“New Orleans is such a creative city,” says author Katy Simpson Smith. “Everyone here just seems to be part of a big creative project.”
That climate of creativity solidified Smith’s decision to move to New Orleans five years ago — and she quickly embarked on creative projects of her own. This month, for instance, marks the publication of Smith’s second novel, Free Men.
Set in the rural spaces of what is now known as Alabama, Free Men draws on the true story of three men who, in 1778, went into the woods together and murdered a trading party. From that event, Smith has fashioned a compelling narrative about the men’s journey through the Southern wilderness while being pursued by a French tracker. Taught, lush in its depiction of place and time, and impressively nuanced in showing the men’s dynamic relationship with one another, their own families, and a burgeoning American nation, Free Men also evokes for the reader the illusion of the “line between the present and the past.”
Smith came across this story when conducting research for another novel that was to be set in Alabama. But then she found out about the three men.
“All the basic events of the men’s lives are from the research I did,” says Smith. Then, she went ahead and imagined their backstories. After gathering as much material about the protagonists and their crime as she could, Smith was able to make these minor historical figures carry the weight of real people.
“My imagination ran wild,” she says. “You can try things, including getting into the psychology of the characters. It was an exciting process.”
The historical basis of Free Men is evidence of the mesmerizing cultural nooks and crannies that belong to the American South.
Race and racial divides are at the forefront of Free Men. Smith found herself intrigued by the puzzling set of circumstances that could bring together this improbable trio (a Creek Indian, a white orphan, and an escaped slave) at a time when the country’s recent history had created a set of conditions that would otherwise keep them apart. And although Smith has been composing stories all her life — she grew up in Mississippi, a state rich in the craft of oral and written narratives— her professional training at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill was as a historian, a skillset that proved invaluable when working on Free Men.
What drew Smith to the study of history was the teasing out an understanding about people and places. And in looking at these three men, she found that “there just wasn’t enough material about who these people are.” That’s when the lens of the historian gave way to the vast possibilities of the fiction writer’s blank page, and she embarked on the writing of the novel as an “experiment in finding out how these men came to interact with one another.”
This was where Smith was able to synthesize “true” history with the fictional universe of her making. It also reminded her of what took her from the academic discipline of history (and its inherent narrative limits) to creative writing.
“Fiction reminds me that [one’s] perspective is different from other people,” Smith says. This is especially true if “you shift your lens a little bit” from how you may have first seen a subject, even one that has been addressed many times over, such as the American South. The historical basis of Free Men is itself evidence of the mesmerizing cultural nooks and crannies — as well as the specter of violence and guilt — that belong to this part of the country.
Having written two other books on the South — a study of early American motherhood, We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750—1835, as well as the highly acclaimed 2014 novel, The Story of Land and Sea — Smith has been characterized as a “Southern writer,” a label that she doesn’t shy away from. But that is also due to the fact that, as Smith asserts, what it means to be Southern keeps evolving. “We have immigrants who have changed the South,” Smith states. And this is no recent phenomenon: the South has been “changing for centuries.”
Smith has been characterized as a ‘Southern writer,’ but, as Smith asserts, what it means to be Southern keeps evolving.
While the South remains her home, Smith is about to undertake her own change of perspective with her next creative project: After spending a month in Rome last fall, she is now in the very early stages of a book on that city. If the result is anything like Free Men, Smith’s curiosity and elegant prose will throw an aspect of Rome and its people into stark relief.
20 Questions with Katy Simpson Smith
1. Who is your favorite New Orleanian, dead or alive, real or imagined?
All the brave women of this city who didn’t give a flying flip what other people thought: Marie Laveau, Henriette Delille, Elizabeth Magnus Cohen, Pearl Rivers, Frances Gaudet, Oretha Castle Haley, Mahalia Jackson, Ruby Bridges.
2. What first brought you to New Orleans?
As a Mississippian, I grew up on day trips to the Aquarium — sharks! jellyfish! penguins! — which quickly evolved into wanting to be in this city all the time. I finally made it happen in 2011.
3. In your opinion — what’s the best neighborhood in New Orleans?
Pigeon Town, because I just moved over here and there isn’t an ounce of stuffiness. Just good people who, when they see me in the garden, offer tips on how to root out the nutgrass.
The best place to see live music? In a muddy field; passing through the Blues Tent; at church. Walking down Royal. Sticking your head in a random door on Frenchmen.
4. If it’s a beautiful day, where are you going to spend it?
On one of the concrete stoops along Bayou St. John, my face in a book, my toes in the water. Or else down south in the Barataria preserve, searching for alligators, my toes definitely not in the water.
5. Describe the best meal you’ve eaten in New Orleans.
The most recent best meal, once I finally figured out how far in advance to make reservations, was at Shaya: halloumi, tabouleh, hummus with curried fried cauliflower— heaven.
6. Where’s your favorite brunch spot?
Cake Café, both for the grits and the general kindness.
7. What’s your favorite type of po-boy? Where do you get it?
You might think vegetarians are out of the po-boy game, but the best po-boy place in town happens to make the best grilled cheese. I’m loyal to Parkway, and the cheddar on rye.
8. You’ve got friends visiting, and it’s their first time in New Orleans — where are you taking them?
Oh, it’s a long list; my visitors don’t get down time. Most of the things I love are outside, so I’ll stroll visitors around a beautiful neighborhood or take them to City Park to show off the art-packed sculpture garden/the bayous of Couturie Forest/the magical Singing Tree or drive them over to Metairie Cemetery to find the Weeping Angel or out east to Bayou Sauvage for a little wilderness.
Depending on the day, they might luck out with a trip to the [Arts Market of New Orleans in] Palmer Park, the Friends of the Library book sale, or a movie at the Prytania or Zeitgeist. Basically, I try to keep them away from the Quarter until they understand that it’s just one beautiful part of a beautiful whole. But when they’re ready for it, the itinerary includes an almond croissant at Croissant d’Or, the Pharmacy Museum, M.S. Rau’s astonishing antiquities, a tasty West African meal at Bennachin, and a sunset trip on the Algiers Ferry.
9. What’s your favorite neighborhood bar?
Pal’s [Lounge], for providing excellent Hurricane Isaac coverage in 2012.
10. What is your favorite New Orleans cocktail, and where do you go to get it?
Does the hot chocolate (half milk, half dark) from Sucré count?
11. What’s your favorite dessert or sweet treat in the city?
12. Best spot to see live music?
In a muddy field; passing through the Blues Tent; at church. Walking down Royal. Sticking your head in a random door on Frenchmen.
13. Favorite New Orleans musician or band?
This one has to go to Allen Toussaint, may he rest in peace, though he existed in such a rich matrix of melody: Irma Thomas, the Meters, Ernie K. Doe, the Showmen.
14. Favorite New Orleans festival?
Fortunately there’s a festival to fit every mood. The best for running into a famous writer you have a crush on: Tennessee Williams Festival. The best for hearing crowds of local film workers cheer during the credits: New Orleans Film Festival. The best for watching rubber ducks chase each other down a canal: Bayou Boogaloo. The best for people who don’t eat meat but love okra: Treme Creole Gumbo Festival. I could go on.
15. What’s your ideal New Orleans date night?
The problem with New Orleans is that every night kind of feels like date night. So I’ll keep it low-key: sitting on a bench and watching the Mississippi, making up stories about what those barges have secreted in their holds.
16. What are your favorite local shops?
This may reveal my particular shopping interests, but Maple Street Book Shop, Octavia Books, Garden District Book Shop, Blue Cypress Books, Crescent City Books, Faulkner House Books…
17. What is your favorite New Orleans museum?
There are so many wonderful museums in the city, but I’m currently most excited about directing people out River Road to Whitney Plantation, which tells the story of slavery as it deserves to be told — from the perspective of the enslaved — and is heartbreaking and inspiring. There are no illusions of “elegant Southern living” here, no fineries or fripperies to distract from the centuries of systematic dehumanization.
18. Where do you go to watch The Saints play?
Morning Call in City Park. It’s only fun when all the waiters are involved.
19. Describe New Orleans in one word.
20. When was the last time you fell in love with New Orleans, and why?
Last Sunday, when Mr. Okra drove by my house, calling out his vegetable hymns. You don’t even have to step past your porch to be embraced in the vibrancy of this city.