Saturday, September 23, 2023

Q&A with Lee Kelly



Lee Kelly is the author of the new novel With Regrets. Her other books include City of Savages. She lives in New Jersey.


Q: You’ve said that you came up with the idea for With Regrets after feeling anxious leaving your kids with a new babysitter to attend a dinner. Can you say more about that, and about how you created your cast of characters?


A: The actual dinner party came and went, but my related worries lingered, and eventually began to thread into the loose book idea for With Regrets. What if, during an adults-only dinner party, a worldwide cataclysmic event strikes the Eastern Seaboard . . . and all the guests become trapped, unable to get home to their kids?


As for the characters that I wanted to populate this genre-blending novel with . . . I realized most “end of the world” stories tend to feature family members or total strangers. I personally hadn’t seen one featuring frenemies.


So I started building a cast of couples, all of whom are battling their own demons, keeping their own secrets, and harboring their own insecurities and gripes. I wanted the main guests to intensify the interpersonal conflict at the dinner, so strived to make them foils of one another.


I eventually settled on the neighborhood outcast, the town queen bee (a social media influencer), a new mom, and the holier-than-thou president of the PTA.


Q: The writer Jennifer Thorne (with whom you've collaborated on writing projects) said of the novel, “By turns harrowing and hilarious, With Regrets is a nail-biting page-turner that brings the apocalypse thrillingly close to home.” What do you think of that description, and what did you see as the right balance between harrowing and hilarious as you were writing the book?


A: I love this blurb so much, as Jennifer’s words very much encapsulate what I was attempting to do with this novel. I strived to combine the juiciness, gossip, and cattiness of a neighborhood drama with the thrills of an apocalyptic survival story, but the balance of these elements was trial and error.


At first, the story was much more of a slow-burn suspense novel than a thriller, with then-now vignettes that made the pacing feel too inconsistent.


On revision, I ended up opting for telling the entire story in real-time over the course of a 24-hour period and repurposed the most crucial flashbacks as multimedia interstitials (e.g., email snippets, texts, and prior voicemails).


I didn’t want the cattiness and humorous elements to fall away completely, though, so I tried to make my dialogue work harder for me, and to ensure that every character had a secret they were keeping from the others, as well as clear emotional arcs and paths toward personal redemption. 


Q: Without giving anything away, did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I tend to have the first act and last act of a book at least loosely plotted before I officially start drafting my stories, and With Regrets was no different.


I often use Lisa Cron’s plotting suggestions in her wonderful book Story Genius during the brainstorming stage, and Cron suggests that, for a character’s emotional arc to feel satisfying to readers, there needs to be an “aha! moment,” or that moment when a character’s emotional growth comes to fruition.


I always make sure that “aha!” moment is clear in my mind before formally turning to writing, so there is a long sequence in the final act that I’d visualized very early on in the process and before I’d ever written a word. While some of the logistics did change along the way, the tone and the beats of that scene pretty much stayed the same until the final iteration.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: One of the things I never realized before publishing my first novel is just how many book titles end up changing from their sale to their publication date. In fact, now that I think about it, I’ve published four novels and every single one of their titles changed!


With Regrets had been We All Fall Down when my agent had shopped it to my editor, but that title had never felt quite right. The Crooked Lane team and I brainstormed a list of alternative titles soon after they purchased the novel, and With Regrets became the unanimous favorite.


For me, it’s the perfect double entendre for this story, nodding both to the formalities of a fancy dinner party as well as the literal regret these guests experience during this fateful evening.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m amid revisions on a co-written historical adventure novel, my second collaboration with Jennifer Thorne (our first, which came out in June, is called The Antiquity Affair, a 1907 Indiana Jones-esque adventure starring sisters).


Our latest is a story set in the glamorous world of 1950s Hollywood, involving two starlets who discover untoward activity on the set of their new picture.


I’m also in the brainstorming and early stages of another suspense novel, this one set in the world of reality television.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Only a big thank you for having me! I’m so happy to have had the chance to chat with you about this book, and I hope readers enjoy it!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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