After one simple stop in a historic graveyard in North Carolina, The Story of Land and Sea was born, putting author Katy Simpson Smith on Vogue’s “Women to Watch” list, and on our radar at iaam. Katy, a PhD in history, tells me how she balances writing and the real world, and what she thinks about #SmartisSexy. Katy is currently working on her second novel, and is sure to stick around!
Photo credit: Elise Smith
iaam: What are three words that describe you?
Katy: Oh, my. My father once said my best quality was being competent. I do think I’m pretty organized for a writer—I’m great at making lists, making plans, making beds. While I can’t confirm if I’m lovable, I am very loving. And I can be surprisingly silly (my brother can testify to this). So I’ll go with competent, loving, and a little ridiculous.
iaam: What is your favorite part about writing? Who is your favorite author and why?
Katy: My favorite thing that happens when I’m writing is when I’ve been working on a character for so long that she starts taking me on adventures of her own, carrying me to places I wouldn’t have thought to go. It’s never just me hammering meaning out of words; writing is always a two-way street, with the story affecting me in turn.
Asking me to pick a favorite author is like asking me to pick a favorite family member—there are so many I love, and they address very different emotional needs or states of mind. I will say that William Faulkner was one of the first authors I fell for; what he did with language seemed incredibly brave to me, and his books encouraged me to take my own risks as a writer.
Katy Simpson Smith discusses her novel, THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA
iaam: On your YouTube video it says you based the story off of an unmarked grave in North Carolina. Tell us about that. How did you pick the title The Story of Land and Sea? What do you hope people take away from reading your book?
Katy: I had driven down to the North Carolina coast one weekend and stopped in Beaufort, NC, to see their historic graveyard. I love reading gravestones and imagining people’s lives before their deaths, and when I found one marker that said “Little Girl Buried in Rum Keg,” I knew I wanted to write a story about that life.
The title of the book refers to these two competing forces in the characters’ lives: the sea represents both freedom and danger, while the land represents a more ordinary life, one in which characters struggle to break out of their habits and prejudices. Like the people in the book, I think most of us are living on this narrow border between the two.
This novel deals a lot with the issue of loss, and how families come together and break apart as a result of losing someone beloved. I hope modern readers can find glimpses of themselves in these characters who show courage and resilience in surprising ways, and can take away something valuable about the importance of empathy.
iaam: What do you like to do in your free time?
Katy: I’m an avid road-tripper. I love exploring new parts of the country, especially if it takes me days and days to drive there. When I was in graduate school, I spent a month in various cities (Seattle, Austin, Chicago, Gainesville) and it was such fun to immerse myself in a new city—figuring out their public transportation, finding their good movie theatres and bookstores, exploring the wilder landscapes around them—while also getting work done and feeling more like a resident than a tourist. Traveling, especially via car, when you can sing at the top of your lungs, is one of my favorite things.
iaam: What is a normal day for you?
Katy: I live in New Orleans, but I’m currently in Jackson, MS, at my parents’ house, so right now my normal day goes something like: wake up, give my diabetic cat her insulin shot, put in a few hours of writing, read a book over lunch, take care of my five-year-old nephew for a few hours in the afternoon, go to a coffee shop with my mother to work some more, have dinner with my family, take a walk around the neighborhood, come home to watch a movie or play cards, give my diabetic cat another insulin shot, do a bit more writing, and then read for about an hour before bed. If you said I just write, read, and give insulin shots, you would not be far off.
iaam: Being from the South, what are your favorite southern traditions? Who inspires you to write and be creative?
Katy: There’s so much that I love about the South: the food, the music, the landscape, and the heat. But I think my favorite tradition is that you’re obliged to care about the people around you. If you pass a stranger on the street, you say hello; if you see an acquaintance in the grocery store, you ask about their family. These small gestures are incredibly meaningful to me.
The people who inspire me to write are writers: the ones who are long dead but who have left these masterpieces behind that have guided me in my understanding of the world; the writers that I met in my MFA program who are creating beautiful and unique stories and poems; and the young people I meet who dream of one day being writers too. It’s a marvelous community.
iaam: Why did you decide to study and get a PhD in history?
Katy: I’ve always loved history, and even gave my stuffed animals quizzes from a Western Civilizations textbook when I was a kid. (I wrote in the answers for them – some animals were smarter than others – and recorded their scores in an official gradebook.) When I finished college, I felt like I wasn’t done learning everything I wanted to know about the past, so I hopped right into graduate school! Both my parents are professors, so this always seemed like a natural thing to do with one’s life.
iaam: At iaam, we are huge advocates of the belief that smart is sexy! We believe that brains, independence, and confidence make you who you are. What are your thoughts on this mantra? What is a smart and sexy quality to you in a person?
Katy: I’m such a believer in girls finding confidence through their own strength and wisdom—these are the qualities that carry us through our lives and help us respond gracefully to both hardship and success. For me, it matters less whether a person is sexy and more that she is humane. It’s the difference between being passively attractive to one other person and being actively generous and openhearted to everyone you meet. And intelligence is not just knowing a lot of words or formulas, but also being able to read other people, to empathize with experiences different from your own.
iaam: How do you balance being an adjunct professor at Tulane, writing novels, and still going about your daily life?
Katy: I’m taking a break from teaching this year, because it was definitely tough! I loved the students I taught at Tulane, all of whom were incredibly smart and driven, but between grading papers and preparing for class, it was sometimes hard to find time to clear my mind and write. The strategy that (mostly) worked was to divide my time up fairly strictly, so that I didn’t think about teaching during my writing hours, didn’t think about my novel while I was grading papers, and tried not to think about either when I was out with friends!
iaam: If you didn’t pursue a career in history, what do you think you would have done?
Katy: When I was in middle school and high school I had dreams of being an actress – I did lots of school plays, but I was way too soft-spoken to be very good! But the dream I had since I was tiny was to be a writer, and I feel so lucky that I get to do what I love every day.
iaam: As a female in the history field, what is your advice to young girls that have fallen in love with history at school?
Katy: I think history is a wonderful way to discover other ways of living and to understand (and question!) why we hold certain beliefs and values today. I think what the history profession most needs right now is young people who can make the leap between previous eras and our own, to show how we can not just study the past, but apply its lessons to the problems of today. And we always need more historians who are interested in studying women!
iaam: What advice do you have for aspiring young writers?
Katy: It’s much easier to say, “Never give up,” than to actually never give up. And there are times, truthfully, when we should give up – when we’re pursuing something that doesn’t actually fit who we are. But if you want to be a writer, and you think language is the most miraculously flexible tool we have, and the stories in your head sometimes feel more real than the life around you, and you want to slip into other people’s bodies and imagine your way into their thoughts and secrets, then my best advice is to take yourself seriously. Believe that you’re capable of serious thought, serious art, and work hard to live up to your own expectations.
iaam: While on the road doing book tours, how do you keep from getting burned out physically and mentally?
Katy: I haven’t started my book tour yet, but I recently got some good advice from a fellow author, who told me to enjoy all the wonderful energy of the people around me, but not to be shy about saying that I need to head off for a good night’s sleep. I’m already so excited about meeting people who love books as much as I do, and I know what a privilege it is.
iaam: You were featured as a “Woman to Watch” in Vogue. What should we be looking for next in your career?
Katy: I’m working on my second novel right now, which is also set in the eighteenth century in the South. My plan is to keep writing novels until someone pries the pen from my hand!
Keep up with Katy on her website: www.katysimpsonsmith.com.
"May her wit and wisdom lead the way with crystal vision.” - Stevie Nicks
Kennesaw State University
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