Katy Simpson Smith Writes Historical Fiction That’s Anything But Boring

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Some people shy away from historical fiction, fearing it will be too heavily laden with ye olden terms to be relatable to modern life. To those people we say, listen up! Here’s a murder mystery wrapped up in personal mystery, with characters so real, you’ll lose yourself in their world without getting a bit distracted by the fact that their story takes place a couple hundred years ago: Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith.

Free Men is our February pick for the First Editions Club, and our booksellers have gone nuts for it. (So has everyone else. Check out this fantastic review — “Men of Diverse Character” from our friends at Chapter16.) Before Smith comes to visit Parnassus on Thursday, February 25, she answered some questions for Catherine Bock, our office manager and administrator of the First Editions Club mailings, who loved the book.


Both Free Men and your first novel, The Story of Land and Sea, take place in post-Colonial America. That time so wonderfully lends itself to exploring ideas of identity and coming of age, but so little is written about it. What drew you to wanting to study and write about this period of history?

Katy Simpson Smith, credit Elise Smith
(photo by Elise Smith)

KSS: As you allude to, it’s the awkward adolescent stage of our country! So much of the ideology that seems entrenched now was just getting tossed around in those years, as people in positions of power made choices that would affect women, the enslaved, and Native groups for centuries. But in the 1780s and 1790s you can still glimpse a fluidity to human relationships; there are still forks in this nation’s road, and it’s exciting as a historian and a writer to witness all those possibilities.

The storyline of the book has its basis in fact, as you share in the epigraph:

About this time, a bloody transaction occurred in the territory of the present county of Conecuh… The party consisted of a Hillabee Indian, who had murdered so many men, that he was called Istillicha, the Man-slayer — a desperate white man, who had fled from the States for the crime of murder, and whom, on account of his activity and ferocity, the Indians called the Cat — and a blood-thirsty negro, named Bob. – Albert James Pickett, History of Alabama, and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period (1851)

I loved this! At first it sounds like the start to a “three guys walk into a bar” joke. How did you come across this little snippet of history, and did you know right away that you wanted to write about it?

KSS: Doesn’t it have a wonderfully inherent humor to it? I found it when I was working on a much more modern story — about a long-distance trucker who loses his truck in south Alabama — and started researching the history of the area (as is my wont). I was intrigued that there was a waterway called Murder Creek and wanted to find out if there was a gory backstory to match.

And yes, when I found that passage I thought What?!  — which is the sign for me that I’m about to dive deeply into imagination-land.

And what about Le Clerc, the tracker who follows the three men after they commit their crime? He has already made his escape from his home and yet still seems plagued by a lack of fulfillment. Did you invent that character, or did he come from your research as well? 

KSS: Le Clerc is also a real historical figure, and the only character in the book who left any sort of paper trail. After his stint with the Creeks, he traveled back to France and tried to convince Napoleon to form an alliance with his powerful Indian friends (Napoleon paid no attention), and then he penned a rather petulant memoir. I intentionally didn’t read Le Clerc’s memoir until after I had a first draft of the novel, and it’s uncanny how similar their voices are, the real and the imagined. Either I had a Le Clerc homunculus sitting on my shoulder while I wrote, or there are only so many ways an adventuring, narcissistic Frenchman could have turned out!

You’ve also written a book on early American motherhood, We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835. Why did you switch to writing historical fiction? Is it something you wanted to do all along?

KSS: I had always been writing fiction, and took a detour into academic history in an attempt to find a Respectable Profession that would still center on storytelling. But being in a Ph.D. program fired my curiosity in so many ways and raised so many questions that historical research alone couldn’t fully answer. I was most interested in the people who left behind the least evidence, and it slowly occurred to me that if I just moved laterally from history to historical fiction, I could fill in all those tantalizing gaps.

StoryOfLandAndSea HC c-1
The Story of Land and Sea was a New York Times Editor’s Pick, and one of Vogue magazine’s Best Books of 2014

I find historical fiction so compelling and fascinating because it gives me something human to grab onto when learning about events of the past that can otherwise seem distant. How do you make these people and situations feel so relatable to modern readers?

KSS: The past is the perfect combination of exotic and recognizable: we’re plunged into a world without telephones or television, equal pay or equal rights, where people wear funny clothes and rely on horses, but this is also a world where people fall in love, have ambition, have arguments, lose their children. Because so many of the building blocks are the same, it’s easy to see ourselves in characters from the past. My job as a novelist is trying to find that balance between the surprising and the familiar.

And finally, a few quick fill-in-the-blanks! 

If I could go back and tell my 20-year-old self something, it would be: There’s nothing about being a girl that requires meekness.

In 10 years, I hope to be: A mother? Is that tempting fate? Probably so. I hope in 10 years I will be as happy with my life as I am now, without regrets.

My worst habit: Falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes.

My prize possession: From my dad, a baseball signed by Sid Bream: “Katy, know that God thinks your [sic] special.” I’m not religious, but I am a believer in the Atlanta Braves.

As a reader, what I love in a book is: Sentences that are startling or playful or lush.

My favorite thing about indie bookstores is: Indie booksellers. They read! They adore books! They’re the keepers of the flame, and my kindred spirits.

The last thing I loved to read (and/or the next thing I’m excited to read): I’m in the middle of Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses, a hilarious and humane satire of a thinly veiled United Nations, and a reminder that there’s nothing so pleasant as laughter.

Thank you!

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Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 12.35.04 PMCOMING UP

TODAY, Thursday, 2/18 – Author CJ Redwine presents The Shadow Queen at 6:30 p.m. in the store 

Monday, 2/22 – Poet Arne Weingart will read from Levitation for Agnostics at 6:30 p.m. 

Tuesday, 2/23 – Be here as our buddy Victoria (aka author VE Schwab) launches her follow-up to A Darker Shade of Magic, the new A Gathering of Shadows

Wednesday, 2/24 – Debbie Macomber signs A Girl’s Guide to Moving On, part of the Salon@615 series, at 6:15 p.m. at the Nashville Public Library

Wednesday, 2/24 – Nashville’s own Ariel Lawhon celebrates the release of Flight of Dreams right here at 6:30 p.m.