“It’s surreal. It feels strange to publish a book that one has worked so hard on into a world where books, while still vital, are also kind of the least important thing,” says Katy Simpson Smith, author of The Everlasting (Harper Collins). “But also, I believe in the book enough that I do think it would be a source of comfort in the way it offers historical perspective.”
- Photo by Elise Smith
- Katy Simpson Smith
Smith is a writer with a preoccupation with the past. “I think being Southern means being obsessed with history,” Smith says, “And trying to figure out the consequences that the past might have on the current day.” The Everlasting, with Rome as its setting, may seem like something of a departure for Smith, whose other works have been focused on the American South, but its focus on history situates the novel in the writer’s oeuvre. Her previous novel, Free Men, is set in the 18th century South, and her first book, a work of nonfiction, studied motherhood in the South. So naturally, when Smith, a writer with an interest in history, visited Rome, a city overflowing with history, she decided to write about it.
“Rome as a city has been through so much,” Smith says. “It’s lost its population and lost its treasures, and it just keeps coming back again and again as this incredibly strong cultural capital.” She adds, “Looking at the world in terms of 2,000-year chunks of time instead of two-week chunks of time is maybe a healthy way to approach this current crisis, too.”
“For me it was mostly the way its layered history is so visible. It doesn’t raze buildings,” the author continues, speaking of Rome. “It just keeps stacking on top of itself. As I was walking around the city, the visibility of every century just evoked a novel to me,” she says, remembering a trip she took to the fabled city in 2015. “And this idea that everything is existing simultaneously also reflected my own philosophy about history, which is that so much of it is circular and ever-present, it would be wrongheaded to view history as a singular march in one direction.” Similarly, Smith suggests that most traditions are equally fluid, flowing like a tide rather than a river, changing with the times.
That flow of time drives Smith’s newest novel, an ambitious chronicle spanning 2,000 years. The Everlasting tells the stories of four characters: an early Christian child martyr; a gay, medieval monk at work in the putridarium; a Medici princess of Moorish descent and dubious legitimacy; and a contemporary field biologist conducting an illicit affair. Each story revisits motifs of faith, freedom, and love, each time viewed through the perspective of a different era.
Smith’s third novel makes the case that faith, whether religious, spiritual, or otherwise, is one of the constants throughout human history. “The biologist character is probably the least religious character in the book, and yet he spends his whole day looking at microscopic objects and believing fundamentally in something that can’t be seen with the naked eye.”
“Even in the absence of faith, we look for things to believe in,” Smith says. “To attach us to, so that we don’t feel rudderless in this world, and I think love can have the same effect on people. It can be so hard to be alone in the universe that the idea of attaching one’s body to another person’s body has the same kind of primal comfort that believing in a deity does.”
The transition was an easy move for Smith to make. “I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, which was home to Eurdora Welty and Margaret Walker Alexander,” she says. “So I think being from the South allowed me to view writing as a viable profession in a way that I don’t think I would have if I had grown up in another part of the country.”
“Viable profession” is, one hopes, Smith being modest. Though in conversation she may liken her craft to any other trade, The Everlasting shows a writer using all the tools available to her — and excelling at creating something transcendent. Smith’s prose is poetic, pleasing in and of itself, and her intellectual understanding of the trends of human culture throughout history give the novel a firm grounding that is, itself, a comfort to the reader. Finally, the emotional heart beating beneath the other layers is the novel’s return to the almost primordial power of love and faith.