Meet Our Freshman: An Interview With Lee Kelly

Freshman Fifteens author Kelly Loy Gilbert  chatted with fellow Freshman Lee Kelly to find out more about her forthcoming debut, CITY OF SAVAGES (Simon & Schuster Children’s, February 3, 2015).

LeeWhen two sisters attempt to escape war-torn Manhattan, dark well-kept secrets about their family and the city begin to surface from the wreckage.

“I know I have two options.

I can tell her how much I hate the Park, this city, and her and all of the sorry excuses for human beings that do her bidding.

Or I can tell her the bigger truth.  The one that, regardless of how jealous I am, how insignificant I feel, is more a part of me than any limb or organ, whether I like it or not. It rumbles inside of me and bursts through my lips, armed with new ammunition from the whiskey.

‘I would never leave Phee,’ I say, but don’t look at my sister, as my answer is so fundamental I’m scared by it. ‘What she wants, I’ll live with.’”

How did CITY OF SAVAGES come to exist?

Right before I started writing CITY OF SAVAGES, I had moved back from Los Angeles to Manhattan, and was practicing law at a very “New York” firm – hard-to-please partners, long hours, floor-thirty-something offices with almost torturous views of Central Park. Anyway, my mind refused to focus on my morning commute, and I’d spend most subway rides daydreaming instead of reviewing documents. I found myself imagining a prison in Central Park (was I miserable as a lawyer? Nah), ruthless wardens, subway rides that were life and death… one thing led to another, and the construct for the dark world of CITY OF SAVAGES started to take shape.

Your book is set in (a haunting, deliciously terrifying re-imagining of) New York City. What inspired you to set your book here? Will readers recognize any landmarks or parts of the city?

I love that – “deliciously terrifying” – man, I hope so!

Honestly, I think New York serves as inspiration for many writers and artists and professionals who live and work there. It’s a city that’s loved, a city that’s hated – but any way you slice it, it’s a place that’s hard to ignore.

And the city really is, in many ways, a character in this novel. The Manhattan in CITY OF SAVAGES is the ruins of the Manhattan we know now – so current places and well-known locations feature prominently. Landmarks like Belvedere Castle and Sheep Meadow in Central Park are major settings, as are apartments on Wall Street and the Meatpacking District. Even certain hotels like The Carlyle and The Standard are, let’s just say, “re-purposed.”

How do you develop your characters? Do they draw from real-life experiences, or are they opposite of anyone you know, or … ?

Some of mine are definitely drawn from real-life experiences. I’m the oldest of three, and the main characters of CITY OF SAVAGES, Sky and Phee, are modeled after my own two sisters (though if I’m honest, there is a little bit of me in each of them). And as my day job was inspiration for the novel, one of the story’s antiheros is fittingly based on a partner at my firm, which I guess is kind of weird now that I think about it. Then there are others that are composites.

While not every character I write is based on someone from my life, it helps when I do have this real-life “personality compass” that I can check back with every once in a while. So when I get to a scene that I’m unsure about, I can see whether I’m remaining true to the character’s nature, or if I’ve sort of veered off into no man’s land.

What’s on your writing bucket list?

I LOVE this question. The book I’m currently working on is a historical fantasy, which was on my bucket list for a long time, so I’m pumped about finally diving in! But I’ve also been dying to write a ghost story that plays with the boundaries of “haunter” and “haunted”, and have been thinking for a while about a thriller set against the 1960s counterculture (all that Warhol Factory jazz? Just crazy). And if I ever get to the end of that list, I’d love to try a story told in second-person, just to do it.

What are you doing when you aren’t writing?

I have a 14-month old wild-man named Penn, who naturally keeps me very busy. When not hanging with Penn or writing/doing writerly things, my husband and I spend a lot of time with family, try our best to get outdoors (hiking, biking, etc – don’t do enough of it!) and try new restaurants. I read as much as I can, for pleasure and because I think it’s fundamental to good writing. I also have a slightly addictive personality when it comes to good TV (read: HBO and Showtime), but I try my best not to watch more than a couple hours a week.

What’s the most important part of every story for you?

I think the thing that I strive for in each of my stories is a big focus on the interior journey of the main character(s), with the exterior setting playing a prominent role, or even serving as a metaphor, for that interior journey. Naturally, I’m a sucker for these types of books as a reader (Bridge to Terabithia, Phantom Tollbooth, The Road, and the list goes on).

In CITY OF SAVAGES, I wanted the burned-out husk of Manhattan to serve as a backdrop for two sisters’ understanding of what love and sacrifice ultimately mean, and how far one will (and should) go for a second chance. In the current book I’m working on, I’m playing with the notions of identity versus family and loyalty, and wanted to set the story during the 1920s: that frenetic, tumultuous period of America redefining itself, and struggling with its own identity. So I think that interplay, of interior and exterior, is what keeps me writing and interested in my stories, and really sings to me as a reader. Unfortunately, it also results in many, many drafts to get the right balance between them… but at this point, I’ve kind of just accepted that I’m a writer that needs to work through many drafts!

 LeeLee Kelly has wanted to write since she was old enough to hold a pencil, but it wasn’t until she began studying for the California Bar Exam that she conveniently started putting pen to paper. An entertainment lawyer by trade, Lee has practiced law in Los Angeles and New York.

She lives with her husband and son in Millburn, New Jersey, though after a decade in Manhattan, she can’t help but still call herself a New Yorker. City of Savages is her first novel.

You can find Lee online: WebsiteTwitter | Facebook | Goodreads | Instagram

Posted in Debut Authors, Writing, Young Adult Tagged , , , ,

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