Long before I knew the bluebirds had fledged, I declared May 17th a day for the books, a sort of anno Domini event that would forever divide my life into the before and the after. I had just returned from a full day at the South Carolina Book Festival, you see, a day that so filled me with light and possibility I thought I might burst.
I want to tell you every detail I said to my husband the moment I reached him sitting there on the deck down by the pond. Even if it takes a long time, I don’t want to leave out a thing.
He smiled and sat back in the faded red Adirondack, happy to hear me out.
But let me go get the books I said. I want to show you while I tell you.
He smiled. I’ll get us a beer he said.
This is what Tim knows that you may not: I will go anywhere, anytime to hear my favorite author, Lee Smith. She wrote the book that, when I was 14 years old, ignited my intense passion for reading. I had a summer job at the Lonesome Pine Regional Library when I happened to pick up The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed. I had always been a big reader (flashlight under the covers, etc.), but the first page of Dog Bushes poured over me in a way that made me know right then it was different from the others. It was to become my very first favorite book of all times.
How I love Lee Smith for that gift.
It’s not much of a stretch, then, to understand she also wrote the book that ignited my passion for writing. Fair and Tender Ladies is the kind of novel that brought it all home for me: the significance of place; a wild admiration for strong, persevering women; an overwhelming devotion to language that is filled with heart and honesty and grit. Every paragraph, in every Lee Smith story, stirs something in my soul that says Come on girl. We’re meant to do this.
It is terrifying, though, to face the vast expanse of the unwritten novel. It is overwhelming and burdensome, difficult to begin because it is impossible to see your way through. That’s because the process of writing is like moving half-blind through a black tunnel; while I have finally begun writing the thing, I’ve no idea where I am or the distance to the finish. I simply inch forward in the darkness, the characters revealing the story to me one tiny bit at a time. I watch, I listen, I write.
I could hardly believe my good fortune when I learned Lee Smith was to appear at the South Carolina Book Festival alongside the other Appalachian writer who has stolen my heart, Ron Rash. I had just read his remarkable Serena, a novel that grabbed me and pulled me under in such a good way I am still fretting over it, still carrying those characters with me two books later.
(Good God Ron Rash is a powerful storyteller.)
They did not disappoint.
Lee, on writing:
Every novel comes with its own demands.
There’s no story if there’s not some trouble.
I do a lot of pre-writing to understand the characters. It’s what happened in the past that formed their lives.
Ron, on writing:
You would think it would get easier, but it doesn’t.
It’s like being a mule. You just keep your head down and go up and down the rows. And you look for those moments of grace when it is easy.
The time flew by, the session finished, I made my way to the book signing line. I have met Lee several times and each time I play the card I am Posey’s daughter as she was an acquaintance of my mother’s. This time, I also desperately wanted to tell her I am working on my first novel. But in my head I heard that little voice that said: She hears that from every failed writer standing in every book signing line across the country. Don’t be just another drone.
I reached her and we chatted briefly, me remarking how much I enjoyed Guests On Earth, how thrilled I was she was there at the South Carolina Book Festival, Lee responding in such a gracious way you’d think we were old friends. Then like a 5-year-old with a kindergarten secret I blurted out I’M WORKING ON MY FIRST NOVEL AND IT TAKES PLACE IN SCOTT COUNTY.
The line hung there between us and I thought I might faint. Then she looked at me with kind and interested eyes, put down her pen and said How wonderful! Tell me all about it.
For the next four or five minutes she listened to me as if I were the first student in the first writing seminar she ever taught. She asked me questions; she answered my questions; she even made a note or two about some specifics in my story.
Then she signed my book and smiled, and as I walked away she said Write away, Cathy! Write away!
For the first time in my life I understood “on cloud nine.” I skipped around the exhibit hall, gravity-less, an insider, a writer among writers. I spent that day, and all the next, wildly taking notes as poets and novelists shared their stories and their lessons about the craft. Then I stood in line after line for inspiration and the author’s signature. I told each and every one: I am writing my first novel and without exception, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, these generous souls cheered me on with encouragement like: Remember the joy of the process and make time to write each day and I hope you’ll be here with me next year, signing your book.
And then I met the great Pat Conroy, who shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said: Shall I give you some writing advice?
How grateful I am to this group of writers and to the organizers of the South Carolina Book Festival. It is a grand gift to all of us—but none more so than we who will take their advice and, just as they said, write on.