Kara Isaac’s contemporary inspirational romances are rom-com adventures designed to appeal to a wide audience of readers – even those who don’t share the same faith walk.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Wellington author Kara talks about combining writing laugh out loud funny love stories with her other life as pastor’s wife, mother of three and public servant.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode
- Why Google Street View in a writer’s best friend
- The part Bridget Jones Diary played in getting her started
- How a “Wellington Mum” got published by one the Big Five
- How long she was writing before she got published
- The two authors she is binge reading right now
- And the mind attitude that’s the secret to her success
Where to find Kara Isaac:
Facebook and Twitter https://www.facebook.com/KaraIsaacAuthor/ and @karaisaac
What follows is a “near as” but not word for word transcript of our conversation, with links to important points.
Jenny: And now, here’s Kara. Hello there Kara, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Kara: Thanks so much for having me
Jenny: Beginning at the beginning . . . .Was there a “Once Upon A Time” moment when you realised you had to write fiction or your life would somehow be incomplete? Was there a catalyst?
Kara: I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember so I’ve always loved books my whole life. I’d never really thought about being a writer until I was in my twenties and I was having a coffee with a friend. I was complaining to her about how I wanted to read more Christian fiction but I just couldn’t find anything that I personally related to.
There was a lot of fiction – historical set romances and at that time ‘Chick Lit’ was coming on to the market following Bridget Jones’ Diary and a lot of books were coming out that featured a ‘thirty something year old heroine’ desperate to get married and settled down – and that wasn’t my cup of tea either.
She looked at me and said “If you can’t find anything you like, why don’t you just write something that you would”.
I laughed it off, but then six months later I was on holiday and had some time on my hands. I thought I’d open a Word document and have a crack and see what happens, and I never really expected that I’d fall in love with writing and creating characters and stories, but I did. That was the beginning of 2006, so I haven’t really looked back since then.
Jenny: That’s fantastic. That’s now more than 10 years ago which is quite a reasonable apprenticeship isn’t it?
Kara: Yes, it’s certainly felt like it that’s for sure!
Jenny: You’ve so far published three books in the contemporary inspirational romance genre as “stand alone” novels – not strictly speaking a series, but cleverly linked in the way they are set up – They all feature “international couples” – one either Kiwi or Australian and the other American and the conflicts those boundaries create – and the first two have common characters . . .. Firstly what made you choose that genre? And secondly that “set up?”
Kara: There’s a couple of things in there – I guess the thing that particularly draws me to inspirational romantic comedies is I love books and stories that make me laugh, and I guess the inspirational component is I like stories that explore questions of faith and life and why people make the choices that they do, and how that affects them.
That was the right marriage for me as a writer; maybe one day I’ll branch out somewhere different.
It wasn’t a clever marketing thing when I started writing Close To You. I chatted with an editor at a writers conference and she’d asked me “have you ever thought of writing a story set in New Zealand around the Lord of The Rings?” I thought in my head, that’s one of the craziest ideas I’ve heard in my entire life because the previous eight years, all I’d heard from people was if you want to break into publication, you’ve got to write American characters sent in America. “Nobody’s interested in reading stories that aren’t set in the States.” was the universal advice.
So I’d been writing manuscripts that followed those rules and having some success in signing with a literary agent, but no success in signing with a publisher for a book deal.
So I shoved that idea in the back of my mind, went home and I wasn’t working on anything else at the time and this story idea kept bugging me where this tour guide Allie and reluctant tour participant Jackson just popped into my mind and wouldn’t really leave me alone.
Around the same time, the editor I’d been talking to announced they weren’t taking on romances for a period of time, so I started writing this romance thinking that it would really only be a fun story for my own entertainment, and that no other publisher would be interested in my crazy romantic comedy set in New Zealand around the Lord of The Rings.
No one was more surprised than me when that turned out to be wrong, and it was picked up by Simon and Schuster. The thing about having one American and one New Zealand- Australian character is that it happened so fast, because I just find humour in the cultural differences; how we all speak the same language, but often have misunderstandings and use words differently that have different meanings. I’ve found in these books that it’s added a fun element into the story.
Jenny: Sure. Close to You takes place on a Lord of the Rings geeks movie tour in NZ, the key character Allie is the tour guide, and Jackson her “love interest” is a bumptious American entrepreneur dragged along by his uncle. The details are very convincing – so I wonder – have you ever worked as a tour guide yourself?
Kara: No, I haven’t! It was all my imagination.
Jenny: You’ve got a very good imagination! The second book, Can’t Help Falling is set in Oxford and features two passionate Narnia fans with Allie and Jackson in a secondary role. And the third – Then There Was you – is set in Sydney and features a church with a lot of similarities to Hillsong . . . Once again, have you personal experience of Oxford and Sydney or are you great at research and imagining things?
Kara: I have never studied in Oxford before – it was all thanks to Google Street View and a whole lot of research. That was actually one of the things that stressed me out most when writing, as the idea of getting important details wrong about the setting and finding myself at the end of some grumpy English readers. So far I’ve been very fortunate that hasn’t happened!
Jenny: I must mention too that in Close To You – they are Tolkien freaks. A lot of the dynamic revolves around knowing a tremendous amount about Tolkien and the movies. Were you a bit of a Tolkien/ Lord of The Rings fan when you started?
Kara: I would certainly call myself a fan in the minor league, nothing like some of those characters in the books who really take it up to the next level. That was a lot of fun to research- people who have Tolkien as a major part of their lives.
Jenny: They all have titles reminiscent of popular songs – The Carpenters – Norah Jones – Elvis – are you into music?
Kara: It wasn’t deliberate- my husband is usually into music, and then with Can’t Help Falling I had some friends and one of the husbands in the barbershop quartet has put together every book launch I’ve had. Him and friends have shown up and crooned the song to go with the title, so now as much as I can I’m under pressure to keep the trend going so I can keep the songs going.
Jenny: That’s great. When you began the first book did you plan for a “kind of” series?
Kara: Like you say, not a traditional series. I was really clear in my own mind that doing the Lord of The Rings and the J. R.R Tolkien component was really going to work well for one book but wasn’t really a concept you could continue on through a series as well.
What I really wanted to do- and glad I’ve been able to do so far- is connect some of the themes and characters together, because I’m always a little sad when I close a book and I’ve become engaged with these characters and feel like I have to say goodbye.
Being able to carry Jackson and Allie, the secondary characters in Can’t Help Falling- for readers to be able to see their journey unfold from a different perspective in future books has been a lot of fun and readers really seem to enjoy it as well.
Jenny: Yes I bet they do. When we get on a little further and talk about future projects we might discover if there’s continuing life in these couples, but we’ll leave that towards the end. I guess inspirational romance has its conventions just like every other romance sub category . . . Was there anything you found particularly tricky in fulfilling them?
Kara: I’ve always been really clear with myself while writing a book that my first job as an author is to tell the story of the characters as authentically and naturally as I can in a way that makes sense for their own journey.
I always get irritated reading books where authors are using characters in situations and events which isn’t normal because they’ve got some broader spiritual message they’re trying to hammer home to the reader.
I’ve always written for the characters first and what feels right for their journey. Obviously for Then There Was You, it was set in a church so there was a lot more faith content, whereas in Close To You you’ve got Jackson who has grown up in a Christian household but has walked away from his faith.
Allie similarly has suffered a crisis after some hard things that have happened in her life, and as much as possible I tried to follow the threads around Tolkien and his books and keep it organic. There are some readers out there who really do think that to be an inspirational book you need to have someone thumping a bible and including bible verses- and if that’s the kind of book for them that’s great, but it’s just not the kind of book I write.
Jenny: Yes, the sort of obligatory salvation message would be a little bit of a dampener for a lot of people I think. Do you find that readers who may not share the books’ background faith can still enjoy the stories?
Kara: I think it’s been one of the biggest and nicest surprises- when Close To You came out, Whitcoulls (a NZ book store chain – ed note) were incredible, stacking it right in the front next to E. L James and a bunch of other authors.
I kept my writing and professional life very separate until that point, and so my colleagues first knew me as a writer when they walked into Whitcoulls and saw my book in front of them.
So I had my bosses and colleagues, friends from my kids’ daycare and kindergarten – none of whom had a faith – saying “I bought your book and I’m starting to read it”.
I thought, this could be interesting… I’m not entirely sure how this is going to work! They’ve all really seemed to enjoy it. A couple have said to me that it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about God and it got me thinking about a few things.
Others said to me “I knew you were a Christian so I thought there might be something in the book… I’m glad it wasn’t as bad as I thought it could be!” I’ve got emails from readers as well saying “if someone had told me your book was a Christian romance there’s no way I would of touched it, but I did because I saw the Tolkien or the Narnia and I was really surprised because it wasn’t what I expected to find in the Christian romance”.
Jenny: Yes- I must say I’ve been a bit personally disengaged because after E. L James there was a real swing towards more explicit and abusive relationships. It’s very refreshing to have something at the completely other end of the spectrum.
Kara: Yes it is. I think that the E. L James and the whole Fifty Shades of Grey has opened a space for some really interesting conversations with people. Last time I had my haircut, I had a very interesting conversation with my 21-year-old hairdresser about it. Like you say, I think it’s potentially done some damage as it’s normalised romantic relationships which are in no way normal and shouldn’t be glorified.
In more general terms (moving away from specific book focus)
Jenny: We’ve referred to the fact you’d written four MS before you published Close To You . . and James Ziskin – a writer I chatted a couple of weeks ago – suggests a writer may need to “purge” themselves of the “rubbish” writing before the good stuff flows – I guess a bit like unblocking a stream. Letting the muddy water flow first ..
He half jokingly suggested around 500,000 “practice words” might be what it takes – a kind of the equivalent of the idea of 10,000 hours of practice to reach master status in any skill area promoted by Malcolm Gladwell… Does that make any sense in your experience?
Kara: I definitely think there is real value in not having any expectation that your first manuscript is going to be the one that shakes up the publishing world.
For most writers, there is a real process of learning your style, voice and craft and doing the apprenticeship and those hard yards. I’m really grateful for the journey in which I ended up, because I can’t actually imagine anything worse than being contracted for my first ever manuscript and then having to write new books under a contracted deadline, not knowing myself or my process enough.
Jenny: You’re published by an imprint of Simon and Schuster – one of the Big Five in international publishing . . . . quite a coup for a “mother from Wellington NZ” How did that come about?
Kara: Before I got married I had a thought – I’d been writing for a few years at that point and I’d heard through a range of people that the best way to make connections that you needed with editors and agents was to get yourself to a writers conference. To me, the best writers’ conferences were in the States and so I really wanted to reach a point in my writing journey before I felt like that was the right way to make a pretty big investment- flying all the way to the States to attend a conference.
But then just before I got married, I had this revelation that soon I’d have to make financial decisions shared with my husband- now was the time to spend some money and do something big. My choice was to go to an American Christian Fiction writers’ conference in Denver. I met a range of editors and agents at pitching sessions, where you get 15 minutes to sit down with an editor or agent and pitch them your story and ideas, talking to them about the industry and what they’re looking for.
I pitched my very first manuscript which will never see the light of the day, and got soundly rejected by everyone- but that was the start of making connections with people in the industry. My editor Beth Adams had rejected three of my manuscripts before that, but the last two she’d always been encouraging and said “I really like your writing, but we just don’t have a space for what you’re doing right now… one day you’ll write something that will fit into our programme”. That’s exactly what happened with Close To You.
Jenny: It’s pretty remarkable… did you complete four full length books before Close To You?
Kara: Yes, Close To You was my fourth.
Jenny: So talking about being a Wellington Mum . . . Tell us about a typical writing day or week . . . Kara: The only way I could do it all is because I have a phenomenally supportive husband. He doesn’t understand romance books at all, but loves that I get to do something I’m passionate about.
I have an amazing team of friends, family and editors who help me to make it all work. It’s definitely a big juggle – my kids are 1, 4 and 6- they definitely keep us on our toes and the last year I’ve been on maternity leave with our youngest which looked different to normal life.
Next week I’ll be heading back to work and returning to what it was when I started, which was my day job in the day and writing job at night. I work in the government as an education policy manager, so I work on whatever the government priorities of the day are.
Jenny: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Kara: Honestly I think its just been perseverance and a sheer refusal to give up. It was ten years from the time I started writing to the time I held Close To You in my hands as a published book. There were many times over those years where I wondered if I was doing what I was meant to be doing, if I was chasing this writing dream out of some misplaced pride of just wanting to see my name on a book.
Especially in the later years when I was married and we had a house and a family, writing was taking away not just time but also financial resources away from my family. I got close to saying “do I need to put this aside for a while and let it go?”
There was always something that came up that encouraged me to take the next step, be it a writers’ conference or signing with my literary agent. It wasn’t an easy ten years- the two years before I signed the book deal for Close To You, there were so many times when my books got to the publishing board.
In one instance there was a three book contract literally in the mail and the publisher decided to review their whole fiction line, and they pulled all the contracts. There were moments where you were so close to seeing your dream come true, and then suddenly it’s disappeared again. That made me wonder if it wasn’t meant to happen for me.
Turning to Kara as reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series . . . .So – turning to your taste in fiction who do you “binge read?”
Kara: At the moment I am binge reading Kristen Higgins and her Blue Heron series- Kristen is a general market romance writer, so I should probably warn people there’s some adult content in her books. She’s just a wonderful writer, I love her characters and I love the way she writes. I’ve taken a couple of her classes at conferences and she’s also a wonderful teacher.
Early on in my reading life I binge read Enid Blyton and all of the Secret Seven, and then I moved on to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.
Jenny: And do you have a current series or author – or more than one – you’d like to recommend to listeners.
Kara: I will soon be binge reading the ‘If I Run’ series, a romantic suspense series, the last book due in March. I’ve been hearing amazing things about it for the last 2 years, but I refuse to start reading the first book until the whole series is out!
Jenny: Fantastic- how many is in the series?
Kara: Just three.
Circling back to the end
Jenny: What is next for Kara the writer ? Projects under development?
Kara: I’m working on a couple of things now. The first thing I’m working on at the moment is there’s a character called Cat who’s appeared in my previous book- she was Allie’s best friend in Close To You, and Paige’s cousin in Then There Was You.
So I’m writing her story at the moment, and if all goes well that should be out late this year. Then I’m also in the process of re-writing the beginning of a new set of books- this one is actually set in the States.
That’s again a link series I’m excited about set around three friends who were good friends at college, and the series picks up ten years later. There was an event that happens in college that affects their relationship, and sends them all on separate paths and so this is a reunification story picking up their stories ten years on.
Jenny: We are coming to the end, Kara, so where can readers find you on line?
Kara: My website is www.karaisaac.com, on Facebook I’m Kara Isaac Author and Twitter @karaisaac. I certainly love engaging with my readers and I find that social media is a great way to be able to do that.
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