KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT AND WEAR BEIGEis Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s 14th novel. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from Johns Hopkins, and her previous novels have won every major romance-market award. She and her late husband have two daughters, both of whom have actual jobs with health insurance.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I don’t know that it is any of your business, but I suppose my folks just turned out the lights one night, and.....oh, you mean how did my writing career get started.
YOU KNEW THAT. STOP BEING CUTE.
When I finished graduate school (I have a Ph.D. in English literature from Johns Hopkins), I was teaching part-time at the local community college and not turning my dissertation into little journal articles. This was pretty much a full-time job. Every morning I would get up and not turn my dissertation into little journal articles. It wasn’t much fun.
I had always daydreamed and fantasized a lot as a kid, and I was embarrassed about it because I knew that no one else in my family did that. I finally decided that the pictures in my head weren’t just daydreams, they were plots and characters. So I started writing a novel, and I knew that this was what I was supposed to be doing.
Although by nature I will tell anyone anything, I wrote the book in secret because I wanted any failures to be private ones. So for a year I endured puzzled looks from people who had no idea what I was doing with myself. When I finished, I was so confident in the book, so sure that it was utterly wonderful that I instantly told everyone about it, thus managing both to seem like a wastrel while writing it and to be a public failure afterwards.
For, indeed, it was a failure. Although this was a novel that was going to change the world, agents would take my cover letter and write “no” across the top, not even bothering to waste a piece of their own stationery. I now know what I did wrong. The real audience of the book was the six senior faculty members of the Johns Hopkins English department, and the purpose was to show them, show them that I was really smart, show them that I was a good writer, show them that I hadn’t wasted their time.
And who wants to read a book like that?
Getting your cover letter back with a “no” across the top is another thing that isn’t a whole lot of fun. So telling myself that I was just doing this to give myself something to do during a difficult time, I started writing a romance.
I had always read romances—Emilie Loring in junior high, Georgette Heyer in high school, and every so often in graduate school I would take the day off and read five Harlequins.
FIVE BOOKS IN A DAY?
I read Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend in a day once. I didn’t get a thing out of it, but it was on the “Victorian Novels” course syllabus the same week Mrs. Radcliffe was on the “Eighteenth-Century Novels” syllabus, and so I was short on time. If you can read Our Mutual Friend in a day, five Harlequins is nothing.
SO YOU WROTE A ROMANCE?
I mailed it from my home in Virginia on a Tuesday—I didn’t have an agent; it was a slush-pile submission—and Harlequin’s New York office called to buy it on the next Monday. Six days counting mailing time.
Things like that don’t happen any more, but in the early eighties the romance market was new and expanding rapidly. The publishers were desperate for “product.”
The secret to my success—and it shouldn’t be a secret to anyone who has taken freshman comp—was purpose and audience. I had a clear sense of my reader—my “re-entry” (i.e. housewife) community college student—and my purpose was to make her happy for a while.
I went from writing a novel that would change people’s lives to one that would change their afternoons. I’m sure you know the feeling. You have a day that isn’t going particularly well; then you pick up the right book, and everything’s fine again. I wanted to give these women, whom I liked a lot, that book.
AND THEN WHAT?
I published six books with Harlequin, four of them as part of the 75,000 word American Romance line, two of them were longer and published in extremely unsuccessful formats. My next six were all single-title releases, two from Pocket, two from NAL, two from HarperCollins/Avon.
SO WHAT WAS THE DEAL WITH A MOST
UNCOMMON DEGREE OF POPULARITY?
It was my first book that wasn’t published as a romance. It’s about private-school moms–what happens when you suddenly realize that your daughter is one of the popular girls.
Most women, who have stable, satisfying marriages, have lots of other experiences and relationships that may not have much impact on their marriages. I was ready to write about those issues. There is little, for example, that challenges a female friendship as much as if the women have very different notions about how to raise children. Sometimes even slightly different notions can cause a lot of drama.
AND WHAT ABOUT THIS NEW BOOK,
KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT AND WEAR BEIGE?
I thought that it would be so sensible to write a series of books which would all be set at the Alden School, the fictitious school featured in A MOST UNCOMMON DEGREE OF POPULARITY. One book would focus on the college-applications of senior year; another would chronicle the social whirl of the bar- and bat-mitzvah year. I would be the Jan Karon of private-school moms.
It didn’t work. Many readers love books with continuing characters, but I don’t. Moreover, when you have a creative career, trying to do what seems to be sensible is breathtakingly foolish. At least for me, creativity curls up into a lengthy hibernation every time it encounters good sense. So the Alden School is at the edges of this book.
WHAT WAS YOUR INSPIRATION?
One of the women in my bridge club is divorced, and she once said very emphatically that she did not ever want anyone saying her daughters were from a “broken home.” Their family lived in two different households, but nothing was broken. I thought that inspiring, and given what confident, accomplished, good-hearted young women her daughters now are, she certainly has the right to be deeply proud of how she and her ex-husband raised them.
I also wanted to write about an adult with Attention Deficient Disorder. I was diagnosed with ADD when I was 47 years old.
ARE YOU GOING TO WRITE ANY MORE ROMANCES?
Three years ago I would had said no. While I was writing my two women’s-fiction titles, I wasn’t reading romances, and I can’t imagine writing something that I don’t love to read. But about six months ago reading a good romance suddenly became a magical experience again. So the book I am working on is definitely a romance … but I have no idea when it will be done
WHAT’S A TYPICAL WRITING DAY LIKE?
There is no such thing.
DO YOU OUTLINE YOUR BOOKS?
No, I have the most grossly inefficient method. It’s totally inductive, it’s all about detail. There is never any big picture until the end. To write a book, I generate 1500 puzzle pieces and then throw out a thousand of them.
WHO’S YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR?
It used to be Jane Austen. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on her books, but now, thanks in part to the movies, she is everybody’s favorite, and so I am switching my allegiance to Anthony Trollope.
Trollope isn’t as perfect as Austen. He doesn’t have her genius, he hasn’t had her influence, but his experience of life was broader, and while that doesn’t make him morally superior, it does make his work interesting. Trollope knew what it was like to be married; Austen didn’t.
I sew. My writing friends, who think it’s pretty routine to write a novel, are dumbstruck (or at least to the extent that writers are ever struck dumb) by the fact that I can install a zipper. Then all my sewing friends, who think that my zipper-installation technique could improve, are rather impressed by the books. So I always seem cool to someone.
I also enjoyed the whole mom-scene, volunteering at school, leading Junior Great Books, being a Girl Scout leader. None of that was about being a good mother, of course; it was just about a way to see other adults, something that neither writers nor sewers do enough of.
ARE YOU REALLY TRAGICALLY UNKNOWN?
Is that great or what? A wonderful person has posted a list on Amazon.com entitled the “The Tragically Unknown Kathleen Gilles Seidel.” I love it; it makes me sound like something from one of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems.
But Wordsworth’s Lucy probably didn’t answer her email. I do.
Click here to contact Kathy