Katy Simpson Smith ’06 has been everywhere in the media since her first novel was published earlier this year. The Story of Land and Sea follows three generations in North Carolina—characters who “yearn for redemption amidst a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love.” The book has been praised by everyone from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune to O: The Oprah Magazine and Vogue, which dubbed Smith “2014’s most buzzed-about debut author.”
Smith started writing at age five or six, but kept that part of her life “always on the side” until her mid-20s. At Mount Holyoke College, she double majored in film studies and history. Both, she says, have influenced her literary work.
“The combination of these particular majors taught me the importance of storytelling,” she says. “I had such amazing history classes with professors who saw history as a story that’s being told and retold,” she says. “Film studies taught me how to look at stories through a visual medium, which really influenced the way I use language in my writing.”
MHC history courses, especially those with Professor of History Emeritus Joseph Ellis, helped her fall in love with the eighteenth century, the setting for both her books. “He painted a picture of early America that was so enticing that I came to love the possibilities that period offered, not only for historical actors but also for characters,” she says.
Smith later earned an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in history, and currently teaches at Tulane University.
Born in Mississippi and a current resident of New Orleans, Smith says her Southern heritage plays a big role in her work. Both her nonfiction book, We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750–1835, and the new novel are set in the South. “Gradually I’m getting a better understanding of what it means to be a Southern writer. There’s more than the classic vision of the Old South,” she says. “It’s also about expressing the incredible diversity that’s in the South today.” As literary influences, she names William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor as well as contemporary Mississippi writers Natasha Trethewey and Jesmyn Ward.
Much of her work consciously features the voices of disenfranchised people. “One of the great things both history and fiction can do is show us people in the past that we may not otherwise get a chance to meet because they didn’t leave written records or cause large political changes. It’s really important to me to show not only women of this time but also enslaved people, impoverished people, and others who are often left out of the story of history.
The self-described natural introvert says having her own voice featured frequently in the media these days is “strange and surreal.” Smith says she loves sharing her work with others, but finds it hard to find time to work on her second novel. It will also be set in the late eighteenth century and follow the lives of three men—one white, one black, and one Native American.
—By Emily Harrison Weir