Kristy Woodson Harvey, Best Selling Author

by Elysian Magazine

an interview with Karen Floyd

A beautiful family and a desk to write were all that bestselling author Kristy Woodson Harvey had in mind for her future. Little did she know her charming and spellbinding novels would capture the hearts and minds of so many. Six of her novels have become USA TODAY bestsellers and she has been featured in The Washington Post, Women’s Health, The Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Parade, Southern Living, and Traditional Home, among many others. Kristy’s larger-than-life stories were made to live beyond pages in a book. Many of her works have been optioned for film, including the highly anticipated Peachtree Bluff series soon to be released on a major television network. With a bustling author’s career, she still finds time to carry forward her award-winning design blog,  Design Chic,  created in partnership with her mother, where they share chic and timeless designs for the home.

Before you had your son, how did you imagine motherhood?

No one goes into motherhood knowing exactly what being a mother means. You hear how much you will love your child and how much it will change your life. But I did not realize until Will was born the sheer depth of that connection and how much he would love me back instantly. You can pick up your crying baby, and they instantly stop crying. No one else in the world can do that. Will our son inspired my writing in an entirely different way. I remember bringing him home from the hospital and thinking what a huge gift he was. I imagined what it would be like if someone gave that experience up and how that would forever change their life. It inspired Dear Carolina which was my very first novel. I wrote it in the middle of the night when I was up feeding Will. Motherhood changed everything for me. It opened me up emotionally. I started feeling things that I had never really felt before. Eight years later, being a mother is still full of surprises, but it remains the best thing I have ever done.

Did you experience postpartum?

No, I don’t think I suffered postpartum, but I did experience hormonal aftermath. Will did not sleep very much, so I was always very tired. I remember being in the shower and crying and not knowing why. I know women that have truly struggled. I was just very fortunate.

Your husband is a dentist, and you obviously are a writer. Is he proud of you?

He is my biggest fan. I have to tell this story and brag on him just a little bit. When we were first married, I told him I wanted to have lots of children, and if at all possible, I wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. It was the life that I believed I wanted. When I started writing, everything changed. Our life together is dramatically different from where we started to where we have ended up. I travel all the time, doing speaking engagements all over the country. I remember the first time I went on a monthlong cross-country book tour, trying to figure out where my husband and child might travel to meet me. Yet, he has never complained. If the tables were turned and he said, “I’m going to be gone for a few weeks; I’ll see you later,” I am not sure I would react the same way, but he just rolls with the punches. And yes, he is very proud of me. I think that is a huge testimony to my husband because his life changed a lot in the wake of my writing. Much is good about the new course we are on, but some of it is harder on him. My husband is my biggest fan, and I am so very appreciative.

Did you always know he would be so even-keeled?

I think so. I am high strung, and my husband is very laid back. I don’t know how to explain it, but he makes me even-keeled because he is a good balance. He takes things in stride and is pretty calm. I will predict that something is going to be really hard, and he will turn it into, “Oh, what a great opportunity!” I knew he would be a good father; I wouldn’t have married him otherwise. But, I did not know what a great father he would become.

You have a very close relationship with your mother. Describe the differences between the “mother-daughter” and “father-son” bond you observe.

A father and son bond is built partially around interest: they like the same things. They love fishing, boats, being on the water, and they are best buddies. But there is something about a mother and daughter’s bond that is just very, very deep and forever and ever and ever. I am really grateful that I get to have that with my mom.

Do you miss not having a daughter?

This will sound really strange, but I always knew that I would only have sons. I remember being pregnant and knowing our child was going to be a boy. When I was six weeks pregnant my father-in-law came to the house with a little tiny boat that was my husband Will’s, when he was a little boy. “This is for my grandson,” he said. “What if you have a granddaughter?” I asked. He said, “It’s definitely a boy.” It was funny because we all knew it was a boy.

You are a multi-tasking trailblazer. How many women do you know from a small town in North Carolina that have cast a television series, had multiple New York Times Best-Seller novels and a robust interior design following? What motivates you?

I don’t know the answer. I am naturally, internally motivated. I always want to do more, be more, and experience new things. I have learned a great deal about myself in the past few years. I want to look back on my life and think I did as much as I was able. At first, I said yes to everything, even those “asks” that did not fit, or I was not suited to do. A few years ago, I decided to be intentional. I have a long way to go, but the new goal inspires me.

. . The magic of being a writer is completely unexpected. I can sit down, having no idea what’s going to happen, and the story just emerges and takes shape. I think it is what keeps writers going back to the page time after time. Even if you think you know what is going to happen, these ideas or angles just pop up and surprise you. They come from a different place and still come through you. Sometimes you do not even know you are thinking about them; it is a surprise every time. It’s amazing.

What is your current focus?

I had a book come out in April in the midst of Covid-19. We anticipated the novel would quickly hit the New York Times Bestseller List, but shipping and other issues were out of our control and kept that from happening. It was heartbreaking at that moment because you work an entire year for this one week to get the book on this list, and it didn’t happen. I was pretty upset. My major focus is Under the Southern Sky, which comes out in April and is poised to hit that list. I have been thinking about Under the Southern Sky for five years. The idea came about when a friend, who just delivered twins, told me she had leftover frozen embryos. It never occurred to her that she would be faced with making a decision about what to do with the remaining embryos. I couldn’t quite find the right angle to highlight the complexities families might face. I ended up with a story about a man whose wife died, and he faces the decision alone about what to do with the embryos that were frozen before she passed away. Single motherhood is something we can picture pretty easily, but single fatherhood is not as prevalent. People have very mixed opinions about embryos and issues surrounding when life begins. I raised the stakes a little bit more by including the mother’s death; the embryos are ostensibly what she leaves the world. It was a complex and fun book for me to write.

How long did it take to write?

It took me three to four months to write a first draft of Under the Southern Sky and then a few months to edit. I had been thinking about it for so long. In some ways, it felt like I was purging myself of the story. I was ready for it to be out in print. A lot of times when I write first drafts, I am just crazy. I want to write all the time.

Kristy signs books during her national tour for her best-selling novel “Under the Southern Sky.”

Are you a fast writer?

I am a fast writer but not a fast typist. I need to work on my typing skills.

Beyond print, what were you working on for television?

The Peachtree Bluff series came out in 2017, 18 and 19 and has been optioned for TV. It is in development and going well. I am excited to see what happens. Until you watch a series on the screen, you can never be certain it will happen. I never want to jinx a project, but I feel really good about this one. We have an incredible team working on it, and I am fortunate to be extremely hands-on, which was not something that I anticipated. I am very flattered by being included. What a huge accomplishment to be able to see something that you “dreamed up” from nothing, come to life.

Writing. Taking a blank sheet of paper and creating something from nothing. How do you do it?

Under the Southern Sky was different from my other novels. I knew what I wanted to happen in the story beforehand. Although the nuts and bolts of the story ended up being very different than what I originally thought, I knew the setup, a widower facing hard decisions. Other novels are more random, like the novel Falling, which was sparked by an experience. I had gone to pick up some photographs and was told they would not relinquish them until I had a signed release from the photographer. As I left that day, I thought about what would have happened if someone walked in and photos were given anyway without a release. Would the clerk be fired because of it? That was when I started the novel. I actually got in the car, my husband was driving, and began writing about two women Gray and Diana, which were their names from the very beginning. One of the very first lines of the book was from Diana’s point of view. My mom always told me that anyone named after royalty would grow up to be a princess. I thought, “She has to be Diana.” The idea really came from nothing. The magic of being a writer is completely unexpected. I can sit down, having no idea what’s going to happen, and the story just emerges and takes shape. I think it is what keeps writers going back to the page time after time. Even if you think you know what is going to happen, these ideas or angles just pop up and surprise you. They come from a different place and still come through you. Sometimes you do not even know you are thinking about them; it is a surprise every time. It’s amazing.

Quote w/image: . The magic of being a writer is completely unexpected. I can sit down, having no idea what’s going to happen, and the story just emerges and takes shape. I think it is what keeps writers going back to the page time after time. Even if you think you know what is going to happen, these ideas or angles just pop up and surprise you. They come from a different place and still come through you. Sometimes you do not even know you are thinking about them; it is a surprise every time. It’s amazing.

Will you always write?

I think it depends on the day that you’re asking me. I love writing so much, but I am pulled in many directions. Putting that kind of pressure on yourself and saying, “This is the thing I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” is a big thing to say about yourself. This industry is changing constantly. The reality is publishing novels is probably not going to look like this forever. I hope I am always writing. For me, it is the greatest love and a real passion. It really brings me joy. I can’t imagine not doing it. However, I have learned that for some writers, it is almost painful. A writer friend was talking about retiring a few weeks ago, and she’s fairly young. I thought, “How do you ever stop writing?” Once you turn the faucet on, stories are everywhere. How do you turn that off? I will always write, but it might look different than it does right now.

It was, as it always had been, my mother who gave me this incredible strength and inner peace, my mother who lent me fortitude when I needed it most. It was then that I realized it. Sometimes, being a mother isn’t about having to fix it. Sometimes, the best thing a mother can be is there at all.” Sometimes you do not even know you are thinking about them; it is a surprise every time. It’s amazing.

Your writing appears to be very visceral, almost easy. For others, it is laborious. Which is it?

I think it’s a mixture of the two. I am disciplined in my work. Sometimes, you do things that others perceive as being really simple. Only you know the behind-the-scenes work that went into what they see. When I began writing, I had this vision of how I was going to sit at my desk and write stories. That is not how it happens. So much work goes into every single part of the journey. I have to be disciplined to make deadlines, so we can keep book tour schedules. Knowing I will probably be on the road for six weeks at a time also means I won’t be writing, but I will have edits coming back for another book. At certain times of the year, there is publicity. My goal for every first draft is to write 2000 words a day. This takes the pressure off of me because then I know I will have the book finished. I don’t have to stress about “what ifs,” and at the same time, I try to get myself a little bit of grace. I think the worst thing that can happen is you rush yourself through a story because you might write badly, although there are different schools of thought on that. Sometimes I think, this isn’t going to be poetry, but I am going to finish it. I do this because I need to mentally know that it is finished, and I can always change it later. There is that adage, “you can’t edit what you haven’t written,” and that is so true. I definitely live by that premise because I am a huge editor. I spend twice as long editing my stories as I do writing them. Sometimes it does make sense to take a break and start from the beginning or give yourself a little bit of time to breathe. My favorite thing is to walk away from a story for a few weeks and then come back to it with fresh eyes. You almost forget what you have written when you take a hiatus. “Wait, I said that? That was great. Gosh, that was so good.” And then, “Oh, that was so bad. Did I say that?”

People look at you and your life, and they see perfection. What lies behind the curtain?

Definitely not perfection. I mentioned it a little bit ago. Giving yourself grace, for me, is a necessary part of life. It took me a long time to figure that out because I want everything a certain way. And it took me a while to realize you can’t do everything well at exactly the same time unless you are super-human. You cannot be a great mother, attend every school event, while you’re writing a book or touring. Sometimes, something will fall apart. I think of my life in these smaller chunks. When I am at home, I am writing, class mom, driving to tennis, and picking up. And then, when I am on tour, I assimilate into that mode. My family will meet me on the weekends, but I’m very much focused on work in those moments. When I come home, I am very much focused on my family. When I started to look at life as being part of a whole, it started to become a little bit easier.

It is amazing to watch how you are able to compartmentalize the elements of your life to stay focused. What tip can you share with our multitasked reader?

Something that has helped me, because I am goal-oriented, is to start every year with a list of the habits I want to create. Instead of thinking about this part of my life, versus that part of my life, versus this part of my life, a couple of years ago I started to focus on the habits. This practice has helped me think about things that become automatic. Instead of asking yourself, “Did I exercise four times this week?” you already know you did because you always exercise. You just do it. You don’t have to think about it anymore. When parts of your life become automatic, it frees you up to be so much more creative. It is something that I have really focused on, but it’s definitely not perfection. Sometimes I’m very tired, and I feel pulled in a million different directions. I ask myself, “Why would I have said that I would do something when I absolutely cannot.” There are times I feel like I am failing at everything because I cannot give anyone or anything enough time. Which is stronger: your ability to compartmentalize or to multitask?

On a day-to-day basis, multitasking, because every day I write, or I am working on Design Chic. or helping with something at the office. I think it was really fortunate that I secured my first book contract when Will was an infant. I have lived a life where I knew that he might not take a nap, or he might get in the crib for only 10 minutes. I had to be able to turn it on for 10 minutes and work on the manuscript and then turn it off. I might only have little snippets of time and because I really wanted to write, I figured out how to do that.

How are you mentally able to be “present” if you are multitasking constantly?

I think it’s harder now, not because of the writing, but because of social media. I can feel my brain shift, and it forces me to refocus. Not now because it is summer and Covid-19, but in a perfect world, I try to get up in the morning, have breakfast with Will, take him to school, workout, write. With Covid-19, everything is a mess. Nothing has looked like it was supposed to. You have to be able to step away, then step back when there is a better time. You need that flexibility to balance. I already know that this upcoming school year, I will probably be working more than I usually do because there is so much work to catch up on from last March through August. It’s okay and just going to have to be how it is.

Kristy and her son Will in Beaufort, NC, a pre-revolutionary town where Kristy and her husband renovated one of the town’s historic homes and now reside full-time. photograph by Grace Bell

Could you do it without a supportive husband or as a single mother?

I don’t think so. That is a bad answer. I could do all of the things as a single mother, except the touring part. You would have to figure that out. Maybe your parents would step in, or you might have a great nanny. I don’t know. You could figure it out, but it would certainly present more challenges. I look at women now who do it, and I have an entirely new respect for single mothers and what they are able to accomplish. It is daunting to think about not having someone to step in when you can’t. Today, I texted my husband about our son’s virtual orientation at 4:30. I obviously can’t go. He was fine and said without hesitation, “I can go.” If you don’t have that tag team, I think it would be very, very difficult. I am so impressed with women that do this. I really am.

What do your father and mother do?

My dad has done all sorts of different things. He was the mayor of our town almost my entire life, which was really fun. You’ll love this. When my second novel came out, I went on a big book tour. We knew six months ahead of time the extent of the tour, so he decided not to run for reelection. He and my mom packed up with our son Will, who was not quite three at the time, and traveled all around the country with me for six weeks, which was absolutely amazing. They are incredible, incredible parents. I am an only child, and I think they would have loved to have had plenty of more children. We laugh because mom says, “We couldn’t have had more because you have taken all of our time these days.” My mom works as hard on these books. She is also my partner in Design Chic.

Tell me about Design Chic.

To tell you about the business, I have to tell you about its roots. My mom and I started this blog on a total whim. She wanted to learn a new skill, and I was doing a lot of freelance writing. At that point, I was still working in finance. I had a very different life than my life right now obviously, but I thought, “Oh, this will be fun, and we’ll learn how to do this together. We’ll do it for six months.” We were both redoing houses and decided to share pictures of each other. No one would ever read it, and no one would see it. We didn’t even tell our family and friends we were doing it. My husband jokes that we got our first thousand-page views because he would sit there and click all the time. But we really started enjoying it. The thing that surprised us the most is how connected we are to our readers. You strike up these friendships. If you had told me that before, I would have said that is the lamest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s an amazing phenomenon. You get to know these people, and they become your friends. We kept going, and we have had the blog for a decade. Things have changed a lot. At the beginning, people came to us wanting to advertise on our site. We were always very careful to stay on brand or, by contrast, decide something was not on brand. We tried to be selective. We eventually did start working with an affiliate company that we really love. They have a beautiful layout, which worked very well. We like to show a room or a home that is really lovely and then show people how they can make it their own. We reverse engineer. I believe the key to success is always just making sure that we love what we are showcasing. We have a very specific aesthetic, and everyone doesn’t like it. That’s okay. That was another lesson; You can’t be all things to all people. It is the same with writing books. I am not going to ever write a book that every person universally loves. I wish I could because I am a people pleaser, but it’s not going to happen.

Do you and your mother’s aesthetic touch or are they completely entwined?

They touch; they do not completely intertwine. Because we are so busy, we don’t do as many home designs as we did before, an average of one a year. I love to take a risk and do something a little bit crazy. Mom is more tailored than I am. It works because she pulls me in a little, and sometimes, I push her out of the box a little. We end up with a unique and really cool design: a blend of both of us.

Has your aesthetic changed with time?

That’s a hard question to answer because I think there are things that we love that we always love. We started looking back at posts from 2010. The Suzanne Kessler house that we posted that very first day is still perfection. I think it is a lesson. Find pieces that you love and know will always be a part of your home story. Those items will keep your home from ever being trendy, something you always want to avoid. By the same token, if you look over a decade, the overall style changes; maybe a little bit cleaner, or lighter, or a little bit more colorful than five years earlier. One of my favorite designers is Andrew Howard, and he works in Florida. He says timeless design is not a real thing. You want to have a house that transitions as beautifully and slowly and elegantly as it possibly can. What you loved 40 years ago is probably not going to be exactly the same thing that you love 40 years later. Ideally, you can make those little tweaks and have your home transition without having to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

You showcase different aesthetics. Why?

Mom and I always love the well-designed mountain house, farmhouse, super modern penthouse and the formal traditional homes. I think there are overlaps between all of them.

What overlaps?

Clean lines and classic pieces. No matter where you are, whether you are at the beach, the farm, the mountains, or the modern house, design should stand the test of time. Clean lines and neutral pallets with pops of color, transcend time and are key to that transition.

How much time do you spend on “Design Chic” a day?

If we did not have two of us, it would be a complete full-time job. Mom spends more time on it than I do. At this point, I probably spend a couple of hours daily. I am trying to get better about doing batch work, meaning writing all of the posts in one day. It doesn’t always happen because sometimes it is hard to carve out the couple of hours you need for that. For years and years and years, and years and years, we have done every post, every day. When I was going on a book tour, we would plan weeks of content and have it all done in advance, so that I wasn’t scrambling. When you are on the road, you might leave at six in the morning and get to your next place at midnight. There is nothing you can do about it, and you cannot be at your computer in the middle of the day.

Are you an introvert or extrovert?

I seem like an extrovert, but I think I am an introvert. Maybe I am an introverted extrovert. I love being with people, being on book tours and speaking. But then, I have to go and be alone to recharge.

The extroversion is diametrically opposed to what you need to do to be able to create. How do you do it?

It is an interesting balance, and I don’t think that it works really well for everyone. We spend months at home creating something that we are giving to the world. To be able to go out into that world and give it away is a gift. There is something cathartic about seeing someone else react to what you’ve been doing by yourself for the last nine months. Spending time with people who hopefully enjoy what you are doing and seeing their joy in that is amazing. Virtual book tours and online events are very different than having that person come to you and say, “That story changed my life.” You will never, ever, ever, ever forget those face-to-face moments. Nothing can replace that on a screen. It is exhausting, and when you look back on the tour, you think, how did I survive that? You look at your schedule in disbelief, but you are totally in the zone. It is almost like childbirth. You do not remember it when it’s over, six weeks just vanished in the air. When you’re in it, you are living every moment. You might get up in the morning, do a TV show at 6:00 AM, have an event two hours away and then get on an airplane to go to another city to have an event that night before you get home. It’s crazy.

The impact of Covid-19… Fill in the blank.

Exhausting. We have all laughed about this because virtual events are so different than the two of us talking. Carrying the weight of every person on that screen has its own challenges. When people are physically in the room, you get your energy from the person or people around you. Those people effectively carry you. You feel an energy high, and then you might crash for the rest of the day because you gave everything. “Why am I so tired? That was 10 minutes.” It makes you realize how connected we are because you really can feel the energy of those people in the room.

What’s the most difficult part of the trajectory you find yourself on?

There is so much unknown, which is so hard for a person like me. I don’t know what the next phase looks like. Can I sustain this? Are they going to like my next book? Am I going to get another contract? There are so many unknowns.

Do you ever self-doubt?

Oh yes. I can’t tell you much, but I’m working on my first historical novel. This writing is different for me. What if my publishers don’t like it? What if my readers don’t like it? I think writers in general have a lot of self-doubt. We are very aware of what other people think of us because that is our job. You also have to be able to find that space where you’re telling an authentic story that feels like the story you need to tell.

Kristy is talking with readers at Huff Harrington Home in Atlanta, in celebration of the release of her 2018 novel, “The Secret to Southern Charm.” Photograph courtesy of HD Photography

What do you want to be remembered for?

Something that I do that makes someone else happy. A gift of this Covid-19 time is realizing that if you can do something that makes someone happy, then maybe that’s enough. I think that might be enough for me.

If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would that be?

It will all work out. Don’t worry. Let the road unfold because it is going to take you somewhere great.

Is patience a challenge for you?

Oh my goodness. It’s the worst. I am so impatient. I want everything yesterday. I want it all done. It’s a struggle. Honestly, this job has taught me a lot about patience because nothing is fast. I remember getting my first book deal in May of 2014. They said, “The book is coming out May of 2015.” I thought, “What a year? I cannot possibly wait a year.” It goes so fast, but there is something wonderful about what we do. Even in the moments of self-doubt, where you’re not sure about the future, there is always something to be excited about or look forward to.

If you could, at this moment, ask God one question, what would that be?

Why is there so much division in the world?

Is your faith important to you?

Yes, definitely.

Do you read the “Bible?”

Not as much as I should. I read Jesus Calling every day because I absolutely love it, but I don’t read the “Bible” every day.

Do you find joy in your work or in life?

Both. It is such a luxury and such a blessing to even be able to say this, but if I didn’t find joy in my work, I would do something different. It is hard for me because I am a little bit of a workaholic, but I also have amazing facets to my life that I remember to appreciate equally.

How do you pay it forward?

A great question for where I am in my life right now. The book that I just wrote is a story about legacy, what you leave behind and how you lift other people up. We are in this moment of our lives when we are just working, working, working. Covid-19 forced us to step back and ask, “What are we doing this for? And what do we want to leave behind?” My husband and I both went to UNC Chapel Hill and would like to be able to do something for the school that we feel like gave us this incredible opportunity. We love our church and church family. Finally, putting everything that we can into our child and just giving him the opportunity to be the person he wants to be is very important. I ask myself, “What do we need to do to be the best parents and to give Will the best possible opportunity to live the life that he wants to?”

You pay it forward in the areas of education, faith and family?

Yes. I love that. Thank you for putting that together.

If you could give the world a gift, what would that be?

To write the next great American novel? Doesn’t every writer want to write that story? I do not know if at my age I am in a place or stage of life to be prepared to do that. But I do strive, even if it’s not the next great American novel, to write books that are enjoyed 20 years from now. To create novels that a 20-year old might read, that impacts their journey and maybe places them on a different path. It is a magical feeling to think that something you created could live on, even in the smallest way, and have the potential to shape another generation.

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