- The Story of Land and Sea (2014) novel
- We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South 1750-1835 (2013), non-fiction
Katy Simpson Smith was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1986. Her parents are both professors at Millsaps in Jackson. She is an historian as well as a fiction writer. Her debut novel, which began first as a short story that kept growing, is The Story of Land and Sea. It was sold in a bidding war among ten publishing houses that netted her almost one million dollars. The novel has the recurring theme of parent-child relationships through several generations around the time of the American Revolution along the North Carolina coast. The story is the result of her research as a doctoral historian on mothers in the South, published as We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South 1750-1835. One of the central characters in her novel is a young woman named Helen, who, like many women at that time, does not live to see her child.
Smith grew up attending the public schools in Jackson, attended Mount Holyoke College, received a Ph D in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She lives in New Orleans and was an adjunct professor at Tulane University. The huge amount of money her first book garnered has permitted her to quit her teaching job and write full time.
Smith found the town of Beaufort on a road trip down the coast of North Carolina where she found a cemetery full of untold stories. She describes finding a man who was buried standing up, saluting the queen, an entire shipwrecked crew buried together, and a girl whose epitaph read “Little Girl Buried in a Rum Keg.” The little girl is used in her novel The Story of Land and Sea. The novel follows three generations of families as it explores relationships, slavery, and loss.
For her dissertation, Smith read so many eighteenth century letters and diaries that the language of the period became part of the rhythm of her writing. She says that reading the original material made her sensitive to the values of the time – “even things, like slaveholding, that look so plainly wrong from a contemporary vantage.”
The Story of Land and Sea follows three generations of family. It is the story of ten-year-old Tabitha, who wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father’s stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew. It is also the story of her father John who has remained land-bound for his daughter, but when Tabitha contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more. Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her. It is also the story of Tabitha’s mother Helen who herself was raised by a widowed father named Asa. He is a devout man who owns a small plantation and gives his daughter Helen a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday. Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship. As she grows up, Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation. However, when she meets John, who was once a pirate and became a Continental soldier, Helen falls in love with him against her father’s wishes. Moll, the slave, is forced into marriage with a stranger. Her only solace is her son Davy whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery.
Katy Simpson Smith is working on her second novel.
- The New York Times reviews The Story of Land and Sea
- Huffington Post reviews novel.
- Vogue calls novel debut of the year.
- Smith gave the keynote address for Tulane new scholars on April 11, 2015
- ‘Land And Sea’ Is An Unceasingly Bleak Story, August 26, 2014, by Michael Schaub, a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books