Kathleen Gilles Seidel – Thoughtful Writer, Buried Treasure
(June 17, 2003)
“Overly dramatic, oh-look-at-me people are annoying. I dont want to write about them. (I probably worry that I am one of them.)”
Kathleen Gilles Seidel is one of my most favorite authors. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by her, something I can’t say about many authors. Her books seem more real, more based in truth, more filled with the flavor of everyday life than those by other romance authors. Her stories aren’t filled with explosions or car chases, and there aren’t any “villains.” Instead Seidel focuses entirely on character and showcases the kinds of moments in life when we figure out who we really are and what is of absolutely importance to our existance. I was discussing her books with my sister the other day, and she said, “When I read one of Seidel’s books, I feel like I understand myself better.” I would wholeheartedly concur.
I was so excited that Kathy consented to answer some of the questions that I’d been gathering up in my mind while exploring her backlist. I’m glad to be able to share her thoughts with you.
How much of a background in psychology do you have? You seem to know your characters faults, foibles, and hang-ups so intimately. How much outlining or exploring do you do with your characters before you start to write them?
I have no formal training in psychology, not even a college-level class. Ive read a fair amount, primarily in an effort to improve the relationships in my own life, and that reading has certainly helped me in my work. Any time I have to deal with difficult people, I try hard to imagine what their side of this story would be (they might be finding me equally difficult), and I think that interest carries over into my books.
I dont outline. To explore the characters I draft. I write a lot of really bad drafts. It seems as if to create a 500-piece jigsaw, I have to generate 1500 pieces and then throw out 1000 of them.
Those 1000 extra pieces give the characterizations detail and texture that they might not have if my work method werent so phenomenonally inefficient.
Im very inductive. I always start with the detail, the particular, the immediate, the trivial, and then claw my way to a better understanding of the characters. Occasionally I think I could save time by being deductive for example, when I was learning about the Myers-Briggs Personality Profiles, I decided that I wanted to have a hero who was an SP. (It was Jack in Summers End.) While he did indeed turn out that way, his character took me longer to evolve than if I hadnt started out with the generalization.
Popular sociology has been as useful to me as psychology. I’m currently reading Malcolm Gladstones The Tipping Point (which is being sold as a business book), and it is making me think differently about my characters. Grounding my works in some reflection of sociological and economic truth as well as psychological truth is important to me. That sentence makes me sound pompous beyond all redemption, and my books are too flat for a lot of readers. They want a more delicious fantasy. I respect that completely. I dont think that my books are better because they are more realistic.
Your characters tend to be rational people, self-aware, honorable, disciplined, polite – good citizens. The kind of people you like to know.
These are the people that I understand. In many books the very glamorous or very evil characters are literary constructions; the author is imitating other characters she has read about and so doesnt have anything new to say. All of these conventional characters work very well; they become conventions because they are so appealing. But as an author that doesnt work for me. I need to believe in my characters. I need to believe that they could be real people.
And I really need to understand them. I dont understand evil so I dont write about evil people. My villains (to the extent that I have any) are selfish; that I understand. Similarly I dont write about shy characters but shyness is also something I havent figured out.
That the characters be self-aware is crucial. I just cant seemed to get the story told unless the point of view character is insightful and analytic.
Its interesting that even your in the limelight characters – the famous figure skater, the country western pop star, the soap opera heartthrob – arent particularly dramatic people in their personalities.
Often the long-term most successful entertainers do have a down-to-earth or straight-from-the-heart quality about them. Thats how they connect with their audiences. They might relate to mass audiences better than they do individuals in fact, they may relate to other individuals very poorly – but that is a question that I havent addressed.
One of you most interesting characters, Danny French, from Till the Stars Fall, was much more complicated than either of the leads of that story. More charismatic, but less likable. Have you ever wanted to make him, or a character like him, the hero of your story? To drag an unpleasant character through a redemptive character arc?
The one thing that I understood for sure about Danny was the extent to which most people (including me) dont understand mental illness. You cant bring the same set of questions to bear. So I wouldnt know enough about what it is like to be in his skin to write about him.
A reader introduced me to these issues. In Dont Forget To Smile (1986) I made an off-hand reference to people who raise kids who dont set the world on fire, but who also dont go to Washington and shot the president. I got a very thoughtful letter from a reader who pointed out that, if I was referring to John Hinkley, then I should consider the fact that he was mentally ill and his actions didnt have a lot to do with the parenting he received. So I read the book his parents wrote, and they were extremely well-meaning people, who were trying to deal with what they didnt understand to be mental illness by imposing stricter curfews.
This is going to sound utterly heartless, but mentally ill people can be useful in fiction (Nina Lane, the mother in Please Remember This, was also mentally ill). Because they are unpredictable, they can jar the plot in dramatic ways.
As for redeeming unpleasant characters… I dont really like reading those books, so I cant see myself writing one. Im more interested in relationships. What might interest me about that scenario would be to pick up that character after the arc is completed, and show how other people adjust to him or her now being more tolerable. How long would it be before you really trusted him? How would the realization that he has changed affect you? Not a bad idea.
How interested are you in some of the vocations youve given your characters? Do you follow figure skating, country and rock music, soap operas, and beauty pageants?
Very much, and yes. Although I didnt start out to, I have written a series of books set in different aspects of popular culture, starting with the beauty pageant in Dont Forget To Smile and ending with the circus in Dreamers, Poets, and Clowns.
Wait, you cry, I havent heard of that book. Indeed youve not. I had always assumed that if I was interested in something, then a couple hundred thousand other American women would be too, but that assumption crashed and burned on the circus. Apparently circus books Do Not Sell and so I wasnt able to get it published. Its a shame. My mom really likes it.
Did you have to do quite a bit of research to get a feel for the experience of being in the public eye?
I do have to do a lot of research about the setting, but interestingly it is always rather arms-length research. I will read every memoir ever written, I will talk to people who have worked on soap operas, for example, but when they offer to set up a studio tour, I delay. I realize now that I want to have control over my fantasy/setting, and I dont want to spend too much time with people who are in while I am out. Then I dont own it.
As for the public eye issue I was the youngest of three closely spaced children, and I think that I have a real fear of being invisible. Fame is at least the superficial opposite of invisibility.
I dont know that I have really captured the experience of being in the public eye. The various American female figure skaters said that when their fame was at its peak, they were too busy to know how much attention they were getting. One of them described walking through the airport on the way home for the Olympics and seeing her face on a bunch of magazine covers. She tried to stop and look at them, but she was hurried along.
And, of course, much of the experience of being in the public eye involves being shielded from the experience of being in the public eye.
What interested me in Summers End was not Amys fame per se, but the impact of her fame on her family life.
Since your books are so character driven how do you approach the plotting aspect of writing? How do you decide what going to happen from scene to scene?
Plotting is hard for me. The plot doesn’t fall into place until I understand the characters well. The conflict in a romance novel is not two people yelling and screaming at each other. It is (I think) the conflict between two sets of forces, one set of forces that is pulling the characters together and one that is pulling them apart. Understanding those forces is a part of getting to know your characters, and I’m okay at that. But creating the events and incidents in which these forces unfold…yeah, that’s a challenge.
It’s easiest when one of the characters has a secret. The secret is a character-driven element (why the character is keeping it a secret, how the secret has effected him or her, etc.), and then the plot can constructed around the revelation.
People do keep secrets from their friends and lovers. Real-life secrets aren’t usually as dramatic as fictional ones, but the psychological mechanism is similar.
You have written many Midwestern characters and a number of characters that grew up in small towns. Your characters seem to me, a native Michigander, to be the most authentically Midwestern characters Ive ever come across.
Thank you. Thank you.
Are you from the Midwest?
Did you really think that Im from Scarsdale? Im from Lawrence, Kansas. My parents are still there.
What is it, do you think, that distinguishes the Midwesterner from the rest of Americans?
I dont want to make a list, but certainly when I meet a woman and instantly like her, she almost always turns out to be from the Midwest. I like lots of other women, but that immediate bond I feel with some women does tend to be a Midwestern thing.
Ive noticed in romance there seems to be a rather pervasive Small Town Mythology. That life is simple and problems disappear once outside the Big City? What do you think of this?
I think a lot of American women feel that their relationships are compartmentalized. They work all day with people who have never met their husbands and kids. The people they worship with dont belong to the same swimming pool or send their children to the same school. As a result their lives feel fragmented.
The Small Town Myth depicts a society in which everyone does know your name. So the consoling aspect of the myth is less that life is simple than that it is more integrated.
The Small Town (in myth) also gives you time. No long commutes, no spending a day looking for the perfect pair of shoes because there are just two shoe stores so you just find the best that theyve got and make do. The mythic Small Town removes many routine, nagging irritants. Small Towns have plenty of parking.
But in many romances this mythic Small Town is not very well grounded. Yes, the settings of romance novels are fantasies, but you want them to be believable fantasies. And so many of these towns are too cozy to be believable. First of all the towns are too homogenous and in the name of friendliness, are given little or no class structure. My hometown had one high school, and so you went to school with everyone the American Indians, the African-Americans, the greasers, the farm kids, the country club kids, etc….but you never talked to anyone outside your own group. (This material is reflected in the back story of Again, the soap opera book.) In the mythic Small Town people rise above socio-economic class, but all the sociology Ive read about small towns suggests the opposite, that the lines may be more rigid. Second, romance authors dont think through the economics of their small towns. A sleepy little Southern town will have a fabulous independent book store. Theres no sense of what the towns economic base comes from. My two most competely depicted small towns are the ones in Dont Forget to Smile (the Oregon logging/beauty queen book) and Please Remember This (the steamboat excavation book). In each case the towns economy is part of the story.
Your first category romance was also one of the first in the Harlequin American Romance line. How did that come about?
Because somebody elses book tested badly.
Vivian Stephens, the first editor of the American Romance line, wanted to publish books that featured women of color, but she wasnt getting the submissions. So she asked a white author to make her characters black and the author complied. Vivian had scheduled the book to be in the launch, but when the test marketing results came back, that book had not been well received (which didnt mean that readers didnt want to read about women of color, just that they didnt want to read faked books about women of color). My first book, The Same Last Name, had a far better reader response than had been anticipated so it was moved to the launch. By then I had already written A Risk Worth Taking and Mirrors and Mistakes so the editors knew what was in the pipeline. Im sure that that was a factor in the decision to put my book in the launch.
I got tremendous support from Harlequin in the first years of my career.
When I read some of the older category romances from the early eighties, it seems like the conventions of the time were a bit looser. Heroines smoked, had more sexually casual lifestyles, and considered abortion. It seems like category romance has gotten more conservative and restrictive over the past twenty years? Would you agree?
I did not feel very constrained. In A Risk Worth Taking, the heroine (a country music singer) was addicted to what I initially called uppers and downers, reds and blues. Harlequin asked me to change that to prescription medications, and I had no problem with that. In Mirrors and Mistakes, I had to delete all references to the minor characters ethnicity so that dark-haired, dark-eyed David Stern wasnt Jewish and Nick Moretti was not Italian, but just an immigrants son. That seemed pointless, but I did it. On important matters I was able to do what I wanted.
When I started, series romances dominated the contemporary market. If you wanted to read a contemporary romance, you read a series title. (Obviously you can change the verb in that sentence to write.) There wasnt much else. So the publishers had to please more different kinds of readers, including both the readers who didnt want to be surprised and the readers who did. But now the quirky and edgy books can find homes with single-title publishers. The readers who want those books have found them outside the series, and so Harlequin is not surprisingly publishing what the current readers care about.
In other words, if category romances are more traditional, it results from the fact that the edgy readers have left the series and the traditional ones have remained. Ultimately the readers control what is happening, not the writers or editors.
Did you enjoy writing category romance?
Yes. I loved feeling as if I were playing on a team. One good Harlequin American Romance helped all of us; one bad one hurt us all.
Was the shift from category to single title romance one that you worked for?
The transition was very natural. My first long book, After All These Years, was written for the American Romance line, but Vivian felt that it needed to be longer. She was also wanting to expand her franchise within Harlequin, and she had actually hoped to publish my book and several others as trade paperbacks. Instead they came out (and disappeared as) American Romance Premier Editions.
My second long book, Dont Forget To Smile, was also initially conceived as an American Romance, but I was coming to realize that 100,000 words was my natural length. Harlequin had just started Worldwide Libraries which was going to publish single-title releases so it felt very easy to send it there. Worldwide Libraries was another publishing disaster, of course, but I was able to make the transition in a very safe editorial environment.
Womens Fiction is an increasingly popular sub-genre that seems to be emerging as an important hybrid of romance and straight fiction. Your more recent books seem to be more womens fiction than straight romance.
My last book was published with a romance cover, it had romance on the spine, and the hero and heroine had almost nothing to do with each other until about page 120. Im happy with the book, but I know that anyone who came to it expecting a romance would have been disappointed, and so my numbers on that book stink.
What do you feel is the difference between romance and womens fiction, and is that the direction youre moving in – away from straight romance and towards womens fiction?
Im currently more interested in relationships among women than I am in the boy-girl stuff so I suppose the answer is yes. I really dont have anything to say about people in their twenties.
Have you ever had any desire to write a historical romance or go completely out of the genre and write a mystery?
Not a mystery although I read them. And I cant imagine myself writing a full-length historical, but I did start what I hoped would be a novella that was set in Britain immediately after WWI. Again I was more interested in the relationship among the women than in the love story, and I was hoping that if it got published in a collection, no one would notice that it didnt have much of a romance, but my agent said that people would notice and so she didnt even send it anywhere. Except for that distraction, I think that my career has evolved in a pretty organic way. A Kathy Seidel book is a Kathy Seidel book because Ive always written what I wanted to write when Ive wanted to write it. (They told me not to write a circus book, but I did anyway.)
Why did you decide to write romance in the first place? Do you read romance yourself? Do you have favorite romance authors? What are your favorite books?
I read Emilie Loring in junior high, Georgette Heyer in high school, and Harlequin Presents in graduate school. Before I started writing, my favorite series author was Brooke Hastings (Deborah Gordon). My favorite non-romance is Jane Austens Persuasion. Of all her books, Persuasion is the least afraid of emotionally intensity.
Youve mentioned in essays and dedications the support youve received from other romance authors. Do you think that romance writers are generally encouraging of each other? Have you been influenced by any other romance writers?
I think that romance writers are extremely encouraging of one another. There are a few difficult personalities in the community, but I really enjoy the company of other romance writers. The Washington Romance Writers annual Retreat in Harpers Ferry, WV, is one of the high points of my year.
Four of your early romances could be classified as Marriage in Trouble stories. What attracts you about this type of story?
I love marriage of convenience books, love em, love em, love em. I like the artificial intimacy. But they are hard to do in a realistic contemporary. Pregnancy is pretty much the only plot device that works (although in my second book, A Risk Worth Taking, the marriage of convenience is caused by the inadequate foster care system in rural Georgia). So increasingly I just have the characters living in the same house which can generate some of the same issues although the stakes are lower.
I would call most of my books Marriages of Convenience instead of Marriage in Trouble. (The fact that you didnt call them MoC is flattering; I have apparently succeeded in making the situations more believable than most MoCs.) The one real Marriage In Trouble book was When Love Isnt Enough, and I think it is the book that I probably like the least.
Many of your books have work as the main point of conflict. Youve written characters that are workaholics and characters that are burned out. The problem in these characters relationships is often mixed up with their attitudes toward their jobs and their inability to set limits in their working life. These are realistic difficulties and more complicated to solve than, say, finding the heroine and rescuing her from her captors. What makes you want to explore peoples attitudes toward work and their coworkers?
Because this is what I know. I live just outside Washington D.C. and your work is your identity in this town. What do I know about rescuing someone from captivity?
I was on a panel once in which each of us talked about what aspect of writing was the hardest. (Description is the hardest thing for me.) One of the panelists said that finding jobs for the people was very challenging, and that sometimes she will have a complete draft done and the people are undifferentiated professionals. I was taken aback. To me peoples work is so much a part of who they are.
Please share with your readers some of your personal history.
I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. My father was a chemistry professor; my mother was a pediatrician. I went to the University of Chicago and met my husband during my freshman year. We have been married for 30 years and have two teen-aged daughters. I have a Ph.D. in English literature from Johns Hopkins. We live outside Washington, D.C. My husband is an information systems consultant.
Whats up next for you?
I have had a couple of false starts in the last few years so I dont want to talk about the current project until I feel more certain about it.
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