When I was fresh out of college and working for a Senator from Florida, I would drive around Tallahassee in my candy apple red Camaro, trying to wash away my rural accent by repeating words the same way Bob Edwards did on NPR. It was during such a morning while listening to NPR and mimicking Mr. Edwards that I was captivated by a voice that twenty years later I can only describe as ‘honey dipped.’
Leaning over the steering wheel, I was so drawn to the voice coming through the car speakers that I missed my exit. The voice belonged to a writer named Lee Smith and the timing seemed divinely appointed.
She read from a story about a Memphis weatherman who had reinvented himself and had bleached away his rural heritage. Upon visiting his dying mother in a hospital ICU, the weatherman was forced to come to terms with the choices he made. After the reading, I nodded as Bob Edwards commented on how honest and soulfully bare the scene felt.
The author went on to share her concern that children of the south, and particularly children of Appalachia, were given a disservice by the advent of satellite television. She explained that children were being taught that something was wrong with the way they sounded – with their accent – and that they were being taught to believe that they had to speak like Tom Brokaw. Basically, by losing their accents, they were losing a part of their heritage.
That afternoon I went directly to the bookstore and purchased Me And My Baby View The Eclipse, the short story collection from which Lee Smith had read from on NPR. While reading the stories my world began to unfold around me. The stories about common everyday people who work at Wal-Mart and Fabric World nourished the idea that I had stories to tell as well. As such, I began to realize that through telling my stories I could capture my own unique culture of North Florida.
Lee Smith not only opened up my mind to the joy of writing but she gave me pride in being a small town southerner. And I finally decided just to listen to Bob Edwards and enjoy the sound of his voice without copying him -- it made for a less stressful drive to work each morning.
Many years later when a job transfer brought me to Lee Smith’s home state of North Carolina, I became a groupie. Yes, I became one of those crazy people at book signings who lingers at the back of the line. You know the kind – the type that allows others to step ahead of him so that he can have uninterrupted time to corner the author.
After completing my first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, I stood in the back of one of those lines and mustered the courage to ask the writer I idolized to take a look at my own work. Being the warm and generous person that she is, Lee Smith agreed to read the manuscript. I didn’t realize that protocol typically calls for the manuscript to be accepted by a publisher before the writer seeks an author quote but Lee never let on otherwise. Her kindness shines as brightly as her talent.
I’ll never forget the evening I received a letter from her about my manuscript. It was on a Saturday, during the fourth of July holiday weekend. I tucked the letter in the back of my pants, darted into the bathroom and locked the door, thinking that if she politely told me to move on with other endeavors I could flush the letter down the toilet and my family would never know the difference. My heart raced as I read her words – encouraging words – words that would become the first blurb I’d ever receive.
In that moment, my writing life and reading life had come full circle. The road to publication would take another year but the support I received from that talented woman who first spoke to me through my Camaro speakers gave me the fuel I needed to keep going. God bless Lee Smith.