A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Join The New York Times best-selling author and North Carolina native Wiley Cash as he highlights great writers across the state and their work each month. Listen in on conversations

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Join The New York Times best-selling author and North Carolina native Wiley Cash as he highlights great writers across the state and their work each month. Listen in on conversations

Our State Book Club With Wiley CashJoin The New York Times best-selling author and North Carolina native Wiley Cash as he highlights great writers across the state and their work each month. Listen in on conversations between Cash and his author friends as they discuss how North Carolina inspires them on the Our State Book Club podcast.


Lee Smith’s fiction is marked by women whose yearning for joy is rivaled only by their refusal to compromise their search for it. Her career began in 1968 with her debut novel at the age of 24 and has continued through the 2023 publication of Silver Alert, about a young woman who cares for an Alzheimer’s patient in Key West. One has to wonder how Smith — after a career spanning 56 years and 18 books — still manages to dream up these wide-eyed, wild-hearted protagonists.

“I think they’re all me,” she says with the laugh for which she is so beloved. “In order for me to breathe life into the characters I’m creating, some part of me has to go into them.”

Although Smith moved to Chapel Hill in the mid-1970s and now calls Hillsborough home, she was born in Grundy, Virginia, in 1944, an only child to parents who believed they’d never conceive. “They were wonderful, and of course they spoiled me to death,” Smith says. “Daddy built me a little house to write in down by the river.”

The time she spent alone at the river’s edge directly informed the main character in her debut novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed. This coming-of-age story is about a young girl who spends her days by the water, her imagination much more interesting than her actual life — that is, until she learns that the world is fraught with dangers and heartbreaks.

Perhaps the most iconic female in all of Smith’s fiction is Ivy Rowe from 1988’s Fair and Tender Ladies. “That book is all about writing,” she says. “Ivy is writing letters to clarify her life, and I was writing the book for the same reason.” At the time, Smith was experiencing divorce, wrangling two active young sons, and caring for her dying mother. “I’ve never had a character just come through and take over [like Ivy did],” she says.

But in many ways, Guests on Earth, published in 2013, is Smith’s most personal work. Set in the 1930s and ’40s, the story is narrated by Evalina Toussaint, a young patient at Highland Hospital in Asheville, where Zelda Fitzgerald perished in a fire in 1948.

Smith’s relationship with Highland is deeply personal. Her father, who was diagnosed with manic depression, was a patient there when Smith was a child. Highland’s mental health treatment included engaging patients with activities like hiking, dancing, and art.

“One of my favorite memories is going with Mama to visit Daddy when they were having a dance,” Smith says. “A band played music, and everybody dressed up, and I remember dancing away with my father.”

Decades later, Smith’s son Josh would also be admitted to Highland. Smith still holds a great affinity for the hospital and the city that supported her father and son, who were never relegated to an institution but encouraged to participate in the community.

“I always knew I would write this book,” Smith says in the closing acknowledgements for Guests on Earth. I think it’s safe to say that her readers always knew they would read it. How can you say no to the work of such a joyful, uncompromising woman?


Highland Women

“For years I have intended to write my own impressions of Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald,” says narrator Evalina Touissant in the opening line of Lee Smith’s 2013 novel, Guests on Earth. While Zelda, the wife of famed novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, inhabits the edges of Smith’s 13th novel, it is Evalina’s own life that takes center stage.

In many ways, Evalina is a woman of her time, born to an unwed showgirl in 1920s New Orleans and unaware of her own power and talent. Too often, she lets the lives of those around her hinder her own desires.

When Evalina is only 13, she suffers a breakdown upon her mother’s death and is sent to an Asheville mental institution, Highland Hospital, where patients are treated with a combination of the arts, social and outdoor activities, and the occasional shock therapy. Evalina is a natural musician who can’t quite hear the music of her own life, but the decades that she spends in and out of Highland introduce her and the reader to a cast of characters that are simply unforgettable.


More to Explore: New podcast episodes with novelist Lee Smith will air on May 7 and 21. Find them at ourstate.com/podcast.

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This story was published on Apr 16, 2024

Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash is the author of three books, most recently the novel The Last Ballad.