Carla Kelly: A Regency Jewel
(November 10, 1998)
Carla Kelly has a devoted following for her unusual Regency Romances. Her books are totally unique – nobody writes quite like she does. She is known for her appealing and different characters – not the usual lords and ladies of the traditional Regency Romance. Even when her main character is a member of the nobility, he seldom takes part in the London Season activities beloved by most Regency writers. Several of her heroes are members of the military and the hero of her latest book (which is terrific, by the way), is a wealthy self-made mill-owner who came from a humble background. Several of Mrs. Kelly’s heroines begin in a downtrodden situation, but end up discovering depths of strength that did not realize they had. All of her characters end up changed by their experiences. When I talked to her, Carla Kelly stressed that this change and the self-knowledge her characters acquire along the way is something she strives to show in her writing. If the characters don’t bother to change – why write about them?
Carla was born after WWII, and being a Navy brat, she lived, as she says, “here and there.” She graduated with a degree in history from Brigham Young University, and later earned her Masters in the same subject (focusing on U.S. military history). Recently she has been teaching history part-time at the same university where her husband is director of the theatre department. She and her husband live in North Dakota, and this past summer she worked at Fort Buford State Historic Site on the Montana/North Dakota border, and enjoyed talking about the Indian Wars in general and Sitting Bull in particular. She free-lances at the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, where she dresses in period clothing and “can tell you quite a first-person tale of life in the Indian fighting army. (And yes, they’d rather be called Indians than Native Americans.)”
Along the way, Carla raised five children, and began her writing career with Western short stories that she is trying to have republished in anthology form. Her first novel was A Daughter of Fortune, an historical novel set in the American Southwest in the late 1600’s. She then began the series of Regency Romances that she is best known for, and has won two RITA awards from the Romance Writers of America.
I asked Carla Kelly if she would answer some questions about herself and her writing. She agreed and I had a pleasant conversation with this very talented writer who has a style all her own.
What is it about the Regency period that you especially like?
I like the Regency for two reasons: a) I am a student of the Napoleonic Wars (only a student – my historian’s background is U.S. military history), and I find that aspect of the Regency engrossing. b) I am equally interested (perhaps more so) in that transition between the Enlightenment when everyone knew his place and society reflected this, and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when no one knew his place any longer. It was the beginning of our modern era. I’ve always liked that messy time in history, when things are in flux.
(Note: When I talked to Carla, she mentioned that her latest book, Miss Milton Speaks Her Mind, reflected this beginning of the Industrial Revolution with its mill-owner hero, Scipio Butterworth.)
Your books have a heavier than usual dose of period politics in them. Is this because you have an interest in politics? Your characters tend to be highly democratic and politically liberal. How much of your own politics bleed through in your characters?
In addition to my historian’s background in military history, my father is a retired naval officer and I am familiar with the type. In fact, both my parents served in the US Navy during WWII. I dedicated my first sea story, Mrs. McVinnie’s London Season to them.
How long does it take you to write a book – and do you do any special research before?
It usually takes me 6 months to write a book. I am not a fast writer, because I am invariably working at a job, and involved in 3 or 4 other projects, too. Plus I am lazy. Research is the most fun part. I like to read works of the period, plus bios of the famous, such as Wellington. General histories serve their purpose. Before my sea stories, I generally re-read a couple of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels to get the swashbuckling in my veins again. No one did the era better than Forester. I also research by observing people closely.
Many of your characters are what I would call “extraordinarily, ordinary people,” not always the dukes, earls and marquesses of traditional Regency fiction. Why are you so fond of using ordinary people?
I am drawn to my “ordinary people,” as you kindly put it, because these are the people I know. Possibly my religious background has something to do with it. The Latter Day Saints Church has a rich heritage of strong-hearted saints who overcame obstacles that would make most of us slump, stare and weep. I know and love strong people and I transfer my admiration by putting them in books. I try to avoid overt villains in my stories, because it seems to me that we are usually our own worst enemies, eh? Plus, I know next to nothing about dukes, and don’t think many regency writers do, either. Best to avoid ‘um.
(Note: Jemmy, the scholarly nobleman in Carla Kelly’s latest short story The Christmas Ornament, was, she said, based on a real-life friend of hers.) Of all the Regencies I’ve read yours are the only ones that present Napoleon and France in a halfway positive light. It’s interesting to see the other side of that conflict. Can you comment on why you chose to write characters with French and republican sympathies?
Your secondary characters are so vivid and lifelike. How do you make them so memorable? And would you consider doing any sequels to your books?
Thanks for your kind words about my lively secondary characters. Perhaps the secret here is that no character is secondary to me. If the character is there, it is because he is important to the plot, and therefore not secondary, to my way of thinking. Sequels? I’ve been asked about that, especially to Libby’s London Merchant. What about it, readers? I’ve thought about putting Marian and Gil from Marian’s Christmas Wish in Washington, and expecting a little American.
Who are some of your favorite writers? And do you read any other regency authors?
Favorite authors: I relish Tony Hillerman’s mysteries and some of Anne Perry’s (The Pitts are less interesting, though, now that Thomas has risen through the ranks on Bow Street). I adore Owen Johnson, who wrote The Lawrenceville Stories in 1910, stories of the famous prep school, and the marvelous Stover at Yale. I like the cadence of 19th century fiction, and the language holds no terrors, maybe because I’m a historian. I like Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy (grim, grim), and anything by B. Traven, but especially his Jungle novels, written in the ’20s in Mexico. I don’t read romances or Regencies. Never have, beyond Heyer.
What is your family’s reaction to your writing? Are they impressed?
Family members are pleased with what I do, but hold it in no special esteem, because writing is what Mom does. Don’t all Moms? Sometimes people get a bit reverential when they find out I write (I never speak of it), and that makes me uncomfortable. I am quick to reassure them that everyone does something, and I write. It’s not glamorous (I don’t own a poodle or a feather boa, and don’t eat bon bons). I am ordinary in the extreme, a bit of an introvert, with strong feelings on certain subjects and a whimsical turn of mind.
When did you become interested in writing?
My interest in writing began early. Mom sent me my first book, a two-sentence epic called “The Old Mill,” which I hammered out on her Olivetti-Underwood. It did have a plot. I give my High School journalism teacher, Jean Dugat of Beeville, Texas, credit for teaching me the writer’s discipline and how to nurture the stewardship of words. I’ve worked in hospital and hospice public relations for years.
Of your own works, what are your personal favorites.
A favorite book of mine? Generally it’s the one I’m currently working on, otherwise I would never finish it. Favorite short story has to be Make a Joyful Noise from A Regency Christmas Carol. There’s something so touching about vulnerable people putting all their trust in each other. Favorite book? Perhaps Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, or Marian’s Christmas Wish. I do like Miss Billings Treads the Boards too, because my husband is in theatre. I named the main character Billings because I have relatives in the Montana city. Marian’s Christmas Wish is a favorite because of the Wynswich children – my kids were the models for them. I like Susan Hampton in The Lady’s Companion because she’s brave enough to strike out on her own, make mistakes, and grow. I like to think everyone in my novels learns something. Else, why write?
Your child characters are so believable and natural. Talk more about this.
I have no trouble using children as characters, mainly because I have excellent models in my five, and I hold dear their dignity and trusting nature, and their awareness of family crises, even if they can’t often articulate it. (BTW, if you’re speeding through Kansas City, look out. My son starts the police academy there in January and he does not suffer fools gladly.)
I always look forward to your short stories in the holiday anthologies. How do you approach writing them as opposed to a novel?
How do I approach short stories? Carefully! They’re more of a challenge, because every word has to count. I started out writing western short stories, two of which won Spur Awards from Western Writers of America. I’ve tried to interest Signet in collecting them in an anthology, but no one seems interested. I think I’ll approach a university press about the matter.
What are your future writing plans? Will we see more Regencies?
I don’t really have any plans to write any more Regencies, because the pay is so paltry. I’ve not made any more on a novel since I started, and in fact, since the mid-list authors are getting crunched out, I’ve made less in royalties. Why keep working for a company where you haven’t gotten a raise in 10 years, and are in fact making less? I’m working on a novel set in Wyoming (a beloved area to me), in 1910. It’s LDS-based (Latter Day Saints), but would interest any reader. I’m starting research on a scholarly bio of Guy V. Henry, a much-decorated, well-known cavalry officer of the Indian Wars. That project should keep my head in the microfilm reader for several years, plus time at the National Archives, and then, gee, sitting my butt in a chair to write it. I’m also currently at work on the memoirs of a Marine regimental surgeon who fought and sutured in the South Pacific. This summer, I’ll start the memoirs of Ralph Flores, who was lost in winter in the Yukon in a plane crash, and survived 45 days before his rescue. He was a family friend. I have lots to do. If Signet did want to up the ante a bit, I’d consider another Regency. I am working on a short story for next year’s Christmas anthology.
Carla returned to the Regency Romance scene with a December 2001 release – One Good Turn. It is a sequel to Miss Libby’s London Merchant.
Anything else about you you’d like to share with us?
Several readers have commented that my last stories have been less funny than earlier ones. Let me explain. Two years ago, my son-in-law died in a car accident, and frankly, it’s been hard to snap back. In fact, I was working on a book at the time of his death, put it aside, then finished it, and it was so awful, mainly because everytime I picked it up to work on, I thought of Kevin. I told my editor I would scrap it and start over completely, with something new, (With This Ring). I’m getting my whimsy back, but it did suffer a sea change. Life is short, and we have no guarantees here. We need to tell our friends and relatives that we love them, forgive folks who need forgiving, and not waste our time in silly ventures.
Also, I have a question for your readers. I’ve written a long historical novel set in Spain in 1212. My editor at Signet seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t sell because me readers wouldn’t follow me outside of regencies. My question: is this so? It’s a first-rate book. One of my friends who has read it calls it a whole Kleenex-box novel. Another says it would make a great movie. Just curious to know if you would read me in another genre. Again, thanks for your many kindnesses, and for reading about my normal, flawed, ordinary people who often face their personal crises with a great deal of courage – probably just as you and I do.
2005 Carla Kelly interview