Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Interview with Lee Kelly, CRIMINAL MAGIC

Can you give us a brief overview of your latest book? Is it part of a series?
A CRIMINAL MAGIC takes place in an alternative Prohibition-era America, where magic instead of alcohol has been prohibited.  It follows up-and-coming sorcerer Joan Kendrick and undercover Prohibition agent Alex Danfrey as they become entangled in the magic underworld.

Do you have a favorite character?
I have to say I’m partial to Alex – as a reader (and a TV/film viewer), I can’t help but fall for characters that start the story somewhat unlikable or prickly, and end up becoming a hero-type.  Alex is the undercover agent in A CRIMINAL MAGIC . . . and only joined the Prohibition Unit to quash suspicion that he was helping his father run one of the largest criminal magic schemes in history. 

Alex begins the story as jealous and insecure, and wearing a massive chip on his shoulder.  But he really comes into his own after he’s tapped to go undercover with the Shaw Gang, the main criminal outfit in the novel. 

Did you try the traditional route to publishing, i.e. querying agents/publishers?
Yes!  I was a slush pile story, and did the whole cold-query thing: I researched agents I thought would be a good fit for my first novel, CITY OF SAVAGES, online, crafted individualized query letters, and received an offer from my current agent, Adriann Ranta, after she read the manuscript and asked for a phone call. 

How long before you got your offer of representation/your first contract? Was it for your first novel?
After I signed with Adriann, she created a list of editors at publishing houses that she thought would like CITY OF SAVAGES.  Adriann and I talked about the list, and then she sent it out on submission to around a dozen editors. 

On that round, we actually had an “R&R” (I wasn’t aware of the meaning of this term at the time, but it means a “Request & Revise” – where an editor likes the manuscript but thinks it needs more work before they can bring it to acquisitions).  I then completed the R&R, and sent the revised manuscript back to the original editor.  The book didn’t make it past acquisitions at that house, so Adriann sent the book out on another round, and we were fortunate enough to catch the eye of my current editor, the brilliant Navah Wolfe at Saga Press/Simon & Schuster.  That entire process I think – from first submission round, through the R&R, the pass, the second round – was about eight months. 

What factors influenced your decision to go with a particular agent or publisher?
I know this sounds strange, but I knew I was going to work with my current agent, Adriann Ranta, from the moment I found her bio on the fabulous kidlit site, Literary Rambles.  I believe one of her wishlist items was “dark YA stories with unique settings rooted in the real world.”  I was like, that’s my story!  It’s dark!  It takes place in an alternative Manhattan that’s a POW camp!  And she represents my career crush, Kendare Blake! AHHHH.  Haha so when she emailed me asking for a phone call, it was such a surreal and wonderful moment.

On the editorial side, we were actually referred to Navah from an editor at a Simon & Schuster “sister” house, Simon Pulse.  She thought CITY OF SAVAGES would be up Navah’s alley, and so Adriann sent her the manuscript.  I was fortunate enough to meet with Navah in person BEFORE her acquisitions meeting, and I knew right away we would be a fantastic match.  I loved how warm and approachable she was, dug her book list, and appreciated that she loved the sisters’ angle of my story most of all (as I did).  I was thrilled when S&S acquired the novel and I was able to work with her!

Do you belong to a critique group? Have they helped improve your writing?
YES!  I swear by my critique partners – sometimes you really can’t see the weaknesses in a project until you view your work through someone else’s eyes. 

I have two amazing CPs that I’ve worked with for the better part of a decade – Lisa Koosis (her own debut, RESURRECTING SUNHSINE, released this past month) and Erika David, who’s represented by the fantastic Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. 

I also regularly swap work with a few authors I met through my 2015 debut group, the Freshman Fifteen.  We’ll keep each other posted on what we’re working on, and swap actual ideas and pages for feedback.

What is your writing process? Do you listen to music or do you like silence?
My kids are little, so my primary writing hours are the hour before they get up in the morning (6-7 am) and the hours when my son goes to nursery school (930-1230).  I try to get everything done during those hours: drafting, revising, emails, blogging, personal calls, house to-dos, etc. etc.  And so the time that gets devoted to actual drafting (usually two hours or so) involves no music, no social media, no wifi.  It used to be really hard for me to just sit down and start working, but after an adjustment period, I finally feel like I put those couple hours to good writing use.

Do you outline your story or just go where your muse takes you?
I’ve done it both ways, honestly, but I think I’m the kind of writer that needs some sort of outline, or I lose steam at the story’s 25% mark, as I have no idea where I’m going.  The amount of outlining I do though varies for each project: for my first novel, I had a loose synopsis.  For A CRIMINAL MAGIC, I ended up with a scene-by-scene chart (because it was so important to make sure the dual POVs lined up, and I needed to keep their secrets straight).  For the middle grade I’m working on now, though, I have a 20-page outline!  So I always need some sort of road map, but the level of detail in that map varies project to project, if that makes sense.

Some fun facts about you, which do you prefer – dogs or cats? Chocolate or vanilla? Coffee or Tea? Talk or Text? Day or Night?
Oooh, tough question: I like dogs more, but identify with cats more ;).
Talking in person, but I prefer text-talking over phone-talking (I hate talking on the phone)
Day over Night, though I love both.

What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a couple projects right now: I never used to toggle between projects, but I have to say, it’s kept things fresh and kept me working, especially when I get stuck on a particular story thread in a manuscript, and the best thing for me to do is give myself time to let the story rest and marinate. 

So I’m currently working on a revision of this middle grade I’ve been writing on and off for a while: it’s a story near and dear to me, and I finally feel like I’m getting to the heart of the story.

I’m also working on a pair of YA/crossover ideas, one that takes place in college, and one that I guess can best be described as an “afterworld” murder mystery. 

A Criminal Magic
Lee Kelly
Publication date: February 2nd 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, Young Adult

THE NIGHT CIRCUS meets THE PEAKY BLINDERS in Lee Kelly’s new crossover fantasy novel.
Magic is powerful, dangerous and addictive – and after passage of the 18th Amendment, it is finally illegal.

It’s 1926 in Washington, DC, and while Anti-Sorcery activists have achieved the Prohibition of sorcery, the city’s magic underworld is booming. Sorcerers cast illusions to aid mobsters’ crime sprees. Smugglers funnel magic contraband in from overseas. Gangs have established secret performance venues where patrons can lose themselves in magic, and take a mind-bending, intoxicating elixir known as the sorcerer’s shine.

Joan Kendrick, a young sorcerer from Norfolk County, Virginia accepts an offer to work for DC’s most notorious crime syndicate, the Shaw Gang, when her family’s home is repossessed. Alex Danfrey, a first-year Federal Prohibition Unit trainee with a complicated past and talents of his own, becomes tapped to go undercover and infiltrate the Shaws.

Through different paths, Joan and Alex tread deep into the violent, dangerous world of criminal magic – and when their paths cross at the Shaws’ performance venue, despite their orders, and despite themselves, Joan and Alex become enchanted with one another. But when gang alliances begin to shift, the two sorcerers are forced to question their ultimate allegiances and motivations. And soon, Joan and Alex find themselves pitted against each other in a treacherous, heady game of cat-and-mouse.

A CRIMINAL MAGIC casts a spell of magic, high stakes and intrigue against the backdrop of a very different Roaring Twenties.

Author Bio:
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 children in Millburn, New Jersey, though after a decade in Manhattan, she can’t help but still call herself a New Yorker. She is the author of A Criminal Magic and City of Savages. Visit her at

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