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Northeast Florida provides lush setting for alum’s debut novel

laura smith
One of the key lessons she learned about literature during her time at the University of North Florida was to write about what she knew.

That’s why when Laura Lee Smith was dreaming up a backdrop for her first novel, it only made sense to choose Northeast Florida, her home for nearly 25 years. Critics and other authors have lauded her book, “Heart of Palm,” for its authenticity, especially in its vivid depiction of a small Florida town dealing with the rapid encroachment of development.

The book was just released in April, but it has already made waves in the publishing world. It even landed on a “15 Riveting Reads to Pick Up in May 2013” list compiled by mega-star Oprah Winfrey. Smith, a St. Augustine resident, said during the years of diagramming sentences and poring over texts at UNF, the idea of her name appearing on a book endorsed by Oprah seemed like a distant dream. Now that her reality has begun to resemble fiction, Smith said she’s staying grounded by returning to the lessons she learned from UNF’s literature and English faculty.

“A big part of my UNF studies involved learning to be a critical reader and understanding myths and archetypes in literature,” said Smith, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in literature in 1992 and a master’s degree in English in 1994. “One theme that comes up in many stories across different cultures is that the slightest taste of success can lead someone down a path they might not like if they become complacent. But UNF taught me to be a very disciplined thinker, and it provided me with the momentum I needed to work on this project and continue on my writing in the future.”

Smith, who works as a freelance graphic designer when she’s not writing, said she transferred to UNF in 1990 after a false start at the University of Florida. She said UF’s large class sizes and sprawling campus made her feel disconnected from the collegiate atmosphere. After moving to the Jacksonville area with her boyfriend, Chris, who later became her husband, she enrolled in UNF and was immediately smitten with the University’s environmentally beautiful campus.

“It truly looks like something out of fiction,” Smith said.

She also excelled academically thanks to UNF’s hallmark student experience — small class sizes and open access to professors.

Dr. William Slaughter, a UNF English professor emeritus who taught Smith, said the fact that she took literature classes instead of creative writing classes might have been the key factor that helped shape her into such a compelling novelist. Instead of simply putting pen to paper, Smith studied the nuances and flow of the world’s most prominent authors.

“She set out, in our department, to acquire a repertoire of texts that would serve her as models of what she wanted to do, and what she didn't want to do, as a writer herself,” Slaughter said. “I have always believed that writing of the kind Laura has produced in ‘Heart of Palm,’ by which I mean writing that has both power and virtue in it, cannot be taught. It can, however, be learned. And Laura has taught herself, over time, how to write supremely well.”

He said Smith, who later went on to teach as an adjunct in UNF’s English department, accomplished a literary feat that is truly remarkable for her first outing as a novelist.

“I have read Laura’s novel twice — the first time for the story, which is compelling, and the second time for the sentences, which are gorgeous,” he said. “It is deserving of the high praise it has received.”

Smith said she wouldn’t have been able to finish her first novel without the confidence instilled in her by UNF’s literature and English faculty.

“I always was a reader growing up, and I always wanted to write fiction in the back of my mind,” Smith said. “The problem was I lacked the confidence and the surety that I could produce something that I could be proud of. I needed a little more maturity, a little more time and to get a little bit older. The creative process for ‘Heart of Palm’ started shortly after I moved to St. Augustine, and something clicked at that time. I knew I was ready.”

She said her years spent living in Northeast Florida granted her the insight into what happens when new development butts up against old traditions and history. This institutional strife formed the central conflict for her story. She’s started work on her next novel, which will be set in Jacksonville, but she declined to say anything further in the hopes of not spoiling any plot points for readers.

Slaughter, who has become one of Smith’s biggest literary fans, said he’s eagerly awaiting the next tale from his former student.

“If it is true, as they say, that you can tell a teacher by his students, then surely you can also tell a department by its students,” Slaughter said. “To my way of thinking, the English Department at UNF can and should be rightfully proud to have Laura Lee Smith out there in the world representing us as one of our most distinguished alumni.”