Lee Smith in today’s news -- twice

Jan. 04, 2014 @ 11:00 PM

Around here in Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, any news about Lee Smith is big news.

It is not only because she is such a prominent citizen whose writing brings favorable attention to our towns from her fans across the world. It is more because she has earned the friendship of so many by her generous contributions of her talent and fame to so many good causes in our community. She has been a promoter, mentor and best friend to most of the many writers and aspiring writers who live here.
The big news about her today is her appearance at noon on UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch,” kicking off a new season for that program.
If you have already missed today's program, it repeats at 5 p.m. Thursday.
Smith talks about her latest novel, “Guests on Earth,” which is set at Asheville’s Highland Mental Hospital during the times leading up to the great fire of 1948 that killed F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda. Through her central character, Evalina Toussaint, an orphan from New Orleans, Smith shows the complex mixture of joy and despair, accomplishment and failure, extraordinary talent and disruption that make up the experience of those affected by mental illness.
Smith told me that she had been interested “for so, so long in the terrible fire that took the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, among nine women who were in a locked ward on the top floor for their own safety because they just had insulin treatments that day.”
Smith continued that she was intrigued by “this image of the fire, which was set by somebody and is an unsolved mystery. So in this novel I am attempting to create a group of characters, both real, including Zelda, of course, and made up ones, and a series of possible events leading up to this fire. It's given me a chance to look at life within this famous mental institution and to write about art. Zelda was not only a ballet dancer, but also an artist and writer.”
The new book gave Smith a way “to write about art and madness, and women and madness, refuge and safety. So I made up my own main character, Evalina, who is a younger patient, a piano prodigy. She is accompanist for all the theatricals that went on in this hospital, from ballets choreographed by Zelda to full-scale theatrical productions involving all the doctors, and Shakespeare bounding out of the forest in tights, as well as all kinds of dances and, involving town people.”
Her book, Smith says, “looks very hard at the whole notion of mental illness. Who's crazy and who's not? And what does that even mean? Why is art so often in all its forms linked to madness? And there is a lot to talk about here. And there is a lot to consider and reconsider. This gives me a wonderful framework to do that.”
There is more news about Smith today in Chapel Hill.
This morning at 9:45 a Sunday School class at University Presbyterian Church begins the study of Smith’s short stories in her recent “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger.” Retired UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Joe Flora is leading the series based on a similar course that he developed in 2013 for University United Methodist Church’s Christianity and Literature class.
What is the connection between Smith’s writing and religious studies? You might have to visit the class to find out, but here is a hint: The strange blue-eyed person who appears to Mrs. Darcy has long hair and wears a white robe.

Visitors are welcome. The class led by Dr. Joe Flora will discuss stories from Lee Smith’s short story collection “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger and Other Stories” on the following schedule at University Presbyterian Church, 209 E. Franklin St. at 9:45 a.m.
Today: Introduction to the stories of Lee Smith led by Ruth Moose
Jan. 12: “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger”
Jan. 19: “Tongues of Fire”
Jan. 26: “Intensive Care”
Feb. 2: “Between the Lines” and “House Tour”

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on UNC-MX and Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.