First published in Benicia Magazine, December 2014
Tucked in a cozy armchair in her Benicia home filled with books, children, pets and her husband’s paintings, Kathryn Reiss creates worlds where young people solve mysteries that often link the present with the past.
The author writes about startling events that take her characters on eerie adventures in books for children and teens. “I write for them because I like that voice,” she says. Common themes include rambling, old houses and time travel. “I really tap into that, into ways to get the past and present to touch. I believe the past is part of the present,” says Kathryn, who turns 57 this month. A part-time English professor at Mills College and mother, Kathryn is disciplined about setting aside time to research and write her books. She has published 18 books to date, including seven American Girl mysteries. Eleven titles are available in seven countries. Her 19th book will be published this month, and it will be her first available as an e-book as well as print. “The face of publishing really, really is changing. I don’t want to be a dinosaur,” she says. The new book, Murder at Heatherstone Hall, was near its printing date in 2009 when her publishing company was purchased. Her book was among those dropped even though she’d received her advance and all editing was done. “It was very upsetting. This book was meant to be read. Why keep it in my drawer?”
When did you first think you’d like to be an author?
From the first time I saw books, I was fascinated. I wanted to know everything about them. How do they get here? How do they make them? Can I do that? My mother was always very supportive and always encouraged me to write. When did you start writing?
When I was 6, I started writing stories. I often didn’t finish them. I was always writing, writing, writing. But I didn’t finish a story until I was in my teens. My dad would read my stories, and one time I asked if he wanted to read what I was working on. He said he’d read it when it was finished. So I had to finish it, and that was my first finished story. It was a mystery about an Amish family. What did I know about that? But it had a big house and lots of children and it was a mystery. When did you write your first published book?
I spent 1980-81 in Bonn, Germany, as a Fulbright scholar, and I wanted to read something in English at night. This was in the days before Amazon and the internet, and English books there were expensive and they tended to be classics. I wanted to read something else. So I thought, “Why don’t I write a book I want to read?” It’d have to have a big, old house, some secrets, a mystery that comes from the past and affects the future. That was Time Windows. That’s probably still my favorite book, not necessarily because of the story. But it’s the book that made me an author. It was published in 1991. How did the story evolve over the 10 years between first draft and being published?
In the first version, Helen Browne (the mother) was the main character. I’d written about 30 to 40 pages, all by hand, and it was about Helen worrying about her daughter’s sanity. It wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the story of Miranda (the 13-year-old daughter). I threw it all away and started over. I wish I’d kept it. I got an agent in 1983 or ’84. She said she was going to market it as a middle-grade novel. It still took seven years to find a publisher. I was told it was too violent, so I toned down some of the scenes. It went through 10 big revisions over the years. What elements distinguish a teen novel from one written for adults?
There are several hallmarks of children and teen books. The main character is a child or teen and the story is told from the main character’s point of view. There’s a kernel of hope at the end. It can be a dark topic, but there is hope at the end. In my class, we read three books about the Holocaust: Night, by Elie Wiesel, The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen, and Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. This is a hard-hitting subject covered in books for middle-grades, teens and adults. It shows you can write about dark themes for all ages. With teen and children’s books, you keep your audience in mind as you write. You don’t have to be preachy—you can have sexual references, you can have violence, you can have bad words, but it has to be age-appropriate. No matter how dark and depressing the subject is, it has to be age-appropriate. What did you like reading when you were growing up?
I read everything, but I was very partial to Trixie Belden mysteries. I read Nancy Drew, but Trixie Belden was better. My mother read Judy Bolton books. I found them in my grandma’s attic and read them. I have them here. I also loved historical fiction. How much research do you do for your books?
I do a lot of research. I do a lot online, but I also do lots of reading, both fiction and non-fiction books. I like to see what other novelists have done with the subject. I have to do research even when I’m writing one of the Julie mysteries for American Girl that take place in the 1970s, which I lived through. What music would be playing what year? What would the headlines say? How do you get past writer’s block?
I have learned that when anyone has writer’s block, it’s because there’s something in the plot that isn’t working. Sometimes you’re in the middle of a book and your scenes are out of order, or you don’t know where you’re going and what needs to happen. … The way you get out of it is by throwing out a lot of your work, unfortunately. Now I always do an outline but I don’t have to keep to it. It’s an outline, not a contract. I do so many notes before I’m ready to start writing. Then there’s version A, then version B, then version C, then version D and then you’re up to version L. How long does it take for a book to go from idea to publication?
Sometimes an idea percolates for a long time, then it coalesces and I know it’s time to start things. I call those my back-burner ideas. When I have an idea for something, I write it down in my back-burner notebook. Right now I’m interested in the Witness Protection program. What would that be like, I wonder. And I think about that. If I get an idea that interests me and I don’t have a story yet, I play with it a long time before I start writing. I play the “What If?” game to work on the story. If the story needs work, it can take longer once I start writing. PaperQuake took three years instead of the usual nine or 10 months. What advice would you offer aspiring writers?
Read everything you can get your hands on that’s anything like your book because you can see how other authors are handling the subject. Push on until you have a finished draft. You likely will go through many revisions, but get to a finished draft. When you write a book, it’s not like you say, “Whew, I’m finished.” You go back maybe 10 times to do revisions. You have to be careful about technology and avoid contemporary slang. You don’t want to be too trendy because it can date your book. How do you find balance between teaching, parenting and writing?
I have to be very strict with myself. I may clean up the dishes and throw a load of laundry in before I start writing, but I don’t do any more housework after that.
I let myself check email or be on Facebook at lunch time, but not otherwise. Sometimes I turn off the router so I can write and not be distracted. I can get off-point when I’m doing research, so I have to be disciplined. What do you do to relax?
I have tea with my friends in the afternoons. I hike with my dogs. I like to knit. I like to read. I fall asleep reading books other than manuscripts. I just finished Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty, an Australian author. I read all the Young Adult books that come out. I leave the library with stacks of them. What’s next for you?
I’ll be working on Sudden Light next (holding a printed manuscript in her lap with other possible titles written by hand on the cover sheet). So I’ll teach at Mills, raise my kids and write my books. I love living in Benicia. I love living in an historic home. I feel very lucky.