A Conversation with Laura Lee Smith

A Conversation with Laura Lee Smith

Interview by Nathan Leslie

Laura Lee Smith has written two novels—Heart of Palm (2013) and The Ice House (Dec. 2017). I discovered her work through her story, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which appeared in Best American Short Stories 2015. Her work was also included in New Stories from the South 2010: The Year’s Best, and has been published in New England Review, The Florida Review, Bayou Magazine, and Natural Bridge. She also contributes to Swamp Radio and works as an advertising copywriter. I like the fresh honesty of Smith’s work, as well as her outstanding characterization and sense of place.

Nathan Leslie: Hi, Laura. First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to chat for a bit. I really enjoyed reading Heart of Palm. As many have remarked upon before me, your sense of place in this novel is wonderful. Can you talk about Utina and what instigated you to set your novel in this town?

Laura Lee Smith: Thanks, Nathan. It’s great to chat, and I appreciate your comments. The town of Utina is a fictional place…sort of. It’s definitely inspired by a region near my home in St. Augustine called Palm Valley. The backstory that I gave to Utina is the backstory of Palm Valley—which was known for the harvesting and sale of palm leaves, as well as the production and sale of moonshine. I took those pieces of historical fact and used them to create a backdrop for my fictional town. The word Utina is a name I stumbled across when reading about Palm Valley’s history. Utina was a Timucuan tribal chief. Somehow these elements came together in my mind and created a canvas on which to paint the story. Utina kept me grounded—it was fortuitous and helpful that the setting came together so early in the development of the novel. Each day I simply had to “go” to Utina in my mind and see what was happening there.

NL: I also love the way you capture small-town life in Heart of Palm. Did this come from lived experience or your imagination, or some combination of the two?

LLS: I live in a small town, but the town I imagined in Heart of Palm is even smaller, even more tightly wound. Using a very confined place was useful. It enabled me to ensure that the characters were continually running into each other and creating conflicts for each other. It’s amazing how much really happens in a small town. When I walk around St. Augustine, I actually know many of the people I see, and much of the time I know their stories, their aspirations, their pain. I think I’ve used this expression before: this is a town where every day is a page in a story.

NL: I notice a substantial amount of history involved in this novel, especially early on. Did you do much research for this novel?

LLS: Much of the backstory for the town of Utina springs from recorded history involving this region. The palm trade, the moonshine, the development of the straight segment of the Intracoastal waterway—these were several historic elements that were lining up quite nicely and providing a solid backdrop for a contemporary story. I don’t think I set out to do a great deal of research, but along the way, I found myself reading more about this part of Northeast Florida to ensure that I was making accurate assumptions about the things that made up the town’s collective past.

NL: The story “Unsafe at Any Speed” in Best American Short Stories 2015 was one of my favorite stories from that collection and very different, in some ways, from Heart of Palm. Tell me about the backstory behind this story. How excited were you to be selected for inclusion in this prestigious anthology?

LLS: As you can imagine, I was absolutely thrilled to learn of the story’s inclusion in BASS. A writer’s dream! I remain very indebted to the editors of the New England Review, who originally published the story, and to one of my heroes, T.C. Boyle, for including it in 2015’s BASS. The story behind the story was this: I was leafing through a coffee table book on notable retro cars, and I came across a photo feature on the Chevrolet Corvair. I was immediately thrown into a memory: when I was in my early twenties, I nearly bought a used Corvair, but I was talked out of it by my father, who was fretting about the car’s safety record. As a fiction writer, I’m always looking for desires to hand to my characters. I want my characters to want something. When I thought about how badly I wanted that car, and how it stung to be denied it, I realized I had a strong emotional motivation and could craft a believable desire for a character out of it. And somehow Theo emerged, and somehow all his dissatisfactions became crystalized and focused on that car. If only he could get the Corvair! He seems to think it will solve everything. So I put him on the road to get the car, and I followed him to see what would happen. It was a fun story to write.

NL: Do you feel as if you gravitate more toward short stories or novels when you are sitting down to write? Or both?

LLS: For the past five years, I’ve definitely been focused on novels. I’ve written two now and am starting the third. They take so much emotional and cognitive energy that it’s difficult to compartmentalize time or resources for short stories while I’m immersed in a novel. Everything that feels like material becomes absorbed into the longer work. For instance, I create a character and start to think about how he or she could drive a short story, but then I think: wait! That guy/girl can work very well as an addition to this scene of the novel. So the novel consumes almost everything. But that said, I’ve also had a lot of other things competing for mental energy—raising a family, working, living regular life. I guess every writer’s fantasy is to have this beautifully organized and unfettered life in which you can move from one creative project to the next and give each one pure, focused energy. It hasn’t happened for me that way yet. Maybe someday. For now, I’m working on book number three, but I hope to generate some new short stories very soon as well.

Forthcoming Dec. 2017 from Grove Atlantic

NL: I was reading a bit about The Ice House on your website. The description sounds fascinating. What can you share with us at this point?

LLS: The Ice House is a story of a man who is afraid he’s going to die. I was in a library one day, and I came across some discarded notes; it looked like they were written by a student while studying for a class. Scrawled across the top of one sheet of paper was this: “The passion that inclines men to peace is fear of death. – Thomas Hobbes.” It stopped me in my tracks, and off I went to go read some Thomas Hobbes. That statement had everything I needed: character, motivation, plot. I immediately envisioned a person who was afraid of death, desirous of making peace with someone important, who sets out on a quest to achieve his goal. I tried to keep that statement as my guiding principal throughout each draft of The Ice House. Johnny MacKinnon gets some scary news; his life may be in danger. He has unfinished business with a beloved son with whom he has had a falling out. He better make it right now, or he won’t get another chance.

NL: Will you be doing many readings in support of this book? Do you look forward to readings?

LLS: I look forward to “visits.” I hope to get the opportunity to visit with readers—whether at reading groups or bookstores or other venues. One thing I learned after Heart of Palm came out is that I don’t enjoy reading from my own work, and I don’t think an audience really connects very much with an author who just stands and reads. To me, reading is a very personal, quiet thing. I don’t like being read to, and I don’t like reading aloud. That’s just me, I guess. But what is really wonderful, and what I hope to be able to do as much as I can, is visit bookstores and reading/writing groups and just talk with people. Sometimes people are interested in knowing how a writer puts a story together, and that’s always great fun to talk about and it generates an interactive conversation, rather than a static reading. So, yes! I hope to do many visits and presentations in support of the book, but I’ll stop short of calling them “readings.” Maybe I’ll read a page or so, and then we’ll all have a chat and learn about each other.

NL: Back to Heart of Palm for a bit. You have a great ear for dialogue—which always rings true in the novel. Do you have a recommended technique for writing such realistic dialogue?

LLS: Well, eavesdropping, of course. If you’re a writer, anything you hear becomes potential material, not just in terms of content, but in terms of form, as well. The more you listen to people talk, the more you become familiar with patterns and tics of human speech. People drive in circles when they’re talking. It’s fascinating. You’re in a coffee shop, for example, and you’re listening to the couple next to you. She says “Did you call Bobby like you said you would?” He says, “This coffee’s cold. This always happens to me.” Little stuff…but you develop an ear for the way people answer each other or the way they avoid answering each other, and you start to see ways to use the idiosyncrasies to develop character.

NL: The secondary characters in Heart of Palm are also quite rich. Are there particular characters from Heart of Palm you would like to spend time with if you could?

LLS: Well, Biaggio has always been a bit of a hero of mine. Rock-solid, kind-hearted, affable. Arla calls him a prince, and I do think he’d be a very soothing spirit to have around. Maybe one day I’ll write a bit more about him. He has a lot of backstory to explore. Then there’s Bell, who represents the next generation of the Bravo family. She’s growing up in a different Utina than her parents and grandparents. Her story would be fun to revisit, as well.

NL: There is a blurb from Richard Russo on the paperback edition of Heart of Palm. I find his work to be tremendous and yet somehow underrated on some level. Are you a fan of Russo’s work?

LLS: Absolutely. The first time I read Empire Falls I was weeping, on two levels. As a reader, because I felt so connected to Russo’s characters and their stories. And as a writer, because I was so blown away that a writer could create such an expansive, meticulously developed world within the pages of a book. Then I picked up Nobody’s Fool and had the same experience all over again. He’s truly a master. I’ve met him a few times and I have a picture of myself standing with him—I look a little bug-eyed and manic in the photo. I keep it anyway.

NL: What else are you reading these days?

LLS: Finishing up Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, which was a gift from my son. Chabon does more in a sentence than most of us can do in a chapter. I also recently read Brad Watson’s Miss Jane—stellar. I’ve been reading a lot of Florida nonfiction because in the next novel, I’m headed back into small-town Florida territory, and I need to brush up on the intricacies of this crazy state. The book I just finished writing (The Ice House) is set in Jacksonville—a decent-sized city—and Scotland, so it’s been a while since I’ve written about some of the things in rural and small-town Florida that I have always found so compelling. It’s good to be reading about palmetto scrub and oak canopies and mosquitoes again.

NL: Are you working on any new short stories or other projects? What else do you have on the horizon?

LLS: Other than the new novel I’m beginning to sketch out, I have some older short stories that have been in a drawer for a while. I’m going to dust them off and take another look.

NL: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me! It was a real pleasure.

LLS: Nathan, many thanks! This has been a privilege. I’m very appreciative.

Visit Laura Lee Smith online.

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