Kathryn Lynn Davis: The Need to be Heard

(This interview originally written for The Romance Reader in 1997)

 

As I looked at my favorite watch the other day, I realized its face held the same design as my business cards -- a traditional peacock design. The next day, before I picked up the phone to call Kathryn Lynn Davis, author of Too Deep for Tears, I went into my library and gathered up some of her books. While her most recent release All We Hold Dear, had a floral cover, staring back at me from both Too Deep for Tears and her romance Child of Awe was that very same traditional peacock design I'd made my calling card. I realized the significance immediately and how my love for this woman's writing had affected my life in a very deep, both personally and professionally, nature.

I first read Too Deep for Tears when it was released in paperback some years ago and fell in love with it, its author, and the Scottish Highlands. Before its sequel came out, I reread it, probably for the third of fourth time, just to get myself "in the mood". When I read the sequel, All We Hold Dear, I noted that by page 100, I'd already cried several times. The next day I lent it to a friend. The day after that -- I called her to ask what she'd thought of the book. She responded, "Laurie, that book is 500 pages long. I'm not nearly finished yet." I was incredulous. That 500 pages had flown by like a whisper of wind, and with it, Kathryn Lynn Davis had my heart.

I wrote her a fan letter shortly thereafter, and was thrilled, some months later, to receive a delightful note in return. Since then, Kathryn and I have talked occasionally. I met her last summer in Dallas at the national RWA convention and check back from time to time, never wanting to take her away from her writing. After all, she was writing the third book in the Too Deep trilogy and I wanted her to finish the damn thing so I could read it.

Finally, this summer, Kathryn called to tell me she was done with the book and could do an interview. We spent two intense hours talking about her life, her writing, and her struggles. What I came away with differed greatly from what I had perceived based on our meeting last summer. Because last summer when I met Kathryn, I was more than a bit taken aback by her seeming fragility. What I chalked up to an artistic constitution was in actuality a crisis of confidence. I've since discovered that seeming fragility exists in the same constitution of amazing persistence, stubborness, and the need to be heard.

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Kathryn Lynn Davis was born in 1955 in Riverside, California, where she still lives. She is one of three siblings. Her brother is a radio personality in Sacramento and her sister "has been called an actual saint, but she's human too." Of growing up, she says, "I think we had a really normal and pretty good childhood, except that I tended to worry about things. But my mother had great parties for us and let one of us stay up really late for hot cocoa and stories at midnight once a month."

Her mother was an inveterate reader who passed this love along to Kathryn. In fact, when I asked what the greatest gift her mother gave her was, she said, "My love for reading. By the time I was twelve or so, I'd read all these classics that most of my friends didn't read until high school.

"It's also clearly genetic. My grandfather wanted to be a writer and wrote on butcher paper because he didn't have time to change the pages. And he wrote speeches and wanted to change the world. My mother wanted to be a writer but she got married in the 1950's and did the appropriate mother and housewife thing."

What about Kathryn's father? She says of him, "My father is, to both my chagrin and amazement and admiration, a hero. He is the most honest man in the world whether it's to his benefit or detriment. As my brother has been known to say, 'He's probably the only man who went back to a car salesman and said he had paid too little.' He'd rather believe in people than turn cynical and protect himself. He amazes me."

According to Kathryn, the greatest gift her father bestowed upon her is "a basic belief in the honesty of people and faith in human nature which made me want to write about it and think about it. Only as I've grown up I've developed a bit more cynicism than he. All three of us kids are very honest and we would never say anything mean on purpose or hurt anyone on purpose."

This strong base of morality and idealism has gotten her into trouble at times. She says she always tells the truth or says nothing and is surprised when others don't. Her truthfulness is also at the basis of her relationship with her husband Michael, who was 30 to her 18 when they met at the University of Riverside where she was an undergraduate student. Although he had nearly completed a phD in American literature, he was working as a scientific editor for one of her college professors. Kathryn would bring her stories to his office and Michael would "leap out and say, 'Can I help you?' Eventually I ran into him in The Pub - the cool place for lunch on campus. I said, 'I know you, you're the man who sits up there w/his feet on the desk and doesn't do anything all day.'

"Which isn't like me at all and I can't imagine where that came from. He was immediately captivated. From then on, that was it. Within a week, I decided I was going to marry him."

Kathryn graduated with a BA in English and History and later received an MA in History, with an emphasis in England and minors in China and medieval Europe. Her study of China would later prove helpful in that a portion of Too Deep for Tears is set in historic China.

Michael is no longer a scientific editor. He had begun doing photography shortly after they married, and realized a few years later, after some shows, that that's what he wanted to do. In the meantime, Kathryn was writing. Their deal deal was this: he'd continue to work as an editor until her writing sold well enough for him to quit and pursue his dream.

Kathryn did work for awhile after they married, but her writing, which she had begun in earnest, suffered. Before she worked, she had completed a major novel in 6 months. When she tried to juggle job and writing, she managed maybe 75 pages in a year. It was at this point that Michael told her, "Stop working. I believe in you and that you'll eventually start to make money writing because you're good."

His faith in her is the biggest gift he could have given. He stuck with a job he hated so that she could do what she loved. He was, and continues to be, a strong supporter, and critic of her work. "Whenever I'm stuck about a book in any way, he helps and advises me. He reads and responds. One time he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, 'You write the best descriptions since Thomas Hardy.' And for a literature Phd to say this, and he doesn't pat me on the head, it blew me away.

"I always know that whatever he says is absolutely honest. And when I said I was going to burn my manuscript for Child of Awe and become a librarian, he said, 'Don't tell me you're not going to be a writer.' And he wouldn't let me give up many times when I wanted to. All this comes from the basic faith he had that I would succeed as a writer. And that I'm a good writer, and those aren't always the same thing."

Her husband's support, the legacy of her mother and grandfather, and her own drive to write, which began in her teens, have given Kathryn what she needed to make sure her voice was heard. She remembers writing two novels in the 8th grade and being pretty darn impressed with herself. Her friend was reading one of the two in history class and she had tears streaming down her face. Kathryn took one look at her, and never forgot the moment, the day, or what her friend was wearing. She said, "This is when I knew. I said to myself at that point, 'This is what I want to do with my life.' "

Another pivotal moment in her teens reveals a humorous side. When I asked Kathryn about her love for Scotland, she said she had seen a movie in high school with a ghost piper in it. "Until this point, I had no particular feeling for Scotland at all. But I'm watching this movie with the ghost piper and the sound of the bagpipes just hypnotized me. When the movie was over, I made my friend drive me to the local library and I checked out every fictional book with a Scottish setting I could find. Years later I told that same story to a reporter and my friend happened to be there and reminded me of the name of the movie, which I never remembered. So, where my love of Scotland came from was Francis the Talking Mule & the Haunted Castle."

The road from teenage wanna-be novelist with a love for the Scottish Highlands turned out to be more difficult than expected. Kathryn wrote her first book while studying for her Master's exams. The year was 1980 and the book was Child of Awe, her fourth book to be published. She sent it out to agents and editors. One agent read it and told her it might not sell for five years. She had an offer from Pinnacle within three weeks, but it was shot down by their business office. Later she found an agent who was willing to wait, and introduced her to some editors. One of those editors was the editor at Pinnacle who had originally wanted her book. The editor wanted her to write a trilogy about a man who revolutionized the meat-packing industry and founded a town in the North Dakotan badlands. She wasn't terribly excited. "Desert. Gun fights. Cattle rustling. I hated westerns, the desert, the heat. I certainly wasn't enamored of meat packing since it wasn't very romantic."

She ended up signing for the trilogy with Pinnacle however, and says that she probably learned more about writing from doing these books than she would have otherwise. She says, "So these were the first three books that were published. They didn't come from me. They came from the suggestions of others. Those are the three books that I learned the most about my craft because they didn't come pouring out of my heart the way Child of Awe had. These I had to write and think about and learn from. They didn't come from instinct. They weren't natural subjects for me and I had to find a way to make them fascinating or I couldn't write them. I'm really glad I wrote them because they taught me a lot that I don't know whether I would have learned had I just continued writing instinctively without stopping and thinking."

When Kathryn first sent off Child of Awe, she noticed that the comments she was hearing from agents and editors were repeated often. They were words she was to hear over and over again in her career. Phrases such as "This book has literary merit. Therefore it will never sell." "You write really well. Can't you trash it up?" "This is really beautiful but could you take out some of the style?" "It has too much history. It's too big, too complex." "It has no texture, no sense of time and place." She was also told she had no emotion and was afraid to feel. Of anything, this was the one thing she knew for a fact, if there was anything she had in her books, it was emotion, especially Child of Awe.

While the Dakota trilogy was being released, Kathryn's editor died. An editor at Berkley who had read Child of Awe decided she wanted to play rainmaker and proposed that she write a southern gothic when she heard that what Kathryn wanted to write "madness and drama and wrenching emotion". That is how Memories in Ashes, a southern gothic, another setting not really one Kathryn would have chosen herself , came about. And it was after that book was released that Child of Awe was finally sold.

She continued to hear the same sort of talk at Berkley as she had earlier. Her writing was too literary, too beautiful, not sexy enough, not trashy enough. Instead of hearing what she wanted to hear, it was always, "This book has literary merit. Therefore it will never sell."

She attended a conference and renewed a relationship with Page Ashley, an editor at the time for Avon, who had loved Child of Awe when Kathryn first sent it out years before. She relates that she has always known Page was to have a profound affect on her life. She just didn't know how. Things came to a head at and after the conference, after Child of Awe had been purchased. According to Kathryn, "I had heard 'It doesn't fit a category' once too often. I was so frustrated from hearing 'Never mind that we love it and think it's brilliant, we can't place it. So, either make it less. . . or different.' "

The frustration she was feeling got stronger. Kathryn was tired of hearing, "You write really well. Can you write something else?" She said that with Child of Awe, it all came to a head. "People who had read the hand-written-in-pencil original copy had dreamt about it for years." She was "fairly certain the book had something in spite of hearing all this other talk. I didn't want to hear any more of 'you are good and therefore we can't publish you.' "

At the conference that changed her life, she had a pivotal discussion with Page. She told her all the countries she loved (England, China, Scotland, and India) and Page laughingly responded, "Boy, you sure can pick 'em. All the ones that are overdone or not popular now. Can you combine them somehow?"

It was that laughingly made suggestion that changed Kathryn's life. She returned from the conference, asked her husband, "How can I combine China, India, and Scotland?" It was as though a lightbulb had gone off over her head. All three were in the British empire. She'd write about a British diplomat who would travel from country to country and of course, as unmarried, he would have relationships in each country. Four hours later, the basis for Too Deep for Tears was born in a bar with her husband's help.

She sent her proposal to Page at Avon and her editor at Berkley. Avon wanted to buy the book but asked if she "could make it less literary, could you put in more sex?" Kathryn withdrew the proposal because, although the entire idea for the book had come from a mechanical idea of combining her loves, she knew she didn't want to compromise on this book . It was becoming too special.

The option was sold to Berkley, who decided it should be a hardcover release. But Kathryn didn't believe they were solidly behind her and decided to make a total break from both agent and publisher. She experienced an epiphany of sorts on a plane ride home from an ABA convention. After feeling neglected by her agent and publisher, she realized that she needed someone to really be blown away by the book. The book might not be successful, but it most certainly wouldn't without the backing of the publisher.

She sent out proposals to six hardcover publishers and four asked her to write for them, or asked for the finished manuscript. By now, Memories in Ashes and Child of Awe had been published and Too Deep for Tears had been in her head for some time.

It took Kathryn seven months to write Too Deep for Tears. She writes more slowly now than she used to because "it takes longer to satisfy myself. I put more pressure on myself to meet my past success. The emotional intensity of the book is what made it successful, and it takes a lot out of me and you cannot create, fix, or repair emotional intensity as you can things like plot and character. If it doesn't have emotion, it doesn't have it and you can't inject it later."

I asked Kathryn if she knew it was going to be a great book. She says:

"I knew it was kind of good and I remember as I wrote it that I knew how to end chapters so readers would want to start the next one. I noticed a lot of things I was doing instinctively that I felt it was good and Michael felt it was good and he's a much more particular critic than I am. Also, I had the fact that Berkley thought it should be hardcover and 4 of 6 publishers wanting to see the finished thing.

"As I wrote it, I had a sense, as I usually do, that it was good. But I realized the backing and belief wasn't there at Berkley.

"So I decided to make a complete change. The book was done and no one had bought it. I sent it to several publishers and got remarks like 'It's too unique. Too much like a classic. It's too complex.' I kept thinking to myself, 'These are good things.'

"Then Page came back into the picture. She read the book, and though she was no longer in publishing, she still was interested in me. She said, 'You know, for the first time since leaving publishing, I regret not being there.' Which was something for her to say, and she sent me to an agent who wrote me saying, 'This book is brilliant. It's going to be a bestseller. It's going to make you and some agent a lot of money. But I'm too busy. P.S. If it had been less good, I'd have taken it.'

"That was it - I kicked a hole in the wall and I'm not a physical person . Michael wanted to turn my frustration into art by having an artist friend to a casting of my foot and insert it into the wall. That will show up in Last Scene in a Saxaphone, my contemporary novel that I've been thinking about for fourteen years that will be my next book after the final in the Too Deep trilogy is out. This was the final straw."

It was Page who asked Bill Gross, executive editorial director at Pocket, for the name of an agent. He suggested Andrea Surrillo, who remains Kathryn's agent today. She turned around and offered him the book, which he bought.

Her relationship with Pocket stunned her. She had been so used to hearing "You don't know what you're talking about. Why don't you trash it up?" Finally, like music to her ears, she was hearing, "We love this book because of this and this and this", all of which were things she thought were its strengths as well. Being unique was a good thing to them. It took Kathryn close to a year to adjust to that change in attitude. She recounts, "Working with (legendary editor) Linda Marrow was a very different experience. What they bought the book for was why I had written it and those things weren't to be changed. We were on the same wavelength from the beginning."

Too Deep for Tears was the first hardcover Pocket published, and exploded on the publishing scene. So much of herself had gone into the book that when I asked if she cried often while writing it, she said , "With that one, I think that the emotion had built in me and what was coming out was my anger and frustration and all this stuff about my writing and my determination to do what I wanted to do. I certainly cried as a result of what I was writing, but there was so much other emotion going on inside of me that it fed the book rather than the other way around. I was more likely to cry when editing than writing it initially. When I wrote Sing to Me of Dreams, I cried from beginning to end."

Because Too Deep for Tears was such a huge success, I asked what went through her mind when it was time to write again. Was she afraid she'd never write another one that good? She responded, "I got that feeling because of the outpouring of emotion from people was so intense it terrified me. Now, do it again. How could I do that? I don't know how I did it the first time. I didn't write it to get an emotional response . It just happened that way. How could I do it again?"

Her next book, which was Sing to Me of Dreams, was one she wrote for herself. "Basically what it was was my soul; it is literally about me only made into a metaphor. I didn't know if anyone would care to read it but I had to write it. It was roiling up inside of me. Linda knew I had to write it. She has never said to me, 'Write Too Deep again.' Other publishers are different.

"We had decided not to do a sequel to Too Deep and after I did Sing, I worked on a book for a year and shelved it. It ended up being an intellectual exercise. In an effort to write something more marketable, a friend suggested I write something contemporary because so many people dismiss out of hand historical novels as formulaic."

So, another off-hand suggestion, like the one Page had made that resulted in Too Deep for Tears led to the writing of its sequel, All We Hold Dear. The modern character of "Eva became the thread to create this book. It began writing in my head to the point that I felt like I was running around a tree and was gonna turn into butter. I mean, I could not stop. It was just writing and writing and writing itself in my head without my even thinking, which told me, this is creatively what I'm supposed to be doing. Never mind marketing. If I were doing this for marketing, it would not be just naturally inventing itself non-stop. And there was a point at which I said to Michael, 'I'm gonna fall over dead.' I would go in and type and then I would turn off the computer, and by the time I reached the next room, three new scenes would be going on in my head already. I was exhausted. I couldn't stop . Nor did I really want it to stop. On the other hand, I wanted to live. I began to think I couldn't survive the intensity of this."

Because I know the sequel was meant to conclude the stories begun in Too Deep, I asked Kathryn when she knew she couldn't tell it all in All We Hold Dear.

That happened when I got to page 580 and realized that I was still in Scotland. The proposal was for one book. I told Linda the book would be 1,400 to 1,800 pages if I did the book as proposed. I thought it would ruin what is good about it. I suggested doing two books as one was too much. It's too complex. All We Hold Dear is simple in a way that Too Deep for Tears isn't and yet it isn't simplistic. It's more accessible and not dense, as Sing to Me of Dreams was. Linda was hesitant. She told me to finish the entire thing and let her read it. I had already decided, with my stubborness, that the book needed to end as it did. By the time I sent the book to her, she had forgotten our discussion. It had taken an entire year to write the book as it was; if I did the rest, I knew I would literally drop dead. It was just too much. I sent her my version and the next thing I knew, Andrea called and said, 'Linda put the check through and loved the book.' I realized my version had worked if Linda accepted it as it was, without the rest of the proposal included. The book took her over. 'So, what are you going to do next?, she asked. I said, 'I thought maybe I ought to finish it,' and that's what I did.

The result is Somewhere Lies the Moon, to be released sometime early next year. According to Kathryn, she finishes the stories of Li- An and Genevra and, though used sparingly, Eva is written in quite powerfully. Ailsa and Ian's daughter is part of the story as well, and all of them are tied together in the Glen, which is reminiscent of Too Deep for Tears' conclusion.

It took Kathryn far too long to write the book, because it was during its writing that her confidence faltered. For a year she didn't write at all. She felt that if All We Hold Dear wasn't a blockbuster, she was a failure. In actuality, while it didn't explode, it has done well, and continues to sell well even though its release, first as hardcover, than as paperback, is fairly far back in terms of publishing shelf life.

Because this final story in the trilogy had to resolve the character of Li-An, whose life had been filled with tragedy, Kathryn was stuck. She was very unhappy personally by now. She wondered how she could fix Li-An "when I couldn't fix me, and I didn't have all this horrible tragedy behind me, just a lot of frustration."

But, just as her confidence in her writing came back, Li-An's dilemmas were worked out and the book worked out. She says, "It just ended up working out, and again, it's different. It's not what you'd expect if you thought about a sequel. It'll be surprising and I like to surprise people. And I was surprised. I had tears literally streaming down my face during parts of it."

Her husband Michael believes Somewhere Lies the Moon is the most powerful of trilogy. Kathryn believes "that is true. And it is structured much more like Too Deep. Therefore I think that those who loved that will more easily identify with the structure. But also, Li-An did things I never expected. She became amazing to me with the power of her story. I really didn't know what to do with her - she was so tragic. How can she learn how to be happy knowing that in real life, the likelihood was really low? But it worked."

So, how did Kathryn regain confidence in herself when she was ready to quit writing altogether, which is where she was emotionally when I met her in Dallas last year? She admits that when we met, she "was at the bottom of the darkest hole in my career ever. My ego was destroyed, I was very fragile, more than in my entire life. That's part of why you got the impression that I am a fragile soul. My siblings don't have half my confidence. Somehow I came out confident and arrogant. My first agent called me Katherine of Arrogant. Not as in abrasive and obnoxious, but in that I believe in my talent and that if someone would put my books in front of peoples' faces, they would want to read them. Inner strength and confidence is there within me. I believe I have a strong talent.

"In Dallas, I had started to believe otherwise. The pressure of Too Deep doing so well unexpectedly, even though the later books have done well, very solidly, but nothing has blown people away. The expectation and the need to recreate that explosion had become so overwhelming that, because I am so emotional and because the other thing I inherited from my mother is that, like, if you put some guilt in the air, I'll take it. Must be my fault."

Being asked to be part of Mother (Pocket, 1996), an anthology on motherhood with writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Amy Tan, and Maya Angelou helped tremendously. "There was no pressure on me and I came to love writing again. I would be in a middle of a party and want to go home and write, and that excitement hadn't happened in years. I just couldn't wait. I realized I still loved to write, just not under pressure. Plus it was an ego booster." She also attended the RT Reader's Conference and talking with fans and booksellers let her know that All We Hold Dear had touched them, as had her other writing. With renewed feelings of confidence, she was able to return home and finish the book she'd been unable to write for nearly a year.

Somewhere Lies the Moon should be released in early 1998, and Kathryn, who has had Last Scene in a Saxaphone running around her mind for more than a decade, will be written next. She hopes to attract readers who have passed her by in the past with that book and often wishes the compartments publishers, marketers, and booksellers create didn't exist at all. "It's frustrating for me and for Pocket. I am not a romance author. If we could reach other people who are disappointed because they are not romance and those who look at the covers and see the emotional titles and pass by the books altogether, I know they would read me. We're not sure how to make people aware of me. "

Always with her voice pushing outward, with fragility juxtaposed with stubborness, Kathryn says that "If a book is not honest, if it does not come from your heart, how can you defend it? If you do not believe in it, how will you withstand the endless assaults of your own doubts and the questions of friends, editors, publishers, and agents? My heart always said, 'Write this, write this, write this. . .' no matter what they said. And when I did that, Too Deep for Tears happened. And so, even if the Too Deep for Tears explosion doesn't happen again, I'm going to keep asserting what my heart believes, regardless. Even though I had that year there where I wondered."

--Laurie Likes Books

 




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