Novelists Lee Smith and Michael Parker find the germ for good fiction

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lee smith and fan
Lee Smith, seated alongside former student Michael Parker, greets a fan. (photo by Mary Coyne Wessling)

Michael Parker, the novelist, was working as a night watchman in 1981 when he took an evening creative-writing class at UNC-Chapel Hill with the renowned author Lee Smith. The uniform freaked his classmates out a little.

“People would say, ‘Well what does he do?’” Smith recalled during a conversation between the two writers at the Van Dyke Performance Space during the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival on May 19. “I said, ‘I just don’t know.’…. Everybody thought you were staking us out. For drugs. Or whatever.”

Considering the two writers’ natural gifts for storytelling, command of language and native eccentricities, virtually anything they wanted to talk about during their allotted hour at the festival would have been fascinating. But for the audience, including many working and aspiring writers, writing technique was a natural topic.

Both writers have constructed enviable bodies of work and approachable personalities; Smith and Parker drew rapt attention from audience members eager to absorb some of their magic. Smith excels, as Parker noted, at “wringing the poetry out of everyday speech” in novels like Devil’s Backbone, Oral History and Black Mountain Breakdown that mine the mythology and music of her native Appalachia. Parker, a professor at UNCG, has written several novels, the focus of which has shifted from North Carolina to the arid south-central plains. Smith noted that Parker has been compared to Walker Percy and Cormac McCarthy.

“It’s interesting to me the way Cormac McCarthy started in the South — you know, started in Knoxville — and then went west. And you know, you’ve done that same trajectory, I think. This sort of mysterious loner-ness of so many characters, I think there’s that, too.”

Parker replied with wry wit: “My body count is a little lower than his.”

During their conversation in Greensboro, Lee said that from the start Parker seemed to possess “this skewed vision that was incredibly original and interesting, as well as an enormous ease with language.” Lee added, “And these are things that you cannot teach as a writing teacher; you can encourage them when you find them…. You can teach technique; you can teach point of view. You can teach a lot of stuff, but somebody with an original vision of the world — you can’t really teach that.”

For his part, Parker praised Smith’s “interrogative” teaching style, recalling a story he wrote as a student in which a character consumes 47 Little Debbie snack cakes. Smith wrote in the margin, “I think seven?”

“But it’s the question mark which is a testimony to what a great teacher she is, because she’s not, ‘Do this, do that.’… She asks questions and she pushes you that way.”

Both writers are also first-rate storytellers.

Recalling the childhood experience that provided her first glimpse into the larger life of the community — and the theme for her memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life — Smith told the audience in Greensboro: “Daddy’s office was one story up from the whole floor of the dimestore, and so I was up in the office all the time looking out. And I could see everybody; they couldn’t see me.

“I saw fights and embraces, and people slapping children,” Smith continued. “One time I saw a big old woman with a big old overcoat get a whole Philco radio, which were huge then, and put it between her legs, and just waddle out of the store. I stood up so I could watch her go. For some reason I never told my daddy. And I would never tell him now if he hadn’t died. Because that was against being the dime-store owner’s daughter. But I was kind of rooting for her.”

Parker read from one of the micro-short stories that make up his recent collection, Everything, Then and Since, and supplies its title. The discipline for the stories, Parker said, was to boil down an idea that might potentially contain a novel into a single page. “Deep Eddy” concerns a young man courting a woman who is trying to forget an unspecified painful past, and a nighttime skinny-dipping respite.

“So I told her something true that I thought she might misinterpret as the first line of a joke: ‘Today, I saw part of a snake,’” Parker read. “If she said, ‘What part?’ I would swim to shore pull on my clothes and leave. If she just said, ‘Which?’ I would stop fighting the current and allow it to deliver me to her. Everything, then and since, hinged on a single word. There was no answer, just a gurgling in the dark water, laughter from the eternal circle of poor, drowned whores, the baby in the dingo den, the short end of the snake.”

Parker disclosed to the Greensboro audience that he “tried to capitalize” on a kind of ubiquitous “rural legend” involving bridges where babies meet tragic ends. But the reading also provided an allegory for how fiction — or music, or journalism — can hint at the outlines of something bigger and more mysterious by what it leaves out.

Parker’s teacher showed how the writing process can work in the opposite direction while discussing her forthcoming collection, whose working title is Silver Alert or Bucket List. The idea came from a trip in which Smith and her husband tracked a silver alert for an elderly man in a Porsche Carrera north from Florida.

“We made up this idea that it’s some guy that’s gotten this terrible diagnosis and he’s just gotten the hell out of assisted living,” Smith recalled. “And then we started asking, ‘Well, who’s with him?’ Then we think: the pedicure girl from assisted living. So that’s the plot.”

Parker reflected that a good novel can hinge on a single idea.

“You really just need one image that you can ask questions about, like this guy in a Porsche and a silver alert,” he said. “That’s enough to get a novel about. Or a trilogy maybe.”

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