A literary debut with clout: Mount Holyoke College history grad draws on her degree to pen acclaimed novel

Last modified: Thursday, December 11, 2014

When Katy Simpson Smith finished her studies at Mount Holyoke College at the end of 2005, she figured she had her career plan mapped out: She’d take her degree in early American history straight to graduate school and continue her work as a budding historian.

But along the way to her doctorate, Smith, 28, decided what she really wanted to do was write fiction. So right after she’d gotten her degree, she went straight into an MFA program in creative writing at Bennington College in Vermont — and emerged with a debut novel, “The Story of Land and Sea,” that reportedly sparked a bidding war among publishers. Since its release in August, the novel has attracted considerable praise from critics.

It’s not the first time Smith, who lives in New Orleans, has taken an unconventional path. She left her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, in 2002 when she was just 16 to attend Mount Holyoke.

“I really wanted to get away from the South, and all the things I didn’t like about it, and move on to the next stage of my life,” Smith said during a recent phone interview. “I wanted to see what it would be like to go to school in a different part of the country.”

But Smith also says that growing up in the South is very much a part of who she is. She has drawn on that legacy in crafting “The Story of Land and Sea,” a novel set mostly in a North Carolina coastal town at the close of the American Revolutionary War and a period 10 years after that.

The research she did to earn her doctorate in early American history, concentrating on the lives of women in the South, paid generous dividends in the novel, allowing her to capture the period with, as The Washington Post put it, “language (that) blends startling details of the everyday with a dreamy, aphoristic quality. The effect is to root the novel in its historical moment but to reach toward the universal in its exploration of love and grief.”

Smith says she’s surprised and flattered by all the attention her book, published by HarperCollins, has received. “It’s not like I’ve written some big blockbuster, so it’s really encouraging to see the (publishing) industry show this kind of interest in a novel that’s pretty small and pretty depressing,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not typically what happens.”

But she does feel vindicated in making the decision to devote herself to fiction. She’d been reading it for years and had written short stories as well, she says, but when she’d previously thought about committing herself full time to that kind of work, she said, “I always chickened out.”

It was while working toward her doctorate, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that she began reconsidering her plans. Studying history — though she enjoyed many aspects of it — imposed certain barriers on her voice.

“I felt limited in what I could say. I was reading all these fascinating accounts of real people’s lives, documents they’d written, but as a historian there was no way to talk about their feelings and emotions. ... I wanted to do that.”

Though told in understated, often spare language, in a narrative that uses different characters’ voices, “The Story of Land and Sea” packs its share of emotional wallop. From the death of mothers during childbirth, to a desperate effort by a father to save his sick daughter, to a slave woman’s fierce devotion to her son, the novel examines loss and regret and the struggles people have to find meaning in their lives.

It was also during her time in North Carolina that Smith found the seed for her book. While traveling along the coast, she stopped in the town of Beaufort and explored an 18th-century graveyard; there she found a worn wooden marker that said “LITTLE GIRL BURIED in RUM KEG.” There was no name, no date, no further explanation — so, Smith says, “I wanted to tell her story.”

An empire built on slavery

“The Story of Land and Sea,” set in Beaufort and told in the present tense, begins in 1793. John, a former Continental soldier and onetime sailor — including a stint aboard a pirate vessel — now works as a shopkeeper. His more important charge is raising his 10-year-old daughter, Tabitha, called “Tab,” whom he regales with stories of his past and of the mother she never knew.

Helen, John’s wife, died giving birth to Tab, a loss he still feels: “The grief ... has waned to washes of melancholy, impressions connected to no specific hurt but to the awareness of a constant. He is in no pain but the pain of the living.”

Tab, a lively girl who likes to explore the marshes and seashore, is sickened by yellow fever early in the story. When her condition doesn’t improve, John takes her aboard a ship bound for Bermuda, praying the salt air will revive her. His move is opposed by Asa, Tab’s grandfather and John’s father-in-law, who can never forget how Helen, defying his wishes, married John and went to sea with him, then died giving birth to Tab. Asa doesn’t think he can bear losing his granddaughter, too.

As Smith shifts the narrative back to the 1770s and 1780s to examine Helen’s life, it transpires that Asa’s wife also died in childbirth. Asa has worked diligently over the years to improve his small plantation — tapping pine trees to make turpentine for the shipbuilding industry — and he’s only now begun to realize, as the women in his life have disappeared, that he should have invested more time in his relationships with them.

“The empire he had mapped for himself is shrinking. ... The line of Asa’s blood has reached its terminus. He has stopped imagining a future, the way he did when he was young and every path led to a better version of his own life. Paths narrow and end; his legs are weary.”

His empire, like many in the South, has been built on slave ownership — even if, as slave owners go, Asa is pretty benevolent. One of his slaves is Moll, whom he presents to his daughter as a birthday gift when Helen turns 10. Part servant, part companion, Moll is one of the novel’s most vivid characters; she has a complicated relationship with Helen and years later will be forced to marry against her will. Then she’ll watch as her beloved son, Davy, is taken away, an event that will stir her to confront Asa head-on.

In fact, one of the book’s most compelling points is the way it juxtaposes the idealism of American independence with the slavery that made a mockery of those ideals. Giving voice to Moll and some of the other slaves in the story was “a little intimidating at first,” Smith says, but essential to the narrative.

“In the end I felt pretty comfortable doing that,” said Smith, whose doctoral research included examining the lives of Southern mothers — white, black, Native American — in the 18th and early 19th centuries. “I think it’s also important to point out that slavery came in different forms. There wasn’t just one standard.”

She’s also drawn on real history in Beaufort, like a blockade of the port by British ships late in the Revolution, to tell her tale. “The Story of Land and Sea” is rooted in the slow rhythms of a different time even as its stoic characters must confront universal issues. There’s no sentimentality, no neat resolutions to problems; as The New York Times puts it, “Ms. Smith’s ... refusal to serve up false redemption is admirable.”

A rich history

Looking back, Smith says, coming to Mount Holyoke was a good choice for her, as an all-women’s school was an easier place to fit in, given how young she was when she arrived. She has also credited historian and writer Joseph Ellis, the former Mount Holyoke professor, with sparking her interest in early-American history.

When she came to the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley in September to give a reading, she said, “I got to see a whole bunch of my professors for the first time in years. It was wonderful.”

Today she’s an adjunct professor in the Newcomb College Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans, a division of the university that’s geared to women undergraduates; she teaches history and research skills. She’s also just sent off the manuscript for her second novel, this one set in Alabama in the late 1700s. “I guess I like keeping busy,” she said.

Though she was once put off by the South’s history of slavery, segregation and political conservatism, she now sees it as a rich source of stories. More to the point, she sees genuine efforts in parts of the South to come to terms with its racial history. As one example, she says her old hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, where white police and crowds attacked civil rights activists in the 1960s, has become a much more open community.

“If I want (the South) to be a better place, I need to be part of that effort,” she said. “Hopefully I can help do that through my writing.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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