Interview with Valerie Raleigh Yow author of ‘Betty Smith’

I am pleased to interview Valerie Raleigh Yow, the author of Betty Smith: Life of the Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Click here to read a review of the book.

JS: Thank you for your agreeing to this interview. Reading this biography was one of the books I was very much looking forward to reading and can say I am very glad I did. Can you tell us what prompted you to write a biography on Betty Smith? Was it just that her novels impacted you and you felt compelled to do so?

VRY: I had finished a biography of a woman writer, Bernice Kelly Harris: A Good Life Was Writing, and told a friend I wanted to write another because this one had so challenged and engaged me. She said, “Why not Betty Smith? She lived six blocks from you.” I was hesitant because I had heard Betty Smith was assertive and feisty and didn’t especially like women. A biographer has to have empathy with the subject so I wondered whether I could feel close to her. I read her novels again—all four are about working-class women. I loved it that she chose these women as the heroes. And Smith had a mixture of realism and hope in her writing. I thought, “Yes, this is the woman for me.”

JS: About how long did the project take you? For anyone reading this who might be someday interested in writing a biography, what are some of the steps you had to go through before you began to really work on your subject? 

VRY: I spent four years reading every letter, bill, tax return, article about Smith, and everything I could find that she had written. Most of these documents are in the University of North Carolina Manuscripts Department. I interviewed everyone I could find who had known her. Often they still lived here in my town, and sometimes I traveled to different cities where they live now, sometimes I talked to them by telephone. I went to the places Smith had lived—Williamsburg (Brooklyn), Ann Arbor, and found her houses—and sat in her study here in her house in Chapel Hill and meditated in her private garden. I was writing all the time, but I spent another three years revising and dealing with editors who wanted me to cut this, or insert that. I spent four months studying seventeen texts one critic said I needed to put in the manuscript; the next one told me to take all this “academic stuff” out. Finally, I found a small press whose editor trusted my judgment.

JS: It is known that Smith was a playwright before she became a novelist, and yet to my knowledge, her plays are not easily available. Why is this? Were her plays just “dated” for the time they were in, or was she still working to find her “voice” as most writers do? 

VRY: Some of the plays seem dated, but there are some which could very well appeal to an audience today. I liked especially a play about plural marriage among early Mormons, And Never Yield. It’s based on a novel by Elinor Pryor, who has the heroine stay when her husband takes a second and then a third wife. In Smith’s play, the heroine leaves. Another really compelling, very contemporary work is So Gracious Is the Time, a play about abortion. A critic says it is “A bitter play written around a terrible theme but written with a power and fidelity reminiscent of Gorki and Chekhov.”  
JS: In the book you speak about how Betty Smith was a rarity in her time, in that 90 percent of the novelists were men in those days and those that were women often wrote more about upper middle class life. You also speak about how back then the working class was often dismissed in writing. In many ways, although there are more women writers now than there were then, I still think there is a heavy leaning towards the upper middle class in writing today, and I think that does a disservice—as if to imply that car mechanics and grocery cashiers were not compelling enough to write about. What are your thoughts on this?

VRY:  Betty Smith once said that critics wanted her to write about the upper classes, but that she knew nothing about them. I think that she liked the idea that she could portray as heroes the women and men society discounted. By her writing, her powerful tool, she could compel readers to examine their attitudes about working-class people.

JS: Why do you think that Smith suffered the reputation of being a mere “woman’s writer?” At one moment in the book you speak about how some referred to her as a “hack”. Do you think this is just due to her subject matter, that it’s often women who are the characters, or do you think it is the bias of those who don’t like novels about the working class? 

VRY: Both. Male critics wanted novels about men’s heroic struggles or dilemmas, and they found novels about working-class girls or housewives trivial, not serious enough to spend time reading. But also, Smith wrote in a conversational tone, and she did not want her language to call attention to itself so she used familiar words. By refusing to use long, convoluted sentences and ostentatious words, she was pitting her writing style against admired models, like Henry James’ writing. She really worked hard to make her writing style direct, clear, and convincing. 

JS: It says on the jacket sleeve that you are a former history professor, psychologist, as well as playwright. You have also authored several books. What are their titles? Have you had any of your plays produced? 

VRY: I’ve had a play produced in Chicago at The Body Politic theater, another in New York in an Off-Off Broadway theater that was so far off Broadway, I thought I’d never find it. My best times are when my plays are produced in my own community. I love little theater.

My textbook, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, was chosen by the American Library Association for its list, Outstanding Academic Texts of 2006.  Bernice Kelly Harris: A Good Life Was Writing (Louisiana State University Press, 1999). A reviewer Lorraine Hale Robinson wrote in the Southern Literary Journal, Yow’s approach is multifaceted: she states that she is writing biography and history…and psychology. Given the sweeping breadth of her intent, for Yow to have succeeded even partially would be an accomplishment. However, Yow succeeds on each of these fronts.” The Florida Historical Quarterly’s review stated that it is “a wonderful biography that involves her readers in Harris’s life.”

JS: On a more emotional note, I’ve often read that biographers can begin to feel very “close” to their subject, in that when they finish the book they are a bit saddened at having to let it go. Did this occur with you?

VRY: I felt especially sad when I discovered the effects of memory loss on this woman who had said that a writer is someone who can find just the right word. A lot of the time as I was finishing the last two chapters of the biography, tears were in my eyes.

JS: In the book you mention Smith having had an abortion. When writing a biography, is there ever a time when a biographer has to be “considerate” of the subject by not disclosing too much personal detail about that person even if it is available? While I know this would apply to anyone living, but in the case of Smith who is dead, if a family member were to ask you to not include a specific fact, is it the biographer’s “duty” to disclose as much as one can or to honor the wishes of the family or friend? Perhaps this question does not apply to your own experiences, but in the recent biography on Charles Schulz, Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis, I read how some of Schulz’ children were not pleased with how their father was presented, for example.  As a biographer there is often that added pressure to “tell it right” as well as not disappoint family. Was this the case with you?

VRY: You hit upon a really serious problem for a biographer. As an historian, my ethical code is to present all evidence necessary for understanding the subject. As a psychologist, I have been trained to give my client’s feelings top priority. I reasoned in this biography that the abortion was a terribly difficult decision for Betty Smith and that it was too significant for me to omit it. I owed my readers an honest account of this life, with all its pain. The family wanted me to omit this topic.  I copied accounts of abortion in biographies of other women writers and sent them to Smith’s daughter. I explained that in our times we talk openly about such decisions and their consequences and that readers now cannot accept a life story that is all sun and flowers, never a storm, never a shadow. I wrote about Smith’s experience with compassion and tenderness—no judgment– because that is what I felt. The family accepted this.  

JS: After reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I read Joy in the Morning and thought that was a very good novel albeit not as strong overall as ‘Tree’. I then went on to read Tomorrow Will Be Better and was very disappointed. While not a bad book, it was a great drop from ‘Tree’. What are your thoughts on Tomorrow Will Be Better? 

VRY: In Tomorrow Will Be Better, Betty Smith was feeling her critics’ breaths as they read over her shoulder. It’s technically well constructed, but the feelings that infused A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, especially the love Smith felt for each character (except the would-be rapist) are not there. And she was afraid she could not write a book that would be compared favorably to “Tree”. That fear kept her from writing freely and with joy. After the second book, she realized that critics had said the worst things they could say and she had lived and thrived in spite of their criticism. She relaxed a little and wrote a third novel and a fourth.

JS: You also made an interesting point about how in both Tomorrow Will Be Better and Maggie-Now the lead characters don’t have a love for books the way they do in ‘Tree’ and ‘Joy’. While I thought Maggie-Now was a good book, I would rank it below ‘Joy’. When I ordered both Maggie-Now and Tomorrow Will Be Better, I could only get very old copies and there doesn’t seem to be any new editions available. Do you know if HarperPerennial (who owns ‘Tree’ and ‘Joy’) will be releasing these other two books? 

VRY: Harper editors say they are going to publish a new edition of Joy in the Morning.

JS: I know that many have expressed interest in reading her plays. As a follow up to the last question, do you know if there is a plan in sight to release more of her plays as well as her novel on Abraham Lincoln which was never published? 

VRY: I doubt if the biography of Abraham Lincoln is publishable because the manuscript is not finished. Alexander Street Press is publishing Smith’s plays via the internet.

JS: Do you have any interesting experiences to share regarding the writing of this book? Is Betty Smith someone you think you could have gotten along with personally? 

VRY: I have wondered whether, if I had been living on North Street next to Betty Smith’s house in the early 1940s, we would have been friends. I think so because I would have found her conversation fascinating and her literary interests close to mine. Even though she did not like women much, she always helped writers and so she probably would have helped me.

JS: Betty Smith is someone who I think was born with that great insight that all writers have, and it was only a matter of her learning the technical craft when it came to expressing it. Her observations though, were there. I was very surprised to learn of how many times she had to revise her work, given how fluid her writing is—that it just seemed effortless. Do you have any thoughts on this?

VRY: Smith was an excellent critic and she knew when a sentence or word or phrase was not right for the meaning intended. She knew how she wanted her own writing to “read.” She read her work out loud to herself and listened critically. I think the reason her writing style is so fluid is that she revised until she achieved the effect she wanted.

JS: Do you have any other books planned in the future or any other biographies that you’d be interested in pursuing? Do you have any biography favorites, i.e. historical or literary? 

VRY: Seven years of my life! I’m not sure I want to begin another long haul like that. Maybe in time I’ll get over this delicious feeling of liberation.

A favorite biography? I have biographies that I return to, thumb through, searching and reading passages again.  Two collections of stories about women’s lives still impress me after years: Women of the Shadows (women in a  post-war Italian village) by Ann Cornelisen and Good Wives :Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. In general I love biography because each of us can live only one life, but biography enables us live imaginatively a hundred or more lives, to understand what each of these lives was like. Biography takes us out of our own narrow experience.


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