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Fancy Strut (Ballantine Reader's Circle)


Fancy Strut (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Cover



Author Q & A

A Conversation with Lee Smith

In 1981 a professor of literature at UNC–Chapel Hill suggested

twenty-six-year-old Darnell Arnoult withdraw from

a beginning fiction-writing class after just one assignment.

Fortunately, Darnell didn’t give up so easily. She immediately

signed up for a fiction-writing class with a different

instructor—who turned out to be Lee Smith. From that

moment, a hard knock became both a blessing for a young

writer and the beginning of a long-standing friendship.

Over twenty years later, Darnell is a published fiction

writer, poet, and writing coach. Her collection of poems,

What Travels with Us, will be available from LSU Press in

Fall 2004.

Darnell Arnoult: Lee, what inspired you to write Fancy


Lee Smith: In the early 1970s I worked as a newspaper

reporter for the Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama,

covering absolutely everything—from albino squirrels and

giant watermelons to political campaigns, murders, and

car wrecks. Since I was a novelist on the side—I had

already published two very obscure novels—I was

delighted to find that this particular day job gave me

endless new material for fiction. I had considered myself

to be already “Southern” when we moved from Virginia

to Tuscaloosa, but I’d had no idea. Alabama was like

another country. I could never have imagined the array

of bizarre and interesting characters or the amazing

events I encountered every day on the job. Then I was

assigned to cover the county’s year-long Sesquicentennial

Celebration, which included a pageant run by a

professional theater company that came to town just

for this purpose . . . and I’m sure you can see where

this story is going!

DA: In spite of the dark themes present in the novel, the

narrative is playful and funny. The work feels airy and

light. Did the novel come to you in a playful way as you

wrote it, or did you know the whole story before you

started writing?

LS: This is a big question, so let me start at the precise

moment I knew I was going to write the novel. I had

already covered the Sesquicentennial. Now I was assigned

to cover a regional high school majorette contest held on

the campus of the University of Alabama. When I got

there, I was dazzled. It was enormous, boasting a wide

array of categories such as Flame Baton, Improvisation

to a Previously Unheard Tune, and yes—Fancy Strut!

The girls were very sweet and the mothers were highly

competitive, exactly as in the novel. And of course I

interviewed Miss Fancy Strut right after she was crowned.

She held her roses, she wore her tiara, and tears streamed

down her face. For a minute, I couldn’t think of a thing to

ask her. Finally I said, dumbly, “Well, how does it feel to

be Miss Fancy Strut?”

She cried even harder. Then she said, with absolute

certainty, “This is the happiest moment of my life!”

A chill went through me. Lord, honey, I thought. What

if that’s true? What if this really is the high point of your

whole life? You’re peaking pretty damn early, and it’s

going to be a mighty long slide down the whole rest of

your life. Suddenly, I started imagining Miss Fancy Strut

at twenty-five, at thirty-five, at forty. I saw her pushing a

daughter of her own into a majorette contest just like this

one . . . and then I thought, I could write that! So I

combined this idea with all my experiences covering the

Sesquicentennial, and suddenly I had a novel. I also had

mountains of material to draw from—my own memories,

notebooks filled with notes, photographs, articles from the

paper. Picking scenes and characters to draw from was

like going to the candy store.

DA: There are so many cynical characters in Fancy Strut.

Are you a cynical person?

LS: I don’t think of myself as a cynical person, but I’m

certainly an ironic person, and I believe I’m a realist.

Fiction is all about the inner life, and we all have our dark

areas. This is what makes us human; this is what makes

us interesting. I think of Fancy Strut as a comic novel—

but, you know, tragedy is always the flip side of comedy.

The two are very closely linked. I guess the reason I like

humor so much is that I do tend to take a realistic,

sometimes tragic view of the human condition—and we

all need a laugh or two, don’t we? Something to take the

edge off, something to keep us going. So I often find

myself “writing funny,” as my son used to say.

DA: Which character came to you first?

LS: Miss Iona, actually. The former women’s page editor

of the newspaper where I worked had been a similar

lady. In the latter days of her reign, she, too, tended to

embroider events to suit her own sense of style and

decorum. At lunchtime I used to take my sandwich and

go back into the morgue, as we called it then, to read her

old articles. They were a riot! So my own Miss Iona was

just an exaggeration of this real woman’s tendencies. But

that’s what we do in fiction, isn’t it? We up the ante. So I

made Miss Iona a complete anachronism, totally out of

step with her changing world.

DA: It is evident from reading your work that place is

crucial to your storytelling. When you wrote Fancy Strut,

you were a young writer and, as you said earlier, from

a different part of the South. How were you able to so

capably render a small Alabama town? And how do

you achieve such a rich sense of place in your work as

a whole?

LS: Place is important in my work. As I am planning out

any piece of fiction, I draw map after map—of the whole

town, of the floor plans of the characters’ houses, of the

surrounding area, etc. I have to see the entire world of the

novel before I can move my characters around inside it.

And, more abstractly, the use of “place” in fiction is also

important in determining a lot of other things as well:

voice, tone, the kinds of characters and their main

concerns, the possibilities for their lives—often, the

mood of the entire work.

DA: The history of Speed and the changes it undergoes

as a community play such an important role in Fancy

Strut. Do you think of the town of Speed as a character

in the book? If so, how did that perspective help you

develop the story?

LS: You’re right, Darnell. The entire town is definitely a

character in this novel. And like the human characters,

the town itself is in the midst of conflict—many major

changes are on the way. So we have class conflict, racial

conflict, a loss of old certainties and values as a rural town

changes into a more urban community. I meant for the

name of the town itself—Speed, Alabama—to be a funnybut-

serious kind of oxymoron, embodying the slow,

sleepy little town it still is, plus the faster, more modern,

progressive town it is becoming.

DA: In Fancy Strut, set during the mid-1960s, the White

Company uses the fear of lost history, disintegrating social

barriers, and an eroding community identity as a way to

prey on small towns like Speed. Today many small towns

rely on cultural tourism as a way to celebrate the past and

to infuse their slowing economies. What effect do you

think the commercialization of history has had on the

small-town South? Are we more savvy today about

using our history? Can commercialization of the past

have a positive impact?

LS: In this novel, the White Company is presented as

evil, coming into towns it neither knows nor cares about,

cannibalizing and commercializing their history in pursuit

of the almighty dollar. But I wrote this book almost thirty

years ago, remember, and things are very different now.

Now we all have much more appreciation of our own

special places and cultures. We are proud of our

differences. We believe in the importance of our own

histories, and we trust ourselves to write them down and

take pride in claiming them in many different ways. When

I was a little girl growing up in our remote mountain

town, I was taught that “culture” was elsewhere, and

that when the time came, I would be sent off to get some

of it. Now we proudly celebrate our rich Appalachian

heritage and the culture we didn’t even know we had.

Every small town has its own Dogwood Festival or

Blackberry Festival or whatever, celebrated with its

own local music, foods, and crafts. I think this trend is

definitely positive—in fact, I think it’s wonderful. It

strengthens our sense of community.

DA: Fancy Strut is the third book in a long line of

accomplished novels. As a novelist, you often experiment

with point of view and storytelling technique. If you were

to write Fancy Strut today, would you approach the

storytelling structure the same way, or would you tell

the same story differently? Would you tell it through the

lives of the same set of characters?

LS: I don’t know what point of view I would choose if

I were to write this book today. Each novel comes out

of a very specific time and place, you know—you can

never separate the book from the circumstances under

which you wrote it. But actually this novel was a real

breakthrough book for me as a young writer. My first

two novels had been semiautobiographical books written

in the first person—as most first novels are. But when

I got ready to write my third novel, I had a sobering

realization—I had used up my childhood, I had used up

my college years. I had used up my whole life so far! Oh,

no! I wanted to try another novel, but I had no material.

What would I write about? Then, as I said, we moved to

Alabama, I started working for the newspapers, and a

whole new world opened up. Suddenly I could see beyond

my old, used-up self into a world literally teeming with

characters, people I wanted to write about, lives I could

imagine. So many characters showed up for Fancy Strut

that I actually had to cut some of them out after the first

draft. The use of these multiple points of view felt exciting

and liberating to me.

DA: You have said several times in recent years that you

write because you want to lead an “examined life.” So

many of the characters in Fancy Strut are in the midst of

self-examination, some more aware of it than others. Were

you aware of that element in your writing twenty-five

years ago when you were creating Monica and Lloyd and

Manly and Bevo, or did that realization come to you later

in your career?

LS: This question somehow reminds me of my aunt

Millie, who used to call me up every time she finished

reading one of my novels and say, “Well, I just wish you’d

write something about some nice people for a change!”

What she meant was, happy, confident people with no

problems, no inner torment. But most characters in most

novels are in the throes of questioning themselves or the

world they live in. If you don’t have conflict—and it’s

usually inner conflict—you don’t have fiction. The

presence of conflict is what differentiates fiction from all

other forms of prose narrative. And of course it is true that

writing always allows the writer to examine her own

attitudes, feelings, and problems as well, through the

characters. I had never been a bored housewife myself, for

instance, but I could see that possibility. Writing Fancy

Strut allowed me to examine my own ideas about

women’s lives and about small-town limitations and


DA: Do you see yourself in any of the residents of Speed?

LS: Actually I see myself in all the residents of Speed.

One of my favorite quotes about the nature of fiction

comes from Anne Tyler, who said, “I write because I want

to have more than one life.” Maybe I do, too. It’s one of

the greatest pleasures of the craft, to get to walk around in

somebody else’s skin for the length of the fiction.

DA: You have created so many wonderful characters in

your novels and stories. Would you revisit a character in

another work? Is there a chance we might visit Speed

again, see Bevo again?

LS: No. Somehow I’m never able to go back to them,

though many people have made requests. In particular,

they wish I would resurrect Crystal at the end of Black

Mountain Breakdown. But somehow I can’t do it. If I ever

did go back, I’d go back to Bevo—I always wonder how

he grew up, and what he’s doing now.

Product Details

Smith, Lee
Ballantine Books
New York :
City and town life
City and town life -- Fiction.
Anniversaries - Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Ballantine Reader's Circle
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.20x5.53x.80 in. .72 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Fancy Strut (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Used Trade Paper
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Product details 368 pages Ballantine Books - English 9780345410399 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , Speed, Alabama, is frantically preparing for the event of a lifetime: Sesquicentennial Week. And all her proud citizens are kicking up their heels in a lively, pompous fancy strut....
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