About Lael Smith

Synthesizing history, literature and film ever since the publication of her undergraduate thesis on Thelma and Louise and the Turner Thesis, Smith has written, directed and produced film and television adaptations of novels and short stories by writers such as Nanci Kincaid, Lee Smith, Richard Bausch and George Saunders. She has also written original works of screenwriting and fiction.

Smith earned a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA from the University of Southern California’s Peter Stark Producing Program in the George Lucas Cinema School. She studied photography at LSU and fiction writing with Aimee Bender and others at UCLA and playwriting and fiction at the Sewanee Writers Conference where she was a Tennessee Williams Fellow. 

Smith has worked in film development and acquisitions at specialty and mainstream film studios and production companies, including The Samuel Goldwyn Company, Dreamworks, and Propaganda Films, among others. She taught screenwriting at Johns Hopkins University and worked at a literary magazine.

Currently, she is executive producing an adaptation of George Saunders’ award-winning short story, “Sea Oak,” for Amazon Studios as a television series starring Glenn Close and directed by Hiro Murai. 

The Back Story:

I grew up around writers. My dad is a poet. An average dinner at my house growing up might include haggling over story endings with novelists, playwrights or poets. I once babysat in Shirley Jackson’s house (and have the creepy house keys to prove it). As a girl I swam in Robert Penn Warren’s newt-y pond, played at John Gardner’s woodsy house, and spent copious hours in dusty used book stores (this was before Amazon). 

As an undergraduate, my American Studies program dictated a thesis topic and my year it was The American West. I analyzed Western films from their beginning until Thelma and Louise, comparing them against histories and literature to map how various “American Dream” mythologies evolved over time. I loved the research and was hooked by the film bug, but I was also troubled by the lack of women’s stories I found there. So I went to film school, focusing originally on writing and producing literary adaptations with women at the center of them.

Now I am also a mother and passionate advocate for children’s literacy. When my son struggled with reading, I dove into research on neural plasticity and the childhood brain. My son and I embarked on a neurological bootcamp that made him a confident, fluid reader and me an evangelist for children’s literature. Learning how stories can change our brain wiring rededicated me to narratives in all their forms.





What I adore:

I love the absurd, unhinged and whip-smart funny. Hal Ashby. John Hughes. Charlie Chaplin. Lee Smith. Jill McCorkle. Aimee Bender. Flannery O’Connor. George Saunders. Loudmouse. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Mark Twain. The Day the Crayons Quit. I Don’t Know How She Does It. Trashy Town. Ferdinand the Bull. Money Pit. 

I love gothic, dreamlike. Faulkner. The Awakening. The Secret History. Keith Carter. Edgar Allen Poe. The Yellow Wallpaper. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Beloved. Ron Rash. The Brontes. Frankenstein. The Nest. The Knife Thrower. Sarah Rhul. The Lobster. Caroline Thompson.

I love the poetic that remembers, then challenges – Ellen Voight. Dave Smith. Elizabeth Bishop. Sally Mann. Elena Ferrante.  The Old Woman Who Named Things. Emily Dickinson. Jane Campion. Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnell. William Eggleston. Shirin Neshat. 

I love mythic and the fairy tale. I studied Latin and Italian and intended to be an archaeologist before choosing stories over artifacts. I love stories that try to explain the unknown. The Known World. Persephone and Ceres. Medusa. The Illiad. The Odyssey. Where the Wild Things Are. Indiana Jones. Aristophanes. Station Eleven. Emily Dickinson. Italo Calvino. Arrival. E.T.

I love historical fiction and nonfiction, science and memoir. The ones that pack the punch of truth with amazing craft. The Argonauts. Running in the Family. Quizshow. Schindler’s List. An Ocean Garden. Silent Spring. Andrea Barrett. Cold Snap. Ken Burns. This Bridge Will Not be Gray. Rising Tide. Truth and Beauty. Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey. Lincoln. The Beak of the Finch. H is for Hawk. Paulette Jiles. Where I Was From.


What I am reading now: The Iliad and the Odyssey (Fagles’) and Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

What I enjoyed reading this year: Everything that Paulette Jiles ever wrote, Bernard Malamud, Joan Didion, Sweetbitter, Lincoln in the Bardo

What I’ve learned to make this year: sushi, pickles, a Fauvist drawing

What I enjoyed seeing this year: The National Museum of the American Indian, NYC,  humpback whales, Greenpoint, the Bay of Fundy, Cy Twombly’s The Rose V at the Broad Museum, Hamilton