A Writer's Life


By Lee Smith

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“A memoir that shines with a bright spirit, a generous heart and an entertaining knack for celebrating absurdity.”—The New York Times Book Review“This is Smith at her finest.”—Library Journal, starred review

Set deep in the mountains of Virginia, the Grundy of Lee Smith’s youth was a place of coal miners, tent revivals, mountain music, drive-in theaters, and her daddy’s dimestore. When she was sent off to college to gain some “culture,” she understood that perhaps the richest culture she would ever know was the one she was leaving. Lee Smith’s fiction has always lived and breathed with the rhythms and people of the Appalachian South. But never before has she written her own story.
Dimestore’s fifteen essays are crushingly honest, wise and perceptive, and superbly entertaining. Together, they create an inspiring story of the birth of a writer and a poignant look at a way of life that has all but vanished.



Raised to Leave: Some Thoughts on "Culture"

I WAS BORN IN A RUGGED RING of mountains in southwest Virginia—mountains so high, so straight up and down, that the sun didn't even hit our yard until about eleven o'clock. My uncle Bob Venable—they lived across the road—used to predict the weather by sticking his head out the window and hollering back inside, "Sun on the mountaintop, girls!" to my cousins. The only flat land in the county lay in a narrow band along the river where we lived, about a mile from town. Though we all ate out of the garden, real farming was impossible in that hard rock ground. The only thing it produced was coal. We never thought of our jagged mountains as scenic, either, though we all played up in them every day after school. We never saw a tourist, and nobody we knew hiked for fun.

I will never forget the first time I ever saw a jogger: my mother and I were sitting on the front porch stringing beans and watching the cars go up and down Route 460 in front of our house, when suddenly one of these VISTAs we'd been hearing about, a long-haired boy with great legs, came running right up the road. We both stood up, and watched him run out of sight. "Well, for heaven's sakes," my mother said. "Where do you reckon he's going, running like that?"

He was going back to where he came from, eventually; but most of us weren't going anyplace. We were closed in entirely, cut off from the outside world by our ring of mountains. Many of the children I went to school with had never been out of Buchanan County. People still described my own mother as "not from around here," though she had spent most of her life teaching their children and "trying to civilize you and your daddy!" as she always joked, but it was a challenge.

So I was being raised to leave.

I WAS NOT TO USE double negatives; I was not to say "me and Martha." I was not to trade my pimento cheese sandwiches at school for the lunch I really wanted: cornbread and buttermilk in a mason jar, brought by the kids from the hollers. Me and Martha were not to play in the black river behind our house, dirty with coal that would stain my shorts. I was to take piano lessons from the terrifying Mrs. Ruth Boyd even though I had no aptitude for it. I was to play "Clair de Lune" at my piano recital, wearing an itchy pink net evening dress.

I was not to like the mountain music that surrounded us on every side, from the men playing banjo and mandolin on the sidewalk outside my daddy's dimestore on Saturdays, to Martha's father playing his guitar down on the riverbank after dinner, to Kitty Wells singing "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" on our brand-new radio station, WNRG. But here, my mother ran into serious trouble. For I loved this music. I had been born again to "Angel Band," sung high and sweet at a tent revival that I had to sneak out to go to; and I had a dobro-playing boyfriend, with Nashville aspirations.

Even my mother enjoyed going to the drive-in theater on Saturday evenings in the summer to hear two brothers from over in Dickenson County, Ralph and Carter Stanley, play and sing their bluegrass music on top of the concrete-block concessions stand. "I never will marry, I'll take me no wife; I intend to live single, all of my life," Ralph wailed mournfully, followed by their fast instrumental version of "Shout, Little Lulie." Old people were clogging on the patch of concrete in front of the window where you bought your Cokes and popcorn; little kids were swinging on the iron-pipe swing set. Whole families ate fried chicken and deviled eggs they'd brought from home, sitting on quilts on the grass. My boyfriend reached over and squeezed my sweaty hand. The Stanley Brothers' nasal voices rose higher than the gathering mist, higher than the lightning bugs that rose from the trees along the river as night came on. When it got full dark, the Stanley Brothers climbed down off the concession stand and we all got into our cars and the movie came on.

I loved that music, just as I loved my grandmother's corn pudding and those scary old stories my Uncle Vern told. But this hillbilly music didn't have anything to do with "culture," as I was constantly being reminded. No, "culture" was someplace else, and when the time came, I would be sent off to get some. Culture lived in big cities like Richmond, and Washington, and Boston and New York—especially in New York, especially in places like Carnegie Hall.

Forty years later, I stood on my hundred-dollar balcony seat in Carnegie Hall and screamed as seventy-four-year-old Dr. Ralph Stanley and the rest of the traditional musicians and singers from the phenomenally successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack played to a sold-out house. Elvis Costello was the emcee; Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmakers who made the O Brother movie, were in the audience, along with T Bone Burnett, its musical director. The Coen Brothers had written this note about the music in the program, aimed at their New York audience: "These songs were for the most part created by people whose lives were hard and horizons narrow. Their lives were not like ours. All that urges their music on us is its humanity . . . And yet, this soundtrack went platinum without receiving any airplay: pop stations considered it too country, and country stations considered it too . . . country."

On stage at Carnegie Hall, the Fairfield Four sang their stark treatment of "Po' Lazarus." Dan Tyminski tore it up on "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow." The Cox family, fresh from Louisiana, brought down the house with "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown." Reigning bluegrass princess Alison Krauss fiddled up a storm, then sang "When I Go Down to the River to Pray" in tight harmony with Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris. They sang so sweet, they could have been angels. The little Peasall sisters—Sarah, age thirteen, Hannah, age ten, and Leah, age eight, wore patent-leather shoes and bows in their hair to sing "In the Highways and the Hedges, I'll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name." Gillian's husband, David Rawlings, teamed up with her on "I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll."

But the night belonged to Ralph Stanley, who came out last, all by himself, and took center stage to give his famous a capella rendition of the terrifying "O Death," with all lights black except for a single spotlight trained directly on him. "O Death, O Death, won't you spare me over for another year?" His high, haunting voice filled the huge dark hall. The song lasted for five minutes, followed by almost a full moment of total silence. Then the stage lights went up, the house lights came on, the other performers rushed out on stage, and the standing ovation went on and on.

Although he loves to poke fun at his own success—recently referring to the movie as "O Brother, Where Art Thou At"—Dr. Ralph Stanley has come a long way from the top of the concession stand at the Grundy Drive-In Theater. A six-time Grammy nominee and a Grand Ole Opry member, Stanley was the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities' Traditional American Music Award, and he performed at the inaugurations of both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He has been awarded the Library of Congress Living Legend Medal.

Dr. Ralph's Carnegie Hall appearance symbolized something that has happened to Appalachian culture as a whole. Now, everybody in the region realizes that we don't have to go anyplace else to "get culture." Every little town has its own little festival, celebrating itself with local music, food, and crafts, whether it's called a "blackberry festival," or a "ramp festival," or a "wooly worm contest," or "gingerbread day," or a "hollering contest," or a "fiddling convention." Fueled by a national, politically-correct appreciation of whatever is still ethnically or geographically or culturally distinct, America as a whole is coming to appreciate and value its differences. Everybody understands that our own Appalachian culture is as rich, and as diverse in terms of history, arts, crafts, literature, folklore, and music, for instance, as any area in this country.

But in fact, we are far richer than most. Our formidable geography acted as a natural barrier for so long, keeping others out, holding us in, allowing for the development of our rich folk culture, our distinctive speech patterns, our strong sense of tradition, and our radical individualism. Appalachian people are more rooted than other Southerners. We still live in big, extended families that spoil children and revere old people. We will talk your ears off. We still excel in storytelling—and I mean everybody, not just some old guy in overalls at a folk festival. I mean the woman who cuts your hair, I mean your doctor, I mean your mother. Our great music is country music—which was always working-class, from its beginnings in the old-time string bands and ballads right up through honky-tonk and the high lonesome sound of bluegrass to present-day glitzy Nashville, and then all the way back around to the current revival of more old-time, traditional music.

Look at Dolly Parton, now a national icon: "I had to get rich to sing this poor," she has said, referring to the success of her albums The Grass Is Blue, her take on traditional bluegrass, and Little Sparrow, which is old-time, or what Dolly calls her "blue mountain music." Look at Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle and Patty Loveless. And the big national stars just keep on coming, like Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line, Eric Church, and Miranda Lambert . . . country music is mainstream American music now.

But what about our literature? No one could deny that there is a veritable explosion of Appalachian writing today. A lot of it is hitting the best-seller lists, too—this means it is being read, and widely read, outside the region. I'm talking about Charles Frazier's Civil War novel Cold Mountain and Ron Rash's amazing Serena, for instance, both set in western North Carolina; about Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, which takes place near Emory, Virginia; about Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad Novels and Robert Morgan's Gap Creek, which even got "Oprah-fied," as did Gwen Hyman Rubio's eastern Kentucky novel Icy Sparks. I'm especially talking about Adriana Trigiani's lively comic novels from my own neck of the woods, Big Stone Gap, Big Cherry Holler, Milk Glass Moon.

Big Stone Gap has recently been filmed in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, starring Ashley Judd and directed by Adriana herself. Cold Mountain was a hit film even though they shot most of it in Romania, to Charles Frazier's dismay. So was Walk the Line, which chronicled the Carter Family and Johnny Cash. Nashville is a popular television series. The film Songcatcher traced the adventures of a Boston musicologist who comes to visit her crusading sister at a settlement school in Madison County, North Carolina, and sets about "catching"—or transcribing all the local ballads. The darker film Winter's Bone, based upon the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell and set in Arkansas, deals with the pervasive drug problem in the mountains, as does Ron Rash's The World Made Straight.

Newer Appalachian writers such as Silas House, Ann Pancake, and Wiley Cash deal with mountaintop removal mining and other energy and ecological problems besetting the region now. In Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver makes it clear that such Appalachian issues are global issues, too. Widespread Appalachian literature courses, festivals, and writing workshops ought to ensure the fine new crop of young writers—and activists—continues.

Clearly, I could go on and on, and I'm not even really getting into visual arts, or poetry, or design, or drama, or documentary film. My point is that mainstream American culture has become "Appalachian-ized." No matter what you think of NASCAR, for instance—arguably our most successful Appalachian export—it's everyplace now.

I'm of two minds about all this. I was country, remember, when country wasn't cool. I don't really like to see my favorite places and people be "discovered." I'd rather hear Sheila Adams sing a ballad on a mountaintop in Sodom, North Carolina, than on her latest CD. I'd rather eat at Cuz's in Pounding Mill, Virginia, than Cracker Barrel.

Even though I sometimes wish I could be back in the simpler, saner, safer world of my childhood, eating a piece of fried chicken on a quilt at the drive-in theater while Ralph Stanley plays music on top of the concession stand, I know I can't. The drive-in is long gone, and so am I. But I'll tell you something else—I was mighty proud to be there the night Dr. Ralph played at Carnegie Hall.


GRUNDY NESTLED IN ITS MOUNTAINS "like a play-pretty cotched in the hand of God," as an old woman once described it. Surely I could always count on these mountains, this river behind our house, this town where I grew up in my father's dimestore and across the street in my grandfather's office at the courthouse and in the Methodist Church and in my grandparents' house just across Slate Creek, right next to my school. "Honey, the only thing you can count on in this world," my granddaddy used to say, "is death and taxes." But that couldn't be true, I felt. This was my geography. It would be like this forever. My daddy knew. He called it his "standing ground."

I could drive that road with my eyes closed, or almost—twisty Route 460 as it wound up through the mountains of southwest Virginia. I turned at Claypool Hill, passed Richlands, and went over the heart-stopping Shortt Gap. I passed the huge Island Creek coal tipple; innumerable "yard sales," held in no yard but right along the roadside; a storefront with a big sign that said WE BUY GINSENG; several houses turned into the kind of freelance churches where you get to scream out and fall down. Like a vision of Hell itself, the coke ovens appeared as I crossed the bridge over the Dismal River, brick chimney after chimney belching red flames into the sky. We used to drive up there and park when I was a teenager—it was the most exciting thing to do on a date (also the only thing, except for the revivals and the movie that changed once a week). There was a lot of traffic as I got closer to Grundy, where the large hollers spill out into the main road: Garden Creek, Big Prater, Little Prater, Watkins Branch, and Hoot Owl Holler, just beyond the house I grew up in. Somebody was sure to greet me by rolling down the window of his truck and yelling, "Hi, Lee, when did you get in?"

I was always struck by that preposition in. Driving into Grundy was like heading into a bowl, producing that familiar sense of enclosure that used to comfort me and drive me wild all at the same time when I was a teenager. These mountains are so steep that the sun seemed to set about 3 p.m., so steep that a cow once fell off a cliff straight down through the roof and landed in my Aunt Bess and Uncle Clyde's kitchen in downtown Grundy, close to the courthouse. This is true.

Founded at the confluence of the Levisa Fork River and Slate Creek, Grundy became the county seat of Buchanan County in 1858, enduring cycles of fire and flood, bust and boom, as lumber and coal businesses came and went. Perhaps its isolation and its constant struggles were what made its citizens so close to each other, so caring and generous—"the best people in the world," my daddy always said, and this is true, too. Even after Mama died, I could never get him to retire and leave Grundy.

"No, honey, I need me a mountain to rest my eyes against," Daddy always said.

MY VERY FIRST MEMORY IS of downtown Grundy. I'm standing up in my crib, gripping its spool railings, looking out an upstairs dormer window of my grandparents' house at the flickering colored lights of the Morgan Theater, reflected in the waters of Slate Creek. First green, then yellow, then blue and red and green again, they twinkle through the distance like fairy lights in an enchanted kingdom, promising everything. In my mind's eye, I can see them still, mysterious, beautiful, and always too far away. I've been told I watched them steadily for hours, and it must be so, for that memory is indelible, as is the somber striking of the courthouse clock that marked the passing of every hour.

It is 1945. I am one year old. My father, Ernest Smith, is away in the Navy. My mother, Virginia Marshall Smith (nicknamed "Gig"), has left her job teaching home economics at the high school and is working at the Ration Board. She and I are living with my grandparents until my daddy returns. Then we will move into our own house up the river at Cowtown and Daddy will open the Five and Ten Cent Variety Store with the financial help of his uncle Curt Smith (who was actually Daddy's own age—it was that kind of family). Though the store will later become a Ben Franklin, it would always be known in town as simply "the dimestore."

Many of my favorite memories of Grundy take place in this dimestore. As a little girl, my job was "taking care of the dolls." Not only did I comb their hair and fluff up their frocks, but I also made up long, complicated life stories for them, things that had happened to them before they came to the dimestore, things that would happen to them after they left my care. I gave each of them three-part names: Mary Elizabeth Satterfield, for instance, and Baby Betsy Black. Their lives were very dramatic.

Upstairs in my father's office, I got to type on a typewriter, count money, and talk to Roberta Ratliff, pale, blonde, and pretty as a princess in a fairy-tale book. She would later become the manager. I spent hours and hours upstairs in that office, observing the whole floor of the dimestore through the one-way glass window and reveling in my own power—nobody can see me, but I can see everybody! I witnessed not only shoplifting, but fights and embraces as well. Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything, yet is never visible. It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.

I always went down to check on the goldfish in their basement tank. And every spring I looked forward to the arrival of the pastel-colored Easter chickens. But my favorites were the little round turtles with roses painted on their shells. I used to wear these turtles to school on my sweaters, where they clung like brooches. I liked to visit with John Yuhasz, a very kind man, on my trips to the basement to "help" him put up stock. Clovis Owens, in charge of maintenance, could fix anything, and his wife made the best pound cake in the world. She always sent me a piece, wrapped in wax paper.

Up on the main floor, I chatted with the dimestore "girls" who had all been working there for as long as I could remember—sweet Ellen Clevinger in children's wear; Viola, back in piece goods, who always hugged me; floor supervisor Ruth Edwards; and Ruby Sweeton, supposedly in toiletries, who seemed to be everywhere. With bright red spots of rouge on her cheeks, Mildred Shortridge presided over the popcorn machine and the candy counter at the front of the store, whispering the craziest things in my ear. She made me laugh and laugh. I always bought some of the jellied orange slices and the nonpareils, those flat chocolate discs covered with hard little white balls of sugar. My friends were surprised to find that I never got anything free at the dimestore; despite my protests, I had to save my allowance and pay just like everybody else.

I WAS ALLOWED TO RUN free all over town, which was filled with our relatives, not only Smiths, but Dennises and Belchers as well. Russell Belcher ran the Rexall drugstore. Uncle Curt Smith owned the Lynwood Theater and lived with his wife Lyde and her sister Nora Belcher in a shotgun apartment above it, reached by a long, dark staircase. I was fascinated by this apartment, where the rooms were all in a row and Lyde cooked a big hot lunch in the middle of every day. Uncle Vern Smith (longtime member of the Virginia State Legislature) and his son Harold had opened the first Ford Agency. Uncle Clyde Dennis ran the insurance agency. Uncle Percy Dennis, Sr., was the Superintendent of Schools, while Percy Dennis, Jr., operated the Mingo lumber yard across the river. My grandfather's alcoholic brother, piano-playing Blind Bill Smith, often came over from West Virginia to play boogie-woogie piano for dances. My grandparents Chloe and Earl Smith lived across Slate Creek from town in a big old brick house reached by a scary swinging bridge that I crossed each time with my heart in my mouth.

I went to town every single day when school let out, across that swinging bridge and then the real bridge they built later on. First I went to the dimestore and got some candy from Mildred and did my homework upstairs in the office, or crossed the street to the old stone courthouse and did my homework in my grandaddy's treasurer's office, eavesdropping all the while. In the dimestore I learned who was pregnant, who was getting married, who had got saved, who had got churched for drinking, who was mean to her children or made the best red velvet cake. In the courthouse I'd hear a different kind of story—who was in jail, who had gone bankrupt or shot his brother or tried to short his employees, who was out of a job or had set his house on fire just to collect the insurance money. I also liked to go around the county politicking with Granddaddy on Sunday afternoons, sitting down to eat some Sunday dinner with everybody. I liked to stand out on the courthouse corner with him on Saturdays when he gave out dollar bills. Men would be smoking and shooting dice and "loafering around telling lies," as Grandaddy said, on the courthouse bench, and boys would be shining shoes. Somebody would always be playing music, guitar and fiddle and maybe banjo, out on the sidewalk in front of the dimestore.

Next to the dimestore was the Rexall drugstore, where as a teenager I gossiped with my girlfriends, bought Maybelline makeup, ate mysterious "meat sandwiches," and read Teen magazine with its articles like "How to Talk to Boys (Tip: Learn about Cars)." Then came Russell's Men's Store where I held Christmas jobs during high school; and finally, Uncle Curt's Lynwood Theater which I attended virtually every time the movie changed during my entire life in Grundy.


  • “With restrained prose and charming humor, [Smith] illuminated a way of life that has all but disappeared and explores the impulse to bear witness that underpins the storyteller in all of us.”
    People (Book of the Week)
    “Smith delivers a memoir that shines with a bright spirit, a generous heart and an entertaining knack for celebrating absurdity. Although DIMESTORE is constructed as a series of personal essays, it presents as full a sense of a life as any traditional narrative.”
    The New York Times Book Review
    “…heartwarming… Dimestore shares the habits that may have saved Smith from her own tendency to get too “wrought up,” one of which was to approach storytelling “the way other people write in their journals,” in order to make it through the night. Fiction became her lifelong outlet, a means of sustaining and reaffirming the connection to her work, as well as a way to preserve the rich mountain culture she so loved as a child.”
    Atlanta Journal-Constitution
    Dimestore may prove to be a work that connects wildly with readers. Because truth is often more powerful than fiction, and because the tale she has actually lived so far to tell is rendered keenly, irrepressibly and without self-pity. Lee Smith, the person, emerges as one of nonfiction’s great protagonists.”
    Raleigh News Observer

    “Now, at last, we have Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, a seasoned, open-hearted memoir, taking us from her youth in the coal-mining town of Grundy, Va., through her education at private schools in Richmond and Roanoke, Va., to her life since 1974, first in Chapel Hill married to the poet James Seay, and since 1985, to columnist and literary critic Hal Crowther. Throughout, the memoir shows Smith’s spunk and spirit….  Yes, Lee Smith is a writer, and without that, we probably would not have this engrossing memoir. But at heart, Lee Smith is a woman – openhearted, spirited, humble – and it is those qualities especially that inspire and make us glad as we read.”
    Charlotte Observer
    “…profoundly readable… Like her novels, Smith’s memoir is intimate, as though writer and reader are sitting together on a front-porch swing. She writes in the rich vernacular of her youth. Smith’s details are so piercingly remembered, so vividly set on the page, that I felt wrapped in a great blanket of familiarity. Her memoir is a warm, poignant read about a lost time and place, a love of books and a celebration of the quirks and oddities of home.”
    Minneapolis Star Tribune

    “This memoir is Smith at her finest. There is not one false note in the book. This wonderful memoir—filled with tenderness, compassion, love, and humor—is highly recommended for fans of Smith’s fiction, lovers of Southern writing, and readers who are interested in the changes in small-town America.”
    Library Journal (starred review)
    “Candid and unsentimental, Smith's book sheds light on her beginnings as writer while revealing her resilience and personal transformations over the course of a remarkable lifetime. A warm, poignant memoir from a reliably smooth voice.”
    Kirkus Reviews
    Dimestore…is a testament to the power of place. The author of thirteen novels and multiple short story collections, Smith has long brought Appalachia to life for readers, and the book chronicles her own childhood in the coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia, where she worked as a young girl in her father’s five-and dime, and her path to becoming a writer.”
    Garden Gun

On Sale
Apr 4, 2017
Page Count
224 pages
Algonquin Books

Lee Smith

About the Author

Lee Smith began writing stories at the age of nine and selling them for a nickel apiece. Since then, she has written seventeen works of fiction, including Fair and Tender Ladies, Oral History, Guests on Earth, and most recently, Dimestore. She has received many awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature and an Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; her novel The Last Girls was a New York Times bestseller as well as winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award.

Learn more about this author