Q: What inspired you to write In Polite Company, and how did you create your character Simons?
A: My grandmother inspired me to write the story. When I returned to Charleston in my late 20s, she and I grew very close. We went on dates together—to hear bluegrass, eat sushi, and visit art galleries. When she died, I was heartbroken.
As a sort of catharsis, I began to write this book. I worked hard on developing a grandmother character, and this process got me thinking about how we are shaped by the place and time we are born into and that sometimes we want to break from that mold. Exploring these concepts helped me to create the story.
In Polite Company is a coming-of-age novel, so I feel very close to my protagonist, Simons. Though the book is not autobiographical (the scenes and characters are made up) the feelings Simons experiences are true to me.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I’ve learned there are two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. I’m a pantser because I write by the seat of my pants. I had no idea how the novel would end, and I was constantly making changes. Perhaps this is the most magical part of writing—that the story almost writes itself.
Q: The novel takes place in Charleston, South Carolina. How important is setting to you in your writing, and what do you think the book says about the city?
A: Setting is very important to me. I love diving deep into a place, and as a local, I know Charleston well.
I think I’ll always be a settings-based writer. I want to brush my palm against the trunk of a live oak, to feel the particular weight of humidity that’s only experienced on the High Battery, and to study the change in light against the stucco row houses.
This is how I like to observe the world around me, and I think readers enjoy seeing the world I created through this perspective.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Originally, the title was Zinnias. My grandmother planted zinnias, and so does the grandmother character in the book.
These cheery blossoms show up throughout the novel. They represent the bond between a young woman and her grandmother, and—in a larger context—the flowers serve as a metaphor to how we fit into society.
My editor said that if we kept the title Zinnias, people would think it’s a gardening book. I thought she had a good point. We settled on In Polite Company, which does capture the essence of my book more fully.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am having a great time working on my second book, which is based on a barrier island just off the coast of Charleston.
The setting is an aging manor, and at the start of the story, the matriarch surprises the family by announcing she plans to sell the house. The story also takes readers downtown to Rainbow Row and even on the campus of The Citadel (where I used to teach).
I like to think this novel is sexy, sophisticated, and fun.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I have been incredibly lucky to have been mentored by New York Times bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe. She encouraged me to focus on the relationship of Simons and her grandmother, which, for the majority of readers, is the most meaningful relationship in the book.
Mary Alice continues to mentor me on the business side of author life, which is demanding and complex. I am very grateful for her guidance.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb