Katy Simpson Smith seems like the best kind of optimist. Driven from a young age by a love of the South and her people, she initially sought a career in history, attending Mount Holyoke College, earning a PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and going on to pen the well-received, “We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South 1750-1835.”
Smith eventually realized, however, the questions of history — of facts and dates, or even insightful analysis — were not enough to spend the rest of her life answering. She was, and remains, interested in exploring the hearts and minds of people, largely Southerners, not just the cold facts of what happened and when.
So, naturally, she turned to historical fiction. Smith’s debut novel, “The Story of Land and Sea,” which tells the story about three generations North Carolinian family just after the American Revolution, sparked a bidding war between publishing houses and received a copious amount of critical acclaim. Though Smith’s most recent publications, “The Story of Land and Sea” and “Free Men,” are both set in the in a fairly distant past, Smith said the living in the modern day South interested her in its history because it, “makes you aware of the good and the bad parts of history and more attuned to race, religion, family. I wanted to explore the roots of all of that.”
“The Story of Land and Sea” may be set in the same time and place as Smith’s newest novel, “Free Men,” but from there it varies wildly in scope and range, “spinning outward,” as Smith explained, to examine society as a whole instead of just the small family unit portrayed in “The Story of Land and Sea.”
Dealing with larger, more expansive themes, “Free Men,” through the story of three men venturing through the territory of southern Alabama, explores freedom and what the promise of a new country means for all people, especially marginalized people whose stories are sometimes left out of the more prominent narratives of an event. The novel revolves around three companions: a Native American, a poor white orphan and an escaped black slave who seek to escape the law (in the form of a French tracker) after they commit a shocking murder, and evokes much more powerful questions than your average historical thriller or Western.
Through this newest novel, Smith wants readers to grasp the “issue of connectivity” that she feels is at the root of our present day issues.
“[Southerners] are all connected, whether we like it or not,” she said. “We like to think sometimes that we are isolated or segregated, but when we look at history, we realize that we are a lot more connected. I want to tap into those roots.”
For another interesting twist, “Free Men” is told entirely from a male perspective. Smith explained writing from an all-male perspective was intriguing for her as a writer because she is always learning and never completely sure of herself. She was “drawn to the story because it was men doing the acting. I always want to write about human experiences that I don’t already know.”
Though Katy Simpson Smith now resides in New Orleans, she will be returning to her home state of Mississippi to talk about “Free Men.” Doing a reading or event is “always wonderful,” Smith said.
“People in Mississippi get me in a way that no one else does,” Simpson said. “It’s great to just share what I’ve done with the people who raised me.”
Katy Simpson Smith will be in Mississippi for just two readings, one of which will be at Off Square Books today at 5 p.m.