Katy Simpson Smith was writing a short story about a trucker when she stumbled upon the idea for Free Men (HarperCollins).
"I was doing a contemporary story about a long-distance trucker who loses his truck," she says. "I set it in south Alabama and immediately my impulse was to find out about the history of the region. I found this waterway called Murder Creek."
In 1788, three men — an escaped slave, a Creek Indian and a disgruntled white man — murdered a trading party and then fled together. The attack became the basis for her second novel, which is being released this week.
In Free Men, Bob, an escaped slave, Istillicha, a Creek Indian, and Cat, a white man, flee west with a bag of silver. They know they are in an area controlled by Creek tribes, who will seek to punish them for interfering in Creek lands. The tracking party is led by a Frenchman, Louis Le Clerc Milfort, who considers himself an anthropologist and explorer, though he has retrieved scalps for the Creek before. He lives among them and has a Creek wife.
More literary fiction than murder thriller, the action follows the trio west in a region then in flux between rival powers — the French to the west, Americans in the eastern colonies, Spanish to the south and the Creek. Some of the story resembles the historical record, though Le Clerc left behind the only personal account.
"I chose not to read his memoir until after I had a first draft of the novel," Smith says. "I didn't want his actual voice to infect what I wanted to say. Then I did read it, and it was like my character was speaking to me."
The novel is told from the points of view of the three fugitives and Le Clerc. The narratives dig into their pasts, including Le Clerc's relatively enlightened French upbringing and Bob's young life on a sugar plantation.
"Bob is an interesting character," Smith says. "I read every slave narrative written in the 18th and early 19th century. ... One of things I wanted to do with an enslaved character was to depict a version of slavery that was neither the most horrific thing you can imagine nor an idealized, romantic view of it. Bob has tremendously terrible things that happen to him. But he lives an ordinary life and he rationalizes his life."
Smith had been trying to avoid historical subjects. She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), but rather than pursuing a teaching job, she entered a writing program one month after graduating.
"I was fortunate both my parents are academics," she says. "They're very supportive."
Smith grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where she started writing fiction at 5 years old. She pursued a film major at Mount Holyoke College and then entered UNC. She moved to New Orleans five years ago and has taught history in Tulane University's Newcomb Scholars Program and fiction writing at the University of New Orleans.
At UNC, Smith researched Southern motherhood for a dissertation about white, black and Native American women in the 18th and early 19th centuries. She scoured personal letters, plantation narratives and missionary records.
"I read hundreds of letters looking for nuggets about motherhood," she says. They'd talk about what they thought when they woke up in the morning, how they treated their servants, what they thought of their husbands. ... If you get as full a picture as possible, that allows you to walk into their lives and you can get a perspective on an 18th-century woman."
Her desire to do more to imagine people's lives led her back to fiction and two novels set in colonial times, The Story of Land and Sea and now Free Men.