Author Interview: Katherine Reay

KBR 11_15 HeadshotKatherine, thanks for being my first author interview for my new site! I’m so looking forward to getting to know some of my favorite authors better, whether they are well-known or just getting started. So, I really do thank you for taking a chance on me and answering my questions.

First, I’m going to ask for a brief introduction, and maybe a little something that not many know about you (i.e. favorite song to jam out to, favorite dish to eat when you are sick, your least favorite smell). What does your life look like?

Ah… Where to begin… I wrote a piece several months ago on “10 Things You don’t know About Me.” It’s actually quite a list. You basically know all my secrets after this one… Except I believe that three of the greatest smells in the world are new cars, tennis balls and coffee beans.

  1. I have Vitiligo. This means some parts of my skin have no pigment. It also means that living in Chicago is a lot easier than living in Austin, Texas – despite copious amounts of sunblock.
  2. I eat gluten free. I started three years ago in solidarity with my elder daughter and found it made a difference for me too. We are bakers and, thank goodness, wonderful gluten-free flours are readily available. Only fresh sourdough bread or a good salty soft pretzel can fell me now.
  3. I am not a chef. Or I wasn’t one. I’ve definitely grown, as displayed by some clear chef-ly prowess in Lizzy & Jane, but I only cooked only one dish for my first four years of marriage. No exaggeration required. If my husband ever sees Mustard Chicken again, he’ll… Let’s not go there.
  4. I’m a former runner. That’s so hard to say… Feeling a little weepy. An injury has sidelined me for the past year and now, rather than working out story ideas during runs, I ride my bike along side my ridiculously speedy husband during his training runs and chat his ear off.
  5. I’m a Tae Kwon Do black belt. It’s only surprising once you’ve met me – I come across as extremely demure and mild-mannered. Know me better and some distinct quirky tones emerge, but you’d still never suspect I love to kick things and make loud “hi-ya” sounds while doing it.
  6. I can’t spell. I’ve always been a writer, though I never wrote fiction until Dear Mr. Knightley, and thought I’d grow up to be a history professor. But I can’t spell beyond my own name and a few simple words. My mother gave me a small spelling dictionary for my tenth birthday that I carried around for years. She said it was a hereditary problem, maybe like Vitiligo, so I quit beating myself up about it around that age too.
  7. I’m directionally challenged. Our favorite family show is The Amazing Race and for years my kids have begged us to apply. Yet I can’t navigate my way down a straight street. This summer, on a family trip, I heard a call from the backseat: “It’s okay, Mom. You’re off the hook. We get it now.”
  8. I watch Jeopardy. We eat dinner as a family almost every night. The first half is spent in very healthy communication: “How was your day, dear?” During the second half, we’re fully absorbed in Jeopardy and yelling out answers. We kill it when it comes to random trivia!
  9. I have a weakness for dessert. My first book idea came to me when we lived in London and I set out to find Europe’s tastiest Tiramisu. Sweet idea, but I kept eating all my research. I’ve given up on dessert-driven- literature, but I do eat a small bowl of ice cream. Every. Single. Day.
  10. I’m a homebody. And yet, I’ve moved seventeen times, including three international moves. I’d like to never move again. Please. Like most introverts, I completely over share. So find me on social media or at my website… I answer almost any question.

As we may have guessed from the skeleton structures of your novels, you appear to be a HUGE fan of not just Jane Austen, but classic literature in general. What do you love about it? Do you feel like books today or authors today “don’t make ‘em like they used to?” Are there any contemporary authors that you love or that inspired you? Just to further blow up this girl’s TBR list…

I think writers today are doing a wonderful job – my drift to the classics is in no way indicative of anything lacking in the market today. I reference the classics in my own books for several reasons. First, they form a common language and are part our “readerly” collective past. The stories resonate on multiple levels and have across generations. I think that leads me to my second reason — they speak truth. One must remember that they were not written as historical novels, they told the “truth” as the writer saw it at that time and within that society — and those universals truths still speak to us… And, thirdly, I think they do that because they are so beautifully written. Jane Austen’s use of syntax, grammar, depictions of human nature and satire form a standard today. The Brontes broke all the rules and ushered in a new era for the novel. Very impressive and worth examining today.

As for modern writers, I love the poignant whimsy of Rainbow Rowell. I still regard Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility as one the best books I’ve devoured in years. I anxiously await his next. And… I commend JoJo Moyes daily for her Me Before You. She created so many multi-dimensional and meaningful characters in that novel and left us bawling at the end for sticking to her guns and seeing the premise through. Well done!

The settings for each of your novels have a definite center, but branch out quite a bit as well (Northwestern’s Medill School for Dear Mr. Knightley, Seattle and NYC for Lizzy and Jane, and then a big trip from Chicago to England in The Brontë Plot). You’re currently in Chicago and attended Northwestern University, so those two settings make the most sense since they are currently accessible to you, but I have to know if you did “research” trips to Seattle, New York, and England for these last two novels, or if you drew on previous experiences? I do see that you’ve lived all over the place and that there was a not-so-long-ago trip to Italy, and that location is the setting for your next novel, so I’m hoping to hear about some serious and fun trips to these locations, or even living there!

So far, I write what I know… I lived in Seattle for four years and London for two. Italy might be a tiny stretch as I haven’t lived there, but I have traveled there many times. When we lived in London, we visited often and then last summer I was so privileged to spend a month there. There are still a few places I’ve lived left to explore – Texas, Michigan, Georgia…

51ZU-ukrBlL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_In your most recent novel, The Brontë Plot, your heroine Lucy is trying to put the pieces of her own life back together while also getting wrapped up in her own history and the history of some of her favorite literary characters. I feel like some people travel to escape and some travel to find themselves. It seems like Lucy is doing a bit of both. Do you feel like she is chasing more of one or the other? Do you feel like you personally have done more of one or the other?

I think we are continually redefining ourselves and discovering new things within us – and escape and discovery can sometimes feel the same. All my stories seem to revolve around this aspect and, I think, Lucy articulates it best: “That time when you don’t know where you’ll be, but you can’t stay as you are.” We hit those moments several times throughout a life — and to see a character go through that crucible and come out more whole and with more hope can be a beautiful encouraging experience.

Next, as a serious fangirl, I have, of course, already portrait of Emily Price_3_1 2pre-ordered your next book, A Portrait of Emily Price, due out in November. In the online synopsis, we see some more of the same themes revisited: family secrets, professional chef, love. Can you tell us a little more?

Here is the back cover copy, which I think tells the story well:

Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix – until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. When Emily follows Ben home to Italy, she learns that his family, however, is another matter…

Emily Price – fix-it girl extraordinaire and would-be artist – finds herself in Atlanta, repairing objects damaged in a house fire. As she works to restore the home and dreams of one family, she strives to keep the pieces of her own life in perfect order and secure her own happy ending – a gallery show of her own. There is no time for distractions, especially not the ultimate distraction of falling in love.

But Chef Benito Vassallo’s relentless pursuit proves hard to resist. Visiting from Italy, Ben works to reconnect with his brother and breathe new life into his aunt and uncle’s faded restaurant, Picollo. And soon after their first meeting, he works to win Emily as well – inviting her into his world and into his heart.

Emily astonishes everyone when she accepts Ben’s proposal and follows him home. Upon landing in Rome, she is enchanted with Italy. But instead of allowing the land, culture and people to transform her, Emily imposes her will upon everyone and everything around her, alienating Ben’s tightly knit family. Only Ben’s father, Lucio, gives Emily the understanding she needs to lay down her guard. Soon, Emily’s life and art begin to blossom, and Italy’s beauty and rhythm take hold of her spirit.

Yet when she unearths long-buried family secrets, Emily wonders if she really fits into Ben’s world. Will the joys of Italy become just a memory, or will Emily share in the freedom and grace that her life with Ben has shown her are possible?

Give me a clue as to which classic novel or author offers the bones for this one? I feel like you’re going to tell me and then I’ll beat myself over the head with my Kindle!

I branched further in this one. You’ll recognize Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from the title, but again the story doesn’t follow any particular story. Only Dear Mr. Knightley did that with Daddy Long Legs. You find references to Emma, The Taming of the Shrew and a few contemporary novels too. As for the bones, I definitely drew upon some themes explored in C.S. Lewis’s retelling of the Psyche myth: Till We Have Faces and his musings in Surprised by Joy. It’s a light story, a fun story, with some deeper themes that I hope give it sturdy standing legs.


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Katherine’s Office Elephant

Finally, I promised you that I was going to ask about the elephant at the header of your website (and, after poking around a bit more, in your office!). I’m a huge elephant lover, and am wondering if there is a specific reason you’ve chosen them to feature so prominently in the physical and electronic spaces around you?

I basically am an elephant: knobby knees, thick skin, no vertical jump, loyal, long memory and poor eyesight, but an amazing sense of smell….

Hehehehe…. Honestly I can’t tell you when, where or how it began. I have simply loved them and called them mine (all of them) for years now.


Katherine, thank you again, so much! Your answers are such fun, and I love that you’re an “oversharer”. You’ve set the bar so high for future interviews! 


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