:: Interview with Kathryn Lynn Davis
By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian
Kathryn Lynn Davis has deep roots in Riverside, Calif. Indeed, she was born and raised in Riverside and she continues to live here with her photographer husband, Michael J. Elderman (who in addition to running his own gallery on Lemon Street, also works as a contract photographer for The City of Riverside).
Kathryn has written eight novels, including At the Wind's Edge, Child of Awe, Sing to Me of Dreams, and The New York Times Bestseller, Too Deep for Tears. Her work has also appeared in the anthology, Mother: Famous Writers Celebrate Motherhood with a Treasury of Short Stories, Essays, and Poems.
Some may write in the hopes of making their readers laugh, but I suspect Kathryn would rather make her readers cry. She has a deep and abiding love for words; for her characters who have it in their hearts to live honorably and truthfully, such that by the end you want to share in their lives; and for the wild, gorgeous country they inhabit. And Kathryn is as deeply felt as her characters. I hope the following excerpts of this interview are evidence of this.
Dominique McCafferty: Where were you born?
Kathryn Lynn Davis: I was born in Riverside, CA.
DM: And where are your parents from?
KLD: My mother, Anna, was born in Hollywood, CA, and my father, Mickey, was born in Birch Tree, Missouri. I inherited the Puritan work ethic from my father. He used to take care of his mother, and he felt it was his job to do that. My father was a kind, honest person, and that's what I grew up with. He never said, "Kathryn, you must be honest," but this is what he passed along to me through his actions. My mother's father once told her that you should never take a vacation because God will strike you dead for wasting time. So I'm really good at guilt. I'm excellent at guilt.
DM: Did your mother grow up in Hollywood?
KLD: Well no. She was fairly young when she moved to Glendale (Calif.); she moved to Riverside when she was in high school. I'm not sure how old she was, but she was certainly no more than ten.
DM: How did your parents meet?
KLD: My father was stationed at March Air Force Base. I think my mother was seventeen when they met. He used to walk from March to her house which was somewhere in Riverside.
DM: That's a long way.
KLD: It is a long way, but he was young then. This was also during the time he apparently learned to sleep standing up with his eyes open when he was on sentry duty. It's part of the same Puritan work ethic that pushed him to do those things.
On the day my parents got married, it was so hot that the candles melted down and set the bows on fire. My mother's father had to run through the church putting out fires with his jacket so that they could get married.
My grandfather was very poignant and very sad. He wanted to be a writer. He used to write speeches for former United States Senator John Tunney and a few other senators as well. He wrote these grandiose speeches. And because he was too impatient to change the paper in the typewriter, he would get these giant rolls of butcher paper and roll them through, just so he didn’t have to change the pages. My grandfather wanted to change the world so he wrote and wrote and wrote. When he died, I wanted to inherit all of his writing, but unfortunately, just before he died, he destroyed every scrap of paper he ever wrote.
DM: What a shame.
KLD: Yes. It is so sad. I remember he used to record his speeches. He would leave the tape recorder on our porch and we’d run it through in the other room. I noticed he was saying so much of the same thing over and over again. He was so passionate and so angry, and he felt he could never get through to people.
I found it pretty ironic when my novel Too Deep For Tears was published, because I started getting letters from people saying that I had changed their lives, and that they were changing their relationships with their daughters because of what they’d read in my book. I always wanted to move people with my words, but I wasn’t expecting that kind of response.
DM: It sounds like you were realizing your grandfather’s hopes and dreams.
KLD: Yes, it hit me after awhile that I was doing what my grandfather wanted to do but couldn’t because he couldn’t reach people through these angry speeches. By simply putting my emotions on paper, people were recognizing their own. So in a very small way I was changing the world. And by the time my grandfather died, he was proud of me. I have one of his letters on my desk. I always keep it there because it’s so inspiring.
Ours wasn't the sort of relationship where I would go over to his house often, but I think I understood him more than I ever realized when he died. He would always write me letters on big occasions like my graduation. The last line of one of his letters goes something like, "Go forward. Never feel fear. Never hesitate when using your own unique mind and talent. There are no others like yours… there never shall be. Keep this is mind, always."
DM: Oh my.
KLD: When you're in publishing, that's the sort of letter you need to read regularly.
DM: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
KLD: Yes, I have an older brother, Chris, and a younger sister, Anne Marie, but I wasn’t very close to them when I was a kid, you see. I was little miss goody two shoes. Even as a child I knew they hated me and I thought that they should, because I was just annoyingly… well behaved. I always did what I was told. I always got straight As. Several years after I’d graduated from high school, teachers were still calling my sister by my name. My brother was a rebel from the beginning. He was the typical teenager. As soon as he moved out of the house, this whole other person emerged. He started calling me and telling me he loved me. I remember thinking, “Who’s this?”
My sister recently said that she never “hated me.” Apparently she didn’t direct the hostility she was getting about me onto me. I’ve been close to her for many years. She’s probably the only human being besides my husband [Michael J. Elderman] who knows a lot about my life. And Chris, too. Since he’s had grandkids, we’ve become even closer.
DM: Did your parents read to you as a child?
KLD: My mother read to me. She used to give me books. Ever since I can remember she was always giving me books to read—books like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Gone With the Wind. Also Star Spangled Summer by Janet Lambert. I remember my mother saying, “You must read this.” I remember lines from it. It was just the perfect book to start my journey through literature. The book that just tore my heart out—and I think I was in the eighth grade when I read it—was called Diana. I have no idea who the author was. It was similar to the Bronte sisters but not as tragic. I just read and read and read. I was a voracious reader. My father earned a Masters degree over the years, and my mother always wanted to be educated, and so they always encouraged me to read.
DM: Where did you go to school?
KLD: I started out at Arlanza Elementary, which reminds me of a story. When I was in kindergarten, the teacher called my parents in one day and said, “You know, Kathy is flunking skipping.” And this teacher told my parents, “I don’t think she is ever going to be more than average. I know you have hopes for her, but you might as well just tuck them away.” Fortunately my parents did not share her comments with me.
DM: Good for them!
KLD: Well, by the time I left Arlanza, I was the Double Dutch jump rope champion and the Jacks champion. I had no clue I was competing against this teacher, because my parents never told me about it, but I have the sort of personality where if I become obsessed with something, I follow through with it. And one day I became obsessed with jumping rope, and so I was determined to jump rope better than anybody. One day I just decided I wanted to do it, and so I was going to do it right.
And never mind that I continued on through school, got all As, earned a Masters Degree, and went on to be a New York Times Bestseller. According to this teacher, I was no more than average for flunking skipping!
DM: Isn’t that ridiculous? Although I’m finding these stories are far too common. And it’s largely women, I’m sorry to say, who are sharing these experiences.
Who were some of your more memorable teachers?
KLD: Mrs. Christ. When I was in the fourth grade she decided I should be in the gifted class. And of course when they discovered that I didn’t know certain things they would say, “Why don’t you know this?” But Mrs. Christ said, “Just teach her. She’ll figure it out.”
And then there was Mr. Jones who was in charge of the yearbook. One day I told him I wanted to be on the yearbook staff, and about three days later, I ran into him again, and he said, “I’m going to make you the editor.” Just like that. He went to my parents’ house once a year for the next fifteen years after I’d graduated to find out how I was doing.
And then there was Esther Gobrecht. I graded papers for Esther even after I graduated from high school. She taught AP English. Every year she would read A Child's Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas, and every time she would weep at the same parts, just as though she'd never read it before.
She would tell really bizarre stories in class. And she inspired her students. She inspired them to write. Once I organized a party for her. It was some time after I graduated. There were probably 75 people there, and most of them were her former students.
She and I became very good friends. She came to every one of my book events, signings, and parties. She had all of my books. She was dying of cancer as I was finishing my last book, Somewhere Lies the Moon. I remember she had about six months left, and I had to finish this book under the most horrendous pressure—the most horrible circumstances. She always told me, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be around.” But finally she just gave up. I didn’t even know she’d died.
DM: Oh, that’s awfully sad. Someone you had such an amazing friendship with.
KLD: She was a beautiful and inspiring person.
DM: And I’m glad your parents never shared your kindergarten teacher’s negative comments with you—and at such a tender age, too. It could have been destructive.
KLD: Yes, although I don’t know how much it would have impacted the outcome. I would say I’m the only person in my immediate family with a lot of self-confidence. I didn’t grow up necessarily thinking I was the best thing ever, but I did things just the same. I made decisions. I was dedicated to whatever I did. I always knew I’d get published. I always knew there was an audience out there that would read me if I could reach them. And I still think I have trouble with physical things because I don’t pay attention to the physical. I spend a lot of time in my head. I know it’s not safe, but it’s how I am. But as a child, I was determined to be the double Dutch jump rope champion, and so I devoted myself to the physical during that brief stint.
DM: You’re deeply motivated. You know, I’ve never believed talent and intelligence are as useful as motivation.
KLD: Right. I’ve always thought, “This is what I’m going to do. Period. Nobody’s going to stand in my way.” In fact, the one way to ensure I would do something would be to tell me that I couldn’t.
DM: Just like Anne Shirley: “I shall walk that ridgepole or perish.”
KLD: Oh, Anne of Green Gables! Oh, heavens yes! Green hair! That book is one of my favorites. That book was so much a part of my childhood. Whenever there was a production, the whole family would see it together. And we all read the book together. I read the book repeatedly.
DM: Okay. I’m adding Anne of Green Gables to your list of favorites!
KLD: And this reminds me—speaking of favorite books—my mother and my sister and I had a mystery library going for a while. I would read the books and mark off the ones I had read and hand them off to my mother. And then my sister would discover a new writer, and we would pass around those books. We would read in other genres, too. When we were relaxing, that’s what we’d do.
DM: Do you remember when you decided you wanted to be a writer?
KLD: I knew I wanted to be a writer in the eighth grade, and my parents knew it, too. They always encouraged me to write. I remember at one point Susan Straight [a Riverside author] and I were speaking together at a conference, and she said that whenever she told her parents she wanted to be a writer they always said, “Why don’t you choose a career that makes good money? Don’t be a writer.” When it was my turn I stood up and said the very opposite of my parents: “Don’t do something just to make money. You have to write. You have to be true to your soul.”
I was in the eighth grade when I wrote two novels. They were about 85 pages each. A classmate of mine was reading one of my novels, and there were tears streaming down her face. I don’t know how she got away with it because she was sitting in the front row. It was then that I realized that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.
Before this realization, I would write creative papers. Let’s say we were assigned to write a paper about cows. Well that bored me, so in my papers, I would write from the cow’s perspective.
DM: Do you recall how old you were when you were doing this?
KLD: Yes, I was in the second grade—around seven or eight. In seventh grade I had to write about the Amazon River—the jungle, heat. Well, I didn’t like that at all, so I became the river that passed things by. I was doing this long before I said, “I’m going to be a writer.” I used creative means to get through my papers.
DM: Did you take frequent trips to the library?
KLD: Oh yes. I loved to sit on the floor. I’d inevitably end up in the most secluded corner, books all around me, and dust, even though I was allergic to dust. I used to go to the Arlington Branch Library. I was at the Arlington Branch when I discovered my love for Scotland. I’ve set almost all of my books in Scotland.
DM: Yes, it’s obvious from your books that you adore Scotland.
KLD: In the old days I would have said I’d like to set all of my books in Scotland, but as I get older, I find myself branching out more.
DM: I’m interested in your connection to Scotland. Why Scotland, do you think?
KLD: I have an emotional feeling for Scotland. I just feel connected. For years I didn’t know why. My maternal grandfather was a wheelwright in Glasgow. I just have this intense emotional connection. I remember I was at home watching a movie that was set in Scotland with a friend of mine, and there was a ghost piper in the mist, and I was just mesmerized. And that’s when I told my friend, “Take me to the library.” So he took me to the Arlington Library and I sat on the floor with probably three piles of books. I read history books on Scotland as well as fiction set in Scotland. That’s probably when I started reading Mary Stewart who became one of my favorite writers. I just read all these books on Scotland. And then many years later I was sharing this story with a reporter. I was telling him how I was inspired by this movie but that I couldn’t remember the name of it, and someone who happened to hear me said, “I know what it was.” This is so inspiring. Are you ready for this? Francis the Talking Mule and the Haunted Castle.
DM: Oh, now that’s funny!
KLD: This was the film that started me on my way to inspiration! I just love the irony of that story. It wasn’t some incredible movie. Even though my books are emotional, and make people cry, it was this movie, Francis the Talking Mule and the Haunted Castle, that started it all.
On second thought, I would say that I began taking writing truly to heart when I was in the fourth grade. I wasn't the most socially accepted person at school. I remember being so unhappy, especially in fourth grade, and so I started inventing a fantasy life.
DM: Oh, how lovely. Tell me about your fantasy world.
KLD: I started out with the Beatles, where I would imagine I had a Beatle who was my big brother, but soon after that I started making up my own episodes of television shows. I would get interested in the characters of a certain television show, and I would develop my own episodes based on those characters. Star Trek was one of my favorite shows. I used to tell my sister about the various episodes I was making up late at night. I found out years later that she had learned to answer me in her sleep. She would say, "Oh, great. Mmmm," but she really wasn't listening at all.
Anyway, then I went from Star Trek to The Mob Squad to The High Chaparral. And then at some point it was Miami Vice. As I mentioned a moment ago, I would write historicals, too. And when I was stuck on a historical, I would take a walk and think up a really bloody mystery. I’ve since learned that many of my favorite historical writers also write mysteries.
When I told my husband about the Miami Vice episodes I’d written, he said, “You need to send those to them.” I must have sensed that I had passed this phase of using them for my own emotional release. Taking my husband’s advice, I spoke with an agent of mine who was very discouraging. She said, “Oh, they’re never going to use them.” It would have cost her a stamp. I’ve learned since then that you should always try—no matter how little chance you imagine there is. The really sad thing is that those shows were saved on my old computer, an Apple 3, which is totally obsolete, and somehow or another I lost the shows.
DM: When did you start making up shows?
KLD: I think by the fifth grade I was making up shows. I think it was an outlet for all of this emotion in me that I didn't understand and couldn't find the words to talk about. I knew I was miserable. I would read a really good book or see a movie that I loved, and it would leave me feeling so depressed. I finally realized that these were books and movies that moved me powerfully, and that was what I wanted to do, but didn't have the means to do. There was so much emotion churning in me that wanted out. I found that putting together these shows was my way of participating in those worlds I loved so much. I would insert my stories into that framework—where you're given a plot, characters, a set up, everything. This was the structure I used to create these stories that fed my emotional needs.
Oh, so there's another connection here. My husband once asked my creative writing teacher, Harry Lawton, "Can she write at all?" And he said, "I think she'd be a great writer if she could only think of a plot."
My husband later shared Harry’s comments with me, and I realized he was right. That's when I thought, "Okay, I love Scotland and I love history." So I drove to the library at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), and checked out all these books on Scotland. I just read and read until my vision of Scotland was as clear as all those physical worlds I'd written about. It was a world I could see as clearly in my mind as I did all those television shows.
DM: You created a world in your mind that became so real you could watch it unfold like a movie, a television show. It reminds me of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis or Philip K. Dick or even George Lucas. They created these incredible worlds. Yours is a visual approach. That's really interesting, your process.
KLD: Well thank you. And I've been making up stories this way ever since. What started out as an emotional release for me has ended up being part of my regular creative process. I still do television shows. I love making up mysteries. Mystery Monday is one of my favorites. I just choose a character and go off. But I don't spend anywhere near the time doing this that I used to.
DM: I’m wondering if you’d talk a little more about your husband—how the two of you met and so forth?
KLD: Of course. I met my husband when I was eighteen. I lived home for one year after graduating from high school and went to RCC [Riverside Community College]. After one semester I transferred to UCR, and that’s where I met Michael. I was taking a creative writing class with Harry Lawton. Michael was working for him at the time. I would go up to Harry’s office to turn in my stories, and Michael would leap out in the hall and offer to help. And I was so dumb in those days that I didn’t get that he might, like, be interested in me. I just thought, “Why does he keep jumping out at me?” When I first met Michael, I’d been with my crazy boyfriend for a couple, three years. The boyfriend was not social at all, but Michael is just so automatically social. But I didn’t want to have to conversation with him because I didn’t know what to say to him. I didn’t know him. It had nothing to do with who he was. I remember thinking, when he put questions to me, “I don’t know. I just came up here to turn in my story.” And I would actually pause at the elevator and think, “That guy is just going to jump out in the hall at me.” Sometimes I would look to see if Harry’s door was open, and if it was, I would take the risk. Funny, but Harry was never there when I went up. And then one day I saw him in the pub and said, “You’re the one who sits with his feet up on the desk all day and doesn’t do any work.” Of course he says he just fell in love with me. I don’t know where that comment came from because that wasn’t how I was. I was withdrawn and shy.
DM: I love that story about you and your husband where you told your husband, “Never mind, I’m not going to be a writer. I’ll be a librarian.”
KLD: And he said, “Don’t tell me you’re not going to be a writer.” As if to say, “Just get a grip, honey.” Only he wasn’t being nasty. He was just saying, “It’s a fact. Just accept it.”
DM: But you worked at the library [Riverside Public Library] for awhile.
KLD: Because, when I first met Michael, I knew that I had to have a job, as opposed to just writing. Michael was a scientific editor, and he was working on his PhD in American Literature. So I figured I’d be an editor. I didn’t want to be a teacher. I could do something like that and then write. And so after I met him I worked for the library for one year. I was working there half time, in the mornings, when I don’t write anyway.
Well, Michael said, “Tell you what. You’re not making that much money anyway. You stay at home, and I’ll stick with this job.” He was getting to where he hated his job, but he was building up his photography business on the side. So Michael said, “I’ll support you because I believe you’re going to make me rich someday.” And so that was the year when I wrote Memories and Ashes. And when I wrote Too Deep for Tears and everyone said I was an overnight success, Michael said, “Oh sure, after ten years.” So when Michael went to work at the publication office which was much more to his liking, and when I sold Too Deep for Tears, I said, “Michael, now it’s time for you to quit and have me support you.” And so he quit that job, and started his photography business.
DM: Well what a lovely story. I love your stories, Kathryn. Let the record show that Kathryn Lynn Davis can tell great stories and make you laugh and cry all in the same breath.
You mentioned Harry Lawton a moment ago. He's another local author.
KLD: Yes. Harry wrote Willie Boy, which was later made into the movie, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here.
DM: So Harry Lawton was your teacher? What was your relationship with him like?
KLD: Harry, yes. I knew Harry for years. He's a friend of ours, and his son, Jonathan Lawton—who wrote Pretty Woman—is also a friend of ours.
DM: I knew he wrote Pretty Woman. He's been involved in other films as well. One with a quirky title. Something about avocados.
KLD: Well, he wrote Under Siege and he wrote and directed The Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.
DM: Yes. That’s the one.
KLD: And I’m in it!
DM: You’re in it?
KLD: I’m an extra.
DM: Do tell, Kathryn.
KLD: It was so amazing. I’m one of the cannibal women. Shannon Tweed starred in the lead, and also Bill Maher. We were at the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Los Angeles—The Hollyhock House. We were there for several days doing this.
Michael took a picture of me in my cannibal woman leather outfit, and we made the picture about 5 x 7, and then we had a stamp made that said something like, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the movies.”
DM: That’s great! What fun!
Getting back to Harry Lawton, you mentioned that he was the one who motivated you to go to the library and research three stories on Scotland.
KLD: Oh yes. So I'm on the floor at the library, sitting in all this dust, reading fables and legends and histories of Scotland and making note of the stories that interested me. I wrote down a lot of ideas, but in the end I chose only three stories. After having spent hours and hours reading, and having suffered through lots of sneezing, I chose three stories: a girl who is kidnapped when she was very young by the family who was promised her fortune; a woman whose husband treats her in a very bizarre way; and then a legend about the formation of a lake. I only wrote three stories down, but it turned out they were all connected.
DM: Oh yes, Child of Awe.
What about your westerns? You don’t go anywhere near Scotland in those books.
KLD: Yes. At the Wind’s Edge was my first book. What happened was my agent called me and said, "Do you want to write this book?" I had a feeling she meant someone wanted to give me an idea. And so I called a friend of mine and said, "It sounds like I'm going to get to write a book, but the only thing I won't do is a western."
Well: North Dakota; 1880s; barbed wire; cowboys; outlaws; cattle; desolate landscape; hate the heat; meat packing.
Actually, as I wrote that book, I learned more about the writing craft because it was not instinctive to me. It wasn't my beloved Scotland. I had to pay more attention and not be as intuitive.
They recently republished both At the Wind's Edge and Endless Sky, and Michael and I reread them. Honestly, I was afraid to reread them because I thought I would want to make lots of changes, but I was surprised to find that there wasn't that much I wanted to change. I was really pleased to discover that even though it wasn't a subject I embraced, I found a way to make it my own.
And of course when the book came out, I wrote to Harry Lawton: "Dear Harry, I finally thought of a plot…" And so I had! Oh, and by the way, that book was banned in North Dakota.
KLD: I called my agent in tears because we were planning to have a centennial celebration centered around a building in the town where my book was set. The town was planning this huge celebration. Now the population in this town is like 63 in the winter and 100,000 in the summer, and it’s located at the base of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This town is a central location for big celebrations and western happenings. I had traveled there earlier to research the character, and so when I found out that this centennial celebration was happening, I said to the guy who ran it, “We should have a party, a costume party for the publication of the book, to go along with the centennial celebration.”
He said he thought that would be fine, and so we were arranging this party, making plans, and someone even flew out from North Dakota to talk to me. But, when the guy I originally spoke to finally read the book, he was horrified, because not only did I have the hero make love with someone other than his wife (one time after everyone else had abandoned him and it had been a three-year platonic relationship), but he had made love to an “Indian girl."
This hadn’t ever entered my mind as I was writing the book. So here’s this spiritual, sensual Sioux girl and a guy who looks like a cross between Clark Gable and Rudolph Valentino. He was French; he was a marquis so he was aristocracy; he was used to being rich; he was used to having his way; and he was married to a woman who looked like someone named Bertha (four feet tall and almost as wide). Furthermore, he used to go on these yearlong tiger hunts in India and Africa. Now are you going to tell me that never once did someone like this cheat on his wife? I made him far, far nicer than he actually was. In fact, the people in this town hated his guts. They ran him out of town on a rail after three years. They absolutely hated him. But now, in the present, he’s the only interesting thing that’s ever happened there, and so they’ve turned him into their hero. So the way I see it, they banned the book because I told a more truthful story than they were willing to accept. They said something about the purity of history.
I called my agent in tears, and she said, “Are you nuts? This is fabulous!”
DM: Because people are going to be scrambling to get their hands on the book.
KLD: The local paper [The Press Enterprise] did a story on it, as well as The San Bernardino Sun—and the story went nationwide.
DM: Of course! It always has the opposite effect.
Now just for the record, Child of Awe was your first novel?
KLD: Well, I consider Child of Awe my first real book, even though it was the fourth book of mine to be published.
DM: You worked on that book for a long time.
KLD: Around the time I went to the UCR library and found those three stories, all the while I was researching Child of Awe. In 1978, the same year Michael and I got married, I went both to London and Scotland for the first time. John Phillips, my advisor, got me into London University to research Child of Awe. We had to think of a scholarly reason for my being in London, so what we did was come up with a paper topic. I agreed to write an extensive paper about the Scottish Parliament, but he was fully aware of my reasons for going there. I wrote the paper with the expectation that I would get a grant to go to Scotland. I wrote it as a side project, but John Phillips loved it and thought I should try to get it published.
And it was while I was studying for my Masters that I wrote Child of Awe. I finished it and sent it off to a publisher, and found an agent soon afterwards. Almost immediately after that, I found an editor who wanted to buy the book, but unfortunately someone on the financial board said, "These books aren't selling well right now." Nevertheless, this particular agent I'd come in contact with was really anxious to have me write for her, so she put me in contact with the editor who gave me The Dakotas [At the Wind's Edge and Endless Sky] project. And so The Dakotas were the first books I published.
DM: Those books were wonderful. You're very good at building tension, suspense.
KLD: Those two novels were not naturally seductive to me.
DM: And yet you've pulled them off quite well. You can't tell.
KLD: Well I knew I had to make them seductive to me. I had to craft what I considered to be good, true, and honest books. And so, for example, the wind became a character in those novels, because I could relate to that. And the badlands were so amazing and beautiful and forbidding—I loved having something forbidding to latch onto. As for time and place, the time in which it was set wasn't ever going to be the best to my mind, but by making the place itself have all this character and conflict, it encouraged the characters along. It encouraged my feelings for the characters, because to make matters difficult, I knew too much about these people, way too much. So I had to find a way to make the characters mine, and the way I accomplished that was to make the place mine. I learned a lot about the writing craft while writing those books. I just spewed Child of Awe because it came so naturally to me.
There was going to be a third in the series. I wrote a book proposal for it, but then the publisher went bankrupt.
DM: What happened to the book?
KLD: Well, it turned into the sequel to Sing to Me of Dreams. Actually, Sing to Me started out being the proposal for the third Dakotas, but then Saylah took over and that was the end of that. I no longer had control over the story.
DM: Were you expecting that Saylah would take over?
KLD: No. In fact, I was having trouble getting started, even though I had notebooks full of stuff. I was planning to start with Julian, and my editor said, "Why don't you try starting with Saylah?" So I tried her suggestion, and all of a sudden, it was Saylah's book. That's the only time this has ever happened to me. And originally, Sophia was the character from the third Dakotas (which I never wrote). And then I realized, "Wait. This isn't The Dakotas part three anymore. This is another book entirely." I realized Sophia could be whomever I wanted, but I didn't have a clue just then. And so I thought, "Let’s just see who Sophia really is.” And Sophia became this funny person, writing letters to her father. I really enjoyed this woman. I enjoyed allowing Sophia to be herself—something I’d never done.
DM: Where are these characters, Kathryn? Are they floating in your mind, whispering their secrets in your ear?
KLD: They’re always somewhere.
DM: I can just imagine these characters swirling around in your mind. Are they still begging and pleading with you to tell their stories? Do they show up in your dreams?
KLD: I don’t know, because except for Sing to Me, I felt that I had created all the characters. They didn’t tell me what to do.
DM: Some people have said of their characters, their books, "I don't know. I never know."
KLD: Until I wrote Sing to Me, I had always been leery of that statement because, although my books are pretty emotional and intense, I had never had the experience where the characters just took over. I think this is part of my puritan work ethic, too. I liked to think I was in control. It's very likely that I was in less control of my novels than I thought, but Sing to Me just whacked me on the head. I'm glad I never actually told anyone who said characters took over their books that they were full of it, because now I've experienced it for myself.
DM: By the way, I wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your Rose women. Ailsa is a lovely person.
KLD: Ailsa is my ideal person, and I think that's why people will say to me after reading Too Deep for Tears, they'll say, "How do you pronounce her name?" They'll say “Her name," after having read the whole book, but I always know they're referring to Ailsa.
DM: I wish Ailsa had listened to her mother when she told her not to leave Ian and the glen. Our mothers know us best.
KLD: Partly, I think, I wanted to show the powerful connection between Ian and Ailsa. But another thing: had they stayed together, there wouldn’t have been much of a story.If you’re happy in the glen with your kindred spirit, and you’re in Scotland, a place I love, and you’re my ideal imagined fantasy heroine, then there’s no drama.
DM: There’s no conflict.
KLD: In one’s life, one can make better choices, but in a book, there has to be a certain level of conflict. And besides, I love conflict—especially emotional conflict.
DM: When did you begin to imagine the Rose women?
KLD: By 1983, I’d published At the Wind’s Edge, and then I went to writer’s conferences in both San Francisco and San Diego. At the conference in San Diego, there was an editor there who had read Child of Awe and thought she wanted it.
Close to three years later, I met her in San Diego. My husband Michael asked to take her picture, and as he was focusing, she turned to me in complete recognition and said, “Children of Awe.” She’d suddenly remembered—not the exact title, but she recognized our spiritual connection. I still have that picture of her pinned to the wall next to my desk. Whenever I look at it, I think of Child of Awe—the very instant she remembered.
Later that evening we met together, and she said, “What do you want to write?” Well, I told her about the places I was interested in: Scotland, England, China, India. She just sort of rolled her eyes and said, “You sure can pick ‘em.” And then she said, “What if you combined all of these stories? What if you combined them all in one novel?” It was a brilliant suggestion. The book that is truest to my heart came from her suggestion that I combine all of these imagined lives in one novel. I knew at that moment that she was going to change my life.
At the same conference, I met another woman from Jove. She’d read Child of Awe overnight and told me she wanted me to write for her. She wanted me to write a book with an American setting. Having published At the Wind’s Edge and Endless Sky, I told her I needed a change. I told her I was more drawn to darkness, moodiness, and drama, and she said, “That sounds like a gothic novel.”
That’s when I came up with Memories and Ashes, although ultimately, I don’t consider it to be my book. The Dakotas are more my books than Memories and Ashes. It’s closer to category than anything I’ve ever done. It’s also written from one person’s point of view. My editor insisted on it. She thought that if people could read a book told from an omniscient point of view, they would be able to solve the mystery. I knew that wasn’t true. I’ll move into anybody’s head who happens to be present and interesting—it’s just not true. So I had to write it from one point of view, which limited me a lot. Basically it’s a book that I wrote to get published. There are things I like about it. One of my favorite characters is the great aunt who has many, many cats, and they're all named after old kings and queens of Britain.
DM: Yes, she's wonderful.
KLD: I love that character. You think she's out of it, but she's the one with the most acute perception.
DM: It must be a pleasure to create characters whose company you enjoy so much.
KLD: Yes, and even the ones I don't care for. I need to at least enjoy their darkness.
DM: And so do you think, because you felt so constrained when writing Memories and Ashes, that you eventually just chalked it up to experience?
KLD: I guess you could say that. The Dakotas started out that way, but those books became mine. I still read Memories and Ashes with interest, but it’s just not my book. It’s the only one that fell by the wayside and has never been reprinted. Pocket did buy it when they bought Child of Awe. They were planning to republish it, but things didn’t go as planned.
DM: How did you come back around to Too Deep for Tears?
KLD: Having had a bad experience with a publisher—where I just felt totally and absolutely demoralized—I was at the airport, and I knew I needed something to read on the plane because I was so depressed. So I picked up a Charlotte Vale Allen novel, Time Steps, and I’m reading it on the plane, and I’m just engrossed because I need to go away emotionally. Well this book had more complex characters, and it had more complex emotions, and it wasn’t a genre book. And about halfway through, I suddenly realized that Charlotte Vale Allen must have loved writing this book. She must have cared deeply about this book. And it was then that I realized I had to do the very same thing. I had to write a novel for myself, and only for myself. I had to write a novel completely for myself before I considered selling it. Because of Charlotte Vale Allen, I said of Too Deep for Tears—at the time I was calling it Visions—I was going to write it, and it was going to be for me alone. So I got to work on the book, and I wrote a fair amount of it in seven months. I was thinking while I wrote it, “I’m not going to put a single thing in it that I don’t want.” Some publishers will say, “You must have sex by page…” And one of the ironic things about Too Deep for Tears was that it ended up having more sex than any book I’d written so far. Each character was growing into womanhood, and so an awful lot of sex was going on. I just think that’s so ironic.
DM: You love irony.
KLD: Yes, I do. I can see the irony. In the meantime, Michael and I had seen my editor a few times, but she was going through a lot at the time. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t know her, but I had a feeling that somehow she was going to change my life in a very deep way.
After I finished Too Deep for Tears, the editor asked if she could read it. So I sent it to her, and she called me up soon afterwards and said, “For the first time since I’ve left publishing I wish I was back.” Then she called a friend of hers, the editorial director at Pocket, and said, “Who’s a good agent for this kind of book?” So he gave her a name, and she called me and said, “I’ve got the name of this agent, and I wonder if you’d think it was presumptuous of me if I called on your behalf?” Oh, the former publisher of Avon Books. I said, “You go right ahead and presume.” So she called the agent, and the agent later contacted me, and so I sent the book to her. She loved it and she took me on, and then she called the editorial director of Pocket Books and said, “You did me a favor. Now I’m going to return the favor.” And she gave the book to one of their editors who then bought it as a hardcover—the first hardcover in their new hardcover line. This gave me the perfect opportunity to be in hardcover with a paperback publisher. My books aren’t hardcore literary. They’re more commercial literary. But when they publish a book in hardcover, they don’t have to specify the genre, they just publish it. And it got an incredible response. Once they bought it, I was paid seven times as much as Berkeley had agreed to pay me when the book was in proposal form. And Page, this person who was no longer in publishing, was the one who made it all happen.
Since then, this editor and I have been very, very close. I realize now that it was the publishing business which she considered stressful that was making her miserable most of the time, hard to approach. When the book hit the bestseller list, I flew to New York. The publisher took me to dinner at 21.
I remember saying to Michael, “I think I’m better at being a failure than I am a success.” Because when you’re a failure you can always do better, but once you’re a success, you always have to do it again.
DM: I’m thinking about the many interviews I’ve read with other writers. Those who’ve been very successful. They wonder how they’ll do it again.
KLD: Especially, when I was writing Sing to Me of Dreams, Too Deep for Tears was continuing to get all this attention, and I was thinking, “How can I ever do this again?” My father called me one day, sobbing, and said, “This book is so amazing. I can barely speak.” And I hung up the phone and thought, “Okay, this is why it’s hard.” Somewhere Lies the Moon was the most traumatic of all, but it received a very positive response in the end.
DM: Yes, it was the one people were watching out for. There were lots of reviewers looking out for that book.
Kathryn, I’m hoping you’ll tell me about some of your writer friends.
KLD: Catherine Coulter unquestionably. She would do anything to help a friend. She’s so good at it, that she’d been helping me for years before I even realized it.
DM: Where did you meet her?
KLD: At a writer's conference. Michael was taking her picture, and she came up to me and said, “Why is this man trying to take a picture of me and is it safe?” I told her that it was. I’m not sure how we became friends. I think she chose me as a friend. I’m not sure why, either. I think it probably has to do with the fact that we both like irony. She has a very acerbic sense of humor—more acerbic than my own. A lot of people thought she was a cold person, but I knew she was wonderful, and I really liked her.
She was so subtle. She would call me on a tour that was just horrible, and tell me all her worst tour stories where she was trapped at the airport for hours. It really took an accumulation of these things for me to realize that she’d been taking care of me, helping me to be confident. Once she called me up and said, “We need to be at this conference that this woman is doing in Phoenix, because her husband died this year and she’s really lonely and she needs us, so we have to go.” That was when I began to realize, “This is the sort of thing Catherine does for me.”
DM: I remember reading that you were working on a thriller? You were co-writing it with a lawyer friend?
KLD: Yes, with Virginia Blumenthal. We met at a party, and she was telling me some of the stories she had in mind from her experiences as an attorney that she wanted to write about. I remember thinking as I listened to her tell those stories, “How can I get her to let me write these things?” Because I’ve always loved mysteries. I’ve always wanted to write them. I’ve known the problem with that would be the research. It’s a whole world with which I’m not familiar or comfortable, but Virginia is a fount, a veritable fount of knowledge on the subject.
She later told me she was sitting there thinking, “How could I get her to write these because I know she writes historicals?” This went on for a couple of hours, and finally she was telling me this one story, and I came up with an idea, and then we were kind of saying, “What if we sort of became partners?” A week later she’d given me about six phone numbers—every phone number where she could possibly be—and I thought, “Okay, that’s a good sign.”
And over the years we’ve become not just partners but best friends. She’s taught me a lot about business, and I’ve helped her to deal better with her emotions. We balance each other perfectly. She and I are both very intuitive, but in different ways. She’s so soft hearted. She’s so amazingly giving. Aside from meeting Michael, she’s one of the best things that happened to me.
DM: So what happened to those stories you two were working on?
KLD: I wrote a one hundred thirty five page proposal for the first one which is called Victim. And then several things happened. For one, Double Jeopardy [by William Bernhardt] came out and it’s sort of the same premise. And also, apparently I wrote too much, which I tend to do with proposals. When I know a lot about the book, I want to put it all in. It’s really hard for me to write a brief proposal. Granted, a one hundred thirty five page proposal is absurd, but I really want to put it all in there.
DM: Well your books are six hundred, seven hundred pages in length.
KLD: My manuscripts are between seven hundred to one thousand pages.
DM: So you wrote a lengthy proposal, of course—
KLD: And I sent it to my publisher, and my editor really wanted it, but they decided they’d paid me too much money, so they didn’t take it, and that was the end of my relationship with that publisher. So then there was a big gap in time, and then Victoria and I started working on another one I believe we called Mock Trial. I spoke with my agent about it, but she told me, “I think you should work on your historicals because your voice is more natural that way. Finish your novel and then consider writing the mysteries.” So that’s what I’ve been doing. All of our ideas are still in my files. And also Virginia has poured a lot of energy into her law firm.
I gave her the first five pages of a story I’d been working on, and she edited it down. Now she’s never edited a thing in her life, but she writes closing arguments all the time. I learned from that experience that while I’m verbose, Virginia is succinct. She went through and took out phrases, moved words around, and made it so much tighter and so much more powerful. So she’s the perfect editor. We really balance each other in every way.
DM: Kathryn, you throw parties for most of your books don’t you.
KLD: I threw parties for Memories and Ashes, Child of Awe, and Too Deep for Tears. I had a party for All We Hold Dear at the Mission Inn [Riverside, CA]. I never threw a party for Somewhere Lies the Moon. I got less reader mail for Sing to Me of Dreams, but the letters I did receive were more powerful.
DM: Speaking of letters, do you get a lot of fan mail?
KLD: It depends. I got a lot of mail for Too Deep for Tears. I never got any mail for The Dakotas, which surprised me initially, because the first book in the series was banned. But I’ve learned since then that it depends a great deal on the publisher. The mail is often addressed to them. It’s always addressed to them. And it’s incumbent upon them to forward the mail. Pocket was always very good about forwarding mail to authors, so got a lot of mail from them. But some publishers are just not as good as others about that sort of thing.
DM: They shouldn’t do that, publishers.
KLD: No, they really shouldn’t. I’m here in this isolated world, and I have no idea what’s going on out there unless people write to me. So I really appreciate the letters, and I have received some wonderful letters. Things have improved since e-mail has been established. So now some people write to me on e-mail.
I do remember one woman who wrote to tell me that she’d first read Too Deep for Tears following a really bad car accident she’d been involved in. The doctors told her she would probably never walk again. Well, after reading Too Deep for Tears, she came to realize that people can survive any number of traumas, and that she was going to try.
DM: My... the power of story.
Do you have other projects in the wings?
KLD: Oh, I have to tell you about Last Scene in a Saxophone! I've been thinking about this book for years, and I have tried writing it, but I've realized that there are certain problems.
The way it started was I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches junior high, and she had a kid in her class who was causing her lots of problems. And so she began to investigate, and she found out that both his father and his older brother had died of Huntington's disease--a disease where you slowly, very slowly lose complete control of your body, but you don't die. You just twitch all the time. They call it the dancing disease. His other brother had begun to show the symptoms too, and he didn't know whether he himself would have it or not. Now they have a test they can do to determine whether or not you have the gene. If you do have the gene, there's no cure for it. So this poor kid had no idea if he was going to get it--it was a toss up, fifty-fifty.
As my friend was telling me this story, I thought, "What an obstacle for someone whose father died of Huntington's and doesn't know if he has the gene or not. He can't have kids because there's a fifty-fifty chance his children will get it." And then I thought, "What if the love of his life was a dancer, physically robust?" So I've been tossing this idea around for a long time.
At the time I began to conceive of this idea, I was involved with the dance department at UCR. Many of my friends were dancers. My friend who choreographed “At the Wind's Edge” was a dancer there. And one night my husband and I went to a dance, and Fred Strickler, one of the teachers there, performed a dance he called "Spinning Yarns." And what he did was spin on the stage for nine minutes nonstop. He would spin in larger swaths, and then closer and tighter, and while he spun he told his life story. I remember turning to look at the audience's reaction, and saw that everyone was mesmerized. While this was going on, my brain started writing this book, and by the end of the nine minutes I had the entire book planned.
The hero was going to play the saxophone, but he was going to realize very young that he would never be a great saxophone player. He would be very good, but never great. He later falls in love with a brilliant dancer, who has two offers from prestigious dance companies—two big time opportunities—but she wants to choose him. He knows she has that spark he doesn't have—that she can be brilliant, whereas he cannot. He tells her his father had Huntington's—
DM: I love this story, Kathryn. But you're not in the process of writing this novel?
KLD: Well, there are some problems. I've never written a book quite like this. I wrote a contemporary mystery—almost a horror novel.
KLD: Yes. It's called, If in the Dark... It comes from a Celtic saying that goes something like: "If in the dark a hand should come/ or in deep sleep a well known voice/ who would not, hearing, understand/ who would not, feeling, have no choice."
DM: Ooo. That’s chilling. Sounds like a chiller thriller. You never published this one, though. Never tried to have it published.
KLD: No, I just wanted to see if I could write a good suspense. That hook. It was my personal experiment. I asked a friend of mine what he thought of the book and he said, "It's not as good as Child of Awe, but I locked all the doors and windows." And I said, "Then it's fine." I had another friend who was reading it, and there's this scene where the guy brings the knife down, and then the chapter ends. The next chapter was missing and she was at the beach reading it, and she called me up and said, "You f****** b****. You did that on purpose."
DM: That's such a great compliment though. It really is.
KLD: Oh, definitely. So my horror book was really gruesome suspense, and I was fine writing the dialogue, but writing Last Scene in a Saxophone will require a shift to the contemporary.
I've spent a lot of time watching the UCR dance department. I've always loved dance, and I've always loved music, and trauma, and sacrifice, and selfishness, and not knowing why we do things. I spent a lot of time watching Fred. He's danced with the London Philharmonic, with Gregory Hines. I had met him previous to the night I watched "Spinning Yarns." After his performance, I went up to him and said, "I just wrote a whole book while watching you dance." And he said, "Oh." I could tell he was thinking, "Who is this fruitcake? Someone come and rescue me. I think she's going to tell me the whole plot." Obviously I wasn't presenting myself in the best way. I was still absolutely stunned. I'd heard every word he said, and yet this had all happened in my brain so quickly. I was still reeling.
Two years after I first told him that I'd written the book in my head, we met again, and I told him I'd really like to watch some dances. It also happened to be the most prolific dance group in the history of the department. I got to watch maybe four or five dances being choreographed from beginning to end.
This book has been in my head for ten years now. No, it's been even longer than that. More like 1987, 1988. That's how long it's been in my head.
DM: Do you think you'll ever write it, then?
KLD: Oh yes. This tends to be the way I work. My books live in my head for years. I started thinking about Too Deep in 1983. I sold it in 1988. But what's happened with this book is that when I first tried writing it the dialogue was different for me. In the very emotional scenes I was okay with it, because the emotions take over. But in the regular scenes, I didn't feel comfortable. And I could tell as I was writing it that it was stilted dialogue. Even my agent Laura said, "It doesn't form as naturally as your other books. She seems to be selfish, the main character." And I realized she was right. I wasn't ready to write the book. But I know I will someday. I'm thinking after I write the legal suspense book. I've still got some research to do. Once I asked Fred if I could meet with a dance company, and so he arranged for me to talk with the Mark Morris Dance Company. This dancer I talked with was brand new to the company, and now, years later, he's Mark Morris's main dancer. I met him when he'd just started the company, and now he's the star. Those kinds of things keep happening to me, so I just know I'm going to write the book someday.
DM: Of course! You have to, Kathryn. Don't you dare say otherwise!
KLD: She promised to write a dance book!
DM: Yes, you've promised.
This interview was conducted between summer 2005 and spring 2006 over tea, lemon bars, and chocolate at Coffee Roasters in Canyon Crest.