By the time Katy Simpson Smith’s newest novel debuted on March 24, the nation was shut down. Concerns over the spread of coronavirus forced the author to cancel her month-long book tour throughout the South, including appearances at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and the New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University. Instead, Smith is participating in a series of virtual events, using Instagram LIVE and Zoom to connect with readers from across the globe.
Here, Smith talks with Do Savannah’s Ariel Felton about the art of historical fiction, how New Orleans is handling the shutdown, and her latest work, “The Everlasting,” spanning four characters and two thousand years.
DO: You’re a southerner, born and raised. What’s kept you here in the South?
Simpson Smith: I went away for college, up to Massachusetts, thinking at the time that I wanted to get as far away from the South as possible — away from all of its complicated history and weird politics. But as soon as I was up there, I started counting all the things that I really missed about living in the South.
I think what keeps me here is the warmth, both in terms of literal climate, but also human interaction. I think we as a people are so invested in each other's lives for better, or for worse. (laughs) Especially in an era like this. It just makes me feel very connected to the people around me. And I've never really felt that in other parts of the country.
DO: You studied history originally in school, but when did you get interested in creative writing?
Simpson Smith: I had been writing short stories and poems ever since I was a little girl, but had never really taken it seriously as a career path. When I was in graduate school studying history, I found myself frustrated by the fact that the people who I most wanted to tell stories about — usually women, people of color or people who were in some ways marginalized or oppressed — history didn't leave a lot of their records behind. So you're forced to speculate about what their lives might be like. Of course, a responsible historian will tell you that you should keep the speculation to a minimum. (laughs)
So I decided to transfer my knowledge of history into historical fiction. The month after I finished my graduate degree in history, I started a graduate program in creative writing, and immediately felt this is how I should have been telling stories the whole time.
DO: Who are your literary influences?
Simpson Smith: I've really been influenced by a lot of the great Southern writers, particularly from Mississippi. Eudora Welty, Margaret Walker Alexander, Richard Wright, these literary giants that laid the path for all writers in the South for generations to come.
In terms of historical fiction, I think Toni Morrison is one of the greatest. The way she tackles history in "Beloved" is revolutionary. I think it opened the door for so many new ways of thinking about the novelization of the past.
I also really loved the author Michael Ondaatje, who wrote "The English Patient.” It's just so good at bringing the past to life through just the right details.
DO: “The Everlasting” moves through different centuries and characters, but takes place completely in Rome. What drew you to this setting?
Simpson Smith: I visited Rome years ago before I started the book, just as a tourist without any intention of writing about the place. Once I was there, I became more aware of how they put their own history on display — nothing is hidden in Rome. It's all visible, from ancient ruins to viewable churches to Renaissance palaces. It's all stacked on top of each other and simultaneous. That concept is so well-aligned with my own vision of history. Everything that has already happened is still happening and it's like this big wheel that we're all still on. Being there and seeing that visually, I just got so many ideas for a novel.
DO: That sounds so different from how Americans think about history. We tend to think, “Oh, that's in the past, let's leave it there.”
Simpson Smith: Especially with Southern history! Some people think, okay, what's done is done. Let's not talk about the scars of our past. And other people recognize that the scars of our past inform everyday interactions today. If you don't think about it and process it, then it's impossible to move forward in any meaningful way.
DO: How does that concept — the past informing the present day — how is that manifested in your novel?
Simpson Smith: There’s one object in the book that appears in all of the different centuries. It's a little iron fish, one of those things that can last for 2000 years. But the way each character encounters it, they imbue it with a totally different meaning. So for the second century character, it's just a practical tool to catch fish. And for the medieval character it becomes this Holy Relic, something a saint perhaps used in a past life. Then that shifts again in the other centuries, continuing this idea of how we take a single object and use it to make our own meaning in the world.
DO: What is it like in New Orleans currently, living with the COVID-19 threat?
Simpson Smith: Everything is shut down in New Orleans. We've just been seeing so many new cases and so many deaths. Some of our icons are dying, like Ellis Marsalis just died, and I think that hits home for people. It’s weird because the city is such a social city and we're used to celebrating, and also mourning together. When people die, we want to go out and have a second line in the street and we can't do that. It's just this weird feeling of being in suspended animation.
I know a lot of people who were here for Katrina are feeling very strong echoes of that experience. And yet what happened after Katrina is that we were able to come together and sort of move forward very actively. Now we're being told that the way to help is to just stay inside and not do anything at all. I think that's confusing and troubling for a lot of people.
DO: How are you handling the canceled book tour?
Simpson Smith: It’s very surreal. I started working on this book five years ago and so it's five years of my life that kind of vanishes in like a little blink of an eye. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what is most meaningful in life, and in some sense, of course, this is my career. The books I write are how I make meaning in my life, but if a book of mine does not make it into the world in a real way, that's not the end of the world. What’s meaningful for us as a community is health and safety, and togetherness through acts of kindness.
DO: What are you doing to pass the time? Are you writing?
Simpson Smith: I'm definitely not writing (laughs), or doing anything productive in that sense. But I have been so grateful that it’s springtime and New Orleans has never been more beautiful. I'm spending a lot of time out in my garden, planting fruits and vegetables, and weeding — just to appreciate the birds and insects that have been visiting the garden. I’m trying to stay grounded, and get enough sunshine to cheer me up. I've also been doing so much reading. I have a hammock outside, so I'll just sit in my hammock for several hours a day and read poetry or essays or novels.
DO: When all of this is over and we can gather again, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
Simpson Smith: A local and deeply beloved pizza place in New Orleans just had to close temporarily. As soon as this is over, I know there’s going to be a run on pizza. (laughs) Some [restaurants] are doing takeout and delivery, but some of them, especially with smaller staff just can't figure out how to make it work. That’s been really sad in such a food oriented city.
About Katy Simpson Smith: Katy Simpson Smith was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, and the novels The Story of Land and Sea and Free Men. Her writing has also appeared in The Oxford American, Granta, Literary Hub, Garden & Gun, Catapult, and Lenny. She currently lives in New Orleans. Read more at her website: katysimpsonsmith.com.