Q&A with Alumni Author Katharine Smyth ’96

in Spring 2020 by
photo by Frances F. Denny ’00

On March 11, Park will welcome alumna Katharine Smyth ’96 to share the creative process behind her critically acclaimed debut work, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, at a special event in the Library. In preparation for Katharine’s visit, I had the pleasure of chatting with her about All the Lives, her time at Park, and what is ahead for her.

When you graduated from Park, did you ever imagine that you would one day become an author?

Writing was something that I always really loved, and I think that Park was great at nurturing that. Perhaps I wasn’t thinking about it in such clear terms, in the sense of knowing I would be an author, but it did seem likely. I was an English major in college, and I considered getting my PhD in English and pursuing an academic path, but I returned to writing after I graduated and ended up with an MFA in nonfiction writing. When I look back on it, it feels like writing was always there.

Are there lessons from Park classes that you remember particularly fondly, or that influenced your work and helped you to develop your voice as a writer? Are there particular books that stand out from your time at Park?

I have such a vivid memory of being in the Park Library with an author who visited our class. She talked about all of the rejections that she had received throughout her career—she had tried for years to sell her book before she eventually published it. That’s an anecdote that always stuck with me, and helped to shape my own understanding of what it means to be a writer. Rejection is a necessary piece of writing, and that memory helped give me faith during the years that I was struggling to sell my book.

One of my favorite teachers at Park was my third-grade teacher, Ms. Heard. At that time in my life I was really coming into myself as a reader—I was always in a book. She was amazing at finding new books for me, and she kept a list on the classroom wall of everything I read that year.

I also have a lot of memories of coming to understand what it means to read critically at Park, and realizing that reading is about not only being told a story, but also learning something larger about life. I have another vivid memory of reading My Ántonia by Willa Cather in eighth grade with Mr. Miller—we were talking about what the plough represented, and at that moment it felt like I discovered symbolism. I was so struck by the idea that there was this whole world of meaning beneath the surface. Mr. Gambone, my ninth-grade English teacher, was another big influence for me—I can still remember writing an essay about the role of prisons in Great Expectations. Park was an incredible place for shaping me as a reader.

Who are your mentors, and who inspires you?

It’s the work of other writers that I find most inspiring. There are certain authors who you read, and they make you ache to go off and create something that good. And definitely my teachers, from Park through graduate school.

How has your life changed after the publication of All the Lives?

Professionally, my life has changed a great deal. It’s difficult to call yourself a writer when you don’t have published work to show for it—publishing a book has helped give me the confidence to claim that identity. And after publication, editors pay more attention to your other work as well. In the last year, I’ve had pieces published in Elle, The Paris Review, and The New York Times.  

If you had to choose one message that you would like readers to walk away from All the Lives with, what would that be?

One of the reasons I’m drawn to Virginia Woolf is that her books are so hard to sum up—they take on the whole of the human experience rather than didactically trying to be about “one thing.” I hope that the same is true of my book. It’s a story about my father’s life and death, but it’s also about place, memory, loss, grief, failure, and marriage, among other themes… It’s my hope that readers can take from it the message that most resonates with them.

What is the best book that you have read lately, or what other books might readers of your work enjoy?

Historically, I’ve tended to read almost entirely classic fiction, but in the last few years I’ve been reading more contemporary writing, almost entirely women authors. Recent favorites include The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, The Outline Trilogy Series by Rachel Cusk, and Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. The Tree of Man by Patrick White, Light Years by James Salter, and Mating by Norman Rush are some of my all-time favorites.

Can readers hope for another book in your future?

I’m currently working on a novel about marriage and divorce—it will be fictionalized, but rooted in my own experience. There’s a line in All the Lives that alludes to my own marriage – “When I was thirty, I married a man I’d dated for five years; four years later, he left in the middle of the night, and I never saw him again.” I’m thinking of this next book as an opportunity to tell that story.

What did you learn about yourself, or the world, when writing All the Lives? What surprised you the most about the process?

I set out to write the book, in part, to make sense of my father’s death, and it remains an open question the extent to which I was able to do that – the extent to which anyone is able to do that. I engage with this question in the last chapter, writing: “Have I come up with anything, has Woolf come up with anything, that is more than merely circling a brutal truth? I mean that literally—does there exist any revelation that could lessen loss, that could help to make the fact of death okay? I doubt it; almost certainly not.” But I do think that writing provides small epiphanies. I’m one of those people who finds out what she thinks through writing—I try to write my way to an understanding of what I believe. So I don’t think there’s one big revelation that I gained, but I did get a little bit closer to the truth.

We’re grateful to Katharine for sharing her work and process with us, and hope that you can join us on March 11 at 6 p.m. in the Library!


About the Book

Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death—a calamity that claimed her favorite person—she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief. Katharine’s story moves between the New England of her childhood and Woolf’s Cornish shores and Bloomsbury squares, exploring universal questions about family, loss, and homecoming. Through her inventive, highly personal reading of To the Lighthouse, and her artful adaptation of its groundbreaking structure, Katharine guides us toward a new vision of Woolf’s most demanding and rewarding novel—and crafts an elegant reminder of literature’s ability to clarify and console. Braiding memoir, literary criticism, and biography, All the Lives We Ever Lived is a wholly original debut: a love letter from a daughter to her father, and from a reader to her most cherished author.

The parent volunteers on the Park Parent Editorial Board write articles on current events at the School and matters of interest to the Park community for this quarterly newsletter. We are always looking to grow our team of volunteer writers and photographers. If you are interested in learning more, please contact TheParkParent@parkschool.org