Lee’s latest novel, GUESTS ON EARTH, will be published on October 15th. Our own Kimberly Brock has this to say about the book and the author: “Did you ever pick up a book and from the first sentence, you feel that you’ve met up with an old friend, someone so familiar it’s impossible that a stranger some place in the world has written the words? Better yet, have you ever turned a page and encountered a voice that could very well be your own, the best and the worst of you? For me, this is the genius of author Lee Smith. I swear, half the time I feel like she has somehow peeped into my childhood, growing up in the Georgia foothills, that she’s telling my stories, remembering my relatives and neighbors, sometimes more clearly than I remember them, myself. And so, to have the pleasure of introducing her here is an honor for me as both a reader and a writer. Believe me, no one on earth will tell you something true like she will.”
“Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
This quotation from Flannery O’Connor comes to mind whenever I think about writing my new novel “Guests on Earth”……or any novel, really. For me, each novel comes from deep within my whole life as I have lived it up until that point—-there will always be some idea, some image or emotion or experience that just won’t go away, that rises to the top rather than receding in memory as the years pass….and then there will come that point when it finds its time. So it was with “Guests on Earth,” though the visual image which started it all was perhaps the most dramatic I have ever witnessed.
Let me start by saying that (like so many other girls in other small towns all across boring small town America) I have always been in love with that golden couple, the Fitzgeralds. I was in love with both of them, the brilliant novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his glamorous, flamboyant wife Zelda. I read “The Great Gatsby” over and over again. I also read everything else I could find about them, our first truly American celebrity couple, quivering at Zelda’s declaration: “I want to love first, and live incidentally.” Well, me too! I was fascinated By Zelda’s zaniness, her Southern-ness, her frank sexuality and utter disregard of custom and rules as they lived uproariously in hotels and rented rooms in several countries.
Their gilded life turned dark, then darker, as alcoholism, infidelity and mental illness took their toll. Though schizophrenia forced Zelda to give up her long-cherished dream of becoming a professional ballerina, she published her poetic novel “Save Me the Waltz” in 1932, two years after her first hospitalization. She continued to write, dance, choreograph, and paint, becoming an incredible visual artist, through many hospital stays, ending up at Asheville, N.C.’s famous Highland Hospital in 1936.
She died here twelve years later in the tragic and mysterious fire of March 9, 1948, one of nine women patients who burned to death in a locked ward on the top floor of the hospital’s Central Building where they had been placed for their own safety because they had undergone shock treatments earlier that day. Zelda’s body was identified only by her charred ballet slipper.
This is where Zelda’s story and mine converge. It turned out that both my parents suffered from mental illness, and my father was a patient at Highland in the 1950s. Decades later, my son Josh spent several helpful years there in the 1980s, in both inpatient and outpatient situations, as he battled schizophrenia. Though I had always loved Zelda, as I have told you, it was during these years—my many visits to see Josh in Asheville—that I became fascinated by her art and her life within that institution, and by the unsolved mystery of her awful death.
I remember the exact moment when I realized that I was going to write this book.
My son and I were walking up Zillicoa Avenue toward the mountaintop hospital during a particularly brilliant winter sunset. The entire arc of the sky shone red behind the crenellated battlements of castle-like Homewood, one of Highland’s most interesting older buildings. Of course this reminded me of the dreadful fire.
But I had just been reading a collection of the Fitzgeralds’ letters, and some of Scott’s words came back to haunt me, too: “I used to wonder why they kept Princesses in towers,” the romantic young officer had written to his Alabama beauty Zelda Sayre, repeating the image he was obsessed with, wanting to keep her all for himself. She had replied, “Scott, I get so damned tired of being told that—you’ve written that verbatim, in your last six letters!”
So the notion of the imprisoned Southern princess became a part of the dramatic image of the red sunset, the fire. Okay, I thought at the time–I’m going to write this novel–whenever I can stand it.
Here it is, finally, ten years after my son’s death, and 65 years after Zelda’s. In it I propose a solution to the mystery of the fire, with a series of plausible events leading up to the tragedy, and a cast of characters both imagined and real. Is it true? Well, strictly speaking, no—–but in another, deeper way, yes. I have always found that I can tell the truth better in fiction than in nonfiction, and this novel is as true as I can make it, containing everything I know about madness, art, and love.
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It’s 1936 when orphaned thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a mental institution known for its innovative treatments for nervous disorders and addictions. Taken under the wing of the hospital’s most notable patient, Zelda Fitzgerald, Evalina witnesses the cascading events leading up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them.
Author Lee Smith has created, through her artful blending of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart—a time and a place where creativity and passion, theory and medicine, tragedy and transformation, are luminously intertwined.