A Conversation with Karen Kelly

In anticipation of Prospice’s publication, Karen Kelly sat down with her editor, Laura Ross, to talk about the book and her life as a writer.

Laura: Had you been thinking about this story a long time before you started writing it down? How long did the actual writing process take?

Karen: The idea for the story actually began with the scene near the middle of the book. It was a visual image I kept having of a young man rescuing his stepsister from a cold, rushing creek. I don’t know exactly where it came from, but it wouldn’t leave me. I had been thinking about writing a novel for quite some time, kicking around several ideas over the years, but this one moved in and stayed. The story just sort of came to me—it seemed like it was already there; I just needed to write it down. When I finally decided to do it, I gave myself nine months. It took seven. I wrote most mornings and then I went for very long walks, usually spending most of that time thinking about how to rephrase one sentence.

Laura: As an editor who reads a lot of fiction, I was astonished at how confident and polished Prospice was, right out of the gate. What kind of training have you had? Did you rely on a writer’s group or some valued readers along the way who helped guide you?

Karen: I can’t claim any formal training. I guess a lot of good reading could be considered good training, but my only previous experience with writing had been a lot of essays on other people’s work. I didn’t have any idea what the process should be—I just decided to sit down and write 1,000 words a day, whether they were any good or not. I didn’t know if that number was a little or a lot. I had no template, but I never really thought my book would be published so there wasn’t any pressure—it was more a necessary creative outlet.

  I realized right away that I needed to write toward something, so I had an outline. It gave me some structure, but it wasn’t set in stone. In fact, the ending changed, because one of my daughters was reading it as I wrote it, and when I told her what I had in mind, she staged a protest. Thank you, Nina.

  I come from a long line of creators. We have to produce things. I joke to my friends that I ran out of furniture to paint so I had to take up writing.

Laura: What kind of writing do you like to read for pleasure? Who are the writers who inspire and sustain you?

Karen: Recently I was on a Faulkner kick. What seemed so difficult to grasp at twenty became so germane and delicious at…um…a later age. Rereading The Sound and the Fury after a few decades was an epiphany. Same with Robert Penn Warren. I’ve only recently discovered Nabokov. How did I go all these years (as an English major, no less) without him? Absolutely astonishing. And, as a writer, ever so humbling. Let’s see . . . Wallace Stegner, particularly Crossing to Safety, and Wally Lamb. I can pretty confidently say I’ve read every book ever published by Tom Wolfe, John Irving, and Truman Capote (including short stories), and Irwin Shaw also comes to mind—especially Voices of a Summer Day. But we all relate to things based on perspective and experience, so there is flux.

  Hmmm…there are a lot of men in the room. Let’s add Willa Cather and . . . someone more contemporary . . . Ann-Marie MacDonald. And I can’t deny that I love a good mystery. Martha Grimes is really fun to read—so dry and witty. Also, good old Rex Stout—I love Nero Wolfe. I don’t think there is a single book by either of those two that I’ve missed—and that’s really saying something, if you are familiar with the size of their repertoire. I adore understatement. If you are wry, I will love you. I’m talking to you, Shakespeare. There’s a guy who perfected the art of understated humor, but then could turn around and knock your socks off with one heartbreaking line. In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. And do it in iambic pentameter. He also uses the term “want-wit” in the same stanza, which is one of my all-time favorite pejoratives.

Laura: Prospice is first and foremost a family story. Are any aspects autobiographical? And if so, how does your family feel about their lives being shared with the world?

Karen: I can’t imagine that any fiction writing isn’t somewhat autobiographical, just in the small, experiential details. My husband likes to tease me about which old boyfriend the character of Tru is based on, and I like to tell him that he’s a compilation. Almost anything one writes is probably based on some experience or another. At this writing she doesn’t know it yet, but my mother was very likely the inspiration for the step-sibling dynamic. I found out when I was about thirteen that she had, for a short time, a stepbrother and -sister. This revelation must have had some impact, because the idea of a stepbrother came back to roost. Wuthering Heights may have contributed something to that as well. There is something so powerfully poignant about young love that is fostered by growing up together, so to speak. I don’t think my mother will mind my saying she once had a stepbrother, and I think my children are amused to read some of their more prized quotes in the person of Jemima. The more passionate elements are all based on my husband, of course. Hear that, Bill?

Laura: A lovely subplot in Prospice has to do with the discovery of some historic love letters written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Is this based on reality, or just a plausible invention on your part?

Karen: Originally I was going to write two parallel stories, set 100 years apart, and weave them into one book. I had developed a rather random interest in Nathaniel Hawthorne, probably because it seemed so improbable that he was such a good-looking guy, and I thought it was absolutely wonderful that his sister-in-law was his publisher, especially in that era. With some research, I became really fascinated by Elizabeth Peabody. So I made up a flagrantly untrue story about an affair between them. My working title for the book was Friends of the Library, because Dinah’s job at the library was to be the entrée to the Hawthorne story. (And because the Friends of the Library Gala is the dénouement.) But as I wrote the main story, I realized it should really stand on its own, with the Hawthorne/Peabody relationship more a subplot. The letters were really fun to write. I like speaking Victorian. I also found what I learned about Peabody very compelling, and I was happy to have the opportunity to share it with my readers.

Laura: What are you working on now? Will we get to meet Dinah, Tru, and the others and find out what happens to them next?

Karen: I love these characters so much that I would love to keep writing them, but I also really like the place they’re in when the story ends. It has a very circular, balanced closure, and I don’t want to bother it. They’ve really been through enough, haven’t they? I’m working on a different story, which will be more of a mystery, and has to do with a marvelous old graveyard in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and the fascinating history of the steel industry there. There is a love story involved, as well. Like Prospice, it will be set in another era.

Laura: If there is one lesson you’d like us to learn from the characters in Prospice, what would it be?

Karen: A few of my own abiding philosophies are evident in the telling of the tale—for instance, when Caroline explains to Dinah that they should focus on the positive, cherishing the good days while they have them; that they shouldn’t let fear or worry color more than it has to. I think people tend to give misfortune more power than it deserves, allowing it to rob them of some very precious time. Also, like Caroline, I dislike wallowing. I really do think there are those who secretly enjoy their misery. In most cases, you can choose your happiness. Another thing that is probably not so much philosophy as superstition takes the form of the one-handed furniture mover from the opening scene, whose reappearance throughout the book serves to give Dinah some perspective on life’s misfortunes. I tend to do that a lot—measure the situation I’m in against what could be worse. I guess I tend to look on the bright side. But the flip side of that is that I live with a constant awareness of what exactly those things would be—the worst-case scenarios that would bring me to my knees. So while I am ever grateful to have been thus far spared my worst nightmares, I’m always sort of waiting for the penny to drop.

  I’d just like to add here that I would be delighted to hear from my readers about what they thought, what they liked, what they wished might be different about Prospice. Send comments to I look forward to reading them!

Prospice: The Novel