I am no stranger to Fan Fiction. My Jane Austen shelf is populated with the likes of Lost in Austen, Death Comes to Pemberley, and Mr. Darcy’s Diary. While enjoyable, spin offs and add ons don’t always have the same meat, the same chewy substance that leaves you thinking and wanting more, that the original does.
It’s a real literary treat when you find a book that maintains the same meaty integrity of a classic while maintaining a fresh originality. Katherine Reay is the author of two such books, Dear Mr. Knightley and Lizzy and Jane. She expertly weaves classic literature into her own narratives, creating page turners that will effect you deeply.
Katherine’s books were two of my favorite reads from 2014, so it was a delight to interview her about reading habits, incorporating classics into her own work, and where to start if you’re a classics newbie.
Katherine: Thank you so much for inviting me to be here. I’m the wife, mother, runner and chocolate-consumer behind Dear Mr. Knightley and Lizzy & Jane – two very contemporary stories with a dash of the classics as a point of interest and connection – for us all.
Dear Mr. Knightley is the story of Samantha Moore, a young woman who hides behind literary characters as a self-defense mechanism. She learns to lay down these characters and find her own voice during graduate school and through her letters to “Mr. Knightley.”
Lizzy and Jane is Lizzy’s story. Though we see Jane, her sister, closely – we follow Lizzy as she rediscovers herself and love while feeding and caring for Jane through a difficult time.
Both novels reference classics in a fresh, new way. Sam hides behind her words and Lizzy discovers that she understands Jane better as she considers what Jane reads, her “safe” places. The classics provide character revelation and insights and, I find, feel so relevant.
Emily: As evidenced by the themes and characters in your novels, you have an extensive knowledge and love of classic literature. Have you always enjoyed the classics? What about them is appealing to you?
I’ve never studied the classics outside AP English in high school, but I’ve always loved them – so my approach really is that of a devotee rather than a “professional.” I think one of the reasons that I (and we collectively) love them is because, not only are they beautifully written, but 100, 200, 300 years later, they still speak to us. Books that have stood the test of time and are now deemed “classics” touch upon emotions, motivations, issues and eternal concerns that are still alive and relevant. And, while we may think of them within the historical fiction genre, they were often cutting-edge contemporary novels at publication – breaking new literary ground and digging into issues previously untouched.
I love how you describe the appeal of classics, alive, relevant, and still speaking to us hundreds of years later. What do you hope your novels will be saying years from now?
Great question, but the answer does presume that anyone will still be reading them. What an extraordinary thought! If they do, I hope readers will still find universal touch points. Even if the foster care system has been obliterated because all children have homes or cancer eradicated, I still hope readers can find some camaraderie and solidarity in the emotions and internal struggles that faced Sam and Lizzy. I, too, am betting that despite any changes in our world, human motivations and emotions will translate.
Why did you decide to incorporate the classics into your own novels? What were the challenges of incorporating the classics in your own writing?
I wanted to layer some classics within my own stories because they form a common bond between readers and we draw comfort from them. It started with Dear Mr. Knightley. I needed a place for Sam to “hide” and the classics provided a natural touch point – and I further played upon that link by couching Sam’s entire journey within major plot points of another classic. The layers just kept coming…
As I started developing Lizzy & Jane, the classics came up again. Food formed a natural bridge between characters and is actually a wonderful way to bring out relationship and character development – but I felt I needed more. So I turned to Austen, Dickens, Hemingway and others to understand how they used food in their novels. I found it fascinating and very relevant, and the classic authors, too, became a touch-point between the sisters.
The challenge of alluding to the classics was one of degree: I wanted references to be organic to the story and not so pervasive that an original emotion or issue became redundant of that former story or character journey. I wanted my story and the classics to be presented in a fresh, innovative way, yet still feel resonant of those warm familiar moments. You’ll have to tell me if I managed that…
How does classic literature inform your reading habits? What have you learned by reading and studying the classics?
I read across so many genres but I almost always have a classic in the mix. I know they have something to teach me – and I trust those lessons. Every time I read or reread one, I absorb new ways to think about style, development, pacing, revelation… Really there’s no end to what I glean from them.
What have you learned (about life or writing) from your readings of the classics lately?
I’ve learned more about layering recently. What a character says or does on the surface often isn’t reflective of what’s going on inside – and that’s applicable to life too. How often do we really say and do what we precisely intend?
As a reader/writer, I know it’s difficult to play favorites, but do you have a special fondness for any books in particular? Where would you recommend a newbie start their classics journey?
I honestly think I’d start with Pride & Prejudice. Now before you say, “How predictable!” let me explain. Jane Austen is incomparable, so that’s my first line of defense. Next, it’s her most “bright and sparkling” novel – and incredibly engaging. Lastly, it’s so accessible today. There are numerous movies to help one grasp the story and engage on a different level. It’s a good starting point and her language doesn’t feel as dated as others writing during her time.