HomeInterviewsAuthoring Her Own Life

Authoring Her Own Life

An interview with Silver Alert author Lee Smith.

Featured on our 2023 Summer Reading List, Lee Smith’s Silver Alert tells the story of an unlikely friendship between an elderly man and a young woman recovering from sex trafficking.

Herb is trying everything to keep his beloved Alzheimer’s-ridden wife Susan comfortable in their own home, but his failing health gets in the way of his efforts. Dee Dee is a charming young lady working to build a new life in Florida away from the horrors of sex trafficking and rehabilitation homes in North Carolina. When the two cross paths, a friendship like no other is born. Following a fast-paced road trip through Florida interspersed with hard realities and glimpses of the past, Silver Alert patches together the remnants of past lives with the promise of second chances.

Lee Smith has been writing since she was nine years old and is the author of Fair and Tender Ladies, On Agate Hill and Blue Marlin, as well as various other novels, short stories, and articles. She currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, Hal Crowther. Haley Roberts spoke with Smith about Silver Alert and its hopeful themes as well as her own friendships and travels.

Haley Roberts: Herb and Dee Dee are a very unlikely pair and likely never would have crossed paths had it not been for Susan’s illness. Can you tell us about their companionship?

Lee Smith: I think they are two very different people who would almost never in the life that they had been leading run into each other, but circumstances throw them together. When Herb is desperately trying to help take care of his beloved wife Susan and to keep her at home, he’s set up a whole smaller house dedicated to her care and has hired all of this home health care for her. It’s still not going so well because Susan had acted so uncharacteristically terrible that her usual manicurist can’t come anymore, so Herb hires another manicurist to come to their home. When Dee Dee arrives, she’s a charming yet mysterious girl. She sings while she works, and it’s like she’s put Susan under a spell; therefore, she immediately becomes a sort of fixture in this home where Herb is trying to keep his beloved wife under the care of their families. Dee Dee comes in to help and seems to have a way with everybody, but she’s almost magical with Susan. But from the first day, Herb himself realizes that there are some unexplained things about this curious and seemingly frank manicurist when he gets a glimpse of her driver’s license by accident, and the question begins to arise about who Dee Dee really is. This is how these two very unlikely people meet and become very good friends.

HR: This story focuses heavily on recovering from sex trafficking with strong messages about second chances. Why did you choose to highlight these themes?

LS: We’re all particularly aware of the frequency of sex trafficking now. Aging issues have also been heavy on my mind, as well as thinking about what happens to older people and what their choices are. I’ve been thinking about these things because of my own age and the point that I’m at in life and, of course, we’ve all become increasingly aware of sex trafficking and the dangers that exist today for young women. Both of these things kind of came together. Dee Dee the manicurist with so many talents has had a real struggle, and terrible, terrible things happened to her in her past life. She is struggling to get away from these things as well as the rehab facility.

I first got the idea long ago from a benefit in Nashville. A close friend of mine, singer Marshall Chapman, and I were doing a benefit for one of our Nashville friends who runs Thistle Farms, which was the first kind of rehab place that I had heard of that helped women who have been on the street and trafficked. Thistle Farms helps these women find their way back to a normal life through things like getting driver’s licenses and all kinds of life skills, as well as how to become a viable part of a safer world. This was the first place that I had anything to do with that, and since then I have become involved in something in North Carolina where I live, as well as something in Maine where these kinds of things happen. But Thistle Farms was the first place that gave me that idea.

HR: Herb is grieving throughout the novel both for the loss of youth and for his wife’s mind, which is largely compromised due to dementia. Can you tell us about your inclusion of such emotions as well as Herb’s journey with loss?

LS: I’m almost 80 myself, so I, my husband and so many of our friends know that we are dealing with these issues head-on like Alzheimer’s or any other kind of thing as well as questions of whether you can stay in your home. These are the questions I have been dealing with, and I found when I look back on my writing, it has been a way for me to grapple with issues that are important to me at whatever time it is that I’m writing a book. Certainly, aging is something my friends and everybody is thinking about. That’s a lot of what this book is about. You know, I go back in my writing and see that I have written about divorce when I was going through one or just whatever was happening, so writing has been not only a livelihood but also a very therapeutic way to distance myself a little bit from my own issues while also really examining them. It’s just been a great blessing for me to have these stories to tell and to have the writing because it is a helpful way for me to author my life.

It’s very different and it’s very special and it’s very good! I loved it.” – Dolly Parton

HR: What was it like to receive a blurb from Dolly Parton?

LS: I was very lucky to meet Dolly a long time ago. She’s just the most remarkable woman. Part of the world we really want to understand is Appalachian issues, and she’s really interested in these writers and writing. She’s a real reader, and I don’t know how many people know what a reader she is. Of course, this is what led her to start the Imagination Library which sends books to children each month. I met her early on and started sending her my earlier books, and they really spoke to her because of her own family and Appalachian background. I was getting ready to go to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books in 2000, and I was the keynote speaker. I was getting ready to fly out when the phone literally began to ring as I was getting dressed, and it was a man claiming to be Dolly Parton’s manager. I said, “Oh, it is not!” But it was! He said that he and Dolly had seen where I was going to be speaking in Nashville, and Dolly wanted to know if she could take me out to lunch when I arrived. After we got there, it turned out that she wanted to talk about books. We had such a big time and have kept in touch ever since. I send her new books by young Appalachian writers because she loves reading those and wouldn’t necessarily know them because they aren’t famous yet. So, I’ve done that over the years, and we’ve met here and there for all kinds of different occasions. More than anything, I’m her big admirer.

Lee Smith

HR: You began writing at an early age and have accomplished much in the writing realm. How does Silver Alert fit into your body of work?

LS: People have said that this is really different for me, but I don’t think it is because, as I’ve said, my writing is very tied to my own life and the issues that I may be facing at any point in my life. It seems to me that this is a natural thing. It is also interesting to me that I wrote Silver Alert during Covid. I was very interested in the notion of Susan, who was deep into Alzheimer’s when the book starts but had a rich life with her art gallery. Somehow, this book is constructed a little bit differently than anything else I’ve done. Each section is unto itself like a short story, and each section has a title. In my mind, I thought of the book as an art gallery with each section within the book as a painting. All of this stuff on the wall is separate from each other, and we go from one painting to another. It’s up to the reader to start to put them together.

LS: We are up in Maine right now and likely to stay right here. Our children and grandchildren and various friends often come up here to see us. Then this fall, I’m coming to Nashville to the Southern Festival of Books.

Another thing that I hope readers pick up on is Dee Dee’s growing empowerment with literacy. She’s learning all these new words and is trying really hard to use them. It’s all about education and literacy as well as about empowering yourself through learning. I just loved doing the words with her. Returning to Susan, she can’t think in the way we think anymore due to her illness. She thinks in poems and colors, so her sections, in particular, are very much like experimental writing. There’s such a relation between the different arts, and it’s interesting to mix them up and see what happens.

HR: You touched on your Appalachian ties and inspirations earlier. What drew you to choose the Florida Keys as your other setting?

LS: My father was actually in the Navy when I was born in 1944. He was on a destroyer that went to Key West, and a lot of his Navy career had to do with Key West. Later on, he took my mother and I on the long drive there from Virginia. When I was 12, he had a sort of nervous breakdown, which I wrote a book about. When he got out of the hospital, the doctor suggested he take the family on vacation to be together before he started running his dime store again in Virginia. He took us to Key West, and I spent about three months in school down there before we went home. I have also gone a million times myself because I loved having gone as a child again and again. I’ve taught a writer’s workshop there, so I have a whole history with it.

On Appalachia, the place itself is so important along with who our family was and who I was and all of our experiences. My sense of language and particularly my sense of storytelling have been deeply affected. Even today, almost all of my stories are, of course, written down, but they really come to me in a human voice. I can hear Herb. I can hear Dee Dee. I think that comes from having grown up in the mountains and that tradition of storytelling. Place is really important to me, and there’s several places that have ended up being important to me because of the circumstances of my life. However, it all comes back to the mountains and the sense of sitting on the porch when it’s getting dark when someone you love is telling you a story. That’s the way stories always came to me and come to me still.

HR: Finally, do you have any travel plans this summer?

LS: We are up in Maine right now and likely to stay right here. Our children and grandchildren and various friends often come up here to see us. Then this fall, I’m coming to Nashville to the Southern Festival of Books.

Silver Alert is out now and is one of our Summer Reading List picks. View the full list here.

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