Growing up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia, nine-year-old Lee Smith was already writing--and selling, for a nickel apiece--stories about her neighbors in the coal boomtown of Grundy and the nearby isolated "hollers." Since 1968, she has published eleven novels, as well as three collections of short stories, and has received many writing awards.The sense of place infusing her novels reveals her insight into and empathy for the people and culture of Appalachia. Lee Smith was born in 1944 in Grundy, Virginia, a small coal-mining town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, not 10 miles from the Kentucky border. The Smith home sat on Main Street, and the Levisa River ran just behind it. Her mother, Virginia, was a college graduate who had come to Grundy to teach school.
Smith describes herself as a "deeply weird" child. She was an insatiable reader. When she was 9 or 10, she wrote her first story, about Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell heading out west together to become Mormons--and embodying the very same themes, Smith says, that concern her even today. "You know, religion and flight, staying in one place or not staying, containment or flight--and religion."
After spending her last two years of high school at St. Catherine's in Richmond, Virginia, Smith enrolled at Hollins College in Roanoke. Perhaps because life in Grundy had been so geographically and socially circumscribed, Smith says when she entered Hollins she "had this kind of breakout period--I just went wild."
It was 1966, during her senior year at Hollins, that Smith's literary career began to take off. She submitted an early draft of a coming-of-age novel to a Book-of-the-Month Club contest and was awarded one of twelve fellowships. Two years later, that novel, The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed (Harper & Row, 1968), became Smith's first published work of fiction.
Following her graduation from Hollins, Smith married James Seay, a poet and teacher, whom she accompanied from university to university as his teaching assignments changed. She worked for newspapers and raised two little boys, but found little time for her own fiction. By 1971, though, she'd completed her second novel, Something in the Wind, which garnered generally favorable reviews. But her next novel, Fancy Strut (1973), was widely praised by critics as a comic masterpiece.
In 1974 Smith and her family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she taught high school and finished Black Mountain Breakdown (1981), a much darker work than her readers had come to expect.
While writing stories, Smith says she discovered an "intrusive, down-home narrative voice" that allowed her to write about the kind of people she'd known back home in Grundy, using Appalachian dialect without sounding like “Hee Haw." She would expand on this more colloquial voice in all of her subsequent work.
Shortly after the publication of Black Mountain Breakdown, Smith published Cakewalk (1981), her first collection of short stories. It was also about this time that her marriage broke up, and she accepted a teaching job at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she taught for 19 years. In 1983 her fifth novel, Oral History, became a Book-of-the-Month Club featured selection, exposing Smith for the first time to a wide national audience. Then in 1985 she published Family Linen and married journalist Hal Crowther, to whom she dedicated the new book.
Smith reached a wider audience with New York Times bestseller The Last Girls (2002), which was inspired by an actual raft trip she made down the Mississippi River with other Hollins girls in 1966. The Last Girls was also a “Good Morning America” Book Club pick.
On Agate Hill, an historical novel set in piedmont North Carolina during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, was published in Fall 2006.