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FICTION: In 2014, New Orleanian, Tulane University adjunct professor, author and New Orleans Magazine People to Watch Class of 2014 alum Katy Simpson Smith gained widespread recognition on a grand and national scale with her debut novel, The Story of Land and Sea. February marked the release of the 30-year-old Jackson, Mississippi native’s second novel, Free Men. Having earned an M.F.A. from the Bennington Writing Seminars and a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the two novels have allowed Smith to flex her muscle as an historian and gifted writer.
“The fiction that I love is fiction that takes me to places that are completely unexpected and that I don’t have any experience of,” Smith tells Garden & Gun Magazine in its February/March Southern Hot List issue. “So when I started writing, it seemed natural to go to places that I wanted to explore.”
For Free Men, Smith explores a true historical incident the author discovered while researching south Alabama. Set in 1788, the novel centers on a white South Carolina man running away from a tragedy; a black man escaping a Pensacola sugar plantation; a Creek tribesman defending his family’s honor; and the French tracker sent to retrieve the men after they commit murder.
“I was magnetized by the cultural implications,” Smith says in a press release. “When people want to know what it was like back then, this is it; people from widely varying backgrounds enmeshed together, laboring to define their nations, their families and themselves.”
Smith’s sharp prose has a sense of urgency, propelling the story swiftly forward, but not without exploring the complexities of the South and of America’s own challenging and often violent beginnings.
“Centuries of discrimination based on race and class have sifted the South into its current state, polarized and segregated in many respects, but these men I’m writing about show the rich colonial soup out of which we hardened,” she says. “And writing in the voices of such different characters, while full of pitfalls and challenges, was the only way I knew to give each of their histories an equal claim.”
Smith is scheduled to speak at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, March 30 through April 3.