A CONVERSATION WITH LEE SMITH
Susan Ketchin is a musician and university teacher who has been teaching Lee Smith’s work for many years. She is author of The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction which includes interviews with Lee and eleven other writers about the origins of their faith and their literary imagination.
SUSAN KETCHIN: In reading Saving Grace, the reader is drawn deeply into an entirely different, almost completely unknown world, the strange, often frightening world of the “holly rollers,” “snake handlers,” and religious “ fanatics” of the rural South. How did you prepare yourself to write the novel? What kinds of research did you do in preparation? Were you able to visit or witness first hand any of the rituals and worship services described in the book?
LEE SMITH: Well, you know I grew up in the Appalachian mountain area of far southwest Virginia, so I’d heard about serpent-handling all my life. As a girl, I attended such services as are in this novel from time to time, mostly–I’m ashamed to say–to gape and gawk. First we were taken by an older friend, mostly to scare us, I think now–and he succeeded admirably! Then later I went over the mountain to the famous serpent-handling church at Jolo, West Virginia, several times with a group of my girlfriends. We sat way at the back and didn’t say a word, then we’d scream with laughter, and pent-up fear, probably, as we drove down the hairpin curves on our way home. But I’ll tell you, those are strong images, indelible images, and they never left me. Later, I became interested in this form of religion again when I was writing the introduction to a book of photographs which contained several similar shots taken at services in eastern Kentucky. I have always been interested in religion, especially in forms of ecstatic religion, where people are touched directly by the Spirit and go completely out of themselves. I always knew I wanted to write about this one way or the other, but it was not until I was talking to a woman just after a service in eastern Kentucky that this novel really began to take shape in my mind.
SK: Is that how Saving Grace got started?
LS: Yes, I had been to a church where I had witnessed a woman hold a double handful of copperheads aloft, up over her head–and then when it was all over, there she was, just as normal and down-to-earth as anybody, just as normal as I was. In fact, I realized, we were about the same age, and of course we were from the same section of the country, and we even looked alike… I was seized with curiosity. “Why do you do such a dangerous thing?” I asked her.
She just looked at me for a moment, then broke out in what I can only describe as a joyful, even beatific smile. “Why honey,” she exclaimed, “I do it out of an intense desire for holiness! And I’ll tell you something else,” she went on. “When you’ve had the serpent in your arms, the whole world kind of takes on an edge for you.”
I gasped. The hair on my arms stood up. I had been a newspaper reporter, and when I heard a great line, I knew it. I was hooked.
Plus, there was that other thing I mentioned–that sense of recognition. Except for the accidents of family and circumstance, I could have been her. Suddenly I was dying to see how she had come to this point where she could face a stranger and say such a thing.
I knew I had to write a novel in order to find out. So then I really started doing a lot of research. I went back to visit the church in Jolo. I talked to several serpent-handling believers myself, read many oral histories compiled by documentarians, and viewed all the films on the subject that I could find. I was especially struck by Thomas Burton’s fine book, Serpent-Handling Believers (University of Tennessee Press, 1993). I read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience and other works on ecstatic religions of all kinds. I read psychology. I read the New Testament again and again, trying to get that cadence and that literal interpretation in my head. I went a lot of different churches; I listened to a lot of preaching on the radio. I got in my car and drove the back roads all over eastern Tennessee and Kentucky and southwest Virginia and West Virginia until I could somehow see it, see the scenes of Grace’s life in my mind. By then I knew she was named Grace, and I knew what was going to happen to her. I could hear her voice. It all took shape in my mind while I was driving. In fact, this is the only book I ever wrote which had a road map rather than a plot, I guess.
SK: You have spoken about running across a Christian miniature golf course while you were traveling–where was that?
LS: Uncle Slidell’s Christian Golf was out on the Nolensville Road, in Nashville, Tennessee, and I really didn’t make anything about it up. It’s still there, I guess. Fact really is stranger than fiction, you know.
SK: Did you know before you began that Grace’s journey would end up the way it did?
LS: Well…sort of. Among the women whose stories I had heard, or read, I’d been struck by the fact that so often their lives had indeed come full circle. Several of the women who had grown up in the church had left it the very first chance they got; they had literally fled from it. But then once they were in the outer world, if things didn’t go well, sometimes they’d come back. They’d miss that strong sense of community, of being chosen, of being known. This is what happens to my Grace. She says, “The fact is, I was not real good at modern life.” So she returns. Personally, I didn’t want her to do this–but I think it is what she would have done, given her lack of education and experience. Her lack of options. People often go back to what they know, whether it’s good for them or not. Like a child who wants to return to an abusive family situation simply because it is familiar. Of course I like to think that by now, Grace has had enough of it and she’s gotten herself some peer counseling in Knoxville, and a good job someplace, not in a bar…but I don’t know. I just don’t know. I saw her journey as a kind of Appalachian pilgrim’s progress–or maybe it is a regress–through the dark places of the soul. I knew she had to tell her story in her own words, for she is a believer in the word, as she says, and her story is her testimony.
SK: Critics have often compared the characters in Saving Grace to those of Flannery O'Connor's "backwoods prophets," highly eccentric folk who are obsessed by the Holy Spirit, or "Christ-haunted," like Francis Marion Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away, or Hazel Moats in Wise Blood who was so alienated from God and his identity/culture that he was seeking to establish a "Church of Christ Without Christ." What do you think is meant by this comparison? Do you agree?
LS: I think it’s true that rural America has always produced its own brand of “stump preachers” and visionaries of all sorts–especially in the South–and these people have certainly found their way into some fine literature. I’d be mighty honored to think I was keeping company with Flannery O’Connor, in particular. But I really feel that my own work is woefully pedestrian, by comparison–less thematic, less rigorous, less theological, less abstract…I am too caught up in the things of this world, such as chenille bedspreads and cute house painters and sausage biscuits. But Flannery O’Connor would have liked that miniature golf course, I admit.
SK: The title, Saving Grace, of course, has at least two meanings right off the bat-one is that this is a story about the salvation of Grace Shepard; the other echoes the old saying, "she/he/it was a 'saving grace,' meaning the last-ditch thing that saved a doomed person or situation. Although this double-meaning is certainly enough, have you thought of others for this title? Was the novel ever going to be named something else? How did the title finally get settled upon?
LS: Actually, Susan, I had the hardest time naming this novel! Titles are always hard for me anyway. I must have had thirty titles for this one at one time or another, most of them having to do with journeys or roads or trips–The Trip to Salvation, Road Map to Heaven, etc. But my editor didn’t like any of them, and I didn’t like any of them enough to fight about it. Then when I was literally in the post office in Chapel Hill, N.C. about to mail the whole book into the publisher, I ran into a friend---who said, “Oh, is that your new book? And what’s the title?” and when I confessed I didn’t have one, she said, “Well, tell me about the book.” So I did, and then she said, “Name it ‘Saving Grace.’” So I did. I always felt that it was a kind of grace that allowed me to run into her that day.
SK: About the same time that Saving Grace came out, Dennis Covington published a memoir, Salvation at Sand Mountain, about his ancestors in northern Alabama and a contemporary attempted murder case he was investigating as a Montgomery newspaper reporter that had involved poisonous snakes used in worship services. It was a sensational account of a sensational event-the murder had been attempted by a husband against his wife, with the snakes as murder weapon. How did you avoid sensationalizing or even overly dramatizing events and characters in Saving Grace? It seems unusually difficult to make these characters believable (plausible) and really true to life, at the same time in such an "alien" world to us modern-day viewers/readers/worshipers, insulated as we are by Wal-Marts, air conditioning, fast food, and "counseling" and Prozac as cure-alls, etc.
First let me say that Salvation on Sand Mountain is a fascinating book which would make good reading for anybody interested in further books on this topic. Being non-fiction, it is a very different kind of book from Saving Grace,of course; actually, it’s mostly about Covington himself, how a journalist became personally involved in the story he was covering–which WAS a sensational story, as you point out. And of course it’s easy to satirize or sensationalize the practice of serpent-handling. But any world set apart will certainly seem “alien” to us, at least at first. Such worlds have their own distinct cultures and beliefs and practices; I’m fascinated by their differences, and have also written about other special worlds such as NASCAR, early Appalachian life, country music, nursing homes, mental illness, etc.
There’s a lot to learn about serpent-handling believers, and the more I learned, the more I came to respect them for their fervent faith, their stubborn individuality, and their difficult lives. A small offshoot of the American Pentecostal movement, they are real believers in God: in His power to direct their live; in His word the Bible; in His will as they perceive it. They call themselves “sign followers,” basing their worship upon the key passage found in Mark 16:17-20, which I quote in the Notes at the end of this book. In my research, I noticed how often they use the term “power;” this concept is especially important to them. God gives them the power to follow His signs. The fact that these followers are often powerless in the world’s terms (i.e., poor, isolated, and relatively uneducated) makes this power very meaningful to them, I think; not only does it set them apart, but it also elevates their lives. This may be hard for the rest of us to understand, but it is very real to them. Their God is literal, hands-on, personal–as I have tried to show in this novel. The last thing I wanted to do here was to sensationalize this complex and marginalized religion. I wanted to try to write from deep within it, to find out what it would be like to live such a life–a life I will never live myself. Maybe I’m a pilgrim, too, in my own way, through my writing–but I haven’t got Grace’s guts, or faith, or those problematic “gifts” she wishes shed never received. It was very hard to “be” her, to make the choices she had to make. But once you get deeply inside a character and into the world of the story, then that character’s choices come to seem almost inevitable.
SK: When you were a child, as you have said before, you heard God speak directly to you, much as Grace Shepard heard God speak to her on the dirt road below her mountain cabin. Would you tell about that moment? Would it be safe to say that that turning point event in your life formed a germinating seed for the novel, or the character, Florida Grace Shepard, thirty years later?
LS: Maybe so. Certainly I was a very religious child, a deeply weird and very emotional child, an only child with lots of imaginary friends and a very active imagination. I loved Sunday school and Bible camp, and all that. I had my own white Bible with Jesus’ words printed in red in the text; I even spoke at youth revivals. And yes, once I was sure I heard God speak to me directly while I was in my tent at camp–I was sure it was God, because He had such a deep voice, and there weren’t any men at Camp Alleghany! When I announced this to my counselor, they put me in the infirmary and called my parents, who told me they’d buy me a dog if I’d quit embarrassing them so much. I once wrote a short story about all this, named “Tongues of Fire.” I associated a lot of my religious feelings with nature, and I was a real tomboy. We played up in the mountains all the time. It was like the whole world of my childhood was full of God and wonders. But as you get older, that kind of thing scares you, because there are not any boundaries. Then when I went away to St Catherine’s School in Richmond for the last two years of high school, all that institutionalized Episcopal ritual just knocked it out of me. I guess it’s fair to say I outgrew it; I got interested in other things. It was a relief, actually. I go to the Episcopal Church now, by the way.
SK: One of the funniest–and truest–accounts of adolescent fervor, confusion, (sex) and spiritual seeking I've ever heard was about your being saved more than once at "wild" churches not your own, while you were growing up. Were you saved more than once? How can this be?
LS: I was raised in a little church, the Grundy Methodist Church, that was very straight-laced, but I had a friend whose mother spoke in tongues. I was just wild for this family. My own parents were older, and they were so over-protective. I just loved the “letting go” that would happen when I went to church with my friend. My own mother taught home economics–which is the very opposite of speaking in tongues! Later, I’d go to revivals out in the county with other friends, where I was prone to rededicating my life, much to my mother’s dismay. Often she could tell immediately, because I’d come home dripping wet from instant immersion in the “little tent behind the big tent.” Finally they told me they’d take away the car if I ever did it again, so I quit. Then I went away to school, as I said.
SK: In short stories, novels, and interviews, and elsewhere, you've mused that women of all ages and walks of life must grapple with a number of painful contradictions that arise from conflicts in their own natures and society's sometimes punishing expectations. These are often imposed on them by the men in their lives-between being the sexy, passionate "Red-headed Emmy” in Oral History, and the docile housewife, "Mrs. Travis Word” in Saving Grace. Or the visionary Sylvaney in Fair and Tender Ladies, or the "crazy" Billie Jean and the ever-practical, sane Ruth Duty in Saving Grace.
LS: You put this very well, Susan. I know it’s a theme I keep coming back to. For some reason, this question reminds me of my aunt Millie, who used to call me up on the phone all the time and say, “I swear, I wish you’d write about some well-adjusted people for a change!” But conflict is the very nature of fiction. If you haven’t got conflict, you haven’t got a story. For many of us, especially women, the gap between what we want or need and what our society expects of us is wide indeed, and we spend out lives trying to negotiate it. Trying to balance work and family, responsibilities and desires, all that stuff. It is not easy.
SK: Florida Grace's name embodies her contradictory nature, the ongoing tensions between "flesh and spirit”–Florida for sultriness, hotness, exotic lushness and dangerous passions, and Grace for the spiritual, evanescent, quality of unearthly "things unseen." Names seem to serve an allegorical function in this novel Vergil Shepard, of Ruth Duty, Travis Word, even Randy Newhouse. Do you consider the novel itself an allegory, like Pilgrim's Progress?
LS: Yes, names are often allegorical here, and I had fun making them up. I definitely view this novel as a kind of unorthodox Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s Grace’s spiritual journey.
SK: Some critics have noted that this novel is far "darker" than other novels in your body of work. Do you think this is true?
LS: I don’t know–Black Mountain Breakdown is very dark, for instance–Saving Grace may be more akin to it than to some of the others. But there are sad or somber elements in all of them, as in life. I’m not a Pollyanna–I’m a realist, I think. I’m not writing escape fiction. Life is hard and every true story ends badly if you follow it far enough. On the other hand, you can’t just sit in a closet and cry about it. You’ve got to get up, make coffee, go to the store, see a friend, make a joke. Especially you’ve got to make a joke, look for the irony--which affords perspective. This is why humor is so important to me, and why there’s a lot of it in my work, I guess. I have also tried to write about what is ennobling and heroic in the human condition–about love, redemption, grace, and human courage and striving, about our struggle toward the good, about those moments when we really rise toward the light. I guess you could see the whole thing in terms of light and dark–and while of course I prefer the light, like we all do, I can’t ignore the dark.
SK: In the first few pages of Saving Grace, Grace speaks eloquently about her need and gratitude for a new-found sense of place: "The fact is, I felt safe in that house on Scrabble Creek, the safest I ever felt in childhood. I was raised to believe that the things of this world are not important, and I know it is true, but a house is different. A house will give you a place on the earth. If you know where you live, you know who you are. I loved being the girl who lived in the house by the musical creek." Last question, kind of a summarizing question: If you had to say what one major thing Saving Grace was about-besides religion-what would you like to say?
LS: I’m glad you picked that quote, Susan, because it seems to me that it’s a good place for us to end. Later in the novel, Grace remembers that house “like the little scene in the miraculous Easter egg which Marie Royal had kept on top of the dresser in her bedroom… This scene never, ever changed. Each time I peeped in, it was always the same. Our early years in the wonderful house on Scrabble Creek seemed to me perfect and everlasting in that same way and I loved to think about them, peeping into the egg in my mind whenever I chose, as Daddy and I traveled the South.” I think this novel is about the search for home–both a spiritual home and a literal home. It is also about the helplessness of children–something that bothers me profoundly–how children are so often born into difficult or dangerous situations over which they have no control, and how those childhoods can affect them forever.