Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of 30 published and forthcoming books. Her novels include Worthy, The Language of Hoofbeats, Take Me With You, Where We Belong, When I Found You, and Walk Me Home. New Kindle editions of her backlist titles Funerals for Horses, Earthquake Weather and Other Stories, Electric God, and Walter’s Purple Heart are now available. Also available is The Long, Steep Path: Everyday Inspiration From the Author of Pay It Forward, her first book-length creative nonfiction. An avid hiker, traveler, and amateur photographer, she has just released her first book of photos, 365 Days of Gratitude: Photos From A Beautiful Word. She is co-author, with publishing industry blogger Anne R. Allen, of How to Be A Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide.
Not surprisingly for the author of Pay It Forward, Catherine has done me many good turns, in particular her devotion to my first novel Dissonance (recently reissued in paper and electronic editions by Santa Fe Writers Project). Several months ago, she included that novel in a blog post that was picked up by the Huffington Post, and, while I understand the spirit of paying it forward, it was time to pay it forward back to the woman who has been so generous to me.
Catherine kindly send me her four most recent books, all published by Amazon’s Lake Union Publishing, and after I’d read them, she and I e-chatted in mid-May.
Lisa Lenard-Cook: Over the past few months, I read your four most recent books (published by Lake Union/Amazon), The Language of Hoofbeats, Take Me With You, When I Found You, and Walk Me Home, and was struck by the recurrence of what I began to call “found families.” In each of these books, the found family offers both challenges and redemption, the latter of which characters are not always willing to accept. Can you talk a bit about birth families versus found ones, the gifts and difficulties of second chances, and why this new kind of family is important to you and to readers?
Catherine Ryan Hyde: Birth families are great… when they’re great. When they’re not, a poor kid can really fall through the cracks. It seems we’ve moved away from the “it takes a village” school of tribal childrearing and into a more closed and private system. When a kid isn’t getting what he needs at home, it’s a big problem. As a society we seem to want to solve the problem by doing nothing. Until the kid gets into trouble. Then we want to lock him up and throw away the key. Obviously a very flawed system.
I’m not trying to change society or our whole system of childrearing. I just like to fictionally explore what it would be like if some of these falling children had someone willing to catch them. Obviously not many of us will take responsibility for someone else’s kid. But it happens. People do all kinds of unusual things. And that’s what I want to write about—the extraordinary effort. Sometimes readers let their own pessimism show by saying it’s not realistic, because nobody would do that. That’s not correct. Most people wouldn’t do that. But other than things along the lines of flying without the help of a plane (or other mechanical or aerodynamic assistance), there’s really not much that nobody will do. The real truth is that 99 out of 100 wouldn’t, or 999 out of 1,000. I want to write about the remaining one. That’s where life gets interesting.
As to why it’s important to me, I had an unhappy childhood. When I was 33 I got involved in 12-step recovery, and now that’s my found family. I think the reason I like to write about redemption is because of my background as a practicing addict and alcoholic. In a society of throw-away people, I would have been thrown away. So, at 26 years clean and sober, I tirelessly defend the idea that no one is beyond redemption.
I don’t know if I can speak for why it’s important to readers, but I expect that on some level most of us know how it feels not to have the human connection we need.
LLC: The books I read most often are not by definition page turners, so reading yours, which most definitely are, was a welcome change of pace. Page-turning has everything to do with the twists and turns of plot. Possibly because I teach writing, I can almost always see what’s coming in others’ books. But that wasn’t the case with yours. I’ve read elsewhere that, while you have some idea where you’re going, you like to give your characters enough slack to go where they want, too. At the same time, because I see your Facebook posts, I always know ahead of time something about the book you’re working on—be it photography, horses, an Arizona Indian reservation, AA, or rock-climbing. So I’m wondering about the research/plotting balance and how it affects those turning pages. I know, like me, once you’re ready, you write really quickly. But have you done your research before you begin, or do you leave blanks to fill in later? And how does all this affect those plots?
CRH: First of all, I’m flattered that you consider them page-turners. I actually didn’t know they were. I guess it’s a relative thing. Readers who like mysteries and thrillers sometimes find my books too “deliberately paced.” (A nice way to say slow.) Others make the transition better than they expected they would. I guess coming from the genuine literary end of things, they would seem more plot-heavy. I think I write about relationships and throw in the plot points as a way to hold my characters’ feet to the fire, because that’s how we grow. (Unfortunately.)
I don’t know if I want to give my characters room to go where they want, exactly. More that I want to give them the freedom not to go where they don’t want. An overly plot-driven novel seems often, in my opinion, to be forcing its characters to do out-of-character things in service of the plot.
Funny you should mention research. The last two novels I’ve worked on (one will be out December 8th; the other is a work-in-progress) have required a bit more research than usual. I put it aside as much as possible as I write. I don’t leave blanks. I just do the least research possible on the fly, then write the scene. Then when I have it drafted out, I seek help verifying or correcting the details I’ve written. If I have to do some revision, so be it. I’ve had writers (yes, more than one) tell me they’ve been working on the same novel for years, and when I ask where they are in the process they say, “Almost done with the research.” I don’t want to be one of them.
LLC: Many of your characters have an uncanny knack for saying the right thing. Some have an uncanny knack for saying the wrong thing, too, but I want to focus on the conversations that connect, because my experience has been that people don’t often find the right thing to say, or that, if they do, the other person misunderstands. But August and Seth (in Take Me With You), Alvin and Lois (in Walk Me Home), Nathan (in When I Found You), and Paula and, to a lesser degree, Jackie (in The Language of Hoofbeats) all have dialogue that cuts to the heart of things, again and again—and it works. Can you talk about dialogue, and how it works for you as a writer, for your characters, and for your story arc?
CRH: I think this is another example of me wanting to write about the 1 in 100, rather than the remaining 99. I’ve done a few dialogue workshops, and I tell students two things. One, your dialogue should sound the way people really sound when they talk. Two, under no circumstances should your characters ever be caught saying the things people really say. If that sounds wrong, eavesdrop on some real-life dialogue. In most cases thousands of words fill the air, and nothing is really accomplished.
I think, also, that an important part of this answer involves my long background in twelve-step recovery. In meetings, people don’t fill the air with “white bread dialogue” or “filler” words. We don’t chit chat, or talk around our feelings. We dig down a little closer to the bone. We learn to express what we’re feeling in such a way that others can identify. The people I spend time with often do find the right thing to say. So I know it’s possible. And to me it’s a lot more interesting than watching someone go around in circles, caught in his or her own inability to communicate.
I tell writing students that every word in their manuscript has to either move the story forward or characterize—and that if it’s only doing one or the other they’re skating on thin ice, because both should be happening simultaneously. That’s my goal for my dialogue: to both shape the characters and advance the story at the same time.
And since I’m really only interested in fiction that shines some kind of light on life and the human condition, at least one of my characters had better have something enriching to say.
LLC: Like me, you didn’t pursue writing in earnest until you were a bit older. I’ve always felt that having to make a living before I could write full-time was one of the best things that could have happened to my writing—all those jobs, all those places, all those people—feed into my work, so that I have far more to write about than those who’ve gone straight from high school to college to an MFA program. Have you found this to be the case for you as well? What are your thoughts on finding the balance between living and writing?
CRH: Finding the balance between living and writing is ongoing. I’m sure I’ll be working on it until the day I die. It’s a lot like the balance between time and money. I’m not sure anybody has it down so perfectly that they never have to take it up again and practice.
I do agree, though, that having been out in the world helps. I’ve lived in a lot of different parts of the country, worked a lot of jobs, made a lot of mistakes, dug my way out of a lot of binds. The wonderful thing about being an author is knowing that everything you live through becomes grist for the mill. It can all be used.
When I was writing short stories and getting them published, I had a mentor who used to joke about students in university writing programs writing stories about students in university writing programs. Because, you know… write what you know. Though I didn’t much enjoy it at the time, the school of hard knocks has a great program. It might not teach you how to write but it sure helps with what to write.
LLC: These four books, your most recent novels, were published by Amazon’s traditional publishing arm, Lake Union. But you’ve also published with bigger houses, reissued some of your books yourself, and done a lot with e-books, making you a prime example of a successful hybrid author. Do you have a preference among these publishing choices? Can you tell us about what you see as the advantages and disadvantages of each?
CRH: I see huge advantages to Lake Union—they are simply the best. They care about the author and they take excellent care of me. They pay monthly. They pay a good royalty. And they get my books out there where they can be found. The only potential disadvantage is that Amazon-published books are often roundly locked out from other retailers, such as brick-and-mortar bookstores. It’s possible that this is breaking down. A recent blog interview I did was followed by a link to buy my new book on BandN. Ha! I thought. You can’t buy that book on BandN! But I clicked the link and it turns out you can. Whichever way this goes, I hate to include it as a demerit for Lake Union, because I view it as a demerit for some retailers. (Brace yourself for controversy here.) Everybody got so upset because Hachette books couldn’t be preordered on Amazon during a tough negotiation but it doesn’t seem to bother them that my newer books can’t be ordered in most stores… ever. Don’t get me started.
I also see huge advantages to independent publishing, especially the way I’ve done it, with my agency handling the business end and doing the heavy lifting. I can choose my own cover image and designer. I get 70% of the ebook price. Again, I’m paid monthly.
Where I’m having trouble seeing advantages right now is in TradPub. I know I’ll anger some by saying it. (Ah, hell, I’m used to that. I anger people all the time.) They pay twice yearly, the statements are written in something like Sanskrit, and they expect the author to do most of the promotion. And they pay between 6% and 15% in royalties. At one time I roundly defended this because I didn’t have warehouses or sales reps, and I didn’t feel like shipping books off to bookstores and taking returns. There was no other way to distribute. Now that there is, I’m having trouble defending the old system.
I should note however that this is in reference to me and my career as it stands. For a new author starting out, I think the legitimacy stamp of TradPub and the fact that your book at least appears in a publisher’s catalogue might be worth the woes, which are the stuff of legends.
LLC: You have a strong social media presence. Is this the bulk of your marketing? Do any of your publishers help with marketing? Do you have any wisdom to share with writers about marketing, whether with a publisher’s marketing department, or on one’s own?
CRH: Lake Union does a fabulous job on marketing. It’s very much like the dream you have, when you’re new and naïve, of what your publisher will do to help your book succeed. You know, the one that’s usually stomped out of existence shortly afterwards. In this land it comes true.
So no, I wouldn’t say that my online presence is the bulk of my marketing. But I do think it’s important. And it’s nothing that any publisher can do for me. It has to be me being me. I like to think of it as the modern equivalent of the book tour. In the old days your publisher sent you out on tour as part of the marketing plan. While out there you met readers and bookstores employees, and made personal connections with them. And those connections improved reader loyalty and word of mouth. Now I cement those same bonds online. With a much larger reach. And from my easy chair. I’ll take my easy chair over an airport any day.
So if I have any wisdom to share, it’s just this: Go out onto social networks and be yourself. (Except—we all have ignoble sides of ourselves which are best expressed offline.) Don’t hold people at arm’s length. Don’t stay in the box of “author” and force them into the box of “reader.” Be a person and interact with other people. Don’t ask everybody you meet out there to buy your book. If you let them get to know you, and they like what they see, they probably will. The more they feel they know the genuine you, the more likely they are to be your readers over the long haul.
LLC: Even though we both grew up in North Buffalo, we only met about fifteen years ago, at a writers’ conference in Albuquerque where you were the keynote speaker. I still remember the wonderful talk you gave—it was about hard work, hard knocks, and a little bit of luck. Can you share a bit of that wisdom here?
CRH: Sure. And I’ll say something I wouldn’t have said at the time, because it hadn’t happened yet. I’m working on a novel-in-progress right now. (When am I not?) Just yesterday I wrote a scene in which someone congratulates my protagonist, Ethan, on something he was able to accomplish out in the wilderness. When Ethan replies that there was luck involved, the congratulator says, “I think the point is, you stayed out there long enough for luck to find you.”
As writers, I think this is what we need to do. Not rely on luck, but stay out in the wilderness, working hard, to give luck a chance to find us.
LLC: What have you read recently that you’d like the world to know about? Why?
CRH: Other than your own novel Dissonance, which I do love to tell people about, I’ve been reading work by my good friend Thomas M. Atkinson, who became my good friend because his writing is so awesome. I’ve been reading both his short stories and his two novels, only one of which is available to buy. His work is very literary, in every sense of the word but also in the best sense. It’s dark. Darker than a lot of people will put up with. But it’s gritty and it’s real, and it cuts very close to the bone. The novel that’s available for purchase is Strobe Life. The other is Tiki Man, which is being shopped around. It’s a shame that people who are writing very high quality literary fiction have a stamp of doom on their foreheads among agents and publishers. So I’d like the world to know about Thom both so they will read him and so someone will reach out and publish him, making more of his work available. There’s not all that much a writer can do to get another writer published, but every now and then you find someone who’s doing such good work that you have to try.
LLC: Thank you!
Visit Catherine Ryan Hyde’s website: http://www.catherineryanhyde.com/
Connect with Catherine on Social Media:
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Catherine-Ryan-Hyde/55974126195
Visit her photography site: http://catherineryanhyde.photo/
Check out her YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkfE0o9-8LjKe0F5f4UbD1Q
Keep in touch on Google+: https://plus.google.com/113559932487190555010/posts
Read more about Catherine Ryan-Hyde at this Kirkus feature: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/best-selling-writer-chooses-hybrid-publishing-path/
Read the Kirkus review of Take Me With You: www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/catherine-ryan-hyde/take-me-with-you-hyde/
Read the Library Journal review of The Language of Hoofbeats: http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/2014/12/books/fiction/a-true-story-from-boyle-hyde-is-exquisite-vann-continues-to-allure-plus-lots-more-fiction-reviews-december-2014/