Full disclosure: I am not objective when it comes to writing about author Christina Kelly, whose debut novel, "Good Karma," was released by HarperCollins last summer and has been compared to New York Times bestsellers by Mary Kay Andrews and Dorothea Benton Frank.
For the past five and a half years, she and I have shared a table with three other Savannah-based writers - Nancy Brandon, Judy Fogarty and K.W. Oxnard - where we've broken bread and submitted our work for critique every other Wednesday as members of the True Lit Writing Group. In fact, those first, sweet, tentative paragraphs that introduce us to Catherine, Ralph and their Boston terrier named Karma were subjected to my nagging question, "Whose story is this?"
It's Kelly's, truth be told, who has, in her mid-50s, realized her long-held dream of being a published novelist. And like her characters, retired residents of a gated community on an island just southeast of downtown Savannah, she believes her best years are ahead of her.
"I feel like now I have something to say," muses the exuberant writer over burgers and slaw at Betty Bombers. "I don't even think I found my writer's voice until I was 50, and now, I am so passionate about growing older and chronicling Baby Boomers' humorous and endearing challenges. I think you can have fun while you're [aging]."
Kelly is definitely living it up. At the time of our interview, she and her husband, Bill, were about to embark on a two-week trek through Tanzania and Kenya, with a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti on the itinerary. Last year, they took a helicopter ride through the Grand Canyon. Most days, you'll find her volunteering with charitable sports organizations or quelling her opponents in fierce games of tennis or pickleball.
The bracelet dangling from her wrist hints at another one of her lifelong passions. Composed of repurposed typewriter keys, it spells out "WORDSMITH." As a child, she would work The New York Times crossword puzzle with her mom. In high school, she joined a crossword puzzle club and even wrote a letter to Eugene Maleska, then-editor of the Times' puzzles, who responded with a handwritten note that hangs on her office wall today.
"I can't do a crossword puzzle without timing myself," she says, claiming that anything more than half an hour is a bad Sunday. Her personal best: 21 minutes.
"But, Bill Clinton can do it in 16! I'm super-competitive. It's crazy," Kelly says with a knowing laugh.
She racked up trophies in high school for her prowess at platform tennis. She played tennis and squash at Vassar, where she earned a degree in English. Then, she entered the cutthroat New York publishing world as an assistant to the national sales manager of trade books at Random House. She took side forays into city magazines and newspapers, then landed at the Iowa Writers' Workshop for her master's degree. That was when Kelly thought "all great literature had to be depressing," which is probably why it took her a while to find the confidence to unleash her sense of the absurd and employ her talent for whiplash puns.
"I want to laugh," she says. "I wrote the book I want to read."
"Good Karma," she explains, is really about "finding your voice later in life" as it follows a cast of characters that includes a widower gently nudged by his deceased beloved into new romance, a house creeper who imagines living other peoples' lives, a neurotic pet psychic, a great Dane, and an alligator named Mr. Peabody. The story also explores the irony of security, because "you can't escape yourself," as well as the underpinnings of destiny, which Kelly can see unfolding on a personal level.
"My husband, dog and I moved [to The Landings]. I found a writing group that I love, and I don't think I could have written this book without them. I found something that I wanted to say about aging, life and love. It was thrilling that this book was picked up and bought," she says, still amazed at the forces at work behind the scenes of her own life.
Five years ago at the Savannah Book Festival, Kelly sat in the audience listening to author W. Bruce Cameron discuss his book, "A Dog's Journey." At the time she thought, "In my wildest dreams I will speak at the book festival."
Fast-forward: Cameron was the first author to blurb "Good Karma," and on Festival Saturday, Feb. 17, she's taking the stage at the First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall.
Kelly has even more to discover about growing gracefully into her third act. In between tennis tournaments, pickleball championships, volunteering, and communing with elephants and giraffes, she is hard at work on her second novel - about a couple transitioning to a new phase of their lives after the husband's clandestine career as a spy. Spoiler alert: so far, it's just as funny and heartfelt as her first book.
Book: "Good Karma"
When: 12:30 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall, Chippewa Square