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By Ryan Carroll


This fall, the Department of English and Comparative Literature welcomes Julia Ridley Smith, the 2021-2022 Kenan Visiting Writer (and ECL alumna)! We were excited to chat with Professor Smith to discuss her background, her work, and her feelings on returning to campus. Read on to get to know her with us!


What about UNC are you most excited about? What’s it feel like to return to campus?

It’s wonderful to return to this beautiful campus after all these years. I graduated with my BA in English in 1994, and I’m having fun walking around campus and reminiscing about all the stuff I did with my friends. We didn’t have cell phones then, of course, so you either had to plan ahead or try to find your friends by going to their favorite spots. We couldn’t just text each other. Half the day we just wandered around from the Pit to the Union, to the record stores on Franklin Street and the coffee shops on Columbia Street, to people’s dorms or houses, just looking for each other. We got a lot of exercise, I guess. And you never knew who you’d run into along the way, so there was some serendipity.

Just like back then, the thing I’m most excited about now is spending time with the people here. I came to UNC originally because I wanted to study fiction writing with Doris Betts, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. She was an incredible mentor to me. And now I feel so lucky that it’s my actual job to hang out with all these engaged writers and readers, both my colleagues and my students–people who love words and playing around with words and sentences, people who love talking about books. That’s a real joy, especially after being holed up in my house during the pandemic.


What is a project you’re currently working on?

Right now I’m working on a lot of publicity stuff for my book that’s coming out November 1 from University of Georgia Press. It’s a memoir in essays called The Sum of Trifles, and it’s about the process of cleaning out my parents’ house after they died. They were antique dealers, so I was raised thinking a lot about material culture and history. Both those things show up in the two new projects I’m working on: a novel and a nonfiction book. I don’t want to divulge too much, as they’re still young projects, but I will say they have overlapping research involving 18-century Ireland. So right now I’m reading about Romantic landscapes and revolutions and house decoration and trees and all sorts of fun stuff.


How has remote work changed your relationship with writing and teaching?

Last year I was teaching a lot of classes, all online at UNC Greensboro, and it was difficult to find the time or energy to write much. Online teaching is very intensive and time consuming. I spent an inordinate amount of time just learning how to write clear and concise directions so my students wouldn’t be confused about what they were supposed to do. I was grateful I had the opportunity to work from home, but I did miss connecting with students in the classroom.


What is a literary work that you return to most often? 
In the past few years, I re-read Jane Eyre several times because it was on the syllabus for a course I taught on fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. I love that book. The atmosphere is so moody and transporting, and Jane is such a great character. I’ve probably read it at least half a dozen times since I was a young girl, and I still get a thrill every time Jane tells off the people who try to subdue and control her. Also, the part of me that reads with an eye to writing craft likes studying the novel’s mix of literary influences and genres.


What’s a fun fact about you?

Hmm. I love TV costume dramas? Downton Abbey, Outlander, Poldark, Bridgerton–if there’s corsets, melodrama, and somebody having an awful shock because of a letter they’ve just received, I’m there for it.

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