Sheltering: Katy Simpson Smith Has More Than a Little Sympathy for the Devil
The Author of The Everlasting Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Katy Simpson Smith speaks with Maris Kreizman about her recently released novel, The Everlasting. Smith talks about trying to read all of Proust in quarantine and deeming him “not the man for the moment,” weeding her garden so much that it’s now spotless, and the comfort of viewing our current times through a historical lens. Smith’s favorite local bookstore is Garden District Books; please purchase The Everlasting through their website if possible!
From the episode
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I am so happy to be talking to Katy Simspon Smith. Welcome!
Katy Simpson Smith: Thank you!
Maris: Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you’re doing.
Katy Simpson Smith: I’m Katy Simpson Smith. I am a writer who lives in New Orleans. I’m an ex-historian, so I have one historical monograph out there in that world that people sometimes think is a novel. It’s not a novel. And then this book that comes out today is my third novel. In terms of how I’m doing—it’s such a weird question, and it’s such a hard one to answer, because on the one hand I’m so proud of this accomplishment, and also devastated by the way that it has sort of evaporated into this new universe that we’re in. And then, those feelings are like a tiny acorn within a much broader gratitude for health and family, and concern about global systems. So, I’m having all the emotions.
Maris: Yeah, I feel that. I assume your entire tour was cancelled physically. Are you doing any other digital things?
Katy: I’m making weird videos to put online. I’m trying to just stay in the moment and be in the garden a lot and just kind of move through this is a Zen-like way.
Maris: Where was your launch event supposed to be?
Katy: It was going to be tomorrow at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn.
Maris: And tell me, is there a local store in New Orleans that you like?
Katy: Yes! I was going to have my launch event here at Garden District in New Orleans, and then another one at Lemuria Books in Jackson, which is where I’m from and where my family lives. So, yeah. Hopefully those can be rescheduled for some future era.
Maris: I sure hope so. So, tell us a little bit about your book. Because speaking about acorns in a bigger forest, I think that you offer some great perspective.
Katy: I hope so, yeah. So, the novel takes place in Rome, which is one of my favorite cities of all time, and it covers about 2,000 years of history, moving from the second century CE all the way to the present day. And there are four protagonists who have these sort of interlocking love stories, and stories about faith and sacrifice and what it means to be a good person in the world. There’s a lot in there about human bodies and their decomposition and renewal, and the ways we use our bodies as tools but also as holy vessels. I do think there’s a lot there that can be helpful in terms of thinking about a longer historical view of the moment. We are very wrapped up in this intense immediacy of, life is different now than we have ever known it in our lives. But it is not that different from 1918 or from the Middle Ages and the Black Plague, when vast swaths of the population were wiped out. So, in one sense we are joining a long and noble history of human suffering. And on the other side of suffering is always renewal. I like to think that readers who come to this book might find a little bit of solace in that historical perspective.
Maris: Yeah. And yes, it’s set in Rome, and what a time to even be contemplating Rome and its past and its present and future.
Katy: I know. And yet, it always has a future. It has been sacked how many ever times, and it is still rising again.
Maris: Were you at all planning, hoping, to go there?
Katy: Of course! Aren’t we all hoping to go to Rome?
Katy: Yeah, I would have loved to go there for another visit this summer, visit those old haunts and see them in a different light now that the book is out in the world, but I will wait for a better time to do that.
Maris: Yes. I hope it’ll come soon. Tell me about how you—are you getting work done? Are you goofing off? What are you doing with your time?
Katy: That’s a really good question. I’ve been in the yard a lot, so lots of weeding. My lawn is spotless now. I’ve been doing a lot of reading—books of friends of mine who have work coming out.
Maris: Tell us which ones.
Katy: I just read Taylor Brown’s book Pride of Eden, which is set in a big cat sanctuary, so it’s all about tigers and lions. It’s wonderful if you want to get away from human issues.
Katy: Yeah, and I recently read Jane Hirshfield’s book Ledger, which is this beautiful poetry collection that again takes in this sweep of time that’s like this ordinary cycle we’re all part of. So that’s been comforting. Poetry I find I can focus on in small chunks. The first day of the quarantine down here in New Orleans, I decided to start reading Proust. I was like, I have endless time! I’m going to read
Maris: How’s that going?
Katy: I read the first book and was—
Katy: Yeah, four days. Just like whipped through it. It’s really hard. My mind just kept floating off, and Proust is not the right man for the moment I would say. Yesterday, I started making medical masks for the New Orleans hospital community and emergency workers, and that’s been a really good way to employ my hands and feel like I’m doing something other than being a bum and watching TV.
Maris: Yeah, I get that. How is New Orleans doing?
Katy: Oh, boy. Our governor told us yesterday that we have the highest infection rate in the world right now. So, yeah. We’re watching the numbers come out. They post them every day at noon, of new cases and new deaths. I think 34 people have died here since it started. They’re realizing that it was here circulating among us during Mardi Gras, which is the time in the city where we all come so close together, physically and emotionally, and share all of our bodily fluids. So yeah, it’s really sobering to see how this can kind of emerge out of a time of such celebration and intimacy, into this moment of, I can’t even see my friends anymore. One of my friends just had a baby a couple of weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to see the new baby. And I know there are bigger problems in the world, but I would love to have a baby to cuddle.
Maris: I am there with you, and I am just hoping that my friend’s new baby can Zoom sometime soon.
Katy: Yeah—as soon as they can lift their head up, they’re good.
Maris: Exactly. Once they can log on. I have been using Zoom, though, to talk to friends, and I’ve found it comforting. But, yeah. It’s funny what moments we forget that we’ll miss.
Katy: Yeah! I’ve been trying to watch TV shows to get my mind off things, but when I see people hugging each other or standing in a crowd in a public place, I feel twitchy. So, it’s not—I can’t watch shows where people touch each other.
Maris: Yeah. Katie, what have you been eating? More importantly.
Katy: Ah! I watched your interview with Kevin Nguyen, and I too had made Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce. Like, first day, I made a big pot of it, so I highly recommend that to all your listeners. I made a really good Caribbean black beans and rice the other night, with a lot of orange juice and lime juice, and that made me feel like I was in some tropical location, and the sea breezes were wafting by. I’ve been doing some baking, made some banana bread. Anything that keeps my hands busy and keeps the kitchen smelling good has been helpful.
Maris: Very, very smart. I’ve been asking this question too, so maybe you’ll know, but if you had been able to have your launch event at Greenlight, what question would you hope to have been asked by an audience member that I can ask you now?
Katy: Oh, that’s a great question. So, one of the characters in my book is the devil.
Katy: I think I would’ve liked to have been asked what my opinion is of the devil, if I think he’s a good or bad character. In terms of how I’d answer that, I’ve been thinking about him a lot. Especially recently, because we turn to faith and we turn to religion in difficult moments, and there’s something about, at least common Judeo-Christian conceptions of God, as this all-seeing comforter, that to me is not very comforting. He’s like this figure that’s like, “It’s okay, everything’s fine,” and I want someone communicating with me who’s like, “Oh my god! This is all horrible. You’re going to die! We’re all gonna die. Here are some workarounds. Let’s think about our complex emotions together.” And for me that’s kind of the role that Satan plays.
Katy: In the book, I kind of wanted to have him be a figure that was kind of in the trenches with humans. Who felt the same weird jealousies and neuroses and compulsions that we feel, and so as a result is more sympathetic to us than perhaps God and his all-seeing wisdom might be. So, I think my view of him is a more humanistic view. I think he’s the one that I want to be chatting with in these times.
Maris: That is very helpful. Maybe we can all become Satanists.
Katy: You heard it here first!
Maris: Well thank you so much, Katy. I have your book right here, so I will hold it up.
Katy: Oh, great. I’m wearing a red shirt, so.
Maris: Oh, you match! It’s perfect. Thank you so much.
Katy: Thank you for talking to me. You’re doing a great service to writers who have few other places to turn to.
Maris: Thank you.