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Katherine Snow Smith on when to break the boundaries

"Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker" is a witty new memoir in essays by a former Times staffer.

So, you’re a guest at a media holiday party at the White House. A friend lends you a pair of gorgeous black satin shoes with excruciatingly painful 4-inch heels. Just as you’re posing for a photo with President Barack Obama and the first lady, your leg buckles, and the leader of the free world has to hoist you up off the floor.

Katherine Snow Smith's book, "Rules for the Southern Rule Breaker," tells the tale of how she fell on former President Obama.
Katherine Snow Smith's book, "Rules for the Southern Rule Breaker," tells the tale of how she fell on former President Obama. [ LISA MERKLIN | Times illustration ]

What do you do?

If you’re Katherine Snow Smith, you write a book.

Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps and Lessons Learned is her debut collection of essays. It begins with the White House escapade, in a chapter titled “Always Wear Sensible Shoes,” and goes on to find the humor in Snow Smith’s life as a mother, wife (and ex-wife), daughter, sister and friend, and her career as a journalist. The chapters range across the years as she finds hilarity in a head lice infestation at her kids’ school and gets surprisingly sage dating advice from a bikini-clad Uber driver.

Snow Smith was on the staff of the Tampa Bay Times for 20 years, writing the Rookie Mom column, covering business and editing Bay magazine. For much of that time, her then-husband, Adam Smith, was the Times’ political columnist, and they raised their three children in St. Petersburg. (Snow Smith writes about their divorce in the chapter “Miranda Lambert Is Not a Licensed Therapist.”)

Journalism is pretty much hereditary for Snow Smith. She was born and raised in North Carolina, where her father, A.C. Snow, had a career in newspapers spanning seven decades. He wrote a column for 70 years, she says: “He just quit in January,” at age 95.

Snow Smith will launch Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker with a virtual event featuring her in conversation with former Times food writer Laura Reiley and hosted by Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Register for the event here.

How did you decide to write the book?

After that evening at the White House, I called my friend and told her, “President Obama liked your shoes.” When I told her the story, she said, “You have to write a book.”

A while later, I took a memoir writing class at Eckerd College with Helen Wallace (St. Petersburg’s poet laureate). I thought I’d write eight or nine stories and have them printed at Kinko’s and get them bound for my family and a few friends. Helen said she thought what I was writing was relatable to a bigger audience. My friend Laura Reiley encouraged me, too. She said (Times columnist) Stephanie Hayes is a great editor, get her to read it. So I asked Stephanie, can you read five or six of these?

Stephanie was the one who came up with the title and the concept. She said, you play by the rules, but then you go out on a limb, you take a risk, you say too much. So you break the rules. The concept would be that each chapter was a rule that I broke.

Once I decided to write it, I just took my laptop everywhere. I wrote it on planes, I wrote it in the waiting room at the DMV, I wrote it on the porch at the Vinoy.

Most of the essays are humorous, but a few are about serious subjects and are more poignant than funny. Why did you decide to include those?

They were major emotional moments in my life. Sometimes, though, I had to figure out “What rule did I break?” Like the one about my sister’s death and that moment with my mother. I’ve wanted to write about that for a long time. So the rule I broke was “Don’t be late for the funeral.”

The publisher had accepted the book, and I sent it all in. Then they came back and said, we think we could use maybe 30,000 more words. It originally ended with the heart story (about medical conditions she and one of her daughters dealt with), no divorce, no dating, nothing about my cancer. So I added four or five chapters, and I think that rounded it out. Those chapters showed more vulnerability. I’m in a whole other phase of my life after 50.

The book has a cover blurb from acclaimed novelist and memoirist Lee Smith. How did that happen?

I was thinking, who would want to read this book? I’m not a famous person. But a friend of a friend got Lee Smith’s email, and I sent her two of the chapters. She said she really liked them and wanted to read all of them. So I printed them out and sent her the hard copy. I just thought of Lee Smith sitting on her porch and reading my book, and I thought, I don’t even need to publish it.

Are there other memoirists or humor writers who inspired you?

Nora Ephron. Her last book, I Feel Bad About My Neck — the honesty, the humor. And Heartburn. She could write about heartbreak and make it funny.

David Sedaris (who makes an appearance in her book). We don’t have identical patterns in life, but he’s been my No. 1 teacher for years. He can be writing about something so poignant and find some bizarre little detail.

Related: An interview with David Sedaris.

I also loved Sloane Crosby’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake, and Mindy Kaling’s memoir. And Tina Fey. Hers isn’t all about being on SNL; there’s a great story about her dad’s weeklong fight with a store about a carpet cleaner.

What has it been like to publish a book at a time when you can’t go on book tour to promote it?

That could be another book in itself. I had 15 book events planned in Florida and throughout North Carolina. I had one at Malaprops in Asheville. And I was looking forward to reconnecting with friends.

More people are reading during the pandemic, but they’re reading books they know, or authors. They’re not picking up random books by new writers.

Tombolo has been great doing the Zoom launch, which lets people come virtually.

But it’s just typical for the Southern rulebreaker: I’m going to publish a book when you can only get into bookstores by appointment.

[ She Writes ]

Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps and Lessons Learned

By Katherine Snow Smith

She Writes Press, 163 pages, $16.95

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