Thursday, July 24, 2014

Getting to know Katherine Reay

I was so excited to meet and interview Katherine Reay in June when I was in Atlanta for the International Chrisitan Retailers Show. She is a fresh new writer who is delighting all who meet her and read her debut novel, Dear Mr. Knightley. Katherine was a 2014 Christy Award Finalist (First Novel) and the 2014 Inspy Winner for Debut novel, and is a finalist for two 2014 ACFW Carol Awards (Debut and Contemporary categories). Her second novel, Lizzy and Jane, will release in October. Katherine is absolutely charming and our time together just flew by. Grab a cup of your favorite brew and enjoy my interview with her.

I'm so glad to meet you. Tell me a bit about yourself. You're a brand-new author and Dear Mr. Knightley is your debut novel, right?

Yes, it's the first manuscript I've ever written and my debut novel. I'm very new to all of this!

Wow, so you haven't gone through years of rejections like some authors do.

Well, I think I compressed years of rejections into six months. I received so many rejection letters on this manuscript!

Tell me how it's been to be published. Has it been what you've expected? Or better or worse?

Far better! Not that I expected it to be bad in any way, but the community is amazing. I didn't really expect so many interactions with readers. So many new friends who are writers. So many friends in the industry. Everyone is so welcoming, so generous with their time and their knowledge and their support and their love. That's been incredible.

I have observed that so much. And I don't think it's solely because these people are Christians because there is certainly an "underbelly" to Christian ministry that can be ugly. But what amazes me is that all of these authors in ACFW are essentially competitors vying for the same readers, the same shelf space. But you don't see that. They are so encouraging to each other and are dear friends.

It's rooting for Christian literature.

Exactly. And a win for one is a win for all. This is what the body of Christ is supposed to be! That's not to say that everyone is perfect or that no one has private struggles, but it's one reason why I love being a part of ACFW and promoting Christian fiction so much. You don't deal with the ugliness that it seems would be there.

I agree. I can't tell you how gracious people have been. It's amazing.

You're coming on the scene as the whole face of publishing is changing. You're published by HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson who is very committed to Christian fiction. So you haven't known how it has been, only what it is now. So how has it been to do all of the marketing and promotion with Facebook and Twitter, etc.? Of course, you're part of the younger generation so it's probably easier for you than some.

I'm not that young. I'm in my forties. I was reading YA novels and realizing I'm not hip anymore! I never was, actually, but I'm certainly not now! Dear Mr. Knightley has resonated very well with people in their twenties. I keep thinking they're going to find out how old I am and say, "Why are we reading her?"

Well, they won't find out looking at your picture because I thought you were in your mid-thirties!

You're so kind! But yes, I have only come in this time of change. I will also admit that Dear Mr. Knightley was written in a very closed atmosphere, in the sense that I was not part of a writing group. I had no writing friends. I wrote a novel and started peddling it to agents, etc.

Had you joined ACFW?

No. I was really in a vacuum.

You broke all the rules [of writing]!

I did! I even called an agent, which you are not supposed to do. You are supposed to wait patiently. That's a really unusual God story which is really cool. But back to the original questions, everything is new. In fact, my first ACFW conference was 2012. I had connected with my agent, Lee Hough, literally two weeks before.

Ah, you had Lee!

I had Lee. My first year was his last year. God put us together in a most dramatic way. I got off the plane [at ACFW]—and the plane was late—walked into the hotel, recognized him from his picture, shook his hand, and went in to pitch. Daisy Hutton from Thomas Nelson was the first person we pitched to. We had not met at all, in person, prior to that.

But he had agreed to represent you?

He had agreed, yes. That was an amazing story. In 2010, I had not written Dear Mr. Knightley yet but at a conference, I met a publisher and she told me, "I'd be interested in seeing it when you write it." When I wrote it and received so many rejections, I decided that since she was a publisher, I would just send it to her. She was interested and the contract arrived, and it was terrifying! It was thirty pages that I could not understand with so much small, small print! I was really discouraged because I didn't have an agent and I had this overwhelming contract, and I didn't know what to do. That same morning that the contract arrived, a newsletter also arrived from the Christian Writers Guild. I opened the newsletter, and this is true! Title article: Why You Need an Agent, with my picture, a 2010 galley shot from that conference.

Wow! Was that kinda creepy?

It was really creepy. I was thinking, "Ooh, I've got to listen, God, 'cause you're talking!" That just doesn't happen! So I emailed Jerry Jenkins, telling him, "This is unbelievable! You have this article, my picture. Please reply. This is my situation." He wrote me back within an hour. "You need an agent. Don't worry; no one will turn you down because you have a contract. an offer." I didn't want to go back to the forty who had rejected me so I went to my bookshelf and I pulled out three books. Lee's name came up twice and another agent's came up once. I went to his website and pulled up Lee's picture. Very few times has God spoken to me but he did then and said, "That's your agent." So I called Lee Hough and left a message, kind of like I'm talking now–really frenetic, really nervous–three minutes. Then I went back and read his site and saw the books he represented and who he was, and it said NO PHONE CALLS. Submit a letter and wait. I thought, "I've broken every rule and he'll never call me back."

Thirty minutes later, he called me back! I couldn't answer a single question he asked because I didn't know how to do an elevator pitch, put a synopsis of my book in three minutes or anything else. I really was lost. He said, "I'm not offering to represent you, but I'll help you out." This was a Thursday. "Send me the manuscript, send me the contract offer, and I'll give you my best advice Monday." I thought that was fabulous. Monday came – no email. Tuesday came and I got a one-line email: "Don't sign the contract. We need to talk. I'll call Thursday. Lee" On Thursday he called and his first sentence was, "Where have you been? I want to work with you. If you can get a proposal done in two weeks and get to Dallas, we're going to pitch this." Dallas was 2012 ACFW. God just totally stepped in. Lee and I worked together for a year. It was amazing.

Wow. What a story. I know how many people were impacted by him, and I remember last year at the Christy Awards when they honored him with the Lifetime Achievement Award. To have had that kind of experience with him...

Unbelievable. He took such care of me. He explained everything. He taught me the things that I would need to know. All in the midst of what he was going through. I have never met a more Christ-centered man than Lee. I really am so blessed to have known him.

So now what? Do you have another agent?

I do. And I'm still working under the contract that Lee set up [with Thomas Nelson]. My next book will come out in October, titled Lizzy and Jane, about the sisters. The older one is fighting breast cancer and the younger one is just trying to find her way. They are kinda on their way back together as sisters. I'm really excited about that one. Right now, I'm writing a third book, which is a lot of fun, too! It will come out in Fall 2015.

Do you see this continuing?

I really would like it to. I love what I do! I love wrestling with different aspects of faith and presenting it in different contexts for both Christians and non-Christians. I'm finding that there is a lot of non-fiction that goes into fiction, and I love bringing those themes in, hopefully in subtle enough ways that they feel organic to the characters and to our lives.

When you write, are you a plotter or a pantster? Or are you too new to know yet?

That's probably the answer right there! But I will tell you that I'm "none of the above," which is a really weird thing. I start with a character's need. I have an idea of a character, and I know what I want her to feel like at the end. So I start with who she is and where I want her to go. Then I figure out what can I throw at her in the middle to get her there. I definitely start with big plots, but I will tell you that in Dear Mr. Knightley, emotions changed phenomenally. There are some points in the book that started as victory moments but by the time I finished wrestling with the characters, they were absolute defeats. They just changed. So lots of change goes on while I'm writing, and most of it is emotional change. I do know where I'm physically going to stick her at certain points. And I say "her" because I've not written from a man's point of view yet and don't know if I would dare to go there!

Do your characters surprise you and do things you weren't planning?

Absolutely! Dear Mr. Knightley is about a young woman who grows up in the foster care system, and her self-defense mechanism is to hide behind literature characters. She has to lay down those personas to find out who she really is. She's very tight and very closed and, beneath the surface, very angry, which one could expect from a traumatic childhood. So she did surprise me continually. I would think we were okay but realize, no, there's a ton of subliminal fear and anger here that she's bringing out. It's interesting: she was a much tighter, compressed character than say, Lizzie in the next book, and I was tighter writing. She was a tougher character for me. It would take me a little while to get her out of my head. Lizzie was an easier character and didn't have a lot of the anger Sam did. It was interesting the way all that played in my head.

I love talking to authors about the voices in their heads and how characters sometimes have minds of their own!

It is crazy but it is so much fun! It is so much fun!

Where did you get the idea for Dear Mr. Knightley?

In 2009 I was severely injured and admitted to the hospital. Most people get flowers in the hospital. My poor husband had to lug out thirty-one books! That's what my friends brought me, a lot of books. I got home and there was nothing that I could do. I couldn't drive and I could barely reach a can of soup. I read about sixty books and this character started forming. I read a lot of Jane Austen – my safe place is Jane Austen – and started with the old Jane Austen then went to the knock-offs. I read every prequel, sequel, everything! A character started forming in my head but she could not live in Jane Austen's world. Jane Austen's world is too confined, too safe. She wasn't fitting there.. Then I reread Daddy-Long-Legs. It's a 1912 book, an epistolary novel, about an orphan going to college. I read that book and realized that's where my character fits. It is, in many ways, a rewriting of Daddy-Long-Legs but I don't deal with the same themes that Jean Webster did. She had social issues and themes that she was dealing with and I picked different ones, but a lot of her plot points follow that. It's a novel about all the Austen books because she kinda hides behind Lizzie Bennett, Charlotte Lucas, Jane Bennett. It's a real nod to classic literature in general. There's Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo, obviously the Daddy-Long-Legs plotline. There's a lot of literature thrown in because that happens to be what I was completely absorbing during that time.

What do you like to do when you're not writing?

I do a lot of stuff! Right now, I'm training for the New York Marathon. I thought I was done with marathon running but I'm not. I love the half-marathon and think that's the perfect distance but I'm training for that. I love to play tennis. We just moved last week from Seattle to Chicago, so that's been taking a lot of time. I have three kids who are really active. My 17-year-old is the oldest and I have a 13-year-old and my youngest turns twelve today. So I'm not sedentary very long!

Well, just being a mom of three kids keeps you plenty busy!

I know, and getting them all moved and continually checking to be sure they're each okay!

Lizzy and Jane has a lot of cooking in it as one of the ancillary themes. The main character is a chef. About a year and a half ago, my three kids said, "You need to step up your cooking." It was kindly said, but Mom was not producing good dinners, I gather! So I got out all these cookbooks and started to really enjoy cooking. I'd never enjoyed it before. I really started to love it so a lot of that is in the book. I made her a chef so I could parlay into my new fascination with cooking.

Anything else you want to share with readers?

I'm just so delighted that they're reading the book and loving it, and that they're finding some of the layers in it.

What has been the most meaningful letter or email you've received from a reader?

I'll be honest. I've had a few from victims of childhood abuse or the foster care system, and they have actually thanked me for one, bleeding on the page, and the other, for handling abuse so well, and another, for understanding the foster care system. I have been very careful and I said in the back of the book, I was not a foster kid and I did not suffer abuse as a child but I am so grateful that they wrote me and, while I cannot walk in their shoes, I gather I handled it respectfully. That means a lot. When I started the book, I interviewed a lot of foster kids but I did not write down any of their names. I cannot tell you a single name of anyone I interviewed. The reason for that is I did not want anyone's story to be reflected in the book because it's fiction. I really wanted to be respectful of their lives and their individual stories. I also read a lot of autobiographies and biographies of foster kids. So what they said really means a lot because I am treading in someone's very personal world there, and I hope I've done it well.

I have not had breast cancer, so the point of view in Lizzy and Jane is the younger sister, who does not have breast cancer. Although I've had many friends who have had it, I have not walked in those shoes, either. We'll see if I handled that well.

And I don't know if I handled everyone's experience in foster care well but I hope I was respectful. That actually does mean a lot because that's tender ground.

But also, I like when the twenty-year-olds write that they love it, and that they love Mr. Knightley and they love Sam's journey! It's really about her finding her own voice. It's a love story, absolutely, but it's also about her finding parents, her finding God. She does not know of a loving father, so how can she understand anyone who believes in God at the beginning of the story? She doesn't understand the concept. There are so many different journeys that she's going on. I'm really glad that people have picked up on different aspects of it.

What do your kids think about Mom being an author?

They absolutely love it! They're so cute. My seventeen-year-old son, of course, is never going to read it! Some day he might, but I just can't anticipate that. My thirteen-year-old is about to read it but I'm not encouraging her at all. I think when she gets a little bit older and she's read a little Jane Austen, etc., it will be a little more interesting to her. But they are very excited. They really are. In fact, at the bookstore, my son will say "I rearranged them." I told him he couldn't go in the bookstores and rearrange the books! "Why not?"

Oh that's so fun! Knowing how exciting it was for me to see a couple of my reviews in print as endorsements, I can only imagine what it would be like to have your name on a book!

Crazy! It's crazy! I will tell you, and I don't know if it's the same with other writers. I have quit reading reviews on the whole. Because if I believe the really nice ones, then the really horrible ones I have to believe too! And those are hard! But I'm learning! It's just all been so incredibly fun!

Thanks so much, Katherine! It's been wonderful talking to you!

Readers, you can learn more about Katherine Reay on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads!

And right now, you can get the digital version of Dear Mr. Knightley for just $3.99!

Mocha with Linda, Katherine Reay, and Allison Pittman
at the Christy Awards in June!


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1 comment:

Beth said...

Great interview! Can't wait to read her book(s)!