Reading Matters

Lee Smith to talk at Davidson College

Lee Smith
Lee Smith

It’s the best idea on record for a novel: The true story of Zelda Fitzgerald’s stay at the former Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, which ended with her fiery death in 1948.

And leave it to novelist Lee Smith not only to birth that idea but to carry it triumphantly through with her 17th novel, “Guests on Earth,” published in 2013.

That novel is this year’s community read for the Town of Davidson and the Davidson College English Department, which together will present a night with Lee Smith at 7 p.m. next Wednesday in the Lilly Gallery on the campus.

Smith’s talk is “Telling the Truth in Fiction,” the story behind “Guests on Earth.”

Fitzgerald perished along with eight other women patients in a locked ward on the top floor of the hospital. Her body was identified only by her charred ballet slipper.

So how to tell this story? Not through Fitzgerald herself. No. She would be what’s called an “unreliable narrator.” Smith chose a fellow inmate at the hospital -- a fictional one -- the young Evalina Toussaint, daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer. Evalina connects with Fitzgerald, a talented ballerina, as she plays for the many concerts, theatricals and dances at Highland.

And it’s Toussaint who unlocks the mystery of the fiery deaths.

Smith will sign books after her talk. The event is free and open to the public.