Katherine Reay is writing women’s fiction with a fresh, exciting voice. In her latest release, A Portrait of Emily Price (Thomas Nelson), her main character is on an unexpected adventure abroad when love surprises her. But as love always does, it brings about revelation and risk. Katherine answered our top questions about this exciting project!
This book is about a young woman on an adventure in Italy that turns into a journey of self-discovery. Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
The idea came to me while reading C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. There is a powerful scene near the end of the story when the main character, Orual, brings her case to the gods to justify all she has done. Yet, within the very act of articulating her case, she realizes she hasn’t got one. What she once viewed as selfless acts for others—managing their lives and even manipulating them at times—are revealed to be self-serving. Her “case” falls at her feet as she sees everything differently and understands the harm she caused for those she loved.
I sat with that scene for a long time wondering what it might look like today, for a young woman we might know. And if this woman started from a place of control, based on fear, then what could be so enticing, and joy-filled, as to make her yearn for something new and perhaps something better? What might compel her to drop her guard, surrender that control, and let in love? There began my journey toward A Portrait of Emily Price.
Did you get the chance to visit Italy?
I did! When we lived in London and Dublin, airfare to Italy was very inexpensive so we traveled to Italy several times. We then revisited in the summer of 2015 for an extended “research” trip. I really do get to do the best research! Yet despite all that research, I know I made mistakes. I have moved 17 times—all across the United States and those two cities in Europe—and I understand that nuances in culture and worldview can not be discerned in short visits. You need to live in a place. So I hope that, while I captured some of Italy’s extraordinary flavor, texture and beauty, my Italian friends will forgive my mistakes as they might be understood by Emily, a young American. I also purposely created misunderstandings and miscommunications that might come from differing worldviews in an effort to highlight the importance of acceptance and forgiveness in bridging those gaps.
What sort of research did this story require?
It definitely required a visit to Italy–it also required much more. I did a lot of research into art restoration at the library, online and in person. Here in Chicago, I interviewed several restorers who work for insurance companies and cover a wide variety of mediums and valuations. Then—terribly exciting—I happened to meet a man who works in art at the Vatican and he offered to arrange for a visit to the Vatican’s restoration labs when I was in Rome. I can’t tell you how much that formed the story—it was beyond extraordinary.
Can you tell us about your main character, Emily Price?
Emily Price is a delightful young woman. I think we’d be friends—as long as I let her be in charge, at first. Control is not an illusion to her, but very real—and we see it in her work, her relationships and her life. That belief gets shaken as things fall apart. Her perspective and what she deems possible get rocked when she meets Ben. And her worldview broadens when she encounters and learns to love Ben’s family. She is a character who lives one way, but recognizes the glimmer, the hope and the possibility of something new and, perhaps, something more beautiful.
You’ve followed this very elegant influence of British literature in your writing with Jane Austen and the Bronté sisters serving as muses. Do you think you will continue on this streak?
I will for the next book—and I’ll give more details on that below. I have written the story and am currently editing it. After that, I am not sure how defined a role the classics will play. They will always be a part of my thinking, but perhaps not so overtly drawn onto the page.
Can you tell us about your next project?
Ah … I am so excited about this one and it just got a title: The Austen Escape. It’s a wonderful story about two best friends, a trip to Bath, England, and an unexpected event that changes both their lives. I love diving into relationships and not, primarily, the romantic ones. In Dear Mr. Knightley, Sam needed family as much as she longed for a love interest; Lizzy and Jane needed each other; and Lucy, in The Bronte Plot, needed Helen and Sid. In The Austen Escape, Mary and Isabel dig into what their 20-year friendship, formed at age 8, has been and what it must become to survive. Yet, of course, there is a handsome young man, Nate, who’s right in the middle. It’ll release next November.