The Perfect Family: An Interview with Kathryn Shay

Kathryn ShayKathryn Shay is a lifelong writer. At fifteen, she penned her first ‘romance,’ a short story about a female newspaper reporter in New York City and her fight to make a name for herself in a world of male journalists – and with one hardheaded editor in particular. Looking back, Kathryn says she should have known then that writing was in her future. But as so often happens, fate sent her detouring down another path.

Fully intending to pursue her dream of big city lights and success in the literary world, Kathryn took every creative writing class available at the small private women’s college she attended in upstate New York. Instead, other dreams took precedence. She met and subsequently married a wonderful guy who’d attended a neighboring school, then completed her practice teaching, a requirement for the education degree she never intended to use. But says Kathryn, “I fell in love with teaching the first day I was up in front of a class, and knew I was meant to do that.”

Kathryn went on to build a successful career in the New York state school system, thoroughly enjoying her work with adolescents. But by the early 1990s, she’d again made room in her life for writing. It was then that she submitted her first manuscript to publishers and agents. Despite enduring two years of rejections, she persevered. And on a snowy December afternoon in 1994, Kathryn Shay sold her first book to Harlequin Superromance.

Since that first sale, Kathryn has written twenty-five books for Harlequin, nine mainstream contemporary romances for the Berkley Publishing Group, and two online novellas, which Berkley then published in traditional print format. Her first mainstream fiction book will be out from Bold Strokes Books in September, 2010

Kathryn has become known for her powerful characterizations – readers say they feel they know the people in her books – and her heart-wrenching, emotional writing (her favorite comments are that fans cried while reading her books or stayed up late to finish them). In testament to her skill, the author has won five RT BookClub Magazine Reviewers Choice Awards, three Holt Medallions, two Desert Quill Awards, the Golden Leaf Award, and several online accolades.

Even in light of her writing success, that initial love of teaching never wavered for Kathryn. She finished out her teaching career in 2004, retiring from the same school where her career began. These days, she lives in upstate New York with her husband and two children. “My life is very full,” she reports, “but very happy. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to pursue and achieve my dreams.”

You can visit Kathryn’s website at www.kathrynshay.com.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Kathryn. Can you tell us what your latest book, The Perfect Family, is all about?

The Perfect Family follows the Davidsons who are an average American family with a good life. They consider themselves lucky to have each other. Then their seventeen year old son tells them he’s gay and their world shifts.  They have no idea what they will go through after Jamie’s disclosure: Jamie’s father Mike can’t reconcile his religious beliefs with his son’s sexuality. His brother Brian is harassed by his jock buddies and angry at Jamie for complicating all their lives. Maggie, his mother, fears being able to protect her son while struggling to save her crumbling marriage.  And Jamie feels guilty for the unhappiness his disclosure has caused. The story is full of both conflict and love, ending on a redeeming note.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

The story centers around four characters.  Jamie, the son who comes out gay, is a junior in high school, star of all the school plays, and an A student.  I love this kid because he’s so sensitive, generous and thoughtful. It broke my heart while writing the novel to see him hurt by others’ bias.

Maggie, the mother, has tried to create the “perfect family” because her childhood was so dysfunctional.  But when Jamie comes out, she has to let go of that desire and simply help her family survive this event in their lives.  She’s good-hearted and loving, but she pushes people too hard and learns to be more flexible.

Mike, the father, is a staunch Catholic who can’t accept his son’s sexual orientation because it conflicts with his religion’s stance on homosexuality.  In the course of the book, he’s truly tortured by trying to support his son and reconcile his religious beliefs.  I felt really sorry for Mike while writing this book.

Brian, the brother, also struggles with his deep love for Jamie and the reactions of his jock friends to Jamie’s disclosure.  Amidst all his other adolescent angst, Brian suffers greatly over the breach between him and his brother.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

Usually there’s a little bit of people I know—or me—in my characters.  But in The Perfect Family, there’s even more real life material. In some ways, I patterned Jamie after my own son, Ben.  And we have a gift for my readers. Ben is a singer/songwriter and made a CD in high school about “loving a boy” and other adolescent issues.  We’re offering it free at the publisher’s website when you order a book from them (http://www.boldstrokesbooks.com/products.php?product=Perfect-Family%2C-The-%252d-by-Kathryn-Shay ) and it will also be offered on my website, www.kathrnyshay.com while copies last.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

I’ve done both.  The Perfect Family went through so many revisions, I can’t remember if I knew all that would happen or not.  I do know the secondary story line about Maggie and her sister wasn’t planned until the last version.

Usually, when an author sells a book, she has to have an outline for the editors.  So in that sense, I do know the plot. But I’ve also written a couple books with simply an idea and went from there. Those needed a great deal of revision.

Q: Your book is set in Sherwood, New York.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

Sherwood is a small town in upstate New York just outside of Rochester.  I set the story here because I live in this part of the country and know it well. I also wanted the events to take place in a more conservative town but close to a large city for purposes of the plot.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Yes. I try to make the setting as evocative as I can in any book.  For The Perfect Family, I needed a really small town for the events to occur.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

In this scene, Jamie is on the verge of coming out and he’s in his bedroom talking to his brother. They are best friends and he’s feeling uncomfortable because he hasn’t yet told Brian the truth about his sexual orientation.  It’s intended to show how close the two of them are.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

Excerpt from The Perfect Family

Maggie heard Jamie come into the laundry room, where she was trying to make headway with the family’s clothes.  Turning, she saw him drop to sit on the step and got a look at his face. “You all right, honey?”

“Yeah.” Jamie gave her a fake smile. “I gotta talk to you.”
Her pulse rate sped up. Good news never followed that statement. She set the shirt on the washing machine. “Shoot.”

“I have a date Friday night.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

“I think so.”  His gaze locked with hers. “I hope you do, too.”

“Of course I do.  Can we meet her?”

“It’s not a her, Mom.  It’s a him.”

“A him?”  She stared at her son blankly. The sound of the refrigerator across the room, the ticking of the clock on the wall seemed unnaturally loud.  When realization hit, her mother’s heart tightened in her chest.  “You have a date with a boy.”

A long pause. “It’s okay, isn’t it?”

Please God let me handle this right. After a moment of speechlessness, she said, “O-of course it is.”

Jamie’s fingers tightened on their dog Buck’s collar. Suddenly, her son seemed smaller, more fragile in his jeans and sweatshirt.

Maggie crossed to him, knelt down and took both of his hands in hers.  His were freezing cold. “Honey, you know there’s nothing you could ever tell me, ever do or feel that would make me love you less.”

A frown.  “Yeah, I know that.”

Well, she’d done this right.  At least he knew her love was unconditional. But oh my God…the ramifications of his admission were far reaching.

“I just…I don’t want this to make you sad.” He glanced down at the linoleum, then back to her again. “Are you upset?”

“That you’re gay?”

“Yeah.”

You have no idea.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Kathryn.  We wish you much success!

You’re welcome. I’ll check back for comments.

Also, many people ask about my next book. I’m working on new projects now, but I’d also like to say here that if readers are interested in my backlist, I’m making plans to put nine previously published in print books up on Kindle and Smashwords by the time The Perfect Family is released.

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