When Silas House, author of
A Parchment of Leaves and
Clay’s Quilt, met his literary idol, Lee Smith, at one of her book signings while he was in college, he never dreamed that the correspondence they struck up would last more than ten years. That friendship continues today with their discussion of
The Last Girls.
Silas House: Since the release of this book, it’s become well-known that you actually did go down the Mississippi on a raft when you were in a college. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
Lee Smith: Yes, I really did go down the Mississippi River on a raft with 15 other young women in the summer of 1966, all of us students at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. The trip was inspired by our reading of Huckleberry Finn in our American literature classes. It was the brainchild of Tricia Neild from Shreveport, Louisiana--the kind of girl who knew how to grab the initiative and make things actually happen. She enlisted the rest of us. Under her leadership, we got the information; raised money; contacted a lumberyard in Paducah, Kentucky, to construct the raft; and found out about Captain Gordon S. Cooper, the retired riverboat captain who guided us down the river. In reality, we were NOT all English majors--what we had in common was a wild streak, I guess--a sense of adventure. Not every girl wants to take a trip like that, you know. Another difference is that we took two boys with us--family friends rather than boyfriends--and I have to say, they were indispensable as well as being great company. We were woefully ignorant about things like repairing the engines, for instance. In fact, we were naive in many ways.
The Mississippi River is huge, and it can be very treacherous. Our second day out, we got hit by the tail of a hurricane and thrown against the revetments at Cairo, Illinois, where we had to stay for an extra day to fix that motor, and we were all mighty glad to have those guys on board. Now, of course, girls take courses like basic engineering even in high school--but ours was a different era. This is why I named the novel The Last Girls, of course.
But back to the raft: it was a wooden platform on top of oil drums, 16 feet wide, 34 feet long, with a two-by-four railing and superstructure that we could pull a tarp over in case of rain--which was totally ineffective, of course. It looked like a floating porch. We had two 40-horsepower Evinrude motors, mainly used for steering. You have to read the charts and stay in the right channel. Thank God for the captain! The river itself moves at about 8 miles an hour, I think, but it varies. Anyway, we had a steering wheel up front, and cables connecting it to the engines, of course--and a bucket with a rope attached to it, that was our shower. It was pretty primitive. We’d pull up to an island at night, or dock at a town, and camp wherever we could. I remember those nights around the campfire as some of the best times.
Sometimes we read aloud from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Other times, townspeople would meet us at the dock, offering food and even showers–which were very welcome. We got pretty dirty, and the river itself wasn’t too clean, either. We had naively imagined a very pastoral voyage, jumping off the raft whenever we felt like it to swim in the clear water, etc., but the water was mostly pretty muddy, and really dirty downriver from the larger cities like Memphis and Baton Rouge. Our chores ranged from things like cooking to keeping watch to navigating to scrubbing pots and pans in the sand--we pushed off each morning at 4 a.m.
We communicated by radio, and had a lot of fun listening to the radio banter we picked up from the other boats, ships, and barges on the river. Sometimes they’d be talking about us--because we were a real novelty, and we attracted a lot of media attention as we went along. We had not sought this out or anticipated it, and it also went against our earlier image of what our trip would be like.
We named the raft “The Rosebud Hobson,” after a Hollins alumna whose sister entertained us in Paducah before we set off for New Orleans. We painted red rosebuds all over it--we had a lot of time to kill, just floating along. And I really was writing a novel at the time, on yellow legal pads, one of which got completely drenched--which was probably just as well! It took us twelve days to get from Paducah to New Orleans, a distance of 1050 miles.
SH:That must have been such an amazing experience. It sounds like there were some profound life lessons that were learned on that trip. How did it affect you as a young woman (I’m sure not going to call you a girl!)?
LS:That trip made me realize how rewarding it can be to push the boundaries--to try something difficult, something original, something you really want to do. We had all grown up in the conformist atmosphere of the Fifties, where the ideal seemed to be to fit in, to go with the group, to be a team player. The Sixties really hadn’t happened to us yet, not personally, and not on most rural campuses or in small schools all across the country.
I think the raft trip helped me realize that challenges can be exciting rather than threatening. But actually Hollins College always did a very good job in general of preparing its young women to face their futures both realistically and creatively. I’m a strong advocate for single-sex education, for women’s colleges such as Hollins, Mills, and Randolph Macon. And the women who were on the actual raft have proved to be an amazingly accomplished and diverse group. Anne Goodwyn Jones, famous for her ground-breaking book Tomorrow Is Another Day, a feminist study of Southern women writers, teaches English at the University of Florida; Alison Ames was with Deutsche Grammophon recording company for years and now makes violins herself; Vicky Derby is a lawyer in New Orleans; Nancy Beckham and Lee Harrison became journalists; Kathy Hershey is a judge in the Pacific Northwest; Mary Poe is a law school professor; Tricia Neild is in development at San Diego State University--just to give you an idea. Some of us are married, some are not. Some, like myself, have divorced and remarried. I don’t know where some of them are, or what they’re doing now.
After giving this a lot of thought, I decided NOT to look everybody up. I wanted to be able to fully imagine and create my characters in The Last Girls, which I have done. I’m the kind of writer who really does like to make things up--the truth can be pretty limiting, and I like to be free to fully create my characters’ lives.
SH:And when you realized you were going to do this book, you decided to take another trip down the river, just as the women in the book do, right? Did you spend the whole trip just having a sort of déjà vu, remembering your college days on the river raft?
LS:Yes, I convinced my husband, Hal Crowther and another couple--our good friends, Jane and Vereen Bell--to go down the river with me on board the Mississippi Queen in the summer of 1999. But I did NOT “spend the whole trip having déja vu,” as you put it--there was too much going on! The second trip proved to be entirely engrossing on its own terms, in ways I had not envisioned--just as the first trip had. For one thing, it was hilarious. I had never been on a cruise before, so I was fascinated by all the planned activities--all those daytime-TV-type games in the Grand Saloon, for instance, and all the contests, and the talent show.... I really got into it. I had imagined The Last Girls as a tragic novel, frankly, before we took that second trip, but it rapidly turned into a tragic-comic sort of book, which is probably all to the good. Because some of the main themes here really are grim, you know--aging, and loss, and death.... the course of all our lives. So I’m glad I ran into a laugh or two.
SH: And so this second trip taught you some “profound lessons” as well?
LS: That second trip really did provide me some new perspectives on the raft trip--for instance, the river really is enormous. There are many places where you can’t even see across it. What were our parents thinking? I wondered as I stood on the observation deck of the Mississippi Queen looking out. I couldn’t believe my own over-protective parents had ever let me go. And there is such a vast, brooding, mysterious majesty about the Mississippi River, too, no matter the circumstances of your voyage. No wonder it has always occupied such a central place in the American imagination. It really does run right thorough the middle of our national psyche, exemplifying our eternal push toward the frontier, toward the future, our need to go deeper and deeper “into the territory” as Huck Finn puts it, striking out for the unknown.
SH:Anna is one of your most hilarious characters. I especially love the titles of her Confederacy Series–among them, The Tennessee Stud and Tupelo Honey. Early on in your career you wrote a short story (“Desire on Domino Island”) that spoofed romance novels. Do you have a secret affinity for romance writing (which we both know is an incredibly difficult genre to write)?
LS: Actually, my husband made up some of those titles; the best one, The Missouri Compromise, was his. But I’ve always been fascinated by genre fiction--not only romance novels, but mystery fiction and Westerns as well. I’m intrigued by their enduring popularity--it’s the same plot, over and over, yet clearly they fill a real need, especially the romances. What is this need? Who are these readers? And, as Anna notes in The Last Girls, the romance novels always end just at the point where our hero and our heroine finally get together--just the point where our own real-life, grown-up stories actually begin. But please understand me, I’m not putting romance fiction down here. Like you said, it is incredibly hard to write within a formula, yet be creative; to render this plot both new and believable. During one particularly broke period in my past, I tried to write a romance novel--and failed miserably! So I can’t scoff. And also, I find something beautiful in the way we all want so desperately to believe in the possibility of true love--the way we keep going for it again and again. That’s the story people want to read, obviously.
SH: Even though Baby is dead throughout the book, she’s my favorite character, and I know that many other readers agree. We love characters that are fearless and self-destructive and fun. I’m wondering if there was a Baby in your life whom this character is based on.
LS:I think we all encounter a Baby sometime in our lives--usually in high school or college. This is the friend who is the “wild child,” the friend who is always in trouble and who will get you in trouble, too; the friend your mother considers a “bad influence;” the friend who is often the most charismatic and interesting person you know. I knew several “Babys” myself. I also wanted to point out how things that happen to us when we are young really can set a stamp on the rest of our lives. We are blank slates then, very impressionable, more open to the world than we will ever be again. I hate to hear somebody say, “Oh, she’s so young, she’ll get over it,” dismissing a girl’s trauma. The fact is that she might not “get over it;” some things are irrevocable. And at that age, friendships can be so very important.
SH: Speaking of friendships, I think Harriet’s friendship with Baby is the emotional anchor of the book. While Baby is the most popular, Harriet is the most endearing. I came to care about her most, I believe. When you started the book did you know that Harriet was going to take on this central role and be more pivotal than the other women?
LS:Yes, to me this novel was primarily Harriet’s story because Baby is at the very center of it, and Baby was Harriet’s best friend. In fact, Harriet was so traumatized by her conviction that she had “caused” Jeff’s death that she withdrew into an emotional shell from which she is only beginning to emerge as she travels down the river again with her former classmates. Will she let the Riverlorian take her on that tour of the French Quarter? Will she go dancing with him? Yes, I think she will, don’t you?
SH: I hope so. I wanted her to start having more fun.
LS: This second river voyage has been really therapeutic for her. In my own mind, friendship is one of the main themes in this novel. Friendships can be very complicated. (I used to give my writing students this assignment: Write a story about a friendship which ended badly. The resulting stories were always amazing, extraordinary. I think this is a story each one of us can tell.)
SH:I know you wrote a whole lot of yourself into each of the main characters. However, you once told me that you related to Courtney the least. Why? And to which character do you relate the most, and why?
LS:Anne Tyler once said, “I write because I want to have more than one life.” I do, too. In fact, this is one of the great privileges of being a writer--you get to walk around in somebody else’s skin for a while, live somebody else’s life. You are not stuck within the confines of your own biography--or even your own century! So there’s a lot of me in each of these women. So much so, that it was a hard book for me to write, because I kept feeling like I couldn’t control them. To use the river metaphor, I felt like each one of them threatened to take over the entire novel, grabbing the wheel whenever it was her turn to tell her story, steering the whole steamboat down some dark bayou of her own! It was like being the captain of a crew of mutineers. The ways in which I felt close to each woman are obvious: I’ve spent my life as a schoolteacher, like Harriet; I constantly juggle my role as wife and mother with the demands of being an artist, like Catherine; writing has been a solace for me, as it has for Anna; and I was a wild girl myself, many eons ago, like Baby. But Courtney is more like my mother’s voice still whispering in my head, “Now Lee, you know you really OUGHT to....” Hers is finally the voice of duty and tradition and conformity, in spite of her fling with Gene Minor. I am very sympathetic to Courtney, the moral dilemma she faces is extremely difficult.
SH:Speaking of difficult, let’s talk about Baby’s poetry, which I loved. I imagine it must have been really hard to write poems through a character… poetry is such a revealing thing, you know. Did you enjoy writing those poems? So I would think that you really had to step inside Baby’s skin to write those. In many ways, I think the poems solidified the character for me.
LS:Baby’s poems came as a big surprise to me, frankly. They were not in my outline. In fact, I was well into the book when I became increasingly bothered because Baby never got to speak for herself, even though she was really the catalyst for the whole plot. But she was dead--she had no voice. One day I was sitting out in my back yard worrying about this, and fooling around with a pencil and a yellow legal pad (this is the way I write) when suddenly, out of the blue, poems started coming to me from somewhere. I wrote them down--it was all I could do to keep up! After a little while, I realized that these were Baby’s early poems, which she had written on all those little scraps of paper and jammed down into her jeans pockets on the raft. I wrote about sixty of them, I think, though not all of them found their way into the finished novel. It was like a revelation. Her entire biography and motivations suddenly became clear to me.
SH:In the frontispiece, you use Cort Conley’s quote “Sometimes life is more like a river than a book.” That’s a beautiful phrase, and I’m wondering who Cort is and in what context he said this?
LS:Cort Conley is a writer, naturalist, and river guide who has spent his life documenting and trying to preserve the wild rivers and backcountry of his beloved Idaho. He said this quote to me when he was guiding us on a raft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River years ago.
SH:Another rafting trip that proved useful in your writing. Okay, now I’m going to try and stir up a little controversy. Is there anything that women lost when people stopped calling them girls? I just want to get you talking a little bit about feminism, since this novel is–to me, at least–very much about the evolution of women in the last 40 years or so.
LS:In all my yellowed newspaper clippings, the press refers to us as “girls;” today, of course, they’d call us “women.” We were the last “girls,” graduating into a new world made possible by feminism. In 1966, a lot of things were changing for good, though we didn’t really understand that yet. Our struggles were to come. More possibilities and opportunities for women would bring greater freedom and choice, but also greater expectations and responsibilities--along with a lack of both stability and illusion. Whatever happened to romance, for instance? Or the sacred Fifties Family? Though I am a dedicated feminist through and through myself, I admit that certain things--certain “grace notes,” if you will, have been lost. And although it’s more exhilarating, it’s a lot harder working without a net.
SH:This book really touched a nerve with readers. Why do you think people related so strongly to this particular story?
LS:I think it has to do with demographics, frankly--women my age are the people who are in the book groups, the people who read fiction. The characters in The Last Girls are our age, too. We all like to read about people at our own stage of life, facing some of the same issues we are facing. I know the book is also being read by men and younger readers, because I am hearing from them, too, but I think this novel especially speaks to my women contemporaries.
SH:This book is really full of secrets that continue to be revealed. I’m curious what your fan mail has been like lately. I’m assuming that readers might be writing to share their own college experiences with you and their own life-changes as women.
LS:You’re right--The Last Girls has elicited a lot more immediate and passionate fan mail than my other books. Most of the letters are from readers who have been inspired to tell me their own secrets and stories, those unforgettable things that have happened to them in college which forever shaped the course of their lives. Many of the readers have identified with a particular character or issue she is facing. I should add that several letters have been irate--women furious because they felt I “did not present positive, high-achieving role models for young women”--this is a quote. All I can do is remind them that this is fiction; and the business of fiction is to raise the questions, not provide the answers. Fiction should not be dogmatic--readers will have to go to the self-help shelves for that kind of book.
SH:It’s really beautiful the way you can make us laugh at these characters without ever once condescending to them. But what amazes me most about this book is the way you balance comedy with the serious (for instance, the scene where Baby’s ashes are being scattered). How do you pull this off? Are you conscious of comedic timing and such?
LS:I have always taken a tragic view of life, from the time I was very young. I don’t know exactly why this is so--maybe it’s genetic. Depression always ran in my family. And I grew up in a coal-mining town, which involves a general attitude of fatalism, I think. It sort of seeps into your bones. But luckily, I was born with a sense of humor as well. In the family as well as in any group or class, I was often the little clown. It makes sense if you think about it. You just can’t sit in a closet and weep. You have to recognize what’s funny, tell a joke, in order to keep going. Otherwise you couldn’t stand it. In my work, as in my view of life, tragedy and comedy are often inextricably linked.
SH:Many readers and critics said this was a very different book for you. In what ways do you agree and disagree with that statement?
LS:I think it’s different only in superficial ways--it’s contemporary, it’s not set in the Appalachian Mountains like several of my best known novels. But I’ve written other contemporary novels, too--Family Linen, Fancy Strut, and The Christmas Letters, for instance, as well as many short stories. Over the years I have done a lot of work with oral history, and I have long been fascinated by the fact that if you interview five people who were all present at the same event, for instance, you will get five completely different stories. To me, The Last Girls is all about storytelling--about how we construct the narratives for our lives which we have to have, which we have to believe in. Storytelling has long been my passion.
SH:This is your most contemporary book, though, isn’t it? In terms of modern life stepping in. Which do you enjoy writing most–writing about contemporary problems and people or about the past?
LS: Actually it’s harder for me to write contemporary fiction. I think that the kind of writer you will be is shaped by how you first heard language--who was speaking, where you were--and in my case, it was the wonderful Appalachian-flavored speech of older people, people who loved me. These are the voices I hear speaking in my ear, telling me the story. So paradoxically, it is easier for me to write, for instance, a conversation taking place in an old tobacco barn in 1930 than it is for me to write a conversation taking place in a faculty lounge or a spa today.
SH: And I hear that your next book will actually be set in the past.
LS: Yes, I’ll be heading back to the hills for the next one, a love story set soon after the Civil War. I think this is next...but I visualize my mind like a stove full of bubbling pots, each one with a novel brewing in it, dying to get moved up to the front burner, so I’m never quite sure.
SH: Well, whatever it is, we’ll all be waiting anxiously.