Written By Rae Switzer
In a piece for The Oxford American in 2015, Katy Simpson Smith wrote: “to be a writer in Jackson is to be a witness.” A writer born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, she knows a thing or two about what it means to live in a place so fraught with violent tensions and storied pasts.
Her first three books – two novels and a nonfiction piece – are grounded in her background of both living in and studying about the South. With a bachelor’s in history and film studies from Mount Holyoke College and a doctorate in history from the University of North Carolina, Smith has been
able to infuse her writing with a deep understanding of historical Southern existence and identity.
Her new novel diverges from her typical Southern setting. The Everlasting,
which will hit shelves in March 2020, travels overseas to Rome and follows four interconnected stories of love, loss, and longing over a span of 2,000 years. The Italian setting and transcendent characters still manage to hearken back to the South that Smith knows and loves, in all its faults and glories. The novel began when Smith took a trip to Rome in order to spark her creativity.
“I had this little notebook,” Smith said. “I was writing down ideas and things that I saw in churches and museums, and what struck me most about the city was the way its history was layered in plain view – so you can see a Mussolini era building on top of a Renaissance palace on top of ancient ruins.”
Smith continued: “And in some ways that felt like the South to me, that our past is so visible even though we feel like we’ve moved on. And so I felt this kind of kinship with that visibility, and then I just started writing about it and couldn’t stop.”
Drawing inspiration from this visual display of history, the four narratives of The Everlasting have one thread weaving them all together despite their differing historical eras: the devil himself.
“God was the ultimate love of [Satan’s] life, and then he was cast out of this beautiful place, so he has this unique sympathy for all these characters who are going through various forms of heartbreak and love affairs and trials
of the heart,” Smith said. “He is a much more relatable figure for them than God, who is perfect, and humans are not perfect.”
Her focus on societal misfits and outsiders falls into the Southern tradition of writing well – making her a suitable fit for the Eudora Welty Chair for Southern Literature at Millsaps, a position she has been serving in since 2018. This position not only keeps her involved in Southern literary affairs but strengthens her ties to Millsaps in a new way, she said, enabling her to teach courses here on campus in order to foster writing and creativity.
The focus of her classes ranges from screenwriting to paintings to poetry, her ideas originating from her own love of learning something new.
“I always just figure out what I want to learn,” Smith said when asked about how she comes up with her courses. “It puts me in the position of a learner too…. I come in there as excited about learning about what these things are as the students are.”
Students of hers said they benefited from that passion.
“Katy Smith is a great teacher. She was always energetic and challenged
us to try to be better writers. She was engaged with our thoughts and ideas and helped us to further grow in our creative process,” said Laban Blakeney, a former student of Smith’s.
Smith’s enthusiasm for both teaching and learning is clearly visible, as well as her desire to inspire and encourage the creativity of students. While Smith will not be teaching this upcoming spring semester as her new book is released, her ineffable enthusiasm for Millsaps and her students will endure.
“The most useful advice for me and probably for a lot of people who are just starting out is take yourself seriously,” she said when asked for the best advice she’s both taken and can give for young writers. Smith continued: “What (the South) taught me more than anything is to keep my eyes and ears open – not to assume things about people that I was encountering, but just to listen and see.”