Summer resident, best-selling author talks about her most recent book, a historical novel
The Harbor Light newspaper is a great supporter of the literary community, and from time to time contributing writer Emily Meier brings author interviews to our weekly pages.
Katherine Reay is the national bestselling and award-winning author of several novels. Her writing brings together two of her greatest loves, good stories and history. She is a longtime summer resident of Harbor Springs. Reay’s most recent book, London House, is his first historical novel. But she’s no stranger to research and spoke to the Harbor Light Newspaper about how she balances research and writing. It was a pleasure to chat with her about writing and good books.
EMILY MEIER: Can you tell us a bit about how the idea for this book, The London House, came to you?
Catherine REAY: In The Library of Printed Letters, I brought together three very different women in a bookstore and explored the mishaps, mistakes and chaos that followed. I also delved into the past that each woman brought into the store with her and how that determined her perspective. There just didn’t seem to be an end to the meaningful influence our past had on us – and that intrigued me. I wondered how interesting it might be to put the past center stage – an event
which takes place within a family shrouded in mystery and unfolds on the page even though it has influenced family dynamics for eighty years. The early days of World War II, with all its uncertainty, were the perfect starting point. Honestly, I believe everyone at the start of WWII wondered if the world could look like any other again, and – as I wrote this story at the start of the pandemic – I suspect a lot of of us wondered the same thing.
EM: Did you hear a character’s voice first? Got a bigger idea in mind that you wanted to explore?
KR: I first heard the voice of the contemporary character of Caroline Payne. I felt her confusion at her father’s resigned attitude, her mother’s absence, and her own inability to find a place to stand. She wanted answers to questions she didn’t even know how to ask. His curiosity set the story in motion. I then heard about Caroline’s great aunt, Caro, and listening to her dynamic spirit kicked the story into high gear. From there – after delving into the fashions and designers of Parisian haute couture in the 1930s and Britain’s first foray into the spy game with the SOE – I began to explore these themes more wide in perspective, truth, secrets, lies and love. the story.
EM: So the first person voice of the story came first? And the voice of the prologue (in the third person) came after? And how did you decide to let the “Waite sisters” express themselves through letters and journal entries?
KR: Caroline Payne’s first-person voice came to me first. It’s really her background – that made the decision to feature the Waite sisters easy through diary entries and letters. I wanted their story to unfold for readers as it unfolded for Caroline Payne – in real time rather than alongside her quest in a traditional time-share narrative. The use of letters and journal entries kept the two storylines tightly linked and dependent on each other. The fascinating prologue and epilogue came after I fully
understood Caro and what she was doing — such a mystery! Her voice hit the page with such force, and she changed a lot during the writing – I love it when a character does that. This too made the decision to use letters easier – it brought us closer to every feeling Caro had.
EM: This is your first historical novel, isn’t it? How did you find the process of writing this book different from others?
KR: Although much research is dedicated to contemporary novels, the scale of a historical novel is significantly larger. For previous novels, I also relied more on interviews. For this one, I turned to books. I read a lot in advance – before writing a single word – to understand the time and place, and I continued this research rhythm throughout the writing to keep all the names, dates , details and atmosphere correct. There were definitely more moving parts in this story.
EM: How did you balance research and writing?
KR: When I start a story – any story – I immerse myself in the world first, so that’s part of my way of thinking. For London House, this meant a deep dive into both fiction describing World War II and non-fiction books about the era, the war, politics and fashions. Once I felt I had a solid foundation, I started laying out the story. The research beyond this point was very tailored to the needs of the characters and their story. I would let the scenes dictate where I should strengthen my research.
EM: What surprised you most about writing this book?
KR: The fashion. Before studying Elsa Schiaparelli, I would have said “a dress is just a dress”. I was wrong. Fashion is political, theological, social, expressive and even predictive. Studying history and times through the prism of dresses and collections designed by Schiaparelli and Dali was so informative and just plain fun.
EM: Are there any books you enjoyed while researching/writing this book that you would recommend to readers?
KR: There are so many great books, both fiction and non-fiction, surrounding World War II. In terms of non-fiction, Sonia Purnell A
unimportant woman is exceptional. In terms of fiction, there are too many to count. We have been in a wonderfully rich time for World War II fiction. I recommend Kristen Harmel, Kate Quinn, Markus Zusak, Anthony Doer.
EM: What are you currently reading and enjoying?
KR: I was waiting for Kate Quinn’s The diamond eye And I’m glad it’s finally here! I also read a fantastic non-fiction book, A pope and a president. It covers an incredible amount of history surrounding Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I chose it because my next novel will take readers to Cold War Moscow, but it’s worth picking up even if one doesn’t delve into Cold War research.
EM: Is there a book, or an author, that you have reread over the years?
KR: I come back again and again to CS Lewis. I appreciate the way he says so much in a few words and his firm belief that despite all the deep undercurrents he runs through throughout his fiction, the story always comes first. I also go back to the classics over and over again and try to stick with one at all times. It’s fascinating to immerse yourself in stories written 200, 300, 600 years ago and see how they still hold true today.
EM: Can you tell us a bit about your general writing process? Do you have a favorite place to write? Do you write at the same time every day? Do you try to write for a while? A certain number of pages? Do you like silence? Music?
KR: I prefer to write at my desk. My office is a wonderful space – my desk rises and my walls are lined with cork board. I have so many friends who are “coffee writers” and thriving in this ever-changing environment, but I love my one place – and the silence for the most part. In an ideal week, I write about 25 hours, leaving an extra 10-15 hours in the week for reading, marketing, and other outreach activities. But, of course, weeks are rarely ideal, especially close to a deadline. Then the 25 turns to 60 and I barely remember eating.
EM: I know you have a connection to Harbor Springs, can you talk a bit about that and how this place has remained special to you?
KR: My grandparents first came to Harbor Springs in the mid-1960s and bought a cabin. Every generation since – four generations now – has made this charming town a summer home. I think there’s only been one summer in my entire life where I haven’t pulled out books from the library – deeply inhaling its unique chocolate scent – sailing Little Traverse Bay, playing tennis in so many great places or just enjoying my parents. porch of the cottage watching the boats go by. It’s an extraordinarily special place that I’ve always called ‘home’ no matter where I live – and there’s been a lot of moving.
EM: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about The London House?
KR: It was such a pleasure to share this story with readers and thank you for having me here today. While writing it, I had an incredible time browsing through glamorous 1930s fashions in Paris and British spy rings, but this is the family story – with its love, loss and hope – which really attracted me. I hope readers will grasp this joy and sense of rhythm and pursuit, and enjoy every page to the full.