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Interview with Katherine Reay

Katherine is a wife, mom, and writer at heart. She began her career in marketing, but later morphed into a novelist. She has recently released her debut novel, Dear Mr. Knightly, with Thomas Nelson Publishers.

In your debut novel, Dear Mr. Knightly, you've created a very interesting main character. She is a foster child with an attachment to classical literature. How much of yourself did you write into Samantha?
Very little hard fact, quite a bit more soft stuff… So many struggles are universal. I hoped to develop a character that mirrored our own search for identity, love, place and family. I certainly relate to feelings of insecurity, uncertainty and the desire to find a nice place to hide. But, that said, I do not share any of Sam’s history and all the mistakes in the logistics of her childhood are definitely my own. I did a ton of research, but there was much she experienced that I know I couldn’t capture.

Who is your favorite character in the book? Why?
There are so many favorites. But my two best-est are Kyle Baines and Professor Muir. If it came down to it – Kyle wins.

He wins because he overcame so much to find and accept family and love from the Ridleys. And he sacrificed himself for Sam. I think laying down his story for Sam was harder than I could portray in the book and he did it for her – for no other reason than to push her beyond her own fears and her own prison. He didn’t think about it, weigh the cost or brush her aside, he laid it all out to save her.

Which was the hardest character to write? Why?
Sam was tough. I found her especially hard at the beginning because I wanted to keep the story in her letters, but it took time to open her up. The format didn’t allow me splay her out on the first page because she never would’ve done that. There were also times I wanted to push her in different directions and she refused. I couldn’t move her faster or further than she wanted to go. I hope that makes sense… otherwise it sounds very strange.

What helps you the most when you're developing your characters?
Reading. I read a lot of C.S. Lewis, Keller, Piper, Chesterton and others when thinking about characters. I’m always looking for motivation, emotion, struggle, big questions and possible answers. All that helps… then I look at my favorite characters in literature and delve into quirks and personality traits that make them appealing, inviting and relatable.

What led you to choose the genre in which you write?
I think it goes back to motivation, emotion and struggle – the things I look for in characters. I love to look at how our pasts and our emotional landscape impact our present and future. And, for me, I can play with all that best in a contemporary context. These are the struggles, emotions and frameworks in which we, the readers, live our daily lives.

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
God. I don’t mean that flippantly. He started the whole process as I was recovering from an injury in 2009, and then stepped in again at the 11.5 hour when I was about to give up. He led me to make a “Hail Mary” call (I know you’re never supposed to do that) to one last agent. Lee Hough never should’ve called me back and he never should’ve offered to help. In fact, that’s what he said, “I’m not taking you on, but I’ll read the manuscript and give you advice.” A week later he called and the first words out of his mouth were “Where did you come from?” He was bubbling with excitement and his belief in my story made me then believe that publication was possible.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
I’m so much more selective about when I say “yes.” I love volunteering for my kids’ school and church and so many other things, but I can’t do nearly as much any more. I have to keep my writing time protected – and not just minutes here and there, but hours stacked upon each other so that I can dig into a story. That’s not easy, but I do love this shift in life and am having such fun within it.

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
My faith constitutes a meta-theme to all my writing – can’t really separate them. It plays out more concretely within certain characters, but – so far – not the main character in a firm or committed manner. Sam, our heroine in Dear Mr. Knightley is not even seeking God at the beginning of the novel. The idea of a loving father is new to her and, only during the second half of DMK, is she beginning to understand the questions, much less the answers. And that is part of what I wanted to show there and the journey I’m continuing in my new manuscript, Lizzy and Jane. I’m trying to explore how our faith changes, develops and grows with each experience and with time spent with God – and the struggles and parts of us we must lay down to even start the journey.

Who/What spurs you to write? Where do your story and character ideas come from?
I can’t keep from writing – and really get quite antsy when I’m kept from it for too long. So I don’t need encouragement, but I do need ideas. Those can come from anywhere. For me, they tend to start with a “need.” Something that someone feels and how that would play out and be healed – and in our world, there are so many from which to choose. Reading non-fiction plants the seeds for ideas. Lots of fiction reading provides all the dressing and interest.

What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?
Me… because we are all unique and our stories are only ours to tell. Recently I read Longbourn and had the honor of meeting Jo Baker. She wrote what she calls a “sub-quel” to Pride and Prejudice. One might think that anyone could do that, but after talking to her I was struck by that fact that Longbourn was uniquely her story. It answered the questions Jo wanted to explore and themes from her childhood, her experiences and her interests. I think the same can be said of any writer. It may be fiction we write, but in each story we add a very personal aspect of ourselves.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
Oh… so many things. I love to run, play tennis, watch movies with my kids, cook, read, drink cocoa, chat with friends, fish…

I also needlepoint (but only in summers at my parents’ house while watching movies), study tae kwon do (only when I’m not training for a race), fold laundry (pretty much every single day) and talk to myself (incessantly).

What books are on your nightstand right now?
Let me go look… Okay, I am answering this with total honesty and resisting the temptation to “stack” the table.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Stones for Bread by Christa Parrish
King’s Cross by Timothy Keller
The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

And on my Kndle I am presently reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Finish this statement: The most important thing to make a good story is...
...fFind a need that matters.

Any parting words?
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I really appreciate being here and have loved answering these questions. And if anyone wants to reach me… please do. Thanks!

Thanks for sharing with us, Katherine!

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