“I think I’m an old soul,” said Katy Simpson Smith, steeping her teabag in a china cup.
That’s certainly one explanation for the fact that at 30, Smith is already the creator of a career many might envy.
With a high six-figure advance for her book, “The Story of Land and Sea,” she is back a mere two years later with an equally amazing and moving historical novel, “Free Men.” It’s her second novel; her third book. Her first book, “We Have Raised All of You,” was a scholarly study of motherhood in the South between 1750 and 1835.
“I’m very attuned to weird stories,” said Smith, and “Free Men” is filled with them, byproducts of the research she was doing for a contemporary short story.
Setting that tale in Evergreen, Alabama, Smith discovered a location — Murder Creek — with a phenomenal history. “Lots of violence?” she said. “That sounds good to me.”
Drawn initially by the name, Smith investigated further on Wikipedia and was drawn into the history. Before the book was finished, she would be meeting with a tribal archivist; she even put her admittedly limited kayaking skills to work to investigate the setting.
All of which makes “Free Men” a rich and atmospheric work. It chronicles the adventures of an odd band of bandits on the run from the French bounty hunter LeClerc. The party consists of a white orphan called Cat, adrift in a sea of grief; a runaway slave named Bob, and a Creek Indian called Istillichia.
“I couldn’t help but wonder how three men so different found a common mission,” Smith said.
“Free Men” is the story of how they did. Along the way, we learn much about our fledgling nation as well as the American character — the cruelties of slavery, the need to come together in a society strengthened by diversity, the need for sacrifice, the greed and driving force of the westward expansion. And don’t think that “Free Men” is only concerned with men; unusual female characters appear throughout this story.
Despite the accolades that have come her way, Smith is modest about her work. “I don’t know any more about how to write a novel now than I ever did. Take the 18th century (the time period of her two novels). You’d think I’d know it. Nope. It’s hard … I had to learn all about the Creek nation. Knowing all about the Cherokees doesn’t give you a leg up with anything.”
Lest her novels seem a far distance from her daily life, Smith is quick to say that she learns from every one. “In every book, I’m working through personal issues I’m struggling with — family stuff, closeness and distance, independence. My independence as a young woman is very important to me. Taking care of myself is critical to feeling content. So I work it through with characters who have had their personal freedom taken away.”
And the research is the pleasure. “I’m so over ‘write what you know,’ ” she said. “I want to write about what I don’t know.”
Her comfy, sunlit home in Carrollton is filled with piles of books for research, a testament to the literary life. The Jackson, Mississippi native grew up as the daughter of two university professors, and Eudora Welty once lived in her family home, a kind of benediction, Smith feels.
“Everyone grew up in such at atmosphere of literature there — William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright. Our libraries are named after writers. And Lemuria (the famous Jackson bookstore owned by John Evans) was such an influence. It’s like a wonderland — they have everything. And now it’s especially joyful because when I walk in everybody knows me,“ she said.
But now New Orleans is her home, as it has been for the past five years. “I’m a permanent resident,” Smith said proudly. “It’s so beautiful as a city, and endlessly fascinating. It feels like a place where good things happen.”
She hopes one day to write fiction that is set here, but as she said, “New Orleans has been co-opted by so many people. I have a lot of respect for those who get it right.”
In her own life, she’s committed to keeping her corner of the city shipshape, tending to the new challenges of domestic life. “Having a house changes everything,” she laughed. “Like the time of the first thunderstorm, when all the windows started leaking. Yes, all the windows. I take great pride in my ability to solve problems myself. I’ve gotten pretty good with a drill.”
In other words, she has the three great necessities according to Virginia Woolf — a room of her own, money, and time to write. And a drill! Watch out for Katy Simpson Smith. There’s so much more to come.
Susan Larson is the host of WWNO’s The Reading Life and the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.