essay near the end of Dimestore.