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'Women of the Smokies' Author Q&A

Posted by | 03.11.2016

AThank you to author Courtney Lix for taking a few minutes to talk with us about her new book, “Women of the Smokies.” Click HERE to order your copy today!

GSMA: Where did the idea for the book originate?

"Women of the Smokies" author Courtney Lix met up
with Smoky Mountain Superstar Dolly Parton during a
recent stop on her Pure and Simple concert tour. Courtney
presented Dolly with an autographed copy of her newest
GSMA-published book, "Women of the Smokies," in which
Dolly is one of 19 women featured.

Lix: The idea for the book came from a series of articles for Smokies Life Magazine — my research for them suggested that the lives and contributions of women in the national park area were under-documented, and underappreciated. The book emerged in response to that. For example, in 2009, I wrote an article on Laura Thornburgh.  She contributed to the movement to establish a national park in the Smokies in so many ways—she hiked with NPS folks who needed to be won over, donated some of her own property, took lots of lovely photographs (I’m sure many readers have seen her work and not realized it), wrote the first guidebook to the new park, and more. She left a great legacy, and yet, almost no one knew the full scope of her contributions.

I followed that piece with another article in 2010 about Mayna Treanor Avent, an internationally distinguished artist who used a cabin in Elkmont as her summer studio during the early part of the 20th century. Luckily I connected with her granddaughter to find out more about her life, because so little had been written about her— although she has pieces displayed in museums throughout the South. She was quite well off, but she painted a lot of portraits of regular mountain folk and African-Americans, combined with her versatility in media, from oils to woodblock and watercolor.

Once I’d completed these two articles about remarkable women whose lives were quite obscure, Steve Kemp, the head of publications for GSMA, and I had a sense that there were more fascinating stories to tell, if we only looked for them. I started research for the book with a rough idea of profiling a dozen women—that’s a nice, common number—and ended up with 19 because of course I discovered more amazing women as I got deeper into my research.  The book’s early chapters focus on several women who were alive during the Civil War but also includes lives of 4 women who are still living today, and quite a few in between.

GSMA: How did writing this book compare with other books you’ve written for GSMA?

Lix: I had no idea what a significant undertaking this book was going to be when I started it! My previous book with GSMA was Frequently Asked Questions about Smoky Mountain Black Bears, published in 2008. The text is brief, and the book is lavishly illustrated.  It took me about a year to write. I spoke with several scientists who were black bear experts, and did some research, but it was a relatively straightforward book.

It took about four years to research and write the bulk of Women of the Smokies, and another year to put the finishing touches on the manuscript.  (I even worked on it while traveling on my honeymoon—but my husband knew what he was signing up for…!) The park archives felt like my “home away from home” for a while—but I also found treasure troves of information in the online collections at the University of Tennessee and Western Carolina University, etc. so I could also do a lot of research no matter where I was. And I now have several bookshelves of obscure used books on various topics related to the Smokies; a couple of volumes are from the 1920s. I kept finding interesting information and the book kept growing. I’m sure quite a few people were puzzled to get emails from me out of the blue, asking whether they were related to so-and-so.  I really wanted to give readers a sense of who each woman was as a person, not just a list of her accomplishments, so I worked hard to connect the dots of historical record and my interviews—it was challenging, but often rewarding and fun, too.  

GSMA: Did any one woman’s story make a strong impression on you?

Lix: I can’t pick just one—sorry! For example, Wilma Dykeman was an author from Asheville who was writing about effects of environmental pollution long before Rachel Carson—and had to fight with her publishers to keep that information in her books. She also risked her personal safety to cover issues of race in the South during the 1950s and later.  Or, Amanda Swimmer— a Cherokee woman who became a renowned potter with pieces in the Smithsonian, etc— was initially self-taught and challenged the idea that artisan skills could (or should) only be passed down through families. She’s also been a leader in reviving interest in traditional Cherokee pottery. Or, Karen Wade, who was the first woman to hold the superintendent position for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Her support for innovative science and education work, and steadfastness in the face of controversy, has left a lasting positive impact on the area.

GSMA: Why is it important to tell these women’s stories?

Lix: It’s important for a couple of reasons. First, although a few lucky women in my book also have longer biographies written about them, most are more obscure—history hasn’t exactly been even-handed when it comes to recording and honoring women’s achievements.  So I offer this book as a point in the column for setting the record straight about women who are doing remarkable work, and have lived remarkable lives. 

Second, I wanted to introduce readers to the diversity of women’s voices you can find in the Great Smoky Mountains.  I am deeply moved by the perseverance of the early settlers who made a living from these wild, untamed woods—but I also loved writing about the women whose art was inspired by their experiences in the mountains, and women who reveled in the mountains as a sanctuary for wilderness and as a place to spend hours hiking.  I had fun playing with the idea of “what does it mean to be a ‘woman of the Smokies’”?

GSMA: Did anything you learned during your interviews/research surprise you?

Lix: Each woman’s life was full of wonderful surprises.  It was delightful to have Dolly Parton admit to me that she writes lots of her own traditional-style ballads—most of them just go in a drawer, but that kind of music is deeply ingrained in her incredibly creative songwriting psyche. It was also fascinating to discover that Lizzie Caldwell, who lived in Cataloochee during the late 1800s, had a pantry that could hold over 500 jars of preserved foods—it was ingeniously placed to take advantage of warmth from a west-facing window and the kitchen flue, to ensure the jars didn’t freeze and break during the brutal winters.  Gracie McNichol overcame a severe illness in her late 30s which required her to relearn how to walk—and she summited Mt. LeConte nearly 250 times—well into her late 80s and early 90s. Or, Hattie Ogle McGiffin, one of Gatlinburg’s most successful entrepreneurs (man or woman) got her start bargaining with hunters for bear skins in the early 1900s. The moment I heard that, I knew it was going to be the introduction to the chapter about her life!

GSMA: Did you find any common threads between these stories?

Lix: Each woman in the book cared, or cares, deeply about the Great Smoky Mountains. They loved the area in different ways—for their sustaining bounty of wild game and plants, for the scenic beauty found wandering hiking trails, for the artistic and musical traditions that fostered their own work—but each of their lives was shaped by the mountains in a profound way. It was fun to bring together all of the influences and perspectives— readers will find that while there are quite a few women who were born in the mountains, I also made an effort to include some who were from elsewhere but who found meaning and beauty here in the Smokies.

GSMA: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?

Lix: It’s been a special privilege to spend time with these women’s stories—talking with their descendants, viewing their paintings and photographs, pots and baskets, listening to their songs and reading their books.  While each chapter covers a single woman’s life, when you consider the entire book, the stories create a constellation that highlights how the lives of women have changed—or not— over the past 150 years. So in some ways, telling the stories of these 19 women touches on the more sprawling history of the country, but particularly on an unexamined aspect of this very special region encompassed by the Great Smoky Mountains. 


Praise for "Women"

Asheville Citizen-Times


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