I was thrilled to hear Katherine Reay and her Dear Mr. Knightley had not only won the Carol Award in the Debut Novel category, but also the Contemporary Novel category, announced at the ACFW Gala Dinner over the weekend! In honour of Katherine’s hard earned achievements, I’m posting my book club’s recent Q & A with her. Enjoy!
My book club was delighted to host the fabulous Katherine Reay earlier in the year, to chat about her debut novel, Dear Mr. Knightley.
It’s a real pleasure to share our Q & A with Katherine. We also chatted with her on the night, via the wonders of Skype. Such fun!
NJBC: How did you come to the decision to write the story in a letter format? I loved it!
Katherine Reay: The idea came from Daddy Long Legs – Sam herself didn’t but paralleling her story to that one seemed to fit the theme of “hiding” so it evolved from there.
What is your favourite novel?
Oh so many. I go to novels for different reasons. Persuasion, Pride & Prejudice, The Lord of the Rings, All Narnia, Jane Eyre stand at the top.
Do your characters “talk” to you and tell their stories?
They do, they do. In fact, Sam was very surprising. She was much angrier than I expected when she starting “talking” and delivering her own story. Made me highly uncomfortable some days.
Tell us about the journey to getting your first book published. Challenges, highlights, anything you have done differently since then?
That’s a great story. God directed that one and I would and could do nothing differently. I wrote DMK in a vacuum – showing it to no one – as I recovered from an injury. I received about 40 rejection letters from agents and one offer from a publisher. The day the contract arrived, so did a newsletter from a writers group with a lead article “Why You Need an Agent?” And to make it freakier, my picture was in the article – a galley shot taken from a 2010 conference.
So I wrote the head of the group and asked what to do. He advised an agent. So I went to my shelves pulled down 10 books, looked up an agent I found listed in three – saw his picture and heard God tell me “that’s your agent.” I called him. After leaving a horrid message – which he returned – and completing an even more awkward phone call, he said “I’m not taking you on, but I’ll give you my best advice. Send me the manuscript and the contract.”
He called the next week and said, “I want to work with you and you’ve got 2 weeks to write a proposal and meet me in Dallas.” We pitched it 8 times at ACFW in 2012 and ThomasNelson bought it within the month.
Knowing Lee Hough was one of God’s great nods/smiles/blessings to me… Lee was my agent for a year before his death last September.
Samantha Moore has always hidden behind the words of others—namely, her favorite characters in literature. Now, she will learn to write her own story—by giving that story to a complete stranger.
Sam is, to say the least, bookish. An English major of the highest order, her diet has always been Austen, Dickens, and Shakespeare. The problem is, both her prose and conversation tend to be more Elizabeth Bennet than Samantha Moore.
But life for the twenty-three-year-old orphan is about to get stranger than fiction. An anonymous, Dickensian benefactor (calling himself Mr. Knightley) offers to put Sam through Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism. There is only one catch: Sam must write frequent letters to the mysterious donor, detailing her progress.
As Sam’s dark memory mingles with that of eligible novelist Alex Powell, her letters to Mr. Knightley become increasingly confessional. While Alex draws Sam into a world of warmth and literature that feels like it’s straight out of a book, old secrets are drawn to light. And as Sam learns to love and trust Alex and herself, she learns once again how quickly trust can be broken.
What is your favourite part of being an author?
What isn’t?? I love the writing, the characters, my new friends, interacting with readers… Rel could tell you… I can really blab on about this one.
What is the most difficult?
Hmm… I love it everything about this work, but some parts are tough. Laying down words when you haven’t any in you, reading horrid reviews and believing them, reading your own ARC and wondering how you could’ve written such dribble… I could go on here too.
What advice would you give to a young person who wants to be an author?
Keep writing and keep reading and trust God with the rest.
Who is your favourite Jane Austen character?
Lizzy is a bit intimidating. Jane too good. Anne too lovely. Marianne too dramatic. Mary… too everything. I think I’d say Elinor – a highly underrated leading lady who was not only strong and pragmatic, but very romantic at heart.
As for the men – Knightley or Wentworth. What a letter!
Which of Jane Austen’s books is your favourite?
You use letters in ‘Dear Mr Knightley’ to tell the story. I loved this as it drew me close to Samantha very quickly. Did you have any hesitation in using this format in your debut novel?
Absolutely! I can’t tell you how many rejection letters told me that it was an unsalable format. One told me I didn’t have “the voice” to pull it off. But I loved it and it felt right for the story. Lee was the first to say YES without reservation.
And that said – it’s still a tough format.
Do you miss the world of marketing?
I did a bit, but I don’t now. There is so much marketing in this job – I get to use all my skills. But I will say it’s weird being the “product.”
How did you come to have this book published? Was it a long process?
I started peddling DMK to agents in January 2012. I got a small publishing offer in April 2012 and then found Lee in Sept. and ThomasNelson later that month. So, no, it was lightening fast for me when you compare it to others.
Not worse or better – just different.
Who was your favourite/easy character to write and who the most challenging?
Favorite: Kyle and Professor Muir. LOVE THEM!!!!
Toughest: Mrs. Muir. She is so good and strong and I didn’t want her to come across as weak.
How did Sam’s story come to be?
In 2009 I was injured and recovering for many months – I started reading Jane Austen and then moved on. I read about 60 books during that time. Sam started forming, the character but with no story. She kept getting stronger and stronger in my imagination. Then I came across Daddy Long Legs again and I found her story – It was as if she was waiting for the plot points of that book on which to frame her.
What is your favourite part of this book?
I love the summer she spends with Alex. Their time together – especially the grocery store and their dinner at Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder – was so easy to write.
How did this book change you and your understanding of God?
It’s changed my life completely. Not so much my understanding of God other than I see his sense of humor more clearly. I always knew him to be big and personal and there in the gritty, but he keeps tipping his hand and saying “Gotcha.” That’s fun. I would say a dramatic change in my understanding of God came as I was recovering in 2009. That is when he and I hit the mat and he picked me back up. DMK – and all the books that will ever come – is the gift from that time.
What is in your writing pipeline?
Such fun stuff. Lizzy & Jane comes out October 28th. So I guess that’s in my marketing pipeline. My next manuscript is due October 1 and will release October 2015. I call it Victoria(n) in my head…. But you could call it Two Thieves on a Redemptive Journey in London and Yorkshire.
Sometimes the courage to face your greatest fears comes only when you’ve run out of ways to escape.
At the end of a long night, Elizabeth leans against the industrial oven and takes in her kingdom. Once vibrant and flawless, evenings in the kitchen now feel chaotic and exhausting. She’s lost her culinary magic, and business is slowing down.
When worried investors enlist the talents of a tech-savvy celebrity chef to salvage the restaurant, Elizabeth feels the ground shift beneath her feet. Not only has she lost her touch; she’s losing her dream.
And her means of escape.
When her mother died, Elizabeth fled home and the overwhelming sense of pain and loss. But fifteen years later, with no other escapes available, she now returns. Brimming with desperation and dread, Elizabeth finds herself in the unlikeliest of places, by her sister’s side in Seattle as Jane undergoes chemotherapy.
As her new life takes the form of care, cookery, and classic literature, Elizabeth is forced to reimagine her future and reevaluate her past. But can a New York City chef with a painful history settle down with the family she once abandoned . . . and make peace with the sister who once abandoned her?
Ouch – the New York Marathon! I hear it can be difficult to gain entry – not that I will be trying anytime soon LOL. We were there to watch it…the year it wasn’t run.
Ouch is a great word!!!!
I see that you’re training for your second marathon. What is it about running that you love and how do you fit your training in with family/work life? (I ask as a novice runner…..aiming for a half marathon in 2015)
My husband is a huge runner. 2:45 marathoner. So running fits into life naturally – we talk about it, eat around it, watch it, know professional runners… You name it. But I like to run in the mid morning after about 2 hours of work and use the time to let characters speak to me. I can get folks into lots of pain on runs. In fact, poor Professor Muir got his heart attack during an easy 6 miler. And poor Sam got attacked at the ‘L’ stop.
How do you decide where to ‘draw the line’ with parallel story lines, use of quotations and references to classical literature?
That was a tough one and I don’t know that I used a deft hand there. Sam hid – and the more I understood what she could’ve gone through as a foster kid – the more I wanted to let her hide, keep her safe. As she grew in the story, she needed to lay those down. But using them with other characters showed everyone’s propensity to hide in some fashion and I continued that theme “hiding” the story within another. I guess I kept layering it on and, in this story, I think it worked. But I won’t try it again.
It was great to see Sam grow and learn throughout the letters and her realisation, even at the start, of how she had hurt Kyle. Were you aware of Kyle’s character for this novel from the beginning or was he created later?
Kyle was in the very first draft, but NOTHING like he ended up. What a guy!!! I loved him and understood him. So thrilled with what he became in the story. And that is a great example of a character surprising me – he grew so much and became so much stronger than I anticipated.
The character of Hannah was great and I loved that she knew martial arts! Her comment to Sam “…there’s a lot you don’t see because you don’t choose to” set up Sam’s journey so well. Generally, do you believe this is the case for people? Are there times in your own life when you realise you just didn’t see something that was always there?
Absolutely. I think we all have that problem. I learned new aspects about my husband occasionally and we’ve been married A LONG TIME. That’s more frustrating than not, really, because I probably should’ve noticed those a good twenty years ago. And with that, we also see things that aren’t, in fact, there too… Our fallibility as humans.
What made you take up Tae Kwon Do?
My daughters started taking it and I was intrigued. It was very intimidating, but some of the kindest women I’ve met have 3rd and 4th degree black belts. I loved studying it. I could not find some place in Seattle to continue, but now that we’ve moved to Chicago, I hope to start again. It is truly my most dear accessory.
Writing, marathon running, black belts…these achievements all take a huge amount of discipline and dedication. Have you always been so focussed? Or is it something you have learned the hard way?
That’s so nice… I look at it all and see just the opposite: A complete hodgepodge of activity. But that said –I am and always have been very focused and intense. Terribly goofy too.
You have an elephant graphic on your website – any particular reason?!
Ah… that’s revelatory…. Favorite animal always: loyal, strong, protective, long memory, intelligent, and despite very dry and wrinkly skin – quite interesting looking. And – if the similarities between us couldn’t be any greater— it’s only mammal that can’t jump!
Please share something of your faith journey
I was raised in a Christian home and have always believed. I almost finished my Masters in Theology, but we moved to Texas and I never completed the coursework. I loved studying the history of the church and our faith and our God… Now that I’m back in Chicago, I may pick that up someday.
But, as I said, 2009 was a pivotal year. It was my valley, or my mountaintop, and God and I got to know each other much better. He increased and I hope, daily, I decrease… but that’s not always the case.
What do your children think about their mum being a published writer?
They love it. Now my son will probably never read any of my books, but he is a fantastic fan and re-arranges shelves in any bookstore – much to my chagrin. My girls haven’t dug in DMK either, but they are young. I think they’ll enjoy them more with a little Austen under their belts.
Any recent books you have read and would recommend?
I just finished Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Amazing! And C.S. Lewis’s Letters to an American Lady. It’s C.S. Lewis unplugged and such fun. I also recently read Marissa Meyer’s Cinder and loved it. Right now I’ve got Rules of Civility and next up is The Rosie Project. Both have come highly recommended. And….just yesterday I re-read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Random, I know… but sooooo good.
And I must say – especially for a book group – Me Before You is a read that is not only wonderful but brings up lots of questions and can generate interesting conversations.
Thank you, dear Katherine
Thank you, Rel…. And thank you all for reading DMK. I’m very honoured you did!
Check out the complete list of Carol Award winners here.
Relz Reviewz Extras
Katherine’s Pop Quiz
Review of Dear Mr Knightley
Character spotlight on Sam
Katherine’s Author Alert
Katherine’s Mad Minute
Visit Katherine’s website and blog
Buy from Amazon: Dear Mr. Knightley: A Novel or Koorong