Last Saturday I attended Lee Smith‘s reading at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC. Turns out, even on a Saturday night, Smith can draw quite a crowd–and she didn’t disappoint. She read from her new short-story collection, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger (no relation to Jane Austen fan fiction, sorry), but it was more like a one-woman show than a reading. Smith gave us the directors-commentary with each story she read, providing insights and explaining inspirations and laughing right along with us when the protagonist cracked a joke. And there was a lot of laughing.
I got a chance to speak with Smith after the reading about writing good fiction and she had some pearls of wisdom for us, here on the Algonquin Books Blog.
1. It’s about the long haul. Smith spoke a little bit about the way her writing has changed over the years. Where she used to play to the “ta-da” moment in a story, she now recognizes the value of time– that a good plot stretches beyond the last page.
2. The causes need an effect. You can write a really fantastic sequence of events, but they don’t mean anything unless they effect someone.
3. Raise the stakes. Not only do events need to lead to change, but the change has to matter. Good fiction captivates the reader and rewards with a strong pay-off.
4. Laugh. “Secretly, this is a very serious book,” Smith said (laughing). “Humor is an important way to admit that.” A good sense of humor is instrumental to being able to bear those big, serious issues that can be so hard to write about.
5. You don’t know what you know. Smith read from Eudora Welty at the beginning of the evening. Afterward, we talked about the mentor who first exposed her to Welty–a teacher who set her up on a “blind date” with the author, which inspired her to pursue writing. But not just any writing. Writing in her own voice, about personal topics. “You don’t know what you know,” Smith said, but whatever it is that you do know, it’s sufficient.
So thank you, Lee, and thanks to Flyleaf Books–maybe we can all hang out again this coming Saturday night? Karaoke?