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
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
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
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.