After the publication of her award-winning first novel, Owl in Love, in 1993, Patrice Kindl wrote three more well-received YA novels, but Keeping the Castle, a historical-fiction comedy of manners, is her first in a decade. An ardent animal lover, Kindl spoke with PW by phone from her home in upstate New York, which she and her husband have shared with monkeys, birds of prey, dogs, cats, and rodents – and currently, a rather talkative parrot.
It’s been 10 years since the publication of your last book, Lost in the Labyrinth. What have you been doing in that time?
Coping with a lot of pain! I have congenital deformities in both feet and I had to have a series of surgeries. After one of the surgeries I got a staph infection that wouldn’t go away; at one point they were even talking about amputating my leg. That scared me against any more surgeries for six or seven years, during which time I was basically sitting around on a hassock, trying to get through the day. I tried writing during that time, but it just wasn’t very good. So finally I realized I had to have the final surgery, which was successful – and then I could write again.
You’ve previously written fantasy and realistic fiction; what made you decide to write a historical fiction book?
I read one too many post-feminist historical novels in which the heroine was contemptuous of marriage and went to London to track down murderers or do things to that effect – and while there was the rare woman in earlier centuries who could do something like that, for the vast majority, that wasn’t an option. I finally thought: “This is ridiculous!” So I wrote the first chapter of Keeping the Castle. I brought it to my writers’ group and said, “This is kind of goofy.” But they loved it! You noticed that the book is dedicated to my writers’ group?
Yes! They must have commented on the Jane Austen influence--are you a Jane Austen admirer?
You can’t tell? [She laughs.]
In 2001 Booklist described Goose Chase as a “fairytale spoof;” did you consciously decide to write a “Jane Austen spoof?”
I don’t think of it as a spoof, it’s actually an homage to Jane Austen. I’ve loved her work since I was about twelve. It cracked me up when I realized, as a young teenager, that she wasn’t really writing about romance; she was writing about money. I think she continues to be fascinating and relevant to women today because, while there have been amazing changes for women in the world, some things haven’t really changed. As long as women are having babies and raising them to adulthood, they need stability and security – which generally means money. It’s perfectly legitimate for women to worry about finding men who are financially stable, but that’s unmentionable today. It’s supposed to be all about love.
Polly Shulman’s blurb compares your new book to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Do you know that book? Did you have it in mind when writing Keeping the Castle?
I had heard of it, but honestly, the first time I read it was after I read her blurb. And I liked it very much.
You note on your website that you don’t want to write sequels to your books. And Keeping the Castle reads like a stand-alone book, with all the threads satisfyingly tied up at the end. When did you decide to make it the first of a trilogy?
I got an agent for the first time, and she said I should write three books. I like being told what to write! I’m very slow at getting started.
You sold your other books without an agent? Was that difficult?
Surprisingly, it was not at all difficult. After I had written Owl in Love, in 1993, I found a book that I thought was similar to it – Enter Three Witches by Kate Gilmore – which had been published by Houghton Mifflin. I called them up and asked the person who answered the phone who had edited that book. It was Matilda Welter, so I wrote to her, saying I had a manuscript I thought she might like because it was similar to Enter Three Witches. I asked if she would look at it. And she said yes, and she liked it and bought it.
Why did you decide to get an agent now? And how did you go about that?
After I wrote Keeping the Castle, I called Sharyn November, my paperback editor at Viking. I told her I’d written a book that I didn’t think would be right for her because she primarily likes fantasy, and asked her to recommend an agent. She said, “send it to me,” and I said, “you won’t like it,” and she said, “send it to me,” so I did. And she bought it. Then I thought I should finally have somebody to advise me about all the things that are in contracts these days, and Sharyn recommended Irene Goodman because she likes YA and she likes Regency.
Getting back to the trilogy idea: why did you decide to stay in the world of Lesser Hoo for two more books?
I really like the name! I like Yorkshire; I like the fact that it was at the ends of the earth in those days. It was three days’ journey to London and it was cold and desolate, being by the sea.
Have you been to Yorkshire?
I have, but I actually wrote the book before I ever went there. I did lots of research online and in books. Then my 91-year-old mother asked me to accompany her on a literary tour of England that her library was organizing. I had just started the book at that point, and the tour started right after I finished it – in fact, I sold the book the day before the tour started. So after I came back from the tour I just changed and fixed a few things.
Can you tell us which characters from Keeping the Castle we might meet again in the next two books? Will new characters be introduced?
The main character is new: Mr. Fredericks’s niece, Cecily, who was brought up in India, where both her parents died in a cholera epidemic. He brings her back to Lesser Hoo, where she attends a new school while living with Althea [the main character in Keeping the Castle]. Let’s just say most of the main characters from Keeping the Castle will be in the background of the second book. But the biggest problem of the book will still be that there are absolutely no eligible bachelors in Lesser Hoo.
Does it have a title yet?
Yes, but it’s kind of boring, so it’s just a working title: A School for Manners.
Now that you’ve written across several genres, do you have a favorite genre as a writer?
I don’t – I like to do different things. Although I don’t think I’ll ever write about cowboys or sports. I would like to write a mystery, though.
How about as a reader?
Again, I like to read a lot of different things. In general, though, I prefer plotted books to character-driven ones – although I recognize that plot can be overdone at times.
Do you read much current YA fiction? Do you have any favorite YA authors?
I do read a lot of YA fiction, though I don’t have any current favorite authors. I should mention that I live in a small village in rural New York state, about an hour from Albany, and we have a small library. What I get to read is somewhat serendipitous, depending on what is in the library. I do participate in [the] child_lit [listserv], which is a very lively and interesting discussion group for people who are interested in children’s literature, and that is often where I learn about new books.
You also write on your Web site about your lifetime love for, and serious involvement with, animals. How does your passion for animals make its way into your books?
Fido [from Keeping the Castle] is sitting in my lap right now. Fido is a word-for-word description of my Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Dante, both in appearance and behavior. I didn’t specify the breed in the book because it has been altered since that time. The breed has been around since 1100, but after Queen Victoria’s time it was intermingled with the pug. So Althea would have called the dog a miniature spaniel, not a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. And they really did give their dogs names like Fido back then! Fido, coming from the Latin for faithful, is especially good for this breed because they are so loyal and faithful.
Then my husband and I have been very involved in an organization called Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled, through which we have raised and trained monkeys to help quadriplegics. So I made monkeys part of the story in Lost in the Labyrinth.
How about owls?
I never had an owl, though my son’s ex-girlfriend was the first female master falconer in New York State. She lived with us for a while and it was always fun to open the freezer and find it filled with dead mice. We have had birds of prey, but never an owl.
Did you get the idea for Owl in Love from the ex-girlfriend?
No, actually, the idea came from a dream I had about an adult woman who so loved a man that she turned herself into an owl so she could fly to his house at night and watch over him.
Any parrots in your books? [Kindl’s parrot has been squawking in the background throughout the entire interview.]
I haven’t had a parrot in my books yet!
Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl. Viking, $16.99 June ISBN 978-0-670-01438-5