Simpson Smith came to UNC to earn a Ph.D. in history after graduating from Mount Holyoke College.
“I was just so entranced by the state when I moved here that I had to write a book about it,” she said.
Simpson Smith said her novel, which she will discuss at Flyleaf Books tonight, is set in the small town of Beaufort after a weekend road trip she took down the state’s coast.
“It was when I was in the town of Beaufort that I found this graveyard — this 18th century graveyard. It had a headstone that said, ‘Girl buried in rum keg.’ And I thought that was a story that just had to be written,” she said. “So I had that kernel in the back of my head — the story of that little girl — for several years.”
Simpson Smith, who was featured in Vogue magazine’s July “Women to Watch” series, said she’s been writing since she was young, but thought of it as a hobby versus a career.
“I didn’t really start taking myself seriously as a writer until I was in graduate school,” she said. “In my MFA program after I left UNC, I discovered that this is exactly what I need to be doing for the rest of my life.”
Simpson Smith said her studies in history pushed her to write.
“History was such a wonderful way to pursue storytelling for me. It never really felt like I was not following my dream,” she said. “I felt very happy, and yet there was this tiny part of me in the back of my head that said, ‘I need to just go and do this full time.’”
“The Story of Land and Sea” is set during the end years of the American Revolution.
“There are just not enough records to say for sure how people felt,” she said. “So one of the things I immediately dive into when I start writing fiction is all of the stuff we don’t get to hear in history — how people related to each other and how they loved each other and how they grieved when their loved ones died.”
Professor Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, one of Simpson Smith’s advisers at UNC, said what’s inspiring about Simpson Smith’s success is her ability to take the history she studied for so long and make it into a book many people can enjoy.
“It’s such a wonderful example of how someone can take a deep knowledge of history or of any other subject — something that they have studied and understood in a deep and serious way — and then translate that understanding into powerful stories that will reach people who might not ever read the scholarship they have mastered,” she said.
Linnie Greene, marketing manager at Flyleaf, said Simpson Smith’s novel is getting a lot of buzz and was involved in a bidding war at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair.
“It was one that from the get-go the editors at the publishing houses knew was a really, really special book,” she said. “And we feel the same way.”
Greene said while “The Story of Land and Sea” is Simpson Smith’s debut novel, she is sure it won’t be her last.
“If my instinct is any indication, this book will be a really, really big deal,” she said.