Q&A With Catherine Ryan Hyde

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Q&A With Catherine Ryan Hyde

I have the honor and pleasure of doing this Q&A with New York Times Bestselling author Catherine Ryan Hyde! Catherine is the author of several novels, one of them Pay It Forward, which became a movie in 2000. Some of Catherine’s other novels are Just A Regular Boy, Have You Seen Luis Velez, A Different Kind Of Gone & coming out on May 14th of this year Life Loss and Puffins. 

Q: Catherine, would you like to tell the readers of the blog and I a little bit about your upcoming novel Life Loss and Puffins? Where did the idea for Life Loss and Puffins come from?

A: Well, I always wish I could say where these ideas come from. And, honestly, I would—if I knew. But the sense is that it comes right down “out of the ether.” In other words, pure imagination.

I usually start by being open to a character. In this case it was Ru Evans, a 13-year-old girl who taught herself Euclidean geometry when she was seven and is just starting college. Her mother once called her “freakishly smart,” and she never really got over it, because to her it meant that her own mother thought she was a freak. She meets 17-year-old Gabriel, a nonbinary boy who actually seems to understand her, and they quickly form a sibling-like bond. When Ru’s mother dies, they take off to fulfill Ru’s “college list.” It’s like a bucket list, but rather includes all the things she hopes to experience before settling back into academia. It involves finding the darkest night sky full of stars, seeing the aurora borealis, and meeting an Atlantic puffin face to face. Of course, they know they’ll be in trouble when they’re caught.

And I’d rather you learn the rest by reading.

Q: When did you become passionate about writing, and did you feel as though it were your calling in life? 

A: My sophomore year in high school, and yes. I had a wonderful English and creative writing teacher named Mr. Horowitz, and he read my essay out loud to the whole class and called it clever. Then later I learned he had been in the staff lounge telling all my other teachers that I could write. I was used to being told what I couldn’t do well, and not the other way around, so it had a profound effect on me.

That having been said, it’s a tough calling, because it involves what I refer to as “the paycheck gap.” If my calling was to be a plumber or a firefighter, I likely would have been paid within a few weeks of assuming the job. With writing it tends to be more like ten years. So I tried to deny that I could be happy no other way until I was in my late 30s. Then I gave up and jumped off that financial cliff.  

Q: Is it fair to say that the characters and places within your books are taken from bits and pieces of real people and places? I always find it fascinating that authors can use bits of reality to create fiction. 

A: Not entirely. My characters are never taken from real people. And yet I feel my observations of real people “en masse” must factor in there somewhere. Still, each character is his- or herself, and no one I’ve ever met before. But, I suppose, each is informed by my fascination with human nature.

There’s actually very little autobiography in my books, but what there is tends to be place-related. If I’ve been enchanted by a national park, my own home coastline, or a Native American territory in Arizona, it stands a good chance of popping up in my work.

PUFFINS tends to have a bit more autobiography than most in that all of Ru’s college list is based on my own bucket list. I’m an amateur astrophotographer with a passion for dark night skies, I traveled all the way to Finnish Lapland to see the aurora, and I want to meet an Atlantic puffin face to face, though that wish is still outstanding.   

Q: How long does it typically take for you to write a book? 

A: About five months. Which is handy, as I’m on a two-book a year contract. I’m not rushing. That’s just the normal speed at which I’ve always written.

Q: Where is your favorite writing spot(s)?

A: My fabulous, comfortable, easy chair. I have a zero-gravity recliner with very good lumbar support. It has a lap desk that swings over and hovers in front of me on an arm, and is just the right size for a notebook computer. This allows me to support my neck and back while I write, rather than hunching forward as one does at a desk. As a result, I no longer have back trouble.

It’s situated right beside a window, and just outside is a seed feeder and a hummingbird nectar feeder. So I’m very happy there.

Q: What was it like having Pay It Forward being adapted into a movie? Since Pay It Forward became a movie, does Hollywood have the rights to the rest of your work and are some of them currently in production?

A: A very mixed bag. It’s really quite horrifying in a number of different ways, though less so than it used to be. Even now, though… as recently as a week ago an old acquaintance wrote and said she’d given someone a copy of “your book.” I have 45 books. But I was expected to know which one she meant, because which one would she mean? Also the adaptation was anything but faithful and makes me wince in places. Still, it does a lot for an author’s name recognition, and if I have nothing but complaints about the experience I firmly believe I should get a better set of problems.

Hollywood does not have the rights to the rest of my work. A maker of short films is adapting one of my short stories, and both SEVEN PERFECT THINGS and the much older CHASING WINDMILLS are in development. This is not the same as being in production. It’s much more preliminary, and they may or may not make it to the screen.

I’m not heavily invested in those outcomes. I’m making a good living with the books, I like books better than movies, and I know how the whole adaptation process tends to feel. People often email me and say this one or that one of my books would make a great movie. I answer by saying I find it interesting how they picture it being made into a great movie. I tend to be quite realistic about Hollywood adaptations. 

Q: Are you currently writing your next book? If so, can you reveal any details about it?

A: No. I’m currently writing the book that will be the third book released after PUFFINS. In other words, there are two completed manuscripts in between that no one is seeing yet. That’s what it’s like on a two-book-a-year schedule.

The one I’m working on is only 58 pages in as I type this, so yeah, it might be too soon for details. I don’t even know if the details I now envision will hold still. The one right after PUFFINS will be called ROLLING TOWARD CLEAR SKIES, and it’s about a woman doctor and mother of two difficult teenage girls who goes off on a volunteer mission to help out in the aftermath of a major hurricane, and ends up coming home with two more teenage girls who were orphaned in the storm. The one after that only has a working title, and I’ll just say it deals with the subject of our societal relationship with body image and appearance. Though of course it’s a much more personal and detailed story than that.

Q: What advice would you give new and aspiring authors on how to deal with criticism whether it’s negative reviews, online trolls & unsupportive family and friends?

A: That’s a tough one, because it’s only human to be pulled down by all that. I can’t say anything to make it stop stinging. I think the best plan is to decide early on that you may have strong feelings about it, but you’re not going to let it stop you.

A favorite tactic of mine is to go out online to the most famous books you can think of, like the Harry Potter series, and read the one-star reviews. It’s also fun to read compilations of vicious rejection letters for some of the most successful books of all time. After a while it starts to dawn on you that it’s all subjective, and there is no such thing as a book everyone agrees is good.