Lee 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. Visit her at NewWriteCity.com.
Lee was kind enough to chat with me about her new book, City of Savages, and more!
KC: Will you tell us a little about City of Savages and what inspired you to write it?
LK: I started writing City of Savages during a particularly stressful time in my life: I had just moved back to New York from LA, and I was working at a large law firm, with tight deadlines, demanding bosses, and long hours. I found myself needing a way to channel all of my frustration, and soon I began daydreaming about a very different version of New York: a Central Park that actually was a prison, life-or-death subway rides, city rituals that were extremely cutthroat and savage… a couple of months later, I had the beginnings of the City of Savages world.
From the start, I knew I wanted my post-World War III Manhattan story to center around two sisters, as the sister-relationship is so important and personal to me, but it wasn’t until I started outlining the novel that I found I also wanted to include the “story behind the story”: the story of how Manhattan fell in the first place. So I started tinkering with Sky and Phee’s mother’s story through a journal . . . one thing led to another, and the journal found its way into the manuscript too. The result is a novel that spans two generations of women: those who survived the initial “World War III attacks” on Manhattan, and the children of those women who were raised to live in its aftermath. The book cuts back and forth between the two time periods, with the secrets of the past often informing and complementing the dangers and challenges the sisters encounter in the present.
KC: City of Savages takes place in the not too distant future, in Manhattan. Will you tell us more about your future New York City.
LK: Oh, fun question! My family and I moved out of the city about a year ago for the backyard benefits and easier schooling situation of the suburbs, but my husband and I always talk about going back after the kids are grown. In a dream of dreams, I’d love to move back and get a one bedroom or studio or something near Central Park and just enjoy everything that the city has to offer (which only seems to grow exponentially each year). Restaurants, shows, night life, art exhibits, readings – New York is such a cultural epicenter, and while Jersey makes so much sense right now, I really am hoping to have my own future New York City some day.
KC: Why do you think readers will root for Phee and Sky, and what did you enjoy most about writing their characters?
LK: Like many sisters, Sky and Phee are very different: Sky’s the older sister, more sensitive, introverted, cerebral, where Phee is a brasher, braver type that has always felt more at home in the dangerous Manhattan POW camp. So of course they have their quibbles and disagreements, like every pair of sisters. But (and I’m quoting my editor Navah Wolfe here!) at the end of the day, when it matters, Sky and Phee are absolutely each other’s Person, the rock that the other can always rely on, no matter what the world throws at them. I think (I hope!) that readers will get behind a relationship like that, will root for this pair of women, strong in their own unique ways but formidable when they’re together. Sky and Phee’s relationship is not perfect, but it’s real and textured, with its own history and dialogue.
And I absolutely had the most fun writing the scenes where Sky and Phee were together, volleying off of one another. I based Sky and Phee off of my own two sisters and my relationship with them … and as one of three sisters, I know too well how you can go from feeling like your sister knows you better than anyone else in the world, to feeling jealous of her, to wanting to strangle her ha-ha. It’s such a complicated relationship, and it was extremely fun to write the scenes where their dynamic spans the spectrum of sisterhood.
KC: Worldbuilding is important in books like this, so with that said, what are a few of your favorite literary worlds?
LK: Ooh, this is a tough question. I guess the first literary world that ever completely enraptured me was The Kingdom of Wisdom in The Phantom Tollbooth (I think I read that book at least twenty times in a two-year period!) I was also crazy about the wild universe in the A Wrinkle in Time series, and as a teenager, I read more Star Wars novels than I care to admit… but more recently, I’ve been blown away by (and completely baffled that one human being could create) the intricate, rich world of Game of Thrones. I also loved the festive, magic atmosphere of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I could live inside that book.
KC: You’re a lawyer by trade, but have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us a little more about yourself and your progression?
LK: I have ALWAYS wanted to write – I was the seven-year old entering local library poetry contests, and I recently found my eighth-grade yearbook when we moved, and I had listed “WRITER” as my future occupation. It’s always been something I’ve been hungry to do, but I think the more practical side of me (encouraged by the more practical sides of my parents of course) shied away from pursuing a career in creative writing, in favor of something a little “safer” like law. Even still, the writing bug nagged at me constantly – I remember outlining story ideas during my law school classes, and I was actually tinkering with my first attempt at a novel as I was studying for the California Bar Exam. When I had a true break between the bar and my first job, I decided I needed to just go for it: write for every day, for one hour in the mornings. About four years later, I signed with my agent for City of Savages. I think if you have the compulsion to write, you’re not going to feel whole until you start putting words on paper.
KC: What books or authors have influenced and inspired you the most?
LK: Suzanne Collins, for her amazing ability to make you care about her characters while simultaneously driving you wild from story tension and suspense.
Cormac McCarthy, for his awesome and enviable balance of the beautiful and the bleak, especially in The Road. Some of his lines still haunt me, and I read the book years ago (I remember him describing a falling, burning paper in the shape of a “molten rose” . . .). He’s a master.
Gillian Flynn, of course for her twisty plots, but moreover for creating such deep, wonderful, complicated, dangerous, different female characters. Especially in Sharp Objects. My God.
Karen Russell, for her amazing ability to blend the real with the strange and the surreal with the very, very human. I’ve been savoring her Vampires in the Lemon Grove for some time now, and Swamplandia! is just wonderful.
KC: What are you currently reading?
LK: I’m in the middle of two critiques for wildly-talented writer friends of mine: Jen Brooks’s (In a World Just Right, S&S April 2015) next project currently entitled Jewelry, about a mysterious, magical box of keepsakes that starts to charm a group of long-lost friends in interesting and disconcerting ways, and Kelly Loy Gilbert’s (Conviction, Disney-Hyperion May 2015) next project, a young adult contemporary about a boy from an undocumented family who learns his parents have been keeping secrets from him too. Both are due out in 2016.
KC: What’s next for you?
LK: I’m in the process of revising my next book with Saga Press! It’s a magical realism crossover novel, currently entitled Criminal Magic, which follows two bootlegging sorcerers through an alternative Prohibition-era America (one where magic has been prohibited).