Spinning a Yarn 

Southern writer Lee Smith on the family history and tragedies that went into her 12th novel.

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The lore, rumor, history and tragedy that inspire the characters and places in Lee Smith's 12th novel, "On Agate Hill," carry enough weight and intrigue by themselves to fill a 13th. A composite of letters, journals, court testimonies, boarding-school rosters and poetry, "On Agate Hill" is perhaps Smith's most complicated novel both structurally and thematically. The varied narratives that relay the life of the orphan Molly Petree also enfold the stories of numerous sons and daughters of North Carolina during the aftermath of the Civil War. Smith's first work of historical fiction, "On Agate Hill" is home to bits and pieces of her own family history and is the place where she sought solace following the death of her 33-year-old son.

"There's a great deal of ambiguity and darkness in 'Agate Hill.' You plan your book and then your own life keeps happening," says Smith, whose psychiatrist ordered her to continue writing through her grief. "So Molly struggles with grief and loss as I did. She is able to go on and incorporate her losses and live fully. When you feel like your life is in fragments, putting words on a page is helpful. Art transforms pain and creates order for all of us."

The spirit of Smith's son appears toward the book's conclusion, through Juney, an uncanny and brilliant blind dwarf. "My son was a very soulful, special kind of person and a musician," says Smith. "It was a lovely surprise that he came back into the novel. We don't really lose anybody forever; they become a part of us."

Smith sees Molly as the dark sister of Ivy Rowe, the heroine of "Fair and Tender Ladies," the novel that made Lee Smith a household name in contemporary Southern women's fiction. The significant conflict of "Agate Hill," Smith says, is between living an isolated life or a fully engaged life.

"Molly's great struggle to me is that she swears she will never give all of her heart away, but she does," says Smith. "She chooses love unwisely, but she gets what she wanted. She suffers for it the rest of her life."

Smith's interest in writing a book set in the 1870s was piqued by living next to a Civil War cemetery, a Civil War museum and the Burwell School for Girls in Hillsborough, N.C., where she has lived for nearly 30 years.

"All my life I've been so fascinated with documentary studies. I have done a lot of oral history work in the mountains where I'm from. The idea of how haphazard history is fascinates me. It's just what you've found and put into a context."

Smith researched her novel for months, but put all of the books down when it came time to write. "The danger of historical fiction is that the history can overtake the fiction," she says. "I didn't want to get bogged down in the details."

The details of Smith's characters are streaked with both fact and fiction. A pivotal part of Molly's life was inspired by a famous midwife from Ashe County who lost 22 of her own babies before going on to deliver more than 1,000 babies. Molly's tragic love, Jacky Jarvis, embodies the spirit of traveling mountain musicians and Smith's own great-grandfather from Grundy, who was rumored to have another family in West Virginia. Although Smith invented all of her characters, the rights to name three of them — Eliza Valiant, Aunt Mitty and Mime Pelier — were bought for $1,000 apiece at a library auction.

The decay and renovation of the Agate plantation itself is closely in line with Smith's own family history. When her maternal grandfather from Chincoteague killed himself, the family home became a boardinghouse run by Smith's great-grandmother. Eventually the house fell into disrepair; it has since been renovated into an upscale boarding house named Miss Molly's. And like the rebuilt Agate Hill, each room is named after original members of the family.

Although she wasn't orphaned, as Molly was, Smith spent some time in an all-girls private school. She says that Richmond has changed a lot since her graduation from St. Catherine's in 1963, conceding that her sense of the city at the time was very restricted. "We wore school uniforms and were locked up most of the time," she says, but as an only child fresh from the mountains, she loved it. She moved back to Richmond in 1966 after getting kicked out of Hollins College for staying out all night. Estranged from her family, she lived in a boardinghouse on Floyd Avenue and worked as an editorial assistant at the Richmond News Leader before returning to Hollins, graduating with her class and reuniting with her family. Smith last lived in Richmond to teach for Virginia Commonwealth University's fiction writing M.F.A. program in the 1980s.

Although she retired in 2001 from teaching full-time at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Smith still teaches a summer workshop in Kentucky and is contemplating turning one of her favorite novels, Ellen Glasgow's "The Sheltered Life," into a screenplay. She recently completed "Sitting on the Courthouse Bench," an oral history project, with a group of high-school students from her hometown of Grundy, which is nearly a ghost town after repeated flooding. Because little of her family remains there, Smith felt it important to immortalize the area. "We all lose the places of our childhood, but rarely is it so dramatic," says Smith, now in her early 60s.

Despite breaking her ankle while walking her dog in the woods, Smith is currently completing her book tour — cast, crutches and all. "I bet I'll be writing a story soon about someone who is immobilized," she says. "It's a preview of being 90 years old. Yikes. It slows you down and makes you really think about a lot of things." Which for a writer, even one of the South's greatest, might not be all bad. S

Lee Smith will be at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as part of its Poetic Principles program on Nov. 15 to read from and discuss "On Agate Hill." The event is sold-out, but an audio file of the event will be at www.blackbird.vcu.edu beginning Dec. 15.

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