An Interview with Katy Simpson Smith

The novelist discusses history, research, and bringing the past to life.


Katy Simpson Smith’s debut novel, The Story of Land and Sea, is set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the American Revolution. It follows three generations of family — fathers and daughters, masters and slaves — through recurring tragedy and their drive for redemption and renewal. Smith earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and wrote the nonfiction work We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835.

How important was your own scholarly work in the creation of this novel?

Having a background in 18th-century history was crucial for establishing my own level of comfort with these characters and their world. Knowing the political, social, and cultural ins and outs of life in the early South meant that I could dive into the characters’ thoughts and emotions without becoming paralyzed by everything I didn’t know. (It turned out, of course, there was a lot I didn’t know, but the Ph.D. at the very least gave me a false sense of confidence, which is sometimes half the battle!)

You mention that parts of the novel are based on actual historical events. Were these all in the small town of Beaufort, where your novel is set, or did some of them take place elsewhere? And can you tell us one or two of those events?

When I chose Beaufort as a setting for the book, I wanted to use its existing history as a foundation for my own imaginative wanderings. So when I learned of a compelling event in the town’s history, it was an exciting challenge to figure out how to weave it into my characters’ lives. For instance, there were two sieges of the town’s port in the 18th century: once by the Spanish in the 1740s when the character of Asa was a boy, and once by the British at the end of the Revolution. The two sieges led to different responses on the part of local families and militia, and through Asa’s experiences, I was able to explore how life had changed in those intervening decades.

Helen, a central character in your novel, is given a slave when she is 10 years old, and the two girls, then two women, have a close and complicated relationship. Moll, the slave, often behaves with an insolence some readers might find surprising. What did you base their relationship on, and how did Moll come to life for you?

It was important to me to portray an enslaved woman who was not stereotypical in her place within the plantation world. We tend to understand slavery as a system of total brutality and control and, as a result, the diverse humanity and efforts of enslaved individuals can sometimes become glossed over. For Moll, who grew up in a close relationship with a slave-owning woman on a relatively small and isolated plantation, her life was a dance between submitting to arbitrary decisions and asserting herself in order to protect both her body and her family. Women like Moll existed, and their enormously complex and difficult stories deserve telling.

Did one of the main characters come quickly to life for you and influence the others, or did you work through deciding on the characters and their relationships as you moved through the writing?

The characters really evolved naturally as I wrote, and those who at first seemed relatively minor — like Moll’s son, Davy — became increasingly significant as I saw how they interacted with other characters. The first time the young Davy talked back to an older white man, I thought, “Okay, here’s someone I want to write more of.”

You have vivid descriptions of the effects of yellow fever and of life on board an 18th-century ship. Did you draw on first-person accounts for those scenes?

Those were definitely aspects of the book that required the most research. I read a lot of 18th-century medical accounts of yellow fever; physicians were still in the early stages of figuring out how it could be caught and vehemently disagreed about the best course of treatment. Like so many diseases in early America, it was fundamentally a mystery. As for life on board a ship, I was able to draw from firsthand accounts to a certain extent, but by placing a 10-year-old girl on deck, I created a unique scenario that wasn’t reflected in the materials I read. The best part of historical fiction to me, though, is that marriage between research and the imagination.

You also create intense excitement in the courtship between Helen and John, even though they kept their feelings checked and hidden. Was this difficult for a modern person to write, or did it flow fairly easily?

Maybe I’m an old-fashioned sort of romantic, but that slow development of a relationship — one that can be hemmed in both by family obligations and by an internal sense of duty — felt richer to write about than the ease with which people collide into each other these days.

Several of your characters feel a strong pull to the sea, sometimes with a conflicting pull to the land. Do you feel such a pull?

I do! I love the ocean and am always wishing I lived closer to it, but whenever I visit the beach, the inevitable sunburn and knotted hair always have me wishing for the inland calm again. But the shore has a sense of adventure about it that the interior can never quite match.

In your fiction, do you write from an outline, or do you just start writing and see where it takes you?

Most of my writing is free-form and wandering, unless I know there’s a firm sequence of events I’m working toward. The only outline I used in this novel was for the two weeks when the British captured the town’s harbor, and I knew my characters had to move and make decisions in a very particular arrangement in order to end up in the right place at the climax. Usually, though, outlines tend to put a damper on the sense of endless possibility I have when I write fiction.

Do you have another project in the works? And, since you now work at Tulane and live in New Orleans, will there be some fiction based in New Orleans?

I’m working right now on my second novel, which is also set in the 18th-century South and features a rather motley crew of outlaws. I would love to write about New Orleans someday, but the culture and history here are almost prohibitively rich. There’s so much to learn and witness and absorb that it can be an intimidating city for a writer to approach. My plan is to take my time with it; hopefully, the city and I will be patient with each other.

Susan Storer Clark is a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books. She is a former radio and television journalist, and, since retiring from the federal government, has completed her first novel, set in the urban turbulence of 19th-century America, and is at work on her second, the fictionalized life of a slave captured by Francis Drake in 1580. Clark has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years. She and her husband, Rich, recently moved to the Seattle area, where they are remodeling an old farmhouse.

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