Hillsborough author Lee Smith says her latest book was decades in the making, long before she even began writing it.
"This is very charged material for me," she says of Guests on Earth, which was published by Algonquin last month.
"It's very emotional, but it's one of those things that's like a gun to your head. I had to write this book, and I always knew I would."
Guests on Earth is narrated by a young New Orleans girl, Evalina Toussaint, as she grows up in the 1930s and '40s and is admitted into a mental hospital in Asheville, N.C. The facility, Highland Hospital, was a real institution that specialized in healing the mentally ill through daily five-mile walks, gardening, art and relaxation, a program begun and overseen by Dr. Robert Carroll before Duke University's medical system took charge of the facility in 1944. (Duke sold the property in 1981, and the site is now a private commercial development.)
Smith's novel, a consuming blend of history and fiction, quickly becomes a story of not only Evalina but a host of real and imagined residents of Highland. The novel includes the infamous 1948 fire that killed nine female patients who were locked on the top floor, where they had been receiving insulin shock treatments. One of these patients was Zelda Fitzgerald, an author and artist who was F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife.
Both Smith's father and her son Josh were patients at Highland Hospital, so she visited many times over the years.
"I read everything I could get my hands on about the fire that had happened there," Smith says during a recent interview at Hillsborough's Weaver Street Market. "It was this unsolved mystery."
Smith says she has known she would write a novel about the place since the late 1980s, and she locates its genesis in a walk she took with Josh more than two decades ago, when he was a patient there.
"There was this one moment when Josh and I were walking up a hill toward the mountaintop hospital in a winter sunset, and so the whole sky is red behind the roof line of all the buildings," Smith says, with a palpable immediacy in her voice.
"One of them is named Homewood, and it looks like a castle. It's got that crenelated cut and this red sunset behind it, and of course this really reminded me of the fire, which I'd been studying up on in my free time."
She connected this image with a phrase F. Scott used in an indignant letter to Zelda, before they were married and just after he discovered that she had been having affairs. "I used to wonder why they kept princesses in towers," the young author wrote.
Smith layered each image, superimposed each bit of history, one on top of the other, and she says she knew immediately that she had a story to write. She began the project in earnest about four years ago.
The book appears 10 years after Josh's death from a heart attack, circumstances that give her an even stronger connection to the story.
Guests on Earth explores the hazy area between those who receive the label of "insane" and those who are simply regarded as "creative." This concept sparked Smith's interest long before she penned the book.
"I wanted this book to be written right on that line between sanity and insanity, between who's crazy and who's not," Smith says, "because part of my point is that we're all a little bit crazy, so let's just acknowledge that."
Perhaps those who have witnessed loved ones with mental illnesses, as Smith has, are best equipped to understand the normal life events that occur during periods of long confinement.
"I was really trying to show that very real lives are lived within these illnesses. Friendships, love affairs, learning, creativity, change and transformation—all these things happen within such institutions," Smith says.
Several of the characters in Guests on Earth seem to be healthy but could not fit into their prescribed domestic roles. They were brought to Highland to be cured of their purported deviations and differences, a practice that was common in those years.
"A fairly sizable number of women who were at Highland Hospital had really been sent there by their husbands or their families because they were just a little too wild or creative," Smith says, "because they didn't fit into the norm that society—particularly Deep South society—expected of them."
Smith wrote Guests on Earth, her first novel since On Agate Hill in 2006, in the same space where she does most of her writing: the bright, picturesque, pre-Civil War cottage that sits just steps outside her home, with a banjo propped next to the fireplace. There is no computer in sight because she writes at her desk with a pen and paper.
"To me, [handwriting] makes it a real, close, personal connection with whatever character you're writing about," Smith says.
This is the first of Smith's novels to mix historical figures with her fictional characters, and she says the experience of releasing the book was more nerve-wracking than usual because of it.
She's midway through her book tour, with more local events coming up. She's found that readers have been eager to share their own family histories. Several have told her stories of women in their families who died as a result of insulin shock treatments at Highland. One woman told Smith about her mother's clandestine stay in the hospital.
Her readers have also told her of family members who were victims of eugenics-based research, another topic explored in Guests. (Smith's own family history was touched by this practice, too.)
The uncovering of family histories, of the lives of so many people who have been swept under the rug of family memory, reminds Smith of her original intent with Guests on Earth.
"I've been a newspaper reporter and you go to these dire situations, these fires or wrecks, and it's just the headlines," Smith says. "I'm always thinking 'Oh gosh, there are these real people there,' and I sort of wanted to give them a life, these women who died in the fire."
Smith pauses. "I just wanted to, I don't know ... bear witness to these lives."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Freed spirits."