Lee Smith was born on November 1, 1944, in Grundy, Virginia, a mining town in the southwestern part of the state. Her father, Ernest Lee Smith, was in business, running the local Ben Franklin store; her mother, Virginia Marshall Smith, was a teacher. An only child who was born to her parents late in their lives, Lee had a watchful and observant childhood, spending much of her time reading and writing.
Smith was educated at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia, and then studied in the well-known writing program at Hollins College. Her first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed, developed out of a senior writing project. It was published and earned her a Book-of-the-Month Club fellowship. In 1967, Smith was graduated from Hollins College and married the poet James E. Seay, the father of her two children. The marriage later ended in divorce.
From 1968 to 1969, Smith was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, working as a writer for the Tuscaloosa News and gathering the material that would appear in her third novel, Fancy Strut. In 1971, the year her second novel appeared, she began teaching seventh grade in Nashville, Tennessee; in 1974, after the publication of Fancy Strut, she moved to Durham, North Carolina, to teach language arts and continue writing.
By 1977, Smith was teaching creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After three of her books lost money for her publishers, however, her fourth novel was rejected, and other publishers followed suit. As years went by, Smith began to believe that her career as a writer was ending. She credits a new agent and a new editor, one who wished to work actively with her, for enabling her to begin writing again. The critics were impressed with Black Mountain Breakdown (1980), the first book from Smith’s second period.
In 1981, Smith joined the faculty of North Carolina State University at Raleigh. In 1985, she married Hal Crowther. Smith’s growing importance can be seen in the increasing number of interviews with her, the articles about her work published each year, the full-length studies on her, and her major awards.