Sometimes, but rarely, the stars align for a new novelist and her work. That’s what’s happened for New Orleanian Katy Simpson Smith and her gorgeous tale of life in Revolutionary America, “The Story of Land and Sea.” Ten publishers vied for its rights at auction, she was the star of a spread in July Vogue and the book is appearing on must-read lists of fall novels.
Smith, 27, seems a little taken aback by the fuss, but she’s enjoying it, too. “I just quit my job,” she said. “Now I’m a writer full time. And I just sent in the first draft of my second novel yesterday.”
That job, as an adjunct professor of history at Tulane University, would once have seemed tailor made for Smith.
“Both my parents have taught at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, since the mid-1980s, my mother in art history and my father in philosophy and religion,” she said. “Growing up, spending my childhood afternoons running wildly around campus with my brother, I always had the sense that a professor’s life was the one to strive for. My brother and I both went to graduate programs in properly academic fields — and then both of us snuck off to write fiction.”
Her first book, out earlier this year, was a scholarly work, “We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1735-1850” (LSU Press), an outgrowth of her doctoral dissertation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“It looks at the ways in which black, white, and Native American women raised their children in the late 18th- and early 19th-century South, with all the diversity, affection, and hardship that entailed,” Smith said. “I loved researching the project because it allowed me to eavesdrop on so many lives, though I was only privy to the details that people bothered to record. Writing fiction finally permits me to imagine how those lives might have been really lived.”
Finally, “what was missing was emotion,” she said. “That’s why I turned to fiction.”
So, with newly minted Ph.D. in hand, she enrolled at the writing seminars at Bennington College, where she studied with Paul Yoon, Amy Hempel, David Gates and Bret Anthony Johnston.
Her assured and lovely first novel, “The Story of Land and Sea,” is a tale of fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, masters and slaves, heartbreak and loss. Asa, a widower, lives in Beaufort, North Carolina, mourning the death of his daughter Helen, who died at sea. Helen’s husband, John, is land-bound after life as a pirate, raising their daughter, Tabitha. Interwoven into their lives is the story of Helen’s friendship with Moll, the slave she was given for her 11th birthday, and Moll’s son Davy.
In addition to these unforgettable characters, all so passionate and engaging, the landscape itself is practically a character, shifting and changing.
“What draws me to the coastal landscape of North Carolina is how many facets it has; it’s not just land and then ocean, but is also swamps and sandbars and sounds — all these interstitial places that undermine a feeling of certainty,” Smith said.
“Similarly, the South in the years after the American Revolution was still finding its feet, still working to define the systems of religion and politics and agriculture that would carry it up to the Civil War and beyond. This ambiguity surrounding my characters is the perfect background to lives that are defined by loss.”
For now, the landscape of New Orleans claims her heart.
“I moved to New Orleans three years ago because it was the city I’d always dreamed of living in,” she said. “I grew up taking day trips here with my family, and we never visited long enough to do more than see the aquarium and drive up and down St. Charles, but to me it was an architectural fairyland, and I knew I’d move here when I was grown. So many things keep me attached to the city: the heat, the music, the eccentricity and generosity, the way even things that are falling apart retain their beauty. It’s also a three-hour drive from my family, which is not too far and just far enough.”
Oh, and that second book? Here’s a hint: “My next novel is also set in the South in the late 18th century, though it’s a bit more landlocked and deals less with pirates and more with bandits.”
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO and is the author of “The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.” She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: Katy Simpson Smith reads from and signs ‘The Story of Land and Sea.’ Event sponsored by Maple Street Book Shop.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3
WHERE: Columns Hotel, 3811 St. Charles Ave.
AND AGAIN: 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4, at Octavia Books,