Confession: you all told me for years I needed to read Dear Mr. Knightley because I would love it. And I resisted, because I don’t read fanfiction. My mistake. I finally read Dear Mr. Knightley for myself, and immediately felt I’d found a kindred spirit in Katherine Reay.
Let me put your mind at ease: these books aren’t just inferior Austen retellings. They’re strong modern novels that are easy to read but cut deep, and have a bit of Jane Austen woven through them.
Her new book, Lizzy & Jane, hit the shelves last Tuesday. I had the privilege of reading it months ago and am so excited you can finally get your hands on a copy.
Katherine was gracious enough to answer a few questions for MMD readers about her own books, her favorite Austen novels, bibliotherapy, and the Bronte sisters; I’m delighted to share them with you here.
As an Austen fan myself, I love how your two novels both include dashes of Jane. Tell us a little about your readerly relationship with Austen. Which novel is your favorite?
Ah… my readerly relationship with Austen spans many years. I think I first read Pride & Prejudice (Isn’t that often the first?) in eighth grade and continued from there. I love them all. I’ll admit I needed greater maturity to fully appreciate Northanger Abbey. I found Catherine tedious as a teenager; perhaps I was equally dramatic. But Anne Elliot captured me immediately and Persuasion remains my favorite. There’s so much in Austen’s novels, Persuasion especially, beneath the surface that she merely wisps over with brilliance and yet the full significance catches our hearts. Masterful!
As I began writing both Dear Mr. Knightley and Lizzy & Jane, my admiration for her writing only heightened. Did you know Austen only uses food in her novels to reveal character and relationships? I love that and pored over her books to find every example I could – then expanded on that theme within Lizzy & Jane. In fact, inspired by an Austen hero, one L&J character never gives a gift that he purchases. His “gifts” all come all come from his own garden, his own kitchen or are made by hand.
I thought it was quite clever that the story of Samantha hiding behind her books was itself “hidden” inside another novel—Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs. Does that novel hold personal significance for you, and at what point did you decide on that format?
I love these two questions, but they really have one answer as they are so intertwined in my mind…
When I began Dear Mr. Knightley, I was home recovering from an injury. Many of the ways I defined myself (runner, tennis player, active mom, volunteer, marketing consultant) disappeared for a while as I sat on the couch recovering and reading. First, I chose my “safe” beloved reads: all Austen’s books. And during that time, Sam formed in my head – a character without a story. She was angry and broken and more raw than any character in Austen’s world. I then re-read a longtime favorite, Daddy-Long-Legs, and I found her story. It was that simple – I knew it was Sam’s story. And I loved the layered idea of both a character and a story “hiding.”
So I began… I didn’t focus on Webster’s themes; Sam had her own issues with which to struggle, but I made a conscious effort to mirror some of the deeper plot points and to remain in a letter format. That was a tough choice: I gather epistolary novels were more accepted in 1912. Many agents and editors demanded a format change. I resisted because I knew it was right for Sam’s story and it allowed for a level of revelation that I couldn’t reach within another format. And then an agent and a publisher came along who whole-heartedly agreed – and the rest is Dear Mr. Knightley.
When I first read the description of Lizzy & Jane, I was hooked on the idea of Lizzy as an NYC top chef and Jane as a Seattle social media manager. How did you dream these sisters up?
It was like a good recipe coming together. I first fell upon the sisters. I love relationship novels and while it’s fantastic if there’s that lovely romantic element, that’s not usually the relationship that drives my interest. I wanted to explore how sisters – tied together yet torn apart – would survive and grow back together. Lizzy came first and she was always a chef, even before I realized what food would eventually mean to the novel. That came from my own life: my family gathers in the kitchen each Sunday afternoon and cooks a fantastic multi-course extravaganza. And that cooking, sharing, creating, and eating is some of our best time together. Food is relational.
Then came Jane and social media. I wanted the sisters to be separated on multiple levels – age, interests, looks, and personality – so I gave her a profession that Lizzy couldn’t understand – and one that I struggle with daily. That was a fun twist for me.
Jane’s cancer diagnosis drives the story forward in Lizzy & Jane. How did you decide to make breast cancer a key plot point?
So many of my friends have battled cancer and I suspect that’s true for most women – directly or indirectly, it has touched our lives. We can relate, on some level, to these sisters and their experiences. Cancer also gave me an obstacle, a fear, and a rallying point for my sisters – it charged the emotional landscape. And while I changed some of the logistics to fit this fictional story, I wanted the emotions to reflect reality.
I have not personally fought cancer and that’s one important reason why Lizzy & Jane is not from Jane’s point of view. I did not want to trespass too closely into that experience. Yet I was seriously injured in 2009 and a full recovery was not a “given”— that gave me insight into Jane’s fear, pressure, pain and uncertainty.
In Lizzy & Jane, literature provides a path to healing. Do you believe in bibliotherapy? I’d love to hear some details from your own life.
I do, and I definitely played upon that theme in both Dear Mr. Knightley and Lizzy & Jane. Both stories present classic literature as an aspect of ourselves – our love for them helps define us. Sam, in Dear Mr. Knightley, hid behind the words and personas of those beloved characters. Lizzy, in Lizzy & Jane, discovers that when hurt or stressed (as in fighting cancer), one’s beloved books, songs, or items of clothing become objects of comfort and safety, revealing one’s personality and story.
In my own life, books played a similar roll. After my injury in 2009, I went straight to my favorite stories and to prayer. I was in such pain that I didn’t want to read anything new – such effort felt stressful. I longed for “safe” places and the comfort of old friends. So be it dogs, horses, books… I strongly believe that there are many blessings out there that God puts in our lives as “safe harbors” to help us heal.
What are some of your other favorite novels?
Ahh… So many! It’s easier to name authors. I adore C.S. Lewis and am always reading one of his. Favorites from my childhood include Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper. Tolkien, Chesterton, and Austen round out the bunch. Jane Eyre has a special place in my heart too. As for recent stories, I adored The Book Thief (what a fantastic narrative voice), Cinder (brilliant twist on an old favorite) and loved the quirkiness of The Rosie Project. I read an incredibly eclectic mix: if you’ve got a good suggestion, please send it my way.
I hear your next project incorporates another of your favorite books. Would you tell us a little about your next novel?
In my head, my next novel is titled Victoria(n). The title plays upon the main character’s name and the literature (primarily from the Bronte sisters) I tried to capture within the story’s emotional tenor. It’s the story of young Victoria Stephens, interior decorator and cyber thief, who goes on a redemptive journey to England with an elderly client – a former safe cracker. The story is a lot of fun, has got some great scenery and, I hope, two wonderful women readers will love.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Katherine’s books, Austen novels, and reading suggestions for Katherine in comments. (And go get your copy of Lizzy & Jane while it’s on sale!)
Books mentioned in this post: