Lee Smith on writing

 

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Lee Smith, left, signed my copy of her latest book, Guests on Earth, and then agreed to this photo. I got overly excited and made a crazy face.

If you believe in the regionalism of writing (I’m on the fence — books don’t have accents so can prose really sound Southern versus Northern?) Lee Smith is among the most important contemporary Southern writers. She’s certainly among the most prolific and delightful of living writers. Not that I’ve met all of them, but Smith is effortlessly hilarious, mirthful and smart without losing an ounce of sass. She gave a keynote address and a lecture during the North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference. The following are notes from those presentations.

• I have come to believe, over the years, that I could tell the truth better in fiction.

• When you’re writing fiction, it’s the real stuff, but you up the ante.

• You put everything about your life, up to that point, into your first novel. [Then] you really should wait awhile before you write your second novel. My second novel was terrible. …I’d used up my childhood at that point, I was happily married, and I had nothing to say. I finally made that imaginative leap, which was a real necessity because most of us writers can’t be out there, living like crazy. …We need to stop writing what we know.

• You just can’t make up anything as fascinating as real life. Reality will trump imagination every time.

About her forthcoming memoir, Dimestore:
• As soon as the actual places were gone, I felt this tremendous need to re-create them in words and people them with those of us who were there. …I don’t want to live an unexamined life. I want to make a record of all I’ve loved.

• Read like a writer. Take it apart. If it works for you, see why it works.

• In memoir, you have to develop yourself as a character. You need to develop a little distance from yourself. …To develop character is to up the ante.

• The very act of writing makes me remember more and more. …Writing is self-repair. It doesn’t necessarily have to be writing for publication. There are many reasons to write, and publication may be the last.

Window shopping

Like many of you, my heart aches for Paris. It’s a place that inspires and confounds me from afar. I spent a week in Paris alone — my 40th birthday gift to myself —  and discovered that the Paris of my dreams didn’t always match up with the city’s actual moods and quirks. But the stories it gave to me and the secrets it revealed continue to stir my dreams and unfold in my writing. While the following essay is hardly an answer to the violence that played out last weekend, it is a collection of moments captured and relived on the page. Moments of a place in which I was happy, sad, moved, inspired and undone. Vive la Paris.

The French for window shopping, léche-vitrine, translates to “lick the windows.”

I only buy two pieces of clothing in Paris: a cheap T-shirt dress from H&M, and a scarf from a stall in a clutch of tourists stores selling post cards and Eiffel Tower key fobs. I buy the scarf because the weather keeps turning cold, even though it’s May, and the scarf I packed is too thin against the sudden rain.

In the Paris of my mind, I spend whole days shopping. Trying on wonderful things I can’t afford. In my mind, couture happens in boutiques, in proportions that make sense, and with a readily available vocabulary. In the Paris of reality, I only see couture in magazines and I have a vocabulary for ordering coffee, and even then only with moderate success.

I do try to shop a few times in the second hand store near my hotel. It’s a revelation. I love a good thrift shop anyway, and that such a thing exists in Paris strikes me as pure genius. Cast off sweaters and skirts, previously worn by stylish French women; surely the garments retain some of the aura of their previous owners. The clothes are heaped into bins on top of long folding tables, and the shoppers — a mix of coolly disheveled younger women and shrunken grandmothers in head scarves — muscle through them. There’s no order, no system to define by type or size or quality. And half way through my first bin, one passable sweater in my free hand, the shop closes.

In Paris, stores (at least low-end ones) don’t close in a, “We’ll be closing in 15 minutes. Please bring all purchases to the register” way. They close definitively, in an instant, with the lights off and the shoppers rushed out the door. If you didn’t get to pay, you’ll have to come back for it. I don’t make it back, though. The store is closed when I pass, first thing in the morning and after dark as I leave and return to my hotel.

There are other shops in the neighborhood — the twist of streets just outside of Montmartre. I picked the hotel believing it was in Montmartre, close to the Lapin Agile and the Sacre Cour. Instead, it’s one neighborhood over, next to the Cimetière de Montmartre and inhabited by young families who shop for groceries and walk children to school. There are bakeries with confusing hours and unpronounceable pastries, and there are tiny boutiques packed with the sort of clothes you’d buy in the mall, at Wet Seal or Icing. Cheap things, too short and too bright.

In Paris, there are tons of these stores, selling bandage dresses, miniskirts and gaudy t-shirts. Faux-leather boots and giant earrings. No one wears that stuff, though. Nor do they wear vintage clothes, as far as I can tell. Nothing twee or retro or rescued from a free box on the sidewalk. Everyone wears slim-fitting jeans and jackets in dark neutrals. Black, gray, navy blue and chocolate brown. Endless variations on the same basic theme. It should be boring, but it’s not, because it’s Paris and in Paris even boring things like jeans and jackets are cool.

Booksellers along the Seine

 I spend a lot of time watching people in their jeans and jackets. I sit in Cafés and in bars. I sit in bars that are also cafés. It’s hard to tell. Indoor smoking has been banned, so everyone sits in the outdoor seating, protected from the rain by plastic sheeting. To get inside, you have to walk through the smog. I order tiny glasses of Sancerre and Cotes du Rhone, sipping at the cut-gem wine while making meticulous notes in my journal about what everyone is wearing.

Not art or philosophy or slicing insights to be posted, later, on Yelp. Just clothes. My whole travel legacy comes down to notes on clothes.

I’m happiest when I’m sitting at a wicker table drinking something. I know what to do then. The rest of the time, in Paris, I’m lost and directionless and wearing the wrong thing. My hair is wrong, too. The persistent rain ruins my flat ironing, and then the flat iron overheats even though I’ve plugged it into an adapter. My hotel room reeks of scorch.

There’s nothing to do but carry on. I dress and leave the hotel in search of coffee, shedding a trail of burned hair slivers in my wake.

Surprisingly, the French don’t wear sunglasses. Hats, yes. But even when the sun comes out, no one but the tourists pulls out sunglasses. I go for as long as I can without mine, feeling conspicuous when I slide them on. Like I’m showing off. But it’s not like, without them, I blend in. Everywhere I go — to the fashion museum, to the Louvre, to the gardens and the Seine — I stand out, not in a good way. I’m the only one on the Pont Neuf with no one to kiss, the only one alone in line for the Eiffel Tower.

The only time I’m not alone is on the subway. Teenagers girls, hard and mean, leap out of nowhere to press behind when I go through the turnstyle. It’s a scam that only works in a crowd. But after the turnstyle, the long, confusing passageways leading to the trains are mostly empty. There’s the occasional busker or baffled-looking Englishman, and infrequent signs that sometimes reduce me to tears. But when the trains come at rush hour, the crowd swells and presses forward, filling in every space. There are so many people, it’s impossible to fall. I hold my bag close to my body and let myself be tumbled and borne to my stop. I body surf on personal waves of repulsion and exhilaration.

The last thing I buy in Paris is a raisin brioche. I never eat pastries at home, but this isn’t home. I discover the raisin brioche at the cafe near the Place de Clichy metro station three days before the end of my trip. It’s soft and just the right amount of sweet with something like custard cooked into the dough. Even if I haven’t found friends, or fashion, or enough words to order an omelet without embarrassing myself, I have found the carbohydrate equivalent of a torrid affair.

NaNoWriMo Q+A with author Deanna Dee

Deanna Dee, photo courtesy of the author

Deanna Dee, photo courtesy of the author

Romance author Deanna Dee celebrates the launch of her latest book, Finish Him, on Tuesday, Nov. 17. But while that project is keeping her busy this year, Deanna is no stranger to National Novel Writing Month. Here, she shares her experiences and some very helpful tips.

When did you last participate in NaNoWriMo and what did you set out to write?

Deanna Dee: I last participated in 2013, and I set out to write the rough draft of my first novel, Critical Hit-On, a college gamer romance.

What sort of word count did you set for yourself, and how much time each day did you dedicate to the project?

I aimed for the full 50,000. In terms of time per day, I didn’t really keep track by hours. More important was word count. I packed heavy writing into the beginning of the month so I’d be ahead of the curve. I’d say it’s best to aim for 2,000 words a day the first week, however long it takes each day.

At the end of the month did you have a completed novel? How did you feel about the work you’d done?

I had a nearly completed novel. It turned out the book needed another 5,000 or so words, but that was easy to finish up. How did I feel? Empowered, awesome, like I’d done something.

Finish+Him+ebookWould you do Nano again?

Probably, if the timing worked out. I’m not doing it this year because I’m releasing my third book this month, and something had to give. For me, Nano is a great way to get motivated. I’m very competitive, and if I’m not where the site says I should be, I have to catch up.

What advice would you offer to someone participating in Nano this year?

Keep writing! Any amount of words is more than zero. Also, if you’ve been staying on target up until now and then suddenly have a day where you can’t write, don’t panic. And don’t try to put in double the words the next day. You’ll intimidate yourself out of writing anything. Recalculate. Figure out how many words you need to write to get back on task and shoot for that. It’s a lot less daunting.

What are you currently working on, and where can we learn more about your writing?

I’m currently working on a Christmas short story to go along with my published series. To find out more about me and what I write, you can check out my website/blog.

Follow Deanna on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, and find her books online here.

“How to Talk to Rockstars” ebook release and giveaway

“How to Talk to Rockstars” ebook release and giveaway

BIG ANNOUNCEMENT: The ebook version of How to Talk to Rockstars is finally available.

Find it on Amazon, check it out, download it, carry it around on your Kindle (or out-dated iPad, if you roll like I do).

To celebrate, I’m giving away TWO copies. To win, share your favorite concert memory in the comments field. The winner will be selected at random and announced here on Friday, Nov. 13, at noon. [Please note: If you win, you will need to provide your email address so I can send you the download code.]

Good luck!

How to Talk to Rockstars first chapter:

At the edge of the stage, in the limbo between darkness and spotlights, between anonymity and fame, Jude Archer knows two things: That he is a rare genius. And that he is a complete fraud.

Sometimes he turns these dual realizations over and over like a penny in his fingers. Sometimes he lets them alternately punish and soothe his soul, these words. One a barb and one a balm. The devil and the angel on his shoulders, but which is which?

Sometimes he lets the needles of knowing fill him with doubt, with hope. With fear, with excitement. And sometimes he just turns away from the knowing, tucks the coin away into a pocket for later.
Or for never.

Just off stage, Jude Archer is no one. It’s the moment of the day he hates most, those few seconds of not being. And then he hears his name.

For one night only —

And he’s already in the light, bathed in it, blinded by it. Soaking it in and becoming. Not just someone, but the one.

All eyes are on him, and he’s reflected back in their fevered glow. The one he’s become. But which one? The genius or the fraud?

Fame, fame. Remember my name.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 5.24.34 PM    The terrible truth, thinks Bryn, is that I can close my eyes and feel you in the air around me. Heat of your skin, scratch of your beard, even though I’ve never been in the same room as you.

She blinks back into the present moment, pushes her glasses up on her forehead and massages her eyelids. For the hundred and tenth time she reminds herself that these details of Jude Archer that come so easily to mind are simply the work of an active imagination. Hers. He’s no different from any other musician she’s interviewed. She knows his bio and his latest album, Fly By Night. She knows a few details — his friends call him Jim, he wears skull beads wrapped around his wrist, he has tattoos of his own design snaking up his arms and covering his chest.

Bryn does like to go into an interview with an arsenal of minutia. The tiny details make the person on the other end of the telephone seem more real, more whole. She needs a whole picture in order to move forward. In order to ask the questions.

Deep breath. Chase away the jitters, focus, find an inner calm. Then dial. The numbers click under her fingertips.

Sometimes the musicians call her. Or, if they’re famous, their publicists call.
This is Amanda from Public Record. Hold while I get Marianne Faithful on the line. That sort of thing.

It’s rare but not unheard of that Bryn calls in. Sometimes she’s given the number and pass code to a conference call service where the voices of the different band members blur together until Bryn’s ear learns who is who. What makes each voice unique.

But Jude Archer’s number is just that. His number. She has it. Ever since it was sent to her, she’s been careful not to look at it too closely. Sometimes the most benign things can burn. Now she opens the email, writes the number in black ink at the top of her notebook. Dials.

Not that anyone dials anymore. How long since she used a rotary phone, crossed time and space in the resounding clatter of the dial spinning back to zero?

Let it go. Focus.

The phone rings. Bryn breathes. Must be calm, otherwise there’s a chance of squeaking out a greeting. She doesn’t want to sound like a child. Relax, take time, speak slowly. This is Bryn Thompson with Mic Stand Magazine. Voice low and smooth, easy, warm.

He answers on the third ring, says, this is Jude. Sounds like he just woke up.
She says her name too quickly, adjusts her speed, asks if this is a convenient time for him to talk.

Yeah, it’s fine.

Bryn cradles the receiver against her ear, watching the recorder measure the highs and lows of his voice. On the bottom end, the recorder barely registers. The skin on the back of her arms goose pimples. How’s your day so far? she asks. What city are you in this morning? The throwaway questions. Usually she tries to breeze through those. Makes sure the equipment is working and gets to the interview. Small talk only prolongs the awkwardness.

But his voice. Hoarse at the bottom and airy at the top. For just a minute she lets herself sink into it. Like when she was fifteen, stretching the phone cord to the basement stairs so she could talk in urgent whispers in the chilly dark.
Back when the dial clattered back to zero.

Bryn’s coworkers are all at their desks, typing their own stories. She knows that they’re at least halfway listening. She always halfway listens to their interviews. Knowing this is what pulls her back into the muscle memory of professionalism. The questions are in front of her on a scrap of paper, jotted down and scratched out, numbered in order of importance. She does what she’s supposed to do.

Let’s start with the name of the album, she says. And so it begins.

The memory of things

Unitarian Church cemetery, Charleston, S.C.

Unitarian Church cemetery, Charleston, S.C.

Walking up the loose bricks of Lexington Avenue, passed the Shady Grove florist shop, I thought for the first time in years about the series of gift cards I used to produce. It was 1997 and, in a bout of entrepreneurial motivation, I designed a number of collages from old issues of National Geographic.

The magazines came from a turn-of-the-last-century house tucked into an overgrown wedge of land at the far end of Montford. The property had the feeling of being at the edge of the known universe (just past the treeline was a steep hill that bottomed out on the interstate) and also lost in time. It was too ornate for a farmhouse but its rambling garden, wire fence and white-washed siding all nodded to farmhouse-ness. I took a weekend job helping to clean it out after its owner — a hoarder and chain smoker — passed away. A friend of my mother’s was the realtor and needed to remove a lifetime of ephemera in order to put the house on the market.

Morning glories

Morning glories

I loved every moment in that house, despite its nicotine-stained walls and claustrophobic floor-to-ceiling piles of boxes, books and newspapers. The tall windows were all blocked by layers of blinds, yellowed lace on top. The carpets were in various stages of decomposition and the few valuable antiques were damaged by cigarette smoke and neglect. Proud objects slumped in obscurity beside rickety TV trays and overly cute knick-knacks. Little Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, a nursery rhyme in a horror show.

At the end of the weekend I took a box of National Geographics and an oversized faux-fur coat in payment. The coat, on, looked like half of a bear costume and smelled like furnace. I eventually gave it away to a drag-queen co-worker at a late-night hotel job. But the magazines I kept and cut, slicing new stories out of old. A picture is worth a thousand words, and then it can be repurposed for a thousand more.

I made eight collages and had them color-copied at Kinko’s, back when Kinko’s was a destination. It was an all-hours, fluorescent-lit bastion of office drudgery and rare creativity. Paper clips, three-hole punches, lamination, clear plastic sleeves. You could run off a report (I never did) or reproduced your chapbook in double-sided print pages with a center staple. The color copies were pricey at a dollar a page, but if I combined four collages onto a letter-sized sheet, I’d get four prints for my dollar.

One of the oldest houses in Hot Springs, N.C.

One of the oldest houses in Hot Springs, N.C.

The greeting card production consisted of glueing a collage print onto the face of cream-colored cardstock and signing the image title (“Sisters,” “Tropical Fruit,” “Travel Dreams”) and my name on the back, like it was high art. (It was, at least, medium art.)

I sold the cards, eight at a time — one of each print — to flower designer Perri Crutcher whose tiny shop was tucked into a Lexington Avenue storefront. The shop itself was barely larger than a closet, but it smelled dark and mysterious. Damp, exotic, slightly dangerous and deeply enchanted. But the true magic of the place was that its side door led to an alley that opened into a back lot where once a building might have stood but had long been left to return to the wild. It was a large open-air room shaded by a giant maple tree. Narrows paths led to rusting metal benches and wooden furniture in stages of collapse. It all felt at once diminishing and expanding, dying and caught in the act of being reborn.

My entrepreneurial spirit ended there. I only ever sold my cards to Perri and when he moved away, I quit making them. Things change, it’s the nature of being. Creativity ebbs and flows and takes on new forms. But I think, when I pass Perri’s old shop — now Shady Grove — about how the secret garden still exists out back. It’s not closed off to visitors, but it’s the kind of place you have to know exists. You have to make an effort to get there. And then, when you do, the garden reveals its strange magic without ever rousing itself from its own tangle of dreams.

Begin at the beginning

This month, in honor of NaNoWriMo, I’m sharing essays, musings, Q+As and more on crafting fiction.

Mural on Lexington Ave., Asheville, 2011

Mural on Lexington Ave., Asheville, 2011

My first novel was written in five weeks, mostly on my computer at work. I was the assistant to the PR director at a resort hotel at the time. My boss was more of a do-er than a delegator so, when I wasn’t affixing address labels to press releases (this was back when press releases went out by snail mail), I had a lot of free time.

The novel, titled Waiting for the Owl, was terrible. It was hasty and poorly organized — a rambling tale of travel and the search for self by way of trying to recapture some cloudy semblance of a former self — but it had energy and purpose. I can’t criticize it too harshly, even now, because as much as I’ve learned how to write better, I’ve also learned that the way to get anything right is to get it wrong, first.

The part of me that’s still a little bit precious about fiction probably saved a version of that first novel, somewhere. It’s probably a hard copy, yellowing in the back of my filing cabinet. I keep my MFA folders in my suitcase, under my bed, and every time I pack for a trip I have to move them. It reminds me of how far I’ve come (and, in some ways, how far I haven’t come). And also how grateful I am for thumb drives because hard copies are cumbersome links to the past.

I hope no one ever reads my first novel. I did submit it to a handful of agents not understanding that a first draft of a first novel bore little resemblance to an actual finished project worthy of representation. I’ve cringed a bit in subsequent years when I pitched those same agents with more developed manuscripts. But, with the intention that my first novel will never again see the light of day, I offer this pitch to the universe. Because, dammit, why not?

The saying goes, when you hit bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. But Rosie Kites, recently dumped and discouraged by her dead-end job in a college town, has a different take on that theme. There’s nowhere to go but back — back to a time when things felt exciting, on-the-verge, and downright magical.

Stirred by the return of a childhood vision in which she spotted Gypsy caravans camped on a rural roadside, Rosie embarks on a trip to track down those wanders who sparked her imagination. The trip, she hopes, will help her regain connection to people and places she’s let slip from her life. She also hopes the Gypsies — if they existed at all — can offer her advice on what her next move should be.

Waiting for the Owl hits the road from Georgia to Upstate New York, gathering the sites and sounds of Americana along with old friends, colorful characters, and a poignant lesson about being true to yourself.