Katy Simpson Smith
Katy Simpson Smith was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the author of the novels The Story of Land and Sea, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and one of Vogue’s Best Books of 2014; Free Men; and The Everlasting, a New York Times Best Historical Fiction Book of 2020. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Oxford American, Granta, and elsewhere. She received a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is also the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835. She lives in New Orleans.
When I arrived at Santa Maddalena in April, the stink bugs — i cimici — were in glorious profusion. Grisha’s studio had become a bestiary. I am not a person who is afraid of insects, but there was something about them, the too-much-ness of them, that made my skin creep. As I stretched out on his white sofa to write, they’d bang against the windows, drop down from his desk, bumble into each other, searching for a little love. Eventually they would die. Later, their mounting carcasses were swept up in honor of a distinguished visitor, and by the end of the month, I’d only see two or three wriggling in through the gaps. By then I missed the stink bugs. The sound of their wispy feet against the stone.
Santa Maddalena’s magic emerges from this tension between isolation and abundance. To write is to be both monastic and fully porous. To be the only human in a room, your brain the only entertainment, your words the only way through — but also to open yourself up to the teeming of the world. I am afraid of the stink bugs; bring me more stink bugs! I set out alone on long rambles, some pre-discovered (Goldman’s Walk, Gabriela’s Walk), some stumbled upon. Despite Beatrice’s very clear directions, I could not find the bridge across the river toward Sammezzano, so took off my shoes and socks and forded the ankle-deep stream, feeling primeval. I felt in communion with the land’s silent residents: the wisteria with its crown of bees; the ruts where the cinghiali bathed; the black cat and the white dog, who had to be approached with tenderness; Clo-Clo, who thought tenderness was overrated.
But through this provincial scene crossed so many characters! I heard what life is like in Turkey, in Sri Lanka, in Albania, in Spanish-speaking Spain, in Catalan-speaking Spain, in various provinces of Italy, in London, in Brooklyn. I was given books to read from France, Ukraine, Ireland, Chile, Bukovina. At night, we often watched news of the war, and I felt embedded and implicated in the world to an extent that America rarely allows. I even convinced Kaya to accompany me to a late-night Easter mass, where we watched a dove explode into fireworks and talked about sacrilege.
What did I give to this holy place? I gave a carrot cake, baked in a spurt of pride after Beatrice said Saul Steinberg used to serve her carrot cake when she visited his New York studio. The Santa Maddalena kitchen had no Bundt pan, no measuring cups, no kitchen scale, but the women of the household united in the spirit of adventure. Roberta loaned us a pudding mold and a pound of carrots; Rasika taught me how to work the stove; Mariarosa foraged for spices. The cake emerged from the oven in a total collapse — half burnt, half undercooked, but Mariarosa laughed and taught me the necessary phrase: Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco. We salvaged enough slices to make a pretty plate, and though not everything turns out as planned, the unexpected can be even more delicious.
What did I take from this place? A revised draft of one novel, the beginnings of a new one. A stack of linen nightgowns from Formica, one euro each, and a candelabra from Gionni’s, which I will light when I need to be reminded of this place’s particular magic. A love of the Tuscan spring, and pasta for lunch, and the delicacy of artful spaces. A love of fumbling through several languages, and humor, and Beatrice herself, who built a sanctuary and a global crossroads. I don’t know how she knows so precisely what a writer needs except that she has an artist’s instincts. The place that suits her is the place that suits us.