Laura Lee Smith
Laura Lee Smith's second book, The Ice House, from legendary publisher Grove/Atlantic, is, quite frankly, amazing. It's the best kind of novel, the kind where all you want to do is get back to it. Get back to the story, get back to the places and, most of all, get back to the people who inhabit the world you are reading about. The kind of novel that makes you sad when it's over because you know you won't be able to be in that world any longer.
Laura's writing constantly had me pausing and putting the book down in my lap to ponder at her skill, her knowledge of place and her use of words. Every person I gave a reading copy to has thanked me profusely after they finished.
Laura's answers to my questions are, at times, very moving and poignant and at other times, laugh out loud hilarious.
Please note, her time travel answer is remarkable.
Read on and I promise you will be glad you did.
Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.
I live in downtown St. Augustine. It’s about forty miles south of Jacksonville on the east coast of Florida. Most people know it as a beautiful little tourist town. Which it is. Charming, quaint, all of that. We can meander a few blocks for coffee or dinner and any outing feels like a holiday. But I think I love the town less for its lifestyle and more for its life texture, if that makes any sense. I spend a lot of time out walking, and I listen to music while I walk. Invariably, thanks to the music and the beauty of the environment, I feel like I’m walking through the soundtrack of an art film. Gothic oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Brick streets and crooked alleys. Staunch Victorian homes, many of them mold-decayed and battered by the severe storms which have become more frequent occurrences in recent years. It’s an evocative place to think about stories.
Where were you living when you were seven years old? Are they fond memories?
I was living in Red Bank, New Jersey. And yes, I have fond memories of that time and place. But seven was also a formative year.
|Seven year old Laura|
The week before my seventh birthday, my family moved from the house I’d known since infancy to a rental house a few towns over. And then there was another move a year later. And then another. And then another. We jumped around quite a bit after I turned seven, until we ultimately landed in Florida when I was eleven. There were complicated circumstances: financial and marital and emotional strains. At one point we were actually homeless, but somehow, we kids didn’t realize it until years later. My parents did a pretty good job of obscuring the obvious to protect us. You’ve read The Glass Castle? That book hit uncomfortably close to home for me. But anyway—you’d asked about fond memories. Red Bank, New Jersey is a gem of a place. It’s become very hip these days, but back then it was a little piece of small-town Americana. I remember summer cook-outs and catching lightning bugs with my brothers and cousins. Shady trees and tidy streets. Salty slices of pizza from the corner store. School supplies from Woolworth’s. It wasn’t this way for everyone in the mid-seventies, but for a little white girl who had people looking out for her, there was little not to like.
|Laura with her beloved brothers, Shawn (top) and Casey.|
Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?
One of my favorite teachers was a man named Patrick Keenan who taught English at Cardinal Newman Catholic High School in West Palm Beach, Florida. I don’t know what happened to him, and I have not kept in touch with him. He was a young, cool, outdoorsy guy who wore cowboy boots with polyester Sansabelt trousers and permanent-press shirts. He had a thick beard and a wicked sense of sarcasm. I’m sure I had a huge crush on him, but mostly I was just sort of buoyed by him. I appreciated his unabashed love for stories, even in the presence of a bunch of reluctant high schoolers who didn’t want to read. He loved Shakespeare and Dickens and Twain. He recognized that I loved reading and writing and he gave me a lot of praise for my work. The Catholic school environment was pretty repressive and difficult, if I may state the obvious. One minute you’d be in a religion class watching anti-abortion filmstrips complete with photos of fetuses in garbage pails. But the next minute you’d be sitting in Mr. Keenan’s class and he’d be getting wound up about Huck or Mercutio or Miss Havisham, like literally jigging across the front of the room in his cowboy boots and talking about fictional characters like they were right there in the class with us, and you’d be having so much fun you’d forget everything shitty you’d been seeing or thinking about moments before. He validated my love of storytelling. So yeah, Mr. Keenan was my favorite.
Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?
Maybe reading The Great Gatsby in high school had that effect.
It seems an overplayed selection, but honestly when I read that book I knew, very consciously, that books and storytelling would always be a very important part of my world. To be so charmed by irretrievably flawed characters, and to be so riveted by a tight, serpentine plot—I was blown away the first time I read that book. It made me realize what power great fiction can wield.
Do you have a favorite children’s book and what about it makes it so?
It’s not really a children’s book, but when I was pretty young—maybe nine or ten—I read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
I was gripped by the story of Francie and her family, poor Irish immigrants in a time and culture stacked against them. It was my favorite book for many, many years. Francie was such a lonesome and relatable character. I really connected with her. I’ve re-read the book so many times since then. The prose is kind of stilted and unusual, but the story is absolutely crystalline. It’s a beautiful book. When Francie’s father Johnny Nolan dies…my god. I dare you not to weep. Maybe I see shades of Johnny Nolan in my character Corran MacKinnon, come to think of it. A lovable man in the clutches of a very unlovable addiction. It’s heartbreaking.
What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?
Gah. There are many. I am known for being a bit spacey. I’m forgetful and sometimes I make very big mistakes in timing or logistics. I’m not irresponsible or intentionally slack. I just short-circuit sometimes, and that has led to some funny situations that didn’t feel funny at the time. When I was in my early twenties I went with my (future) husband Chris to visit his family in England. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country, and my family was anxious about the whole thing. I was supposed to arrive back in Florida on a Thursday night in time to attend my younger brother’s high school graduation on Friday. I was the one in charge of scheduling and ticketing, and on the return trip, Chris and I missed the plane by an entire day. We showed up at the airport on what we thought was the appointed date, only to have the airline clerk frown and point out the date on our tickets, which was one day prior. This was before cell phones, mind you. Before texting or emailing or Facebook.
My family had no idea where I was for twenty-four hours and no way to reach me. They showed up at Miami International Airport and watched every passenger disembark the plane except for me and Chris. My mother re-enacted the scene for me later. My father, furious but a bit terrified, wouldn’t leave the airport, thinking I’d arrive on a subsequent flight. “How could she have missed a flight ten hours ago and not try to call?” he kept asking. “Because she’s an AIRHEAD,” my older brother intoned. (He’d been summoned from his bed to come to MIA and join the late-night search and rescue. My younger brother was commanded to man the phones at home.) “An AIR. HEAD.” He was right.
Eventually they all went home and went to bed. The next day Chris and I showed up in Miami and I called a former roommate to give us a ride home, since my family was all at the graduation ceremony.
So yeah. Stuff like that. Synaptic chaos in my brain. I’ve learned to live with it.
How did you meet your Chris? How did your first date go?
I was a student at the University of Florida (I had started college there before eventually transferring to the University of North Florida in Jacksonville a couple years later). He was a friend-of-a-friend, and we met at a beery party in a trailer park in southwest Gainesville. We didn’t start dating for a couple of years, but we were friends from the beginning. He was (and is) very quiet and very smart. I was (and remain) interested in cracking the code. Our first date was to a Steve Miller concert. Chris didn’t know then that I’m mostly deaf in my left ear, so when talking with someone, I have to be careful about positioning myself so that the person is directly on my right; otherwise I won’t hear well. This inconvenience is made much worse at a party or a loud restaurant, and it’s almost insurmountable at a concert. Somehow, I muddled the seating and ended up with Chris on my left. I don’t know why I didn’t just tell him I couldn’t hear him. Instead, I nodded idiotically to everything he was saying to me through the evening, even though I could tell, from his baffled looks, that some of his comments merited more than an affirmative head nod. He must have thought that I considered him dull. But we did manage to make it to a second date, and I guess at some point I explained all the dumb head nodding. That was twenty-seven years ago. All’s well that ends well.
Is there a song that you listen to when you are feeling a bit down?
There are songs I listen to when I’m feeling a bit down and want to wallow in it. Don’t we all? “Martha” by Tom Waits, “On the Level” by Leonard Cohen, “Changes” by Fleetwood Mac, almost anything from “West Side Story,” and “Beautiful World,” by Coldplay. (That last one is a happy song, but it wrecks me because it reminds me of a friend who died suddenly this year.) But then there are songs I listen to when I’m feeling down but want to be brought up out of it: “Heroes,” by David Bowie, “Kitty’s Back,” by Bruce Springsteen, “Lose Yourself,” by Eminem. I love pop, too: Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, Arianna Grande. My daughter influences me here, I love it. When I’m out walking and thinking of stories, I like to listen to instrumental music. I work for Steinway & Sons, so I love the sound of solo piano, whether jazz or classical. And I can get lost in Carter Burwell’s film scores, especially True Grit. You asked for one song, and I gave you a paragraph! You hit on something I like to talk about.
How are you different now than you were 20 years ago?
I’m about a thousand percent more confident. Not because of any particular achievements or successes, but just because I’ve gotten older and I’ve realized that nobody is sitting around thinking about me. You’re young and you think everyone is looking at you, right? And judging and evaluating. I used to be awfully timid and deferential. I always worried that I’d make someone angry or that I’d cause them to think negatively of me in some way. It was its own form of hubris, actually, this idea that I was the object of the world’s attention, even if I perceived that attention to come in the form of derision. But now I know that people are all walking around in their own shells of timidity and insecurity, even the ones that seem quite bold and self-confident. As my confidence has developed, so has my compassion. We’re all in this mess together. Let’s just do what we do, stop holding ourselves and each other back from exercising our talents, and build something good.
And finally, in a short essay…………………………
IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME
to any period from before recorded history to yesterday,
be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.
When would you go?
Where would you go?
Who would you want to meet?And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?
Glens Falls, 1915
If I could go back in time, I would travel to Glens Falls, New York, on Labor Day, 1915. The town sits at the edge of a thin elbow of the Hudson River about fifty miles north of Albany. It’s early September, one of the few remaining warm days before the weather turns hard and cruel for the winter. There is a band concert in Crandall Park; young people gather in giddy clusters. My great-aunt Julia is there, a young girl of fourteen, one of a large, poor family of second-generation Irish. Julia is enthralled with the song selections: “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary” and “Kitty the Telephone Girl.” When the concert ends, Julia walks the two miles home, buoyant with the holiday and the music.
At the house, a familiar tumult: her two big brothers boisterous on the porch, her five younger siblings afoot, her father Joe sullen and drinking in the kitchen. I watch Julia as she asks the question: “where’s ma?”
“Gone to lay down with the boys,” is the reply, “upstairs in the bedroom.” In twenty years, Julia’s mother Bridget, my great-grandmother, has borne twelve children and has buried two. Her youngest are fourteen-month old twins. Julia wants to tell her mother about the concert. About the clothes and the decorations. About the boy who smiled at her across the bandstand.
Julia climbs the stairs and enters the darkened bedroom. Bridget is a solid shape on the bed, the babies asleep beside her. It takes Julia only a moment to realize something is wrong. She senses it—feels the extinguishment of her own origin before she consciously observes it. Bridget is dead. As Julia starts to scream, the babies stir and then sit upright, wailing without quite knowing why. The room is suddenly chilled. A thunder of footfall begins on the stairway.
I’m here, too. I pull Julia away from the chaos in the bedroom—Joe’s shouting and the clumsy efforts of Julia’s older brothers to turn her over, check her airway, give her space, my god, my god—and I take my great-aunt to the kitchen. We sit there together as a parade of stunned people clump through the house and up to the bedroom. Neighbor women take the babies and smaller kids to the house next door. A doctor arrives and leaves, grim-faced. Someone shakes a newspaper at the dog, Booze, and shoos him out to the yard.
What happened, what happened, what happened—Julia keeps asking. Someone says “Joe gave her wood alcohol” and Julia’s mouth gapes, slack. Mine, too.
Wood alcohol is methanol. It’s highly toxic. Only the most naïve, the most suicidal, or the most blindly alcoholic would intentionally ingest it. Which one of these was Bridget?
I think Julia knows.
“On purpose?” Julia finally asks, but nobody answers. It’s a question nobody will answer. Ever.
“Shhh,” somebody says. “That’s no kind of question to ask.”
Here is what we do, Julia and I: we sit together for the rest of the afternoon, until the warm day slides into a damp, cool evening. By now, the body of Julia’s mother has been taken away, and the voices of neighbors and friends pervade the walls of the tiny house, making plans, making promises, making lists. We talk. Julia has little to say, but I do.
I tell her that secrets keep. I tell that what has happened in the house this afternoon will affect her deeply, will plunge her into an adulthood that she was certainly not ready to accept. I tell her that generations to follow will revere her name, will praise her as “the strong one,” the one who held the family together against all odds and cared for a wild throng of younger siblings and who shouldered a responsibility that should have been more equitably shared among her older brothers and her father. Julia will quit school. She’ll never marry. I don’t tell her this, but she’ll die of cancer at forty-one.
I tell her that she’s right to ask the questions. She looks at me, skeptical.
Did Joe know what he was doing, handing his wife a glass of methanol? Did he mean to numb her, to quiet her, to intoxicate her, to seduce her, or to kill her?
Did Bridget know what she was doing, as she raised the glass to her lips? Did she mean to die, or to escape, or to merely doze briefly on a summer afternoon with her twins beside her?
I stay in Glens Falls with my great-aunt Julia until after the funeral a few days later. We walk together through quiet streets back to the house on Haskell Avenue. Joe and the older boys head to the bar downtown. Julia tells the little kids to go upstairs and smacks Frankie a good one when he gives her lip. She starts to ready the twins for bed. Julia is fourteen and, in some ways now, she’s also forty. On Bridget’s death certificate, the cause of death is “unknown chronic disease.”
I tell Julia that she’ll be told not to talk about it.
“Already was,” she says.
I tell her pain loves a secret.
“Already know,” she says.
I’m on my way back to the now. There’s little I can say. I’m a hundred years from here, there are lines we cannot cross, and Julia is beyond my grasp. But I pause at the threshold of the kitchen door and then walk back to hug her. She stiffens at my touch. She is chalky, she is ash. Talk, talk, I whisper to her, though I’m not sure she can hear. Tell it, Julia. Tell it to me, and I’ll tell it for you.
|Laura's Great Aunt Julia|
Thank you Laura, for such an exceptional contribution to this blog. I know you have touched many a reader with your thoughts, memories, insights, and imagination.