One of the most anticipated debut novels this fall is The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith. The novel centers on a family living in a small coastal town in North Carolina at the end of the 18th century. Anita Shreve praises the novel, saying that it will give readers “several hours of pure pleasure and a rare glimpse of grace in a fictional world.”
Smith recently answered some questions for Between the Covers readers about The Story of Land and Sea and the fascinating inspiration for her novel.
Between the Covers: What inspired you to write The Story of Land and Sea?
Katy Simpson Smith: The germ of the story came from a trip I took to Beaufort when I was living in North Carolina. It’s a beautiful historic town [with] a graveyard chock full of interesting stories. One of the graves that most arrested me had a marker that read “Little Girl Buried in Rum Keg”—no name, no date. Imagining this girl’s life led me to all the other characters in the novel.
BTC: Will you tell us a little bit about the research that went into creating this story?
KSS: I have a background in history and particularly studied the late 18th century when I was writing my dissertation in graduate school. For that project, I read so many letters and diaries and record books that the language of the time period became an almost natural rhythm in my head. That’s, of course, the hardest leap—trying to imagine not just what these people ate and wore but how they formed their ideas. But I also had to research all the small things, too: the various parts of a ship, the stages of yellow fever, the movements of the Continental Army. This is probably one of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me.
BTC: Parent-child relationships play an important part in the novel. What do you think it is about that relationship that makes it so compelling even though it’s such a common theme in fiction?
KSS: I think families are something every one of us can relate to; we’re all born into them, for better or worse, and the presence or absence of parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. can shape how we respond to our environments. Family is the lens through which we interpret what happens to us. The interactions between parents and children are so various and weighted with meaning that we could write fiction for another thousand years and never exhaust the subject.
BTC: You have earned a Ph.D. in history as well as a MFA, so writing a historical novel seems like the perfect way to combine your interests. Did you always want to write fiction?
KSS: I’ve been writing since I was tiny! Stories about fairies, stories about little girls with a dozen siblings, mawkish poems. I think it just took me many years to realize that making up stories could be more than a secret passion. Taking that first step from history to fiction was remarkably scary, but it turns out that doing what you love really is the best feeling in the world.
BTC: The Story of Land and Sea is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
KSS: Everything has been pretty exciting, but I think I was giddiest when I flew to New York to meet with editors. Not only did I get to walk around New York, feeling like an awestruck country mouse, but I discovered that all these big-time publishing people aren’t scary at all—they’re simply regular people who love books an awful lot, just like me. As for what’s been surprising, again, it’s kind of everything! I hope one day that I’m an old hand at all this, but I can guarantee it’s going to take a long time for the novelty to wear off.
BTC: What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
KSS: I’m actually working now on my second novel, which is also historical and set in the South. It’s been good to have a project to bury my head in during the craziness of the publishing process!