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Lee Smith celebrates 45 years of publishing with new novel

By Isaac Weeks
Correspondent
LEESMITH1-AL-100413-JEL
PHOTOS BY JULI LEONARD - jleonard@newsobserver.com
Lee Smith signs her new novel at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.

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This is the 45th anniversary of Lee Smith’s debut novel, “The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed.” And she’s on the road for a 20-city book tour in support of her latest release, “Guests on Earth,” published by Algonquin.

She has gained a large and diverse following with stories that capture the essence of the rural South.

“Lee Smith’s work is loved by anyone with an appreciation of the spoken word and literary conversation; her books are where the two meet,” said John Valentine, co-owner of The Regulator Bookshop in Durham. “She is so accessible, so honest, there is no pretension to her work.”

Smith, 68, author of 13 novels and four short story collections – among them the 2002 New York Times best-seller and Southern Book Critics Circle Award-winning “The Last Girls” – was born in 1944 in Grundy, a small coal-mining town in southwest Virginia where her father owned the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store and her mother taught home economics.

Smith moved to Chapel Hill in 1974, six years after her first novel was published.

For 16 years, Smith has lived nearby in Hillsborough, population 6,300, with her husband, journalist Hal Crowther.

Has she been tempted to move to a larger city with easier access to book publishers? “No, absolutely not! I write about people in small towns; I don’t write about people living in big cities. My kind of storytelling depends upon people that have time to talk to each other.”

Her friends believe small town life is part of Smith’s DNA to connect with those around her.

“Anyone that knows Lee realizes that she would make a community wherever she happens to live,” says Jill McCorkle, a writer who met Smith while attending UNC Chapel Hill in the late 1970s. “All you need to see is Lee in her walking shoes, speaking to everyone in town that she runs across on her walks.”

Smith’s first novel was released in 1968, based on a manuscript she wrote while in college.

Her second novel, “Something in the Wind,” was published in 1971, and third, “Fancy Strut,” in 1973.

Smith taught writing at UNC and at N.C. State. Now professor emeritus in N.C. State’s Department of English, Smith still enjoys opportunities to interact with students.

“Lee is such an exciting teacher to have,” says McCorkle, a writing instructor in the English department at NCSU. “She shows up fully carbonated and is just always writing. I think she is just someone that can make a young student feel like this is all possible, just to write and actually get somewhere with it.”

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