Looking at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill's national tour and 70,000-copy laydown for Lee Smith's The Last Girls, one might expect the 57-year-old recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letter's 1999 Academy Award to have taken the summer off to conserve energy for the launch of her 14th book, the top Book Sense 76 fiction pick for September/October, as well as a BOMC, Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club selections.
But at July's ALA in Atlanta, she joined Jill McCorkle and Nashville songwriters Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg for a cabaret-style replay of their Good 'Ol Girls, an edgily feminist country music review that won raves at its 1999 premier in Chapel Hill, N.C., and hopefully is headed to New York following successes elsewhere. Then, in August, the native of a Virginia coal-mining town and author of such southern Appalachian classics as Oral History and Fair and Tender Ladies returned to lead writing workshops at the Hindman Settlement School in the Kentucky mountains, another outgrowth of her deep commitment to the region.
In addition, the soon-to-be first-time grandmother is preparing for her next book, a post—Civil War novel set in North Carolina, where she has lived since 1974, when she moved there with her two sons and their father, poet James Seay. Pointing to research-filled bins on the floor, Smith says, "That's where the novel is living." The retired North Carolina State University writing teacher is in her second-story office in the pinkish Victorian house where she and her second husband, essayist Hal Crowther (Cathedrals of Kudzu/LSU), live in historic Hillsborough, just north of Chapel Hill.
As the interview turns to The Last Girls, Smith pulls out a stash of press clippings generated by the novel's impetus, a Mark Twain and Joseph Campbell—inspired excursion down the Mississippi from Paducah, Ky., to New Orleans that she and a group of her classmates at Hollins, a Virginia women's college, took in 1966 between their junior and senior years. "Look at this," she points to a "16 Girls on a Raft" headline.
Then, all the extensive media coverage referred to them as girls. "Of course we would be called women now. As it turned out, we were the last pre-feminist generation. Everything has changed for women in the intervening years, which is why I named the book The Last Girls. But you have to remember that this was the '60s, and as soon as we graduated—boom!—it was right there. Vietnam was happening, everything was happening. In retrospect, the trip seems like a little idyll, a last voyage of a certain kind of innocence—or ignorance.
"This was a raft of English majors who grew up reading Joseph Campbell and believing in his notion of the quest, the mythic journey. But actually, the mythic journey with its quest-and-conquer motif is a male thing that doesn't apply to women at all. Campbell's metaphor wasn't going to work for us because women's lives are not linear and not about the destination. They are about the trip. I think my book has lots to say about the difference between expectations and reality for women, and the relevance of the remembered past to the present."
For Smith, whose first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed, won her a BOMC Fellowship while she was at Hollins and was published by Harper & Row the year after she graduated, the idea for a book on the young women's collegiate lark has been simmering almost ever since it ended in New Orleans with a welcoming shower of red roses from a helicopter and a Preservation Hall Dixieland band playing. Initially, she had nonfiction in mind, and decided to record her rafting colleagues' memories of the almost 1,000-mile river trip plus their lives since then.
That technique proved unworkable, however, although the interviewees, she recalls, "were not at all reticent. But they were telling me things about their lives I knew I could never use, and would later call begging to not include things about their ex-husbands or things that would embarrass their children. At that point I realized, okay, if they were going to be so honest about the worst things that had happened to them, then I would have to be, too, and I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to talk about my divorce. I didn't want to talk about mental illness in my family. There were a whole lot of things I didn't want to talk about. But I also knew I didn't want to write a shallow book."
She solved her quandary by turning the trip into a fictional reunion of four of the raft's passengers 35 years later, retracing part of their earlier down-river route on a steamboat and sprinkling into the Mississippi as it approaches New Orleans the ashes of the mysterious Baby Ballou, the group's femme fatale and a poet.
Four years in progress, the novel was turned in to Putnam, her publishing home ever since agent Liz Darhansoff connected her with Faith Sale, Smith's beloved longtime editor there. But while Sale had approved what she had seen, after her 1999 death, Putnam was no longer interested and Darhansoff submitted it to Algonquin, the publisher of Smith's novella The Christmas Letters; she had also contributed the preface to editor Shannon Ravenel's New Stories from the South 2001 anthology from Algonquin.
The Last Girls is a Shannon Ravenel Book, which signifies an ironic closing of the publishing circle for Smith. Before Harper & Row's acceptance of Dogbushes, she had sent it to Ravenel, a 1960 Hollins graduate who was then a Houghton Mifflin junior editor. "She did not take it, but took the time to write me three single-spaced pages of criticism, and I revised the novel accordingly. So, essentially, Shannon was editing me all those years ago."