Hoya Highlight: Lee Kelly (Alycia Appicello) (C'02)

Lee Kelly

Author, Simon & Schuster

Describe your current profession.

I’m an entertainment lawyer by trade, but I’ve taken a brief hiatus from practicing to focus solely on writing my books under contract – so right now I’m a full-time writer. My first novel, City of Savages, released from Simon & Schuster in February. My next one, A Criminal Magic, comes out in spring 2016 – I’m currently in the midst of revising this second book with my editor.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your latest work, City of Savages.

The story idea for City of Savages was born out of a very stressful time in my life: so looking back, I actually think the book’s setting came first, and everything else came after. I was in New York at the time, working at a law firm that demanded long hours, tight deadlines and had lots of pressure -- and I had the distinct sensation of being trapped somewhere that I couldn't get out of. That hopeless, uncomfortable feeling eventually released itself through day-dreaming, and I started thinking about midtown Manhattan as a type of prison, subway rides that really were life-and-death, and a version of the city that actually was cutthroat and savage (instead of just sometimes feeling that way!). One thing led to another, and I soon began writing rough sketches of a story about a family living in a prisoner-of-war camp Manhattan (a story which was called “Manhattan Savages” at the time).

What has been the most challenging or rewarding moment in your career?

I think the most rewarding moment had to be the night of my book launch party for City of Savages. I had the event at The Strand Bookstore in New York City, the week of the book’s release, and the place ended up being packed with family, friends and interested readers. My sister had written an original song and put together a little slide show about the novel, and I was able to speak about the book and thank the people who had done so much for me over the years of writing the story, as well as the years leading up to publication. It was just such a wonderful and surreal culmination of so much hard work and anticipation, and looking back it was the perfect way to celebrate the book’s release!

What are your tips for fellow writers, artists, etc. who are having trouble with their creative process?

Whenever I’m struck with writer’s block – or feel particularly unenthusiastic about a project I’m working on – I first try to identify what’s specifically causing the issue, and then I diagnose it. Am I not sure of where the story is going, hence not excited about spinning my wheels in front of my computer? (Diagnosis: I need to take a step back and think about the big picture themes, or free-wheel brainstorm for a bit before going back to the actual writing). Am I enthralled by a new idea and suddenly have no interest in finishing my current project? (Diagnosis: I’m procrastinating and need to turn off social media and stop reading about other people’s ideas and recent publishing deals!). I find, when I’m honest with myself, I can usually determine what’s causing me to feel stuck, and then figure out the appropriate way to get “unstuck,” if that makes sense. I also think reading helps the writing process so much, by constantly exposing me to new topics and storytelling styles. I try to read as much as I write, which doesn’t always happen, but it’s the goal.

Who do you consider to be your influencers?

Oh, so many! Of course my parents: they’ve both been supportive of my writing from day one, and have their own unique ways of sharing and celebrating the art of storytelling.

In the writing sphere, I’d say Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth is still one of my favorite books of all time) and E.B. White as a child – those two were my idols. As an adult, I’ve been influenced by Suzanne Collins (who writes pulse-pounding adventure and yet never skimps on giving us fully-realized characters), and Gillian Flynn, who is a master of writing the complicated, morally-ambiguous female character that you can’t help but root for.

And in the non-book world, I’d say Chris Nolan, as I’ve enjoyed every one of his mind-bendy films and I think that each one employs a new cinematic style and has created a unique, fully immersive world (Interstellar, Inception and The Prestige, to name a few).

What do you consider to be the most useful piece of career advice you ever received?

It might sound simplistic, but the best advice I’ve received is “Don’t compare” – not to other writers when you’re first starting out, and not to other authors when your books are actually on the shelves. There’s always going to be a writing buddy that gets an agent before you, or a critique partner that gets a publishing deal before you, or a fellow published author that gets more marketing money or a bigger advance or more starred reviews from trade magazines than you. And comparing – wondering why them and not you, does nothing for you – in fact, it just wastes time and poisons your thoughts, when you should be using that valuable mental real estate for writing (or reading).

It’s SO tough to do in today’s social media age, but I find the more I can shut that comparison game down, the happier and more focused I am on my own writing.

What skills are necessary, or how do you think the requirements for your industry are changing?

I think that having an online presence has become a necessary part of being an author. I think readers these days expect to be able to interact with their favorite writers, which means that writers must be somewhat accessible on platforms such as Goodreads, Twitter and Facebook. It means being willing to Skype with schools or travel in person to libraries and bookstores, as well as participate in panels and in-person discussions. It also means developing a thicker skin, as many reviews and discussions about your book – from the professional to the personal – are visible and part of a greater, public conversation!

The trick as a writer, of course, is balancing this “social time” with writing time, as uninterrupted writing time – just you and your computer – is the only thing that actually generates pages (and books!).

How do you think your time at Georgetown affected your professional decisions?

I was a government and psychology double major at Georgetown, but even then, I had the writing bug, and I think I took every screenwriting, character and dialogue workshop available during my time there. One particularly influential teacher was John Glavin, who ran the film and screenwriting program at Georgetown. He introduced us to the idea of group critique, and how workshopping a work-in-progress might be scary, but ultimately would result in a better product. I think this was such an important lesson as so many of us writers guard our stories and ideas like darlings, and we don’t want to show the world until “it’s done.” But without honest critique partners and beta readers, a work-in-progress is never going to get to that next level, because you’re never going to hear any opinion but your own. I learned this lesson early, at Georgetown, and it’s been an invaluable one!

What associations, clubs, or resources have aided in your professional development?

The Georgetown Alumni Association Career Services and Georgetown Entertainment and Media Alliance (GEMA) have been extremely helpful, both in my role as a writer and as an entertainment lawyer looking to connect with other individuals working and interested in the arts. I’m also a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. This organization puts on conferences for writers every year across the country, and it’s a fabulous way to network and meet other like-minded individuals at all stages of their writing careers. Finally, I’m a member of the New York Library Young Lions Club, which supports the NYPL as well as hundreds of up-and-coming writers.

Anything else you would like to add?

Any Georgetown students or graduates who are interested in talking a bit about writing or the publishing process, I’m more than happy to chat! My contact information is available on my website: www.newwritecity.com.