The Novel is a Form that Allows for Chaos: Katy Simpson Smith Interviewed by Michael Zapata

On writing a heartbroken Satan and digging through the rubble of history.

The Everlasting Katy Simpson Smith

When I moved to New Orleans, one of the first things I did was contact Katy Simpson Smith to see if she wanted to grab coffee. What followed: for three fortunate years we went on almost monthly ventures to Lebanon’s Café on South Carrollton Avenue, within walking distance from both our homes, where we ate and talked about everything low and high under the near-tropical sun. Talking to Katy always gives me a sense of peaceful familiarity. Mostly, this is due to the fact that she is a generous, brilliant, propulsive thinker and writer. She understands deep time like a geologist and language like a (happy) exiled poet.

Smith’s novels, like flawless nautilus shells, contain hidden chambers, spiraling around the central theme of free will—humanity’s attempt to claim purpose in a tough, mad world. Her gorgeous, genre-destroying third novel, The Everlasting (Harper Collins), spans two thousand years and follows a contemporary quixotic field biologist, a Medici princess who would make the Combahee River Collective proud, a late ninth century monk struggling profoundly with the frailty of memory and flesh, and a shrewd early Christian child martyr.  In their own ways, each are beautiful rebels, joined from time to time (in one of the book’s many strokes of brilliance) by the greatest rebel of them all: the Devil. So, of course, with a historic pandemic burning the fringes of our reality, I jumped at the chance to talk to her again.  

—Michael Zapata 


Michael Zapata You’re both a historian and a novelist. This seems to me like the perfect combination to author The Everlasting, a novel which probes into nothing less than the soul of the city of Rome. A little more than halfway through, your betrayed and brilliant Satan (about whom I have so much more to ask!) says the following when a field biologist contemplates both romance and the impending mass death of his ostracods: “Love is collaborative. This city is a stack. Loving is layering, and then losing. This city is submerged, reborn.” I read those lines and was in a historical daze for a week. What do you hope to discover in excavating the past and its architectural grandeur, its garbage, its ecology, its illicit faiths and forgotten people? Why novels? 

Katy Simpson Smith I love the idea of the “historical daze”! I think history as a field of study too often tries to provide clarity, to offer an overlay of logic and progression to the past, but what I’m seeking when I dig through the rubble is befuddlement. Something happens when we start gathering facts and stories and bits of evidence: the past gets muddier, more complicated and obscure, and simultaneously it starts producing these delightful bright bell-like rings. This expression of lust sounds a lot like that declaration of faith; this rejection of difference looks similar to that suppression of power. But those rings don’t come from order and sense; they come from the chaos of human fear and desire, which bubbles up uniquely in each decade. How can you convey that in a history book? Not very easily.

The novel is a form that allows for chaos: for tangents, for richness, for remembrance. And yet novels are like symphonies in that the meaning emerges in the echoes. I excavate this garbage, as you so nicely put it, because as much as I want to know why humans are the way they are, I also want to know who I am. I found The Lost Book of Adana Moreau so satisfying in its playfulness with time (why treat something malleable as singular and staid?), and I’m curious where your own historical stance came from — how much were you influenced by the lineage of storytelling traditions within your wonderfully global family?  

MZ Yes! There’s a certain comfort in chaos and befuddlement. Maybe, history as a field of study tries to package our understanding of time a little too much. According to some of the most prominent theoretical physicists today, at the most fundamental level of the universe, time itself disappears. So, our experience of time is just a “blurred” human perception. What the hell are we supposed to do with this? But novels, thankfully, like time (or its nonexistence) can subvert reality as we know it. My mother’s family descended from Lithuanian Jewish refugees in the early twentieth century and my father is an Ecuadorian immigrant. For biracial kids, that space between continents, languages, and, yes, histories, is noisy, messy, a little lonely, and often beautiful.

In Chicago, I grew up listening to the adults in the room as they stitched stories together from longing and exile. The Carlos Vives song “La Tierra de Olvido” (The Land of Forgetfulness) could send more than a few of my parents’ friends (and my dad too) into tears. Those stories were my first literature. When reading The Everlasting, I couldn’t help but think of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities—his cities where things are never as they seem, precariously layered with history both invented and visceral, a place of exile, the city as an idea. Tell me about your Rome. 

KSS I’m reading Richard Powers’s The Overstory right now (better late than never!), and one character describes time as “a column of concentric circles with herself at the core and the present floating outward along the outermost rim.” Of course it’s a tree metaphor, but nature has always provided shapes for humans to mimic. The Golden Ratio, for example, is certainly evident in Rome’s oldest structures (its innermost ring). One of the city’s great appeals, perhaps, is the way it carries the myth of the Whole Tree: it is everything at once, all visible, all vibrant, equally potent for those who obsess over relics or ruins or republics or romance. But if you sit very still in that city and listen—if you pause for a few hours on the Pincio Terrace overlooking the Piazza del Popolo and watch old men smoke and toddlers smear their faces with gelato, or if you sit in front of the frescoes of Livia’s garden in the Palazzo Massimo, all alone, just you and some flowers that were painted about two thousand years ago—you can isolate those pieces of Rome that thrum with meaning.

The time I spent there was in some ways an exercise in isolation as much as in accumulation. It was Rome’s masses, stacks, and simultaneity that led me to write about it, but of course when tackling fiction—or any human endeavor—one can only proceed one moment at a time. I had to break everything down: the view, the child, the flower. In my memory, then (and boy, I hope I get to visit Rome again soon), the city’s a kaleidoscope: a single whirling all-at-once image, and also a thousand small beads. Place has often launched story for me, but I wonder sometimes about the chicken and the egg. Does your story about migration and displacement stem from New Orleans, where The Lost Book is partially set and where you lived for a time? Or did you gravitate toward New Orleans because it mirrored a fascination you already had? Are we doomed to the obsessions we’ve basically been carrying since birth? 

Kss

Photo of Katy Simpson Smith by Elise Smith.

MZ Your Rome and The Everlasting both feel to me like a great pilgrimage of sorts. This is something I’ve entirely needed this year. At night, after my kids are (finally) sleeping, I sometimes go to the back porch of my second-floor apartment to “sit very still” and watch the alley (Chicago alleys, at night, can be terribly peaceful). I watch the enormous backyard trees, and the three flats and apartment buildings, now all lit up, I can’t help but think, with the strange intensity and isolation of bioluminescence in a dark sea. We’re all so tethered to precarious work and home right now. I wonder if my wife and I will be able to give our children an essence of home, to protect them, as much as possible, from exile or displacement, even if, in this century, so much of our lives will be rendered unrecognizable by climate change and capitalism’s inherently faultless and predatory response to it.

And yet, listen to Darwin in Voyage of the Beagle describe bioluminescent plankton as the Beagle approaches Cape Horn in the fall of 1832: “As far as the eye reached the crest of every wave was bright, and the sky above the horizon, from the reflected glare of these livid flames, was not utterly obscure as over the vault of the heavens.” Nature too—if not the heavens—offers an accidental light in those “livid flames,” a way forward. It provides a shape, as you so elegantly put it, for our hopes. I’m so enamored with (and in awe of) each of your four rebellious characters in The Everlasting because they struggle so intently, so thoroughly, with uncertain futures. For me, as a parent at least, the end of the world is a luxury. In some ways, I’m obsessed with New Orleans because it might be the only North American city to understand this. Like Rome, it has a deep, aching, and even joyful centuries-old relationship with unstable reality, unstable empires, and surviving the apocalypse again and again.  

KSS The end of the world as a luxury! What an image! It seems we’re all undergoing these small (or not-so-small) existential crises, as we as a globe of humans re-evaluate where meaning comes from. In places where life is always a little tentative, meaning has never really been found in capitalism. In New Orleans, it’s music, food, faith. In Rome, it’s art, food, faith. It’s rivers. It’s the bodies that came before us; it’s venerating them. It’s tending the young, and listening to the old. This slips beyond the scope of either of our novels (or does it?), but how do you think society might shift now? More intimately, how might you shift? Has it been harder to write, or easier? Harder to see the value in your debut novel, or easier? 

MZI think because of the absolute ruin capitalism has wrought in our lives and ecologies, we’re very much at a crossroads between some sort of neo-medievalism and a complete re-imagining of the possibilities of the public goodThis goes beyond just saving lives during a global pandemic. America’s elites are like a giant, dying octopus, violently thrashing our waters, grabbing everything in sight. The riotous spectacle of it is there, just beneath the surface, but we also have to do something about it.

In this context, it’s been easier to see value in writing. (Maybe even a little in my debut novel, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, even if it occasionally feels like something that happened before the pandemic, a lost personal artifact.) It feels like an act of free will. And more so reading, which feels like an act of solidarity with others. The shifts in historical crisis, structure, genre, and interiority that happen in The Everlasting are astounding, and, when they do occur, we often hear from a melancholy, time-traveling Devil. Tell me about your Devil. And your relationship to faith.

KSS Ah, my little Satan. We’ve all grappled with the idea of him, from naughtiness to full-fledged mortal sin, but just as an adult threatens you with bogeymen (“If you do that one more time…!”) so too does God threaten us all with Satan. And since adults’ threats are so often bluffs, it seemed to me that the Devil might be a bluff too—that in fact he might not be an eternal punisher but a comrade of sorts, a commiserator. When I read Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Satan is Very Bad but also so compelling, so three-dimensional, pitiable, even lovable, I saw a mantle that my own Devil could pick up. My novel is about heartbreak, in an abundance of forms, and the greatest heartbreak of all, I thought, would be to get cast out of paradise by an ex-lover who then goes on to offer forgiveness and everlasting life to every single other creation on the planet. All but you, Satan. Who could suffer that kind of cruelty and not be a little broken? Who could suffer that and not become an expert empathizer?

When I’m lying in a pool of my own tears, the hand I want on my back is not a priest’s but a sinner’s. At least, that’s what I hope my characters wanted, because that’s what I gave them! It’s an added bonus, of course, that the Devil too is eternal, and has seen/is seeing/will see every human motion across time—a very Roman quality. I guess my relationship to faith stems from that interest in the spectrum of humanity. I am deeply interested in ethics and morality (why we do what we do, how we justify it, what we offer the world in return, how we sleep at night), but to me it’s all humans who are doing the interesting things. God is an extension of our dream of the world, and for that reason will fascinate me always. As for salvation, which you and I are both finding in reading right now, what have been the books that have saved you? Your novel is so chock-full of fabulous literary references; my to-read pile doubled. 

MZ Your heartbroken Satan is the exact type of comrade the world needs right now. On the picket lines with us, empathizing us our lost loves, reading our most fragmented, illicit poetry. As a writer, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño saved me. I almost quit writing before reading it. It’s meteoric, it gazes into the abyss, it gives shape to literature spanning the nineteenth century to the twenty-second century. But as a reader, as a human, it will always be Don Quixote, the book that has given me the most joy in my life and which is a glimpse into an absolute (parallel?) reality. It’s hilarious, so cruel, so damn loving. Sancho Panza and Don Quixote’s conversations are the best humanity will ever have.

KSS Do you know I’ve never read Don Quixote? (Hides face behind hands) Now’s the time! The massive novel that most walloped me with joy was probably Moby-Dick, the whole of which felt like the last two minutes of a summertime fireworks show. (And the whale of which felt like a symbol of everything, no need to parse.) But the book that opened the door for me more intimately, that allowed me to imagine myself squeaking into this room we call “Literature,” was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, just a simple book about a simple witch. Now, though, now what keeps me going through these hazy unsettling days are the brand-new books, the signs, like spring crocuses, that no matter what else is curtailed, stories will always have a home with us. Thank you for writing The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, for loving the art of storytelling, and for sharing such an epic, impassioned, generous vision of the world. 

MZ Amiga mío, I’m beyond words. Thank you for this time together and I hope, when accident or fate allows, we can meet at Lebanon’s Café again.

Michael Zapata is a founding editor of the award-winning MAKE Literary Magazine. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for Fiction; the City of Chicago DCASE Individual Artist Program award; and a Pushcart Nomination. As an educator, he taught literature and writing in high schools servicing drop out students. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa and has lived in New Orleans, Italy, and Ecuador. He currently lives in Chicago with his family. The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is his debut novel.