With her fourth book debuting this month, itâs hard to believe that Lake Forest resident and author Katherine Reay began her writing career just seven years ago. It was then that she encountered an injury that would take her out of her normal routine and leave her with some unprecedented time on her hands. âUsually when people go to the hospital, most people bring them flowers. My friends brought me books,â she says. Three days and 31 novels later, Reay had the idea for Dear Mr. Knightley, a story of a 23-year-old woman finding her own voice in the world after spending her life hiding behind her favorite literary characters.
Though Reay didnât have any formal training in creative writingâshe has a Masterâs Degree in marketing from Northwestern that she applied to brand management work and nonprofit developmentâshe had one of the most required assets for penning a novel: perseverance. âThe great thing about your first novel is that it might never even get off of your computer, but you have nothing to lose,â she says. âThereâs no one telling you it can be done, but thereâs also no one telling you it canâtâso I just kept writing.â
Itâs a good thing she did. After 18 months, she published Dear Mr. Knightleyâand that was just the beginning. One year later, she released Lizzy and Jane, a story about two sisters brought closer together by life changes. A year after that came The BrontĂ« Plot, a novel about a bookseller whose secret is unearthed for the better. That novel-a-year momentum continues this month with A Portrait of Emily Price, a story of a young art restorer who is bound by her efforts to have total dominion over her daily lifeâuntil, that is, she falls in love.
âEmily Price lives in a way where she thinks she can control all of the details of her life, but attraction isnât controllable,â says Reay, who introduces her protagonist to an Italian man and takes them both back to his home country. âWhat Emily finds in interacting with his family and in being immersed in a culture that has taken her so far outside of her own, is that the sweet lifeâla dolce vitaâcan only be found when you really and truly let go,â says Reay.
The idea for the story â and for every one of Reayâs books â came from a question the author has. This one was sparked by a scene in C.S. Lewisâs Till We Have Faces, in which a queen writes a letter to the gods demanding they answer her. âIn the end, the gods are like, âReally? Who are you to come to us?â It made me think about what it takes for us to realize we canât hold on to things so tightly,â says Reay. âI began to wonder what it would look like for a modern woman to be enticed to let go of that control.â
The setting for the story, one built upon a lifestyle of leisure, is only likely to encourage that process. âI chose Italy on purpose because even if youâve never been, you can look at pictures and experience the fairytale world that it is,â notes Reay. âIt was important for me to take Emily Price, someone who lived by certain rules of confinement, and throw her into somewhere rich with wine, bread, and history.â
As someone who has lived in 14 citiesâincluding two international destinationsâReay would know better than anyone the significance of place. âItâs phenomenally important to me,â says Reay, who has lived in all of the cities that serve as settings for her previous books: Seattle (Lizzy and Jane), London (The BrontĂ« Plot), and, of course, Chicago (Dear Mr. Knightley). âPlace defines us in many waysâitâs really its own character.â
In addition to instilling in the reader a strong sense of place, thereâs another commonality among all of Reayâs works: their ability to capture a characterâs turning point. âTheyâre not necessarily coming of age stories because I believe you can have a turning point not only at any point in your life, but repeatedly in your life,â she explains. Itâs for that very reason she chose to feature both a 25-year-old heroine and an 85-year-old heroine in The BrontĂ« Plot. âThings happen to these women, and to all of my characters, and I think things happen to us to make us look at the way we live and to change it.â
Reay credits her 2009 injury as one of her lifeâs greatest turning points. âIt changed everything,â she says. And it wasnât the last one she encountered. âI just went through one last week, and I havenât fully processed it. My eldest went to college,â she says. âThatâs the thing about turning pointsâthey just keep happening.â