Laura Lee Smith is the author of two novels: THE ICE HOUSE (December 5, 2017) and HEART OF PALM (2013), both from Grove Press. Her short fiction was selected by guest editor T.C. Boyle for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2015 and by guest editor Amy Hempel for inclusion in New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2010.
Laura's work has also appeared in New England Review, The Florida Review, Natural Bridge, Bayou, and other journals, and she is a frequent contributor to Swamp Radio. She works as an advertising copywriter.
Laura, who lives in Florida, is on book tour for THE ICE HOUSE, a Fall 2017 Okra Pick. She stopped by independent bookstore M.Judson Booksellers in Greenville, SC on Monday to read from her novel and to talk about writing.
About your writing trajectory. You wrote short stories before you were "discovered" and then wrote a novel...how did that unfold?
I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my mid-thirties. Before then, I lacked the confidence to try my hand at developing characters and narratives. But I was always a passionate reader, and I’ve always worked as a business writer, so I suppose I was developing certain skills along the way—focus, concentration, the patience for revision. I used to be regretful that I didn’t start writing until a bit later in my life, but now I actually value that delay. It helped me mature, and it ensured that I didn’t rush to publication like some young writers do.
So anyway, I started in my thirties, submitting short stories to literary magazines. I received many, many rejections. But I was mature enough at that point to make a choice for tenacity, and I kept going. Eventually, agent Nat Sobel of Sobel Weber spotted one of my stories in a small literary magazine and wrote to ask if I had a novel. I had a loose start on a novel, but I spotted the opportunity in Nat’s inquiry, and I worked like mad to get the manuscript into shape. That manuscript became my first novel, HEART OF PALM (2013). I now work with Nat’s wife and business partner, Judith Weber, as do you, Mindy. I know we are both grateful for Judith’s wise and graceful representation.
You are at your desk by 5 a.m. to write. How long have you done it, and how does that help the magic happen?
I’ve been doing it for years—probably since my kids were babies, and they’re now 19 and 21. In the beginning, I got up early because I was commuting to a job and raising small kids. Pre-dawn was the only time I could consistently count on to have uninterrupted quiet. Through the years, it’s simply become a habit, and a good one. I love the early morning quiet of the house, the way there are no expectations on you to do anything else at that hour. Because I now work from home, I don’t have the grind of the long commute, which is wonderful.But once my job duties start kicking in for the day, usually around 9:00, the opportunity for quiet concentration and creating a fictional dream is gone. So 5:00 it is. Coffee helps.
You have talked about how your grandfather's story of coming to America from Scotland inspired your writing of The Ice House. How so?
My grandfather Johnny Readie immigrated to America from Glasgow, Scotland, in 1924, when he was fourteen. He built a business here and raised a family, and I remember being charmed as a kid by his stories of Scotland and fascinated with the idea that he left one country to make a life in another. He is the inspiration for my character Johnny MacKinnon in The Ice House, but only to the extent that both Johnnys were Scottish immigrants who worked hard to build a business in the United States. The fictional Johnny quickly became his own person. He’s sarcastic and stubborn and brusque, whereas my own grandfather was actually warm and charming and loving. But Johnny MacKinnon has a very soft heart, underneath his tough exterior. I suppose they have that in common as well.
Both your novels and your short stories have great comic moments. Can you say a little about how humor burbles up in your work, even in darker moments?
I like to laugh. And maybe it’s my nervous disposition, but I find myself laughing often, even during times of stress or conflict…it’s a release to laugh, and I think that we humans often behave in ways that are simply hilarious. So it feels natural for me to allow my characters to laugh at each other and laugh at themselves. Sometimes the characters are not actually laughing, but their responses to stressors are humorous, which allows readers to laugh and builds a bit of sympathy and compassion for the characters. I think humor in my work is also a byproduct of the fact that I know my characters very well. I feel comfortable inside their heads, so when something happens that presents an opportunity for a funny response from a character, it comes fairly easily.
Most writers have side hustles and gigs to keep the lights on. Say a little about your day job, and how you weave your writing into your work day.
I work for Steinway & Sons pianos as a copywriter and project manager. It’s a very good gig. . .the company is in New York, but I work at home in Florida and have a great deal of flexibility in how I manage my time. Plus, it’s a company I’m proud to work for—the culture of Steinway is focused on the art of music and the artistry of fine piano making. I feel like I’m contributing to a valuable and creative entity. That said, it’s hard—as it is for any writer—to balance the demands of a day job with the desire to spend time with fictional characters. I struggle with that. And more and more, the demands of managing a writing career have been encroaching on writing time. I try to keep in touch with readers, respond to requests for visits, look for opportunities to connect with booksellers—all of these things are important elements of building a career and helping my books make their way into readers’ hands. But if I’m not careful, these efforts take time away from actually creating the work. The only answer is I have found is to get up very early in the morning to work on fiction. Most writers I know have fantasies about being able to write and read full time. I’m no exception.
A few more pearls of wisdom to share, please?
I feel grateful to be in the storytelling business. It’s a gift. I’m most excited about life when I’m inside the fictional dream, when I’m working on bringing characters through a journey and I find myself lost in reverie, building lives and conflicts and resolutions just by typing words onto a page. It’s a miraculous thing. It doesn’t always work the way I want it to, and sometimes it’s hard and discouraging, but when the work is going well, I feel real joy. I hope that energy is transmitted to my readers—that would be my greatest wish, in fact, as a writer. If I can gift someone the reverie of a well-told story, I’ll be happy.