Writer Lee Smith's father ran the Ben Franklin dimestore in Grundy, Virginia throughout her childhood.

Writer Lee Smith's father ran the Ben Franklin dimestore in Grundy, Virginia throughout her childhood.

In the 1930s, the American South was two-thirds rural, and half of all southerners were farm workers. Now it’s more than two-thirds urban and only 2 percent work on farms. Those are some of the facts shared by the novelist Lee Smith in her new memoir about growing up in a small town in the Appalachian mountains. But it’s through stories, not facts, that Smith reveals an intimate knowledge of her corner of the South – Grundy, Virginia. Smith says much has changed about the South since her childhood, but one thing never will – and that’s a southerner’s love of telling stories. A memoir of southern life and literature.

Guests

  • Lee Smith Author of 11 novels, four short story collections and a new memoir, "Dimestore: A Writer's Life"
  • Dante Chinni Data and political reporter, Wall Street Journal, contributor, NBC News director, American Communities Project, Michigan State University

Read An Excerpt

Reprinted with permission.

Dimestore

Photos From Smith's Life

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Appalachian culture, art, literature, folklore and music is as rich and diverse as that of any area in the U.S. So says novelist Lee Smith whose new memoir celebrates the history and traditions of the people of her childhood. Growing up in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains, Smith began writing stories at age nine and selling them for a nickel. Her father owned a dime store where she spent many hours among customers and workers, listening, watching and learning to tell stories.

  • 11:07:36

    MS. DIANE REHMHer new book is titled, "Dimestore: A Writer's Life," and author Lee Smith joins me in the studio. We'll welcome your calls, comments, questions, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Lee Smith, it's good to see you again.

  • 11:08:04

    MS. LEE SMITHWell, I am so happy to be here, Diane.

  • 11:08:06

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:08:06

    SMITHThank you.

  • 11:08:07

    REHMI'm glad.

  • 11:08:07

    SMITHThank you.

  • 11:08:08

    REHMYou know, every time your name comes into my head, I think of the book "Fair and Tender Ladies."

  • 11:08:21

    SMITHThank you.

  • 11:08:21

    REHMIt is such a beautiful book as is this new memoir called "Dimestore." Tell us about the dimestore.

  • 11:08:33

    SMITHWell, really, I grew up in the dimestore. My father owned and ran his Ben Franklin Dimestore in Grundy, Virginia, for 55 years and I just practically lived there as a little girl. My first job was taking care of the dolls. And, you know, and I would make up big stories about the dolls, things that had happened to them before they got to the dimestore and things that would happen to them after they left my care. And I would get to look at the whole floor of the dimestore from daddy's office, which had a two-way mirror.

  • 11:09:12

    REHMAh-ha.

  • 11:09:12

    SMITHAnd so I would be up there on my little typewriter and I'd be looking at the dimestore and I could see everything that happened and I got to witness fights and embraces and shoplifting and everything.

  • 11:09:25

    REHMAll the secret things.

  • 11:09:25

    SMITHI mean, this was -- yeah, well, this was the perfect education for a fiction writer.

  • 11:09:30

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:09:31

    SMITHThe omniscient point of view.

  • 11:09:33

    REHMTell me what would happen when one of the dolls was sold. Did that hurt?

  • 11:09:41

    SMITHWell, no, because I figured -- I was always making up stories even then and I know the doll was going to have a different chapter and go off to something very exciting. And what I imagined for each doll depended upon what I'd been reading at the time. You know, if I'd been reading "Heidi," maybe she was going to Switzerland, you know, she was going to Japan, whatever she was going to do, yeah.

  • 11:10:05

    REHMBut you know, Lee, it seems to me that this is truly a love story to small town America.

  • 11:10:15

    SMITHAbsolutely.

  • 11:10:16

    REHMAnd in Appalachia, an area we think of now as undergoing great hardship, great difficulty. But when you were growing up, that small town was home and beautiful.

  • 11:10:36

    SMITHIt was. It was home and beautiful and we knew everybody and everybody knew our name, you know, knew all the children and we also got to run in the mountains and play with a degree of freedom that I think children today cannot even possibly imagine. I mean, this was when tweet meant bird song, you know. And it was a wonderful childhood, a wonderful place to grow up and it is a love song to main street, to the family-owned business, to that kind of a town. And Grundy is still that kind of a town with wonderful people looking out for each other, but the times have gotten so hard, of course, because of -- it was a single industry, the coal business.

  • 11:11:23

    REHMOf course, yep.

  • 11:11:24

    SMITHLike, say, a copper mine town might be out west or those old textile towns along the North Carolina/Virginia line. And so what happens now is in a process of being discovered.

  • 11:11:37

    REHMTell me about your mother and father. They were certainly loving. They adored you, but they both had some issues with mental illness.

  • 11:11:52

    SMITHAbsolutely, absolutely. And my dad suffered from severe depression from time to time. He always called it kindly nervous.

  • 11:12:04

    REHMKindly nervous.

  • 11:12:05

    SMITHI'm feeling kindly nervous. And would often have to go off to a hospital. And my mother, too, suffered from depression and sort of a lot of anxiety and she, too, would often go off to a hospital. But this is where the big extended family that we used to have in these home towns of our heart came into play where I always had an aunt to stay with, somebody to stay with, somebody to pick me up and take me, you know, to Girl Scouts, if momma was in the hospital or whatever. So it makes for a certain kind of child, though.

  • 11:12:43

    SMITHI think it makes you -- I was an only child, too. And I think it makes for a watchful kind of child, who often takes responsibilities on beyond her years. I think it may have made me a storyteller in a sense, too.

  • 11:12:59

    REHMDid it also make you a worried child?

  • 11:13:05

    SMITHWell, I write about this in the book. Yes, I was worried all the time. When was I going to get sick? Would this happen to me? And once I had this extraordinary experience. My mother was in the hospital at the University of Virginia. My dad was in the hospital in Connecticut and I was living with my Aunt Milly in Maryland. And we got a request from my mother's physician in Charlottesville, could Lee please come to have lunch with him when I came down on the train the next time to visit my mother.

  • 11:13:37

    REHMAnd you were how old?

  • 11:13:39

    SMITHI was 13.

  • 11:13:40

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:13:40

    SMITHSo I go down on the train. I'm met by this tall gentleman with a single rose. He was all dressed up and he gave me a rose and this was the famous Dr. Ian Stevenson, Dr. Stevenson. And he took me out to lunch at a fancier place than I had ever been and I ordered things I didn't know what they were. Turned out I got a club sandwich in little triangles with a flag on each thing. And he was so wonderful. He had been reading the letters I was writing to my mother and he said, well, I know you're a little girl that likes to read.

  • 11:14:12

    SMITHHe said, now tell me what have you been reading? Well, I've just read "Jane Eyre" nonstop, cover to cover and then read it again.

  • 11:14:20

    REHMWow.

  • 11:14:21

    SMITHAnd then, I loved poetry and so before he had any notion of what I was up to, I recited the entire "Annabel Lee."

  • 11:14:28

    REHMI remember that in your book.

  • 11:14:30

    SMITHAnd he was taken aback and then he said, you're such a nice little girl. He said, I wonder, do you have an worries? He said, for instance, do you ever worry that you might, you know, that you might have this illness, too, that you might go -- and I said, you mean, that I might go crazy, too? And he said, yeah. Do you ever worry about that? And I just said, yes, because, of course, it was what I was thinking about all the time.

  • 11:14:53

    REHMOf course, of course.

  • 11:14:55

    SMITHAnd he just -- he was a man of great assurance, you know, and he just leaned back and he said, well, I am an excellent doctor and a very good diagnostician and I can tell you this is not going to happen to you. You seem to me like a very normal little girl and you will read many more books and you will grow up and be happy. Wasn't that brilliant of him?

  • 11:15:16

    REHMWhat a gift.

  • 11:15:17

    SMITHWhat a gift, you know. And I mean, what a gift. It was astonishing.

  • 11:15:22

    REHMHe clearly assumed that an only child, a little girl, seeing her mother and dad having to go off and, in fact, your father, at one point in a straight jacket.

  • 11:15:43

    SMITHWell, he sometimes got -- it wasn't so much that he would be violent. He would just become immobilized, you know. He would -- when I said carried off to a hospital, it would be literally immobilized, you know, that kind of depression that is so much that you physically cannot move. And so he didn't understand, for such a long time, in those days, you know, and this would be in the '50s, '60s, people had no understanding that depression is an illness, you know. It's just like being diabetic. You can be treated. It's an illness.

  • 11:16:18

    SMITHBut he always thought that it was some kind of a character flaw and he's say, I can't believe I've gone and got myself in this kind shape again.

  • 11:16:25

    REHMHow did they treat him back then?

  • 11:16:28

    SMITHWell, back then, they didn't really have as much to offer, you know.

  • 11:16:33

    REHMThey had no medications at that point.

  • 11:16:33

    SMITHNo. Really, no, no. But one thing that was really helped him -- again, books have helped me so much at every point in my life.

  • 11:16:41

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:16:43

    SMITHAnd daddy had a great reverence for William Styron. He had heard him speak at Holland's College where I went to school and then Styron wrote that book, "Darkness Visible," and so I sent it to daddy and it just galvanized him. He said, I just can't believe he would tell these thing. I can't believe it. And so just that has really set a tone for me. I think all of us who have to do with -- anything to do with mental illness, we've got to talk about it.

  • 11:17:16

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:17:16

    SMITHWe've got to make people understand that it is an illness like any other and, you know, remove the stigma, for heaven's sakes.

  • 11:17:25

    REHMI had William Stryon in the studio...

  • 11:17:29

    SMITHOh, my.

  • 11:17:29

    REHM...after he had written that book and I asked him to describe what that depression felt like and he said, it's like a hurricane of the mind. And I thought that was so brilliant.

  • 11:17:48

    SMITHThat is incredible. An image...

  • 11:17:51

    REHMAn image that one can never forget.

  • 11:17:53

    SMITHOh, yes, yes.

  • 11:17:55

    REHMLee Smith is with me. Her new book titled "Dimestore: A Writer's Life." You can join us. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAs we continue our discussion with writer Lee Smith about her new memoir titled "Dimestore," joining us in the studio now is Dante Chinni. He's a Wall Street Journal reporter and director of the American Communities Project at Michigan State University. Dante, describe the changes across the country that we're seeing in small towns.

  • 11:20:29

    MR. DANTE CHINNIWell, it's interesting. I've spent some time looking at Grundy over the last couple days because I knew we were going to be here talking about this, and the stories are very familiar, right. It's the problem with one-industry towns losing the things that made the economy go, that made the place go, and it's painful. And I mean, so it's -- you're talking about mining in Grundy, but in a lot of small towns, you're talking about the loss of small manufacturing, you know, the plant, the mill closing. I mean, this has been going on over the course of many, many decades, different industries moving on, getting smaller, becoming mechanized and people losing jobs.

  • 11:21:03

    MR. DANTE CHINNIAnd it is the story of these small towns all over, of these kind of -- you go through these main streets, I mean, I do it when I visit places, and they're just empty. It's empty storefront after empty storefront, and it is, it's sad. It's America losing something.

  • 11:21:16

    REHMYou know what's fascinating to me, Lee Smith, is that the town leaders of Grundy, Virginia, invited Wal-Mart in. Talk about what happened when Wal-Mart came in.

  • 11:21:31

    SMITHWell, when Wal-Mart came in, and there is now a three-story Wal-Mart with the first, you know, the first two floors are parking garage, and then there, and so I think the assumption was that the stores that had been -- there were, you know, 55 stores that had been along the main street there.

  • 11:21:53

    REHMFifty-five privately owned, individually owned stores.

  • 11:21:58

    CHINNIWow.

  • 11:21:58

    SMITHBut see, we also had, in Grundy, persistent flooding and saw the demise of the town was really caused by the fact that it kept flooding, and stores just couldn't afford to come there or build back. And so there was that as well as the dwindling coal industry. But so anyway, the town fathers actually did invite Wal-Mart to come, and it took a long time to get Wal-Mart there. And in the meantime, there was just this, like, a moonscape, you know, of just land that they had bulldozed out to make a flat place for, you know, for the new town. Nothing went there.

  • 11:22:40

    REHMWow.

  • 11:22:40

    REHMAnd so the businesses that wanted to remain open went up and down the river, up and down the hollers, you know, et cetera, because it just took so long. So now what's there is basically Wal-Mart and the kinds of businesses that you see that go along with it, you know, but not local.

  • 11:23:01

    CHINNIYeah, right. It's all national chains. Actually it's, you know, this is -- the wonders of living in the age of the Internet are, when I was looking up Grundy yesterday and looking over all the data, which I spent all my time doing, you can go to Google maps, and you drop a little guy and get a 360-degree view of...

  • 11:23:15

    SMITHIncredible. It's amazing.

  • 11:23:17

    CHINNIIt's amazing, and it is when I looked at it, because I spend a lot of time going to these towns, it looks -- I mean, the landscape is, it's much prettier than a lot of places I go because it's still hilly.

  • 11:23:27

    SMITHOf course.

  • 11:23:27

    CHINNII know it's flattened out now, it's flattened out for you, but some of the places I go, it's still beautiful and hilly. But it looks very similar. And you have, like, the Wal-Mart, and you have the Taco Bell nearby, and you have, like, there's the pizza place down the road. And you're right, they're all national chains.

  • 11:23:42

    SMITHBut let me say, you know, I can't -- you know, I'm the dimestore owner's daughter, so you know what I think about Wal-Mart, (laugh) but I cannot put anybody down for this because these people, the citizens of Grundy, lived for so many years with no place to shop, which nothing at all in their middle of their town once these stores were demolished. And so, you know, I haven't been having to drive 45 miles to buy a bath towel, and if I had, I would be, you know, certainly glad to see that Wal-Mart come, I guess, you know, so you can understand that.

  • 11:24:14

    REHMAnd Wal-Mart brought with it some jobs, but the question would be how many jobs and what they were paid.

  • 11:24:23

    CHINNIWell, and I think it's probably bringing a decent -- it's probably brought a decent number of jobs. And look, the jobs that were there before, the thing that you're losing is the ownership of the store in the community.

  • 11:24:34

    REHMSure, sure.

  • 11:24:34

    CHINNIAnd in terms of the jobs that are there, they probably -- I mean, they may not pay as well, they may pay a little better in some cases, but I think the one thing about bringing it in there, and you look at the numbers, and you see it, and you look at the landscape, and you see it, is it does look like it's given -- it's an anchor for the town.

  • 11:24:49

    SMITHAbsolutely. It's become a town center.

  • 11:24:53

    CHINNIAbsolutely, yeah.

  • 11:24:54

    SMITHYeah, and this is a whole new kind of thing, and, you know, we're all looking at this, and it's very interesting, and it's given -- it's really raised morale, let me say, because Grundy also has several institutions like the Appalachian School of Law.

  • 11:25:08

    REHMI was about to bring that up.

  • 11:25:10

    SMITHAnd the pharmacy school, and they're going to have a new branch of Southwest Virginia Community College. You've got a lot of people and a famous orphanage, the Mountain Mission School, and all this stuff. And you've got a lot of people that need to shop and need a place to come, you know.

  • 11:25:23

    REHMSo what you're saying is that as the coal industry died out, and as the shops went down, and Wal-Mart came in, then came these educational institutions. So new growth.

  • 11:25:41

    CHINNIThat's huge. I mean, I've read the beginning of your book.

  • 11:25:44

    SMITHOh, thank you.

  • 11:25:46

    CHINNIAnd, you know, when you bring in something like that, when you bring in the college of law, the school of law, look, what you're doing is the new economy, look, there are fewer and fewer mining jobs out there. I grew up around Detroit. There are fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs out there.

  • 11:26:01

    SMITHYes.

  • 11:26:01

    CHINNIAnd it's not that they've gone to Japan. They've become mechanized. So what do you need to survive in the new economy? What does a community need to survive in a new economy? It needs something that's tied to technology, education, something like that, where the economy's still growing. And when they put that law school there, that was -- and they did it, it's huge.

  • 11:26:15

    SMITHThat's -- that is huge, yeah.

  • 11:26:19

    CHINNIIt's huge. I mean, when I look at it, when I look at economically what that means, that almost certainly changed the destiny of that town.

  • 11:26:27

    REHMAnd changed the whole atmosphere within the town if it becomes an educational center, if you've got this law school, you've got this -- you know, I mean, that's a whole different way of thinking.

  • 11:26:45

    CHINNIYeah, well, and the small towns that survive, because a lot of small towns don't survive anymore, the small towns that survive are the towns that get these things. They're the towns that get the colleges, the towns that get the satellite, the satellite university of the state university.

  • 11:26:56

    SMITHThat's it, yeah.

  • 11:26:58

    CHINNIThose things, that brings people because otherwise what's there to hold people in the town?

  • 11:27:04

    SMITHWell, this is also the county seat.

  • 11:27:06

    CHINNIRight, oh that's true, very true, yeah, yeah.

  • 11:27:06

    SMITHSo this is also important, you know, because court is held there and so on, and you have to come there to get your driver's license or whatever.

  • 11:27:13

    CHINNIRight, right.

  • 11:27:14

    REHMSo that's one of the reasons that Grundy survived. I mean, many of these towns have just gone down.

  • 11:27:22

    SMITHThey don't -- exactly, exactly.

  • 11:27:24

    REHMThey don't survive, but yours did.

  • 11:27:27

    SMITHI think so. Right now something interesting is happening, too, right at this moment. The young man from town named Ryan O'Quinn has become a movie star, and he's a writer and a comedian and a movie star, and he is now filming a movie in Grundy.

  • 11:27:41

    REHMOh for heaven's sake.

  • 11:27:43

    SMITHAnd the movie is about a young businessman who's trying to save his business, and the name of it is "Miracle," and everybody in town has been in it for the last couple of months. They've staged a Christmas parade when it wasn't Christmas. And they've had court scenes, and they've done all this stuff. So the movie is named "Miracle," and it just seems very interesting to me that this is happening there.

  • 11:28:05

    REHMSo the question for you, Dante, would be as you see these industries go down, how many of these towns are able to revitalize themselves, remake themselves, create something new and fresh?

  • 11:28:26

    CHINNIIt's -- in a town the size of Grundy, it's extremely difficult because you need to build a critical mass. I mean, the county seat is really important, the fact that county seat's there, because my guess is that's one reason why they put the law school there, as well, right, because everybody does do business with...

  • 11:28:38

    SMITHHospital, hospital's there's, too.

  • 11:28:39

    CHINNIAnd the hospital. So there's just a little bit of a mass. You need that mass to hold onto, to build off of. Look, a lot of places, it's just not that easy. Drive through Nebraska, and you'll drive through ghost towns, I mean, you will. You'll drive through ghost towns out West, obviously, and, like, I've spent time going to places that are even bigger than Grundy, like I've spent some time, in 2004 I went to East Liverpool, Ohio, and wrote a story about East Liverpool, Ohio, and, you know, look, the town, the downtown of East Liverpool, Ohio, is empty. And then you go to the edge of the city, and there's a Wal-Mart there, and the Wal-Mart has become the new commerce center, and it's emptied out the downtown area. It's a very different -- it's a different situation than what went on in Grundy. But, like, that story is replayed across the country over and over again.

  • 11:29:20

    REHMHow did your mother and father survive the changes that were going on in Grundy?

  • 11:29:32

    SMITHWell actually, this is unbelievable, this is the kind of thing that if one of my writing students did it, I would put trite, not possible. But my daddy died. This is going to make me cry. My daddy died on the last day of his going out of business sale. I had been up there for two weeks helping with the sale because we just had to close. Every store was closing due to flooding. It was a total ghost town at this point, 1992, nothing was open, total -- and so we'd sold everything except the fixtures. And I went on back to North Carolina, you know, kissed daddy bye and went back to North Carolina and got there. The next morning, I got a call saying my daddy had fallen during the night, and they had him in the hospital just to keep him safe until I got there.

  • 11:30:17

    SMITHAnd by the time I got there, he was hemorrhaging, and he died. So he literally died on the last day of his going out of business sale, which he -- you know, I don't know what he would've done with his days then because he spent all day, every day, there. He ate lunch at the lunch counter, you know, he wore his nice vest and his tie to town, and I don't know what he -- I couldn't get him to move down to North Carolina. He had this great line. He said, no, honey, I couldn't live down there. He said, I need me a mountain to rest my eyes against.

  • 11:30:51

    REHMLovely.

  • 11:30:52

    SMITHI know. So, I mean, and mama had died before he had died, before he died. So I don't know, really, what they would've done. I don't think they would've moved to Florida, the great solution, because I don't think they could've stood to leave their beloved town.

  • 11:31:08

    REHMWell, and I'm sure that's how many people feel, even as they see the commerce in these towns go.

  • 11:31:17

    CHINNIIt's still your home, right. I mean, it's still your home, and you don't want to leave it. And, you know, like you say about your father, it's -- you know, it's -- nobody wants -- you never want to envision the way you're going to die, but if you really love what you do, dying on your last day of work is not necessarily the worst thing for you.

  • 11:31:35

    SMITHAbsolutely.

  • 11:31:38

    REHMAnd we have a slideshow of Grundy at our website.

  • 11:31:44

    SMITHGreat.

  • 11:31:46

    REHMSo if you got drshow.org, like Dante Chinni, who is looking at it on his computer, you can see some photos there. I think that is such a good way for people to understand the changes that occur to a town. When's the last time you were there in Grundy, Lee?

  • 11:32:12

    SMITHGosh, about three months, I would say.

  • 11:32:14

    REHMAbout three months ago.

  • 11:32:15

    SMITHAnd I'm going back with this book. I'll be there on the 30th. We're going to have -- we're going to have a book signing.

  • 11:32:25

    REHMMaureen in Hillsborough, North Carolina, is on the phone, and she says they're hosting a book launch tomorrow night.

  • 11:32:34

    SMITHAt the library.

  • 11:32:35

    REHMAt the Orange County Public Library. And she asks, what are the parallels between Grundy, Virginia, and Hillsborough, North Carolina?

  • 11:32:47

    SMITHWell, I would have to say the only parallels I can think of is that both towns are full of the nicest people you could possibly imagine.

  • 11:32:57

    REHMOh, that's lovely.

  • 11:32:59

    SMITHBut Hillsborough, North Carolina, is a very fortunate town. That's where I live now. It's a tiny town, 6,000 people, just north of Chapel Hill and very close to Durham, close to Raleigh, and so it has all these jobs.

  • 11:33:12

    REHMEconomic activity.

  • 11:33:14

    SMITHMany, many universities, everything, and it has a very wise mayor, Tom Stevens, who is not letting anybody do any develop they shouldn't in the middle of town. It's historic. It has both a Revolutionary and a Civil War heritage.

  • 11:33:29

    REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. You know, Jim Fellows and his wife have been flying around the country looking at small towns and have come to the conclusion that small-town America with good leadership is really doing quite well, as you just said.

  • 11:33:56

    SMITHThis guy we've got, you would not believe how good -- of course he taught this. This is what he taught before he decided to actually do it, you know.

  • 11:34:04

    REHMSo I wonder how much of that you've seen, Dante.

  • 11:34:08

    CHINNIWell, I mean, you do need, you need the leadership. I also think you need -- you need something that's going to keep the young people there, which is huge, I mean, because a big problem of rural America is kids go off to college, which is not so much a problem around Chapel Hill because they can go to college and then come home.

  • 11:34:23

    SMITHRight.

  • 11:34:23

    CHINNII mean, if you -- if you go to, like, rural Iowa, you know, you go to college, and you fall in love with college and that kind of lifestyle, and it's very different than the life you grew up with, and it's tough. It's definitely tougher. And the way you can try to get around that is, to keep young people, is those town leaders have to find a way to manufacture some of that stuff in those rural communities. But that's not easy. It's really difficult.

  • 11:34:46

    SMITHIt takes money.

  • 11:34:47

    REHMTake one called in Louisville, Kentucky, where I will be tomorrow. Elizabeth, you're on the air.

  • 11:34:57

    ELIZABETHHi, Diane, thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:34:58

    REHMSure.

  • 11:35:00

    ELIZABETHAnd congratulations on your book, wonderful.

  • 11:35:04

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:35:05

    ELIZABETHIt sounds so great. I had a story about Grundy, and it's kind of a silly story, but it's a fun story, and it's one of our family memories that we love the most. One time we went camping at Breaks Interstate Park. And that's near Grundy.

  • 11:35:25

    SMITHIt is.

  • 11:35:28

    ELIZABETHAnd we had to go to the grocery store, actually we had a sick little one, and ended up needing to go to the grocery store to get laundry detergent, all this stuff, and there's no grocery store around there. So we're Googling, trying to find out where we should go, and of course Wal-Mart comes up in Grundy. So we had to drive and drive and drive around all these winding roads. And everything's straight up a hill. And then all of a sudden, this big clearing comes, and there's Wal-Mart's, like, oasis. And we're like, oh my gosh.

  • 11:36:04

    ELIZABETHAnd so we go in, and it is the nicest, most state-of-the-art Wal-Mart that you've ever seen in your life. So we're fascinated by this Wal-Mart, of course, so we end up Googling it when we get home, and on YouTube there's this guy, and he's made up a rap about the Wal-Mart of Grundy.

  • 11:36:23

    SMITHThat's the funniest video I've ever seen.

  • 11:36:26

    REHMTell us about that video.

  • 11:36:28

    SMITHWell, it's just -- it is -- well let me ask her to say, where did you find it, but it's a rap thing. It's a whole bunch of guys from Grundy doing a rap about we got a Wal-Mart. It's hilarious. And they're riding up and down these giant escalators, you know, with the groceries and stuff.

  • 11:36:45

    REHMOh right, you wrote about that with these great, big carriages riding up and down the escalator, just incredible. Elizabeth, thanks for calling. I hope I see you tomorrow. And we're going to take just a short break here from our conversation with Lee Smith. Her new book, a memoir, it's titled "Dimestore: A Writer's Life." And Dante Chinni, he's a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. We're talking not only about Lee Smith's book but about small-town America. So stay with us.

  • 11:40:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. Lee Smith is with me. She's the author of many books. Certainly my favorite is "Fair and Tender Ladies," a book of letters among friends that just took my heart away.

  • 11:40:22

    SMITHThank you. Thank you.

  • 11:40:24

    REHMAnd now she's come up with "Dimestore: A Memoir of a Writer's Life." She's here in the studio, along with Dante Chinni. He's a Wall Street Journal reporter and director of the American Communities Project at Michigan State University. Lee Smith's memoir talks a great deal about Grundy, Va., where she grew up in a tiny little town, where finally all of the local business owners when out of business. A big Wal-Mart came in.

  • 11:41:07

    REHMThe transformation of that town began. Here's an email for you, Lee, from Wesley, who says, "May I object to the nostalgia for a time that never really existed? While Ms. Smith enjoyed a childhood she remembers as idyllic, others in her city were denied an equal education or access to jobs. In the early years did any people of color clerk in the dimestore or were they limited to cleaning up at night?"

  • 11:41:52

    SMITHWell, unfortunately, we didn't have any people of color in our county.

  • 11:41:56

    REHMNone?

  • 11:41:57

    SMITHNone.

  • 11:41:59

    REHMAll white.

  • 11:41:59

    SMITHUm-hum.

  • 11:42:00

    REHMInteresting.

  • 11:42:01

    SMITHUm-hum.

  • 11:42:03

    REHMHow do you explain that, Dante?

  • 11:42:05

    CHINNIIt wouldn't surprise me. I mean, you get out to rural America, particularly in Appalachia -- Appalachia is overwhelmingly white non-Hispanic. That's the story. It is, like, look, I spent a lot of time looking at election results over the last, you know, couple of months now.

  • 11:42:19

    REHMSure.

  • 11:42:20

    CHINNIAnd there's a difference between when you talk about what rural northern America looks like versus what rural southern America looks like. And I know we're talking about Virginia, but when you get out to the western part of Virginia and West Virginia, it's -- it feels a bit more like rural northern America, in that it's extremely -- it's very white and that's just the heritage of the place. And that's the story.

  • 11:42:40

    SMITHWell, I would say, too, a lot of times when African-American people came into the coal fields, they were brought in as strike breakers, you know, or whatever. And Grundy, for some reason, had very few union minds and so on. They were mostly independent minds. And so there wasn't that situation so much of brining in, you know, like around Bluefield, W.Va., for instance, people -- there were Italian -- the coal camps had, you know, an Italian section, an African-American section, a Polish section…

  • 11:43:12

    REHMI see, I see.

  • 11:43:14

    SMITH…etcetera, but we did not.

  • 11:43:17

    REHMAll right. Let's go to the phones and let's go to Ryan O'Quinn who's in Bristol, Va.

  • 11:43:28

    SMITHHe's the one that's making the movie. Oh, my God.

  • 11:43:31

    REHMWell, that's what he tells us. Hey, Ryan.

  • 11:43:34

    MR. RYAN O'QUINNHello, Diane. How are you? And hello, Lee.

  • 11:43:36

    SMITHHey, Ryan.

  • 11:43:40

    O'QUINNI am in Bristol at the moment. We just left Grundy last week, where we've been shooting our feature film called, "Believe." And I heard Lee on the show this morning, so I've been waiting in the queue desperately trying to talk to you. It's great to hear you.

  • 11:43:53

    SMITHWell, how did it go?

  • 11:43:55

    O'QUINNIt went great. It went really great. And I'll tell you this, I could continue until the top of the hour telling you amazing stories, but in one particular scene in the film, which, by the way, is set in Grundy, we were looking for some extras for some background actors, of course, some extras to be in a Christmas pageant scene. Kind of the big scene that sets up the film, takes place at a new park in Grundy called Poplar Gap Park.

  • 11:44:19

    SMITHRight.

  • 11:44:19

    O'QUINNWhich did not exist when I lived there 25 years ago.

  • 11:44:22

    SMITHRight.

  • 11:44:23

    O'QUINNYeah, and so it's a, you know, the very top of the mountain, as you know, Lee, that can kind of see down into the valley. And so we asked for 200 extras to show up because we had a -- in the film industry we call it a techno crane, which is a big boom shot that goes over and looks down on the…

  • 11:44:38

    REHMSure. Right.

  • 11:44:39

    O'QUINN…stage area and where all the festival needs to be.

  • 11:44:41

    REHMRight.

  • 11:44:41

    O'QUINNSo they wanted to get about 200 people and then replicate that in post-production, of course, to make it look like there are a lot of people. Twenty-three hundred people showed up…

  • 11:44:49

    CHINNIWow.

  • 11:44:50

    O'QUINN…in 70-degree weather, dressed for Christmas.

  • 11:44:54

    REHMWow. So…

  • 11:44:56

    O'QUINNIt was amazing.

  • 11:44:56

    SMITHThat's fabulous.

  • 11:44:58

    REHMNow, Ryan, tell me what the theme, the central them of the movie is.

  • 11:45:07

    O'QUINNIt's about a small business owner. I play a character named Matthew Peyton (sp?) who is a small business owner in small town, USA. He's the primary employer in the town. And he employs most of the town. And through a series of -- I won't ruin the film for you, but through a series of dramatic turns you find out that he actually has to let -- lay people off. He has to let people go.

  • 11:45:29

    REHMOh, boy.

  • 11:45:30

    O'QUINNHe has to -- he basically ruins Christmas for the entire town.

  • 11:45:32

    REHMOh, boy.

  • 11:45:33

    O'QUINNAnd in the interim he is also synonymous with the annual Christmas festival. This is the big pageant that everyone looks forward to at the end of the year. So not only has he ruined Christmas by laying off his entire town, but he has to break it to the town that now we're not going to have this Christmas pageant…

  • 11:45:49

    REHMI see.

  • 11:45:49

    O'QUINN…because I don't have enough money to continue this.

  • 11:45:51

    REHMI see.

  • 11:45:53

    O'QUINNAnd then high drama ensues. And, as you can imagine, in a family-friendly Christmas movie, the day is saved.

  • 11:45:56

    REHMHigh drama, yeah.

  • 11:45:58

    O'QUINNBut, yeah, and the story, Diane, was set in rural Pennsylvania. And when I got cast in this and got the script, as I read the script I, you know, in my mind's eye I pictured locations in settings that I knew best. I pictured Grundy. I pictured the drive-in where I would go to the drive-in. I pictured the movie theater. It talked about a courthouse. I pictured the Buchanan County, Va., courthouse.

  • 11:46:18

    SMITHSo right.

  • 11:46:22

    O'QUINNSo I approached our writer/director, Billy Dickson, and I said what is the connection to Pennsylvania, why there? And he said, well, I really just wanted a slice of life. What I really wanted was middle America, blue collar, salt of the earth. And I said, say no more. Before you make a decision, follow me back to Grundy. I want to show something.

  • 11:46:38

    REHMOh, that's terrific. Well, Ryan, I want to wish you all success and we'll all be on the lookout for your film.

  • 11:46:47

    SMITHCan I mention, Diane, too, how rare it is for a son of this community to come back with this kind of enthusiasm and shoot a film there that is not gonna portray, you know, hillbilly -- wild-eyed hillbillies or, you know, play into any of the stereotypes we're so often seen in Appalachian films.

  • 11:47:08

    REHMWell, congratulations. And we will look forward to it. Let's go to Dillon, in Sand Mountain, Ala. Hi, Dillon. You're on the air.

  • 11:47:22

    DILLONHello, Diane. Great show today. I'm just having such a great time listening to you all.

  • 11:47:25

    REHMOh, good.

  • 11:47:27

    DILLONLee, I have a confession to make. I have just discovered you only a few months ago. I picked up a little book at the library called, "Grit Lit," which has an excerpt from your book, "Saving Grace." And I read it. And I'm hooked.

  • 11:47:38

    SMITHAnd "Saving Grace" is kind of set in Sand Mountain, isn't it, part of it.

  • 11:47:42

    DILLONIt might as well be. It might as well be. So I kind of gotten hooked. I'm reading through "Saving Grace." I'm working on my MSA in fiction at Spalding University. And, Lee, my question, I guess, is what -- how would you sort of -- could you talk just a little bit about the intersection of religion and how it plays into sort of our understanding. Those of us who are from these rural towns and especially rural towns, how religion sort of affects our understanding of our gender identity.

  • 11:48:11

    DILLONI know that's a very specific question, but as I'm watching Grace -- I'm not through with the book, but as I'm watching Grace sort of emerge from this wonderful, terrifying religious setting and seeing how she sort of understands who she is as a woman and maybe her own unique brand of feminism. And I'll -- I know that's kind of rambling, but I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 11:48:29

    REHMAll right. Okay, Dillon.

  • 11:48:30

    SMITHWell…

  • 11:48:30

    DILLONThank you so much.

  • 11:48:32

    REHMOkay, thanks.

  • 11:48:33

    SMITHWell, "Saving Grace" is a book that is set deeply within a serpent handling community, serpent handling church. And I did a whole lot of research and a whole lot of interviewing of people within this religion. And…

  • 11:48:46

    REHMWhat year is that book set in?

  • 11:48:49

    SMITHIt could be set now, believe it not. We have 3,000…

  • 11:48:52

    REHMBecause it still goes on.

  • 11:48:53

    SMITH…active serpent handling believers going on now.

  • 11:48:54

    CHINNIYeah.

  • 11:48:55

    REHMOh, I see.

  • 11:48:56

    SMITHAnd Sand Mountain, Ga., is a place where they are.

  • 11:48:57

    REHMI see, whoa.

  • 11:48:58

    SMITHSo that's one reason. But I've always been interested in that kind of community. And it is, of course, repressive to women. And I have -- my major character is named Grace. And she said -- her name is -- her first two names are Florida Grace. And she says, Florida for the state I was born in, Grace for the grace of God. And so she's born into this religion. And at a certain point she runs away from it.

  • 11:49:27

    SMITHBut then unfortunately the outside world treats her kind of bad. And she goes back, which is something I kept seeing, the way people will go back to an abusive kind of community. And she does, though, find her own, you know, she does, though, find her own way and so on.

  • 11:49:44

    REHMAnd, you know…

  • 11:49:45

    SMITHIt's interesting to me. Just I had interviewed so many women who had that pattern, who had that story, who were in that community.

  • 11:49:53

    REHMWho were going back to abusive situations.

  • 11:49:58

    SMITHWell, it was, yeah, but it was also…

  • 11:50:01

    REHMOr a home.

  • 11:50:03

    SMITHA home. It was a home. It was where people cared so…

  • 11:50:04

    REHMYeah, it was home.

  • 11:50:05

    SMITH…much for each other because they felt that the whole world was against them because their beliefs were strange and scary.

  • 11:50:12

    REHMAnd that's the other thing, Dante. How many -- how much of this is going on in rural America, small town America? People leaving for…

  • 11:50:28

    CHINNIRight.

  • 11:50:28

    REHM…the big cities and then not finding that comfort, that satisfaction and returning home.

  • 11:50:34

    CHINNIWell, I mean, the small town America would be helped a great deal if more people did that, actually. I mean, I think one of the big problems is, when I look at it, is intellectual -- the story, really, of the last like 20, 30 years in the United States is big, urban areas getting bigger, becoming more urbanized, getting wealthier, getting more college education. And there's a stark -- there is a more and more stark divide between rural and urban America.

  • 11:50:57

    CHINNIRural and urban America, look, they've always been different, but they're just radically different at this point. I mean, if you -- I mean…

  • 11:51:04

    SMITHOh, yeah.

  • 11:51:05

    CHINNII hate talking about real America. There is not real America. There are a lot of different ways that people live. But they're fundamentally different places. Go spend some time in Grundy, go spend some time in rural Michigan, up North, is what we used to call it. And then go back to Detroit, go to the suburbs, go to NoVa, go to northern Virginia. Northern Virginia is so much like research triangle now.

  • 11:51:23

    REHMYeah, exactly. Thriving, thriving.

  • 11:51:24

    CHINNII mean, and it's the communities. Those -- and they're popping up all over the country.

  • 11:51:28

    SMITHAbsolutely, yeah.

  • 11:51:28

    CHINNIThat kind of environment, that urban environment is really very similar, but you go -- rural America is where you still have some roots.

  • 11:51:34

    SMITHExactly.

  • 11:51:34

    REHMThis sort of picks up on that. It's an email from Tance, who says, "My hometown of Lexington, N.C., is doing a great job of surviving. It's a throwback to earlier days with a family-owned grocery store, candy factory, hardware store on Main Street." Tance says, "My first job 40 years ago was at the soda fountain at the drugstore on Center Street. Now new restaurants, the barbeque festival, other tourist-friendly attractions have helped the town fight back against jobs being shipped overseas and the Walmart-ing of America."

  • 11:52:21

    CHINNIThe other thing that happens in rural America, if the setting is picturesque and beautiful or if you're at the coasts, I mean I spend a lot of time looking at places like this, you can kind of make a living. And the city, the community can kind of survive by inviting in the people who no longer live in those places to come and spend money. It's an interesting idea. And you see it in these kind of service communities on the Oregon coast, on the Michigan coast, up in the pinkie area up around Traverse City, that area which is beautiful.

  • 11:52:47

    CHINNIThere is one problem with it. You've gotta take that and grow something off of it. You can't always try to live on the, you know, the help -- the kindness of strangers, right, coming into your community, spending money. Because if the weather's not as nice…

  • 11:53:00

    REHMRight.

  • 11:53:00

    CHINNI…if they find a new place to go…

  • 11:53:02

    SMITHYeah.

  • 11:53:02

    REHMRight.

  • 11:53:02

    CHINNI…it gets tougher. Yeah, so if you have that going on in your community, if there's a way to leverage it, get some of those people to come there at a different time, get some of these other things we're talking about, bringing in education, some kind of educational facility, an institution can make a big difference.

  • 11:53:15

    REHMYou talked about the flooding in Grundy.

  • 11:53:19

    SMITHYeah.

  • 11:53:19

    REHMHow did you wall finally deal with the flooding in Grundy?

  • 11:53:25

    SMITHWell, you didn't. I mean, you know, they had these famous 20-year floods in 1947, '57, '77.

  • 11:53:31

    CHINNIWow.

  • 11:53:32

    SMITHActually, Grundy, from the time it was founded, flooded -- had nine major floods. And these were some of the biggest. But they just simply wiped everything out. And my parents rebuilt twice, totally, the dimestore.

  • 11:53:45

    REHMThe dimestore.

  • 11:53:46

    SMITHAnd the -- like in Mama's kitchen, you know, above her counters in the kitchen. You know, and her -- just the family home, they'd be, you know, they rebuilt twice. So…

  • 11:53:56

    REHMSo…

  • 11:53:57

    SMITHThere's nowhere for the water to go 'cause these mountains are so straight up and down, Diane. That's part of it, is the topography.

  • 11:54:03

    REHMAll right. To -- let's go to Molly in Chapel Hill, N.C. You're on the air.

  • 11:54:13

    MOLLYHi, Diane.

  • 11:54:13

    REHMHi.

  • 11:54:15

    MOLLYI love your show. We're daily listeners.

  • 11:54:16

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:54:16

    MOLLYAnd I appreciate today's show.

  • 11:54:17

    REHMThanks.

  • 11:54:18

    MOLLYThis is a story that harks back to the mining area. My grandmother lives in Wise, Va. And I had a good college friend, Donita Fowler (sp?), who lived in Grundy.

  • 11:54:31

    SMITHOh, she's a good friend of mine. Oh, my gosh.

  • 11:54:34

    MOLLYDo you know Donita?

  • 11:54:37

    SMITHWow.

  • 11:54:37

    MOLLYYeah, well, she -- Donita asked me to sing in her wedding. This was, I don't know, probably 1962. I'm not sure what year. And so I had to get from Grandmother's in Wise to Grundy. So they found a coal truck. Moon Mullins (sp?) was driving his…

  • 11:54:54

    SMITHMoon Mullins. I cannot believe it. Oh, my gosh.

  • 11:54:58

    MOLLY…from Wise to Grundy, and that's how I got to sing at Donita's wedding.

  • 11:55:02

    SMITHThat is fabulous.

  • 11:55:03

    REHMIsn't that a great story.

  • 11:55:05

    SMITHThat is fabulous. I got married in Grundy, too.

  • 11:55:08

    REHMYou did.

  • 11:55:09

    SMITHOne time. I got married…

  • 11:55:10

    REHMOne time.

  • 11:55:10

    SMITHI got married some other times, too. But that…

  • 11:55:13

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:55:13

    SMITHNot only once.

  • 11:55:15

    REHMAnd a last call. Loreet, in Gainesville, Fla., you're on the air.

  • 11:55:21

    LOREETHi, Diane.

  • 11:55:21

    REHMHi.

  • 11:55:23

    LOREETI'm actually -- I'm in Gainesville, but I live in Shady Valley, Tenn. And moved down there from Michigan, of all places. So I know all about that northern Michigan and pinkie Michigan thing. But anyway, shortly after I moved down to the area, I moved down there to get married. My husband and I started a rafting company. And we used to run trips down the Russell Fork River, through the Breaks Interstate Park. And, you know, it's just some -- there are so many great small-town stories.

  • 11:55:45

    LOREETBut this one -- so I had the rafting bus and it was empty. And I was on a curvy little road between the Breaks Park and Elkhorn City and let it run out of gas, unfortunately. And there's almost no place to pull it off the road, but I managed. And some nice man stopped. And not only did he give me a ride to Elkhorn City to get gas, he brought me back to the bus. He helped me prime the engine and get the bus started and make sure that I was all on my way. And I found out later he was actually a U.S. marshal.

  • 11:56:17

    SMITHWow.

  • 11:56:18

    LOREETBut, you know, it's still, you know, it's a small town kind of thing that is getting harder to find. You have to be there and look for it, but there are so many great upsides to living in rural America.

  • 11:56:31

    REHMAnd so many great stories that Lee Smith talks about in her memoir, "Dimestore: A Writer's Life." And your writing life really did being there. I love the story of your selling each of those stories for a nickel a piece. I just love it. And to you, Dante Chinni, thank you so much for adding to the richness of this discussion. Thank you both.

  • 11:57:02

    CHINNIThank you.

  • 11:57:03

    SMITHThank you, Diane.

  • 11:57:04

    REHMAnd thanks to all of you for listening and for contributing your great stories about small town America. Thanks for listening. I'll be off for the rest of the week. Going to Louisville, Ky. And I'll talk to you again next week. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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