Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Smith's publisher.
Text and photos by C.R. Nelson
Sarah Elaine Smith looks down the genteel front steps of Bowlby Library in Waynesburg and says “Let’s take it there by the hydrangea. Simon and I used to throw them at each other when we came here.”
As country neighbor kids who loved to read, growing up in the rural reaches of Western Greene County in the last minutes of the 20th century. Kids like Sarah and Simon and other back to the lander offspring, brought to town by their parents to explore rooms and rooms of books, books, books and all the wonderful worlds to be found inside them.
Eva K Bowlby’s stately old gas and oil boom mansion-turned-library on Richhill Street is a great place to take a snapshot of the kid who grew up to become a poet, teacher and now author of the must-read debut novel of the summer – or so says the LA Times – “Marilou is Everywhere.”
Now it is Smith who is everywhere – at book fairs, on the air with NPR, with a schedule that will put her on the road for months doing the beat that new authors find themselves doing when critics declare their work something way special.
On Aug. 4, she came home to do a reading, and the dark wooded downstairs of Bowlby overflowed with family, friends, cookies, beloved teachers and those who came to listen and learn what it takes to tell a story this well.
For Smith, her first novel is a shout out to rural isolation in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and what that portends for the human spirit.
Her details ring true because she grew up on Herrods Run Road, New Freeport, the only child of Dan and Jan Grieshop Smith, who had given up Pittsburgh living for an old farm and a built-from-scratch tax business in Cameron, W.Va. It was the 1980s, and the Smiths weren’t the only folks who had moved to the country to raise some peaches and some kids who would grow up knowing the best of both worlds.
Dan and Jan ran into those others on rutted roads and at auctions. They became friends, did collective co-op buys and held work parties. Later these families would engage the school system, fight for education, run for school board and help bring the 21st century into this rural corner of Pennsylvania, even as they learned from their neighbors, most with pioneer roots, how to live off the land.
Which isn’t to say this didn’t lead to some teenage angst for their children! But in author Sarah Elaine Smith’s case, this cultural tension has lead to a wonderfully deep understanding of life, seen through the eyes of Cindy, a 14-year-old-social and emotional runaway living on a funky dirt road near the very real village of New Freeport, surrounded by gas wells, water trucks and trees. Her home has electricity some of the time and a mother who has gone missing. And what about that neighbor girl Jude? And what about Jude’s mother, whose life of herbs, goats, spells and alcohol have fashioned a universe all its own? The insight Smith offers is reflected in her startlingly realistic but never judgmental story, set in what some call Appalachia. It is a story that took five years to write – 1,000 words a day for ninety days, then put aside for ninety, then reread and throw out what isn’t just right. Rinse and repeat.
“I think everyone has a book in them and they should write it,” Smith tells us. She has advice for those considering writing that book and having to do what she’s about to do. “Describe all the characters in five pages if you ever have to read it!”
She reads her pages to us, and those of us who live here or have known the author all her life laugh at the bits of country truth tucked into the words. “She’d never been out of state, unless you count West Virginia, which you shouldn’t, because it’s the same as the place we are from in landscape and custom and all of that, and how people talk, and what they call a good idea.”
Smith graduated West Greene High School in 2001 with the kind of writing chops that come from being mentored by an English teacher who knows her stuff and can recognize talent.
“Sarah was born a writer,” retired English teacher Janice Hatfield tells us when she introduces her star student at the reading. She has in hand a four-year assortment of the school literary magazine Still Life, filled with Sarah’s early works, along with the ruminations, illustrations and photographs from a host of other restless, open-eyed kids full of their own versions of what it means to be alive. She shows us a manila folder stuffed with papers. “I saved her writing because I admire it. I told her if you want to be a writer, Sarah, you can do it.”
In her poem “Advice for New Writers,” fifteen-year-old Sarah puts it out there: “First, prod yourself with a ballpoint pen until you find a place that really hurts. Then let your tears fall on the paper (or computer screen) and let the blood and ink run into other words (preferably ones with double meanings.)”
At the reading, Smith harkens back to this. “The painful experience can be the most enlightening. Tell the truth. There’s a lot of dignity to just seeing what’s there.”
At Carnegie Mellon University Smith majored in English with a side order of jazz ensemble, literary magazine writing and awards for poetry. She was accepted at the University of Texas Michener Writing Center where she earned her Master of Fine Arts in poetry, then two years proofreading and writing book reviews for the Austin Chronicle. Then on to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop for an MFA in fiction, teaching undergrads and finding an agent. A book was fomenting in Smith as the ritual of writing 1,000 words a day became an ongoing thing. She knew she had the kernel of a story when, after reading 90 days of writing and tossing most of it out, “I found a thirty-page section I didn’t remember writing and all the characters were in it.”
Her agent Claudia Ballard auctioned off her unfinished manuscript, and six or eight publishers bid on it, Smith tells me. The rebid narrowed it down to three, and she interviewed with them to find the perfect fit – Sarah McGrath of Riverhead Press.
Thirty drafts later, “Marilou is Everywhere” was released on July 30, much to the delight of family, friends, beloved teachers and some big-time critics.
Smith is back in the Burgh her parents left for country living, with a small house in Swissvale bought, she admits, with down payment money saved from her first year of eating free, fabulous, energy-sustaining food at Google’s Pittsburgh headquarters in Bakery Square, East Liberty, where she worked as a tech subcontractor. It was a profoundly delicious, tedious job for three years, secure in every way but the artist’s way.
Smith describes her epiphany on Literary Hub: “… I eventually saw through the beautiful food and ample wellness drinks to the real underlying contract: stay here, and be a child. Stay here, and never be hungry. Stay here, do our work, and never worry again. Stay here.”
It took Smith nearly a year after her book contract was finalized to quit her day job and mosey home to her own kitchen where her laptop, cat and stove awaited. (Yeah, the food at Bakery Square was that good!) But Smith knows that out here in the real world of uncertainty, poverty, deadlines, inspiration and sometimes salvation, is where stories from the heart lie waiting.