Author Alison Smith
Given Alison Smith's background -- she hails from a long line of devout Catholics, who were blue-collar workers and teachers -- she was expected to become an educator herself, get married, keep her faith. She wasn't supposed to become a writer. To complicate things further, in her finely crafted memoir, Name All the Animals (Scribner), she writes about her brother Roy's accidental death, a subject the family rarely discussed, and her first lesbian experiences at Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls. Smith also broke with family tradition when she traded her religious faith for the temple of knowledge, preferring Jane Austen to Jesus.
"Both of my parents were not too keen on me becoming a writer," said Smith speaking on the phone from Rochester, New York, her hometown and the backdrop for Name All the Animals. "It was not in our culture. We became schoolteachers. My dad worked at the factory. They thought that [my becoming a writer] was a terribly bad idea."
Not that this caused a family rift or stopped her proud father from cheering at a reading in Rochester, or from bringing along 55 of his closest friends to show off his daughter's moving new memoir. "He's so excited. He really, really loves the book." Sadly, Smith's mother passed away last April.
BTW again caught up with Smith, who's 35, after a recent reading at the KGB Bar in New York City. A sort of elfin towhead, she conveyed a similar humor and earnestness when she made the post-reading rounds as she does with narrative voice in Name All the Animals.
Name All the Animals is Smith's debut book. She has contributed to McSweeney's and was resident at Yaddo and MacDowell colonies, and has won a hailstorm of positive recognition. Name All the Animals is a Top Ten March/April 2004 Book Sense 76 pick. Carole Horne of Harvard Book Store had this to say about it, "This extraordinary account of the way the author's family coped with the accidental death of her brother and her own secret homosexuality is gripping, unsentimental, and amazingly accomplished. If Smith is able to do this in a first book, I can't wait for the next." New York Times' Janet Maslin called the book "literary and precise."
When she was 15, Smith's older brother Roy was killed in a car accident. He drove away in the rain and never came back, Smith told the audience at KGB. They spent so much time together building forts and squabbling over dishes that their mother referred to both of them with one nickname -- "Alroy." Smith responded to his death by burrowing deep inside herself, fluttering "between the dead and the living." And by reading feverishly, anything and everything. Along with Sense and Sensibility, there was A Syllabus of Mortuary Jurisprudence, Elizabethan Puritanism, Early Norse History, and many others. Smith essentially wrote and read herself back into the world.
During the creation of the book, she tried to not let herself get pigeonholed. "When writing, I didn't think about terms -- coming-of-age, grief memoir, coming out memoir -- I just tried to stick close to my experience." Smith explained how after the book is on the shelves "labels help so people can easily identify if they might connect with the book, but they don't help you when you're writing."
Smith took six years to complete the memoir, so naturally there were some significant revelations along the way. After 18 drafts, the first of which was an 800-page behemoth that included "everything from information about my grandparents' emigration from Denmark to what I had for breakfast," she whittled away about 500 pages and, Smith told BTW, "I discovered that I thought a lot about what my parents lost and not as much about what I lost." She finally got that her suffering was as important as her parents'. "Somewhere in year three I figured it out. I'm a slow learner," she said.
Knowing this led to one of the significant threads in the memoir and an additional impetus for Smith's telling the story of her adolescent life. Much of the book addresses family, identity, coming-of-age, grief, sexuality, but one theme Smith felt didn't get its due elsewhere was how brothers and sisters mourn. Smith explained, "I wanted to write for siblings because there's not enough attention paid to sibling grief. There's so much focus on what parents lose because they lose so much, but siblings are often put in position to make up for what parents lost and they sort of become the handmaids to their parents' grief. Siblings also lose so much."
But this is not to say that Name All the Animals, which takes its name from a biblical reference, is all pain all the time. Far from it. Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls is rife with comic foibles and misadventures involving snogging behind Our Lady of the Broken Toes, discovering the sisters' secret pool, and falling asleep with a girlfriend in the dean of discipline's bed. The nuns are depicted in all their multi-dimensional glory wavering among hilarity, fathoms-deep sympathy, and hellfire and brimstone homophobia. But they work collectively to gently and sometimes not so gently nudge her back into the world, particularly Smith's favorite, the unconventional Sister Agnes. Sister Aggie dubs Smith "Blondie" and literally drags her from her work, the Convent switchboard Smith operated as a work study student, to rouse her from melancholia. When Smith hesitates to leave her post, "Sister Aggie stopped, spun around, and stared at [her]. She leaned forward, hunched over her spindly cane, and motioned for [Smith] to bend over toward her. 'Fuck the phone, Blondie,'" Aggie tells her.
Smith told BTW her loving portrayal of the sisters was in response to all the bad press they usually get. "You always here about nuns being extremely strict disciplinarians, harsh, and into corporal punishment," said Smith, who was puzzled by this. "I've met many nuns in my life and I've never met a dud," she said, with a laugh. "They devote their lives to what are often politically radical ideas, such as the social and economic issues they address with their work with the poor, despite the fact that they're part of the Catholic Church, which is ... conservative."
Many memoirs that deal with grief -- Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart, Barbara Lazear Ascher's Landscape Without Gravity: A Memoir of Grief, Genevieve Jurgensen's The Disappearance -- typically maintain their somber tone throughout, but Name All the Animals presents a balanced, fully wrought representation of the life of a fiercely imaginative girl, who happens to fall in love with another girl. "I see it as a love story," Smith told BTW. "I was madly in love with Teresa Dinovelli, and I was lucky because the first person I kissed, and everything, was somebody who was my peer, who I felt so emotionally and intellectually connected to. It was true love, and when fumbling around in the dark in high school, it's rare to get that."
As much as readers might want to know what happens in the next chapter of Smith's life, she reported that she currently doesn't have plans for a sequel. She does, however, have plans for fiction, which she sees as a liberating genre. "I love that you get to make everything up," she said. And she doesn't necessarily like to know where she's going ahead of time. "Getting lost is a big part of my writing process -- you've just got to follow the voices, the characters wherever they take you," she explained. "You've got to trust them, no matter how many times they may lead you astray. You go down a lot of dead ends before you find the road that takes you to your narrative structure. And that's okay, because all those wrong turns are useful -- they give you a greater intimacy with your subject. I'm writing a novel now and I'm having fun getting lost." --Karen Schechner