An Interview with Catherine Ryan Hyde

Below is an interview I conducted with author Catherine Ryan Hyde.  If you are interested in purchasing her books just click on the covers below.

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CATHERINE RYAN HYDE

As an avid reader, I hate to hear someone describe a book as “hard to get into.” I don’t have much patience with books like that. But once in a while, I open a book that I adore from the first paragraph. These are the books I read very slowly, because I don’t want them to end. So when I discovered a book that was written by the person whose novel was the basis for Pay it Forward, one of my favorite movies, I bought it. It hooked me from the first sentence. I savored it!

Don’t Let Me Go is the story of a little girl who needs looking after. Her mother isn’t up to the job, and so an assorted cast of characters steps in to do the job. It is filled with people that are flawed, frightened, addicted, strange, and needy. The story is simple, heartwarming, and beautifully wrought.

Imagine my surprise when after I posted a comment about how much I loved the book on Twitter, the popular social media site, Catherine Ryan Hyde responded. We had a conversation, and the result is this interview!

How do you get your plot ideas? Do they just come to you somehow, as in a dream? From the news headlines?

That’s a good question, and a tricky one to answer. They don’t come to me in dreams, but they often come to me after I go to bed at night but before I fall asleep. They rarely come to me from news headlines, but I can think of one exception. I wrote a short story called “The Man Who Found You in the Woods” after seeing a local news story about two women who found an abandoned newborn. None of my other details came from the true story. It just got me thinking about how connected the finder would feel to that new life. Later I expanded it into the novel When I Found You.

Most often I start with a character, and a situation that character is facing. But this is the part that’s hard to explain. The characters come from pure imagination, as do their struggles. So it’s hard to quantify where I get them. The best I can say is that it feels like daydreaming for a living. Which, by the way, my teachers told me would never pay off. (She who laughs last…)

You are so expert at writing stories that grip the reader from the first sentence. Is this something you are conscious of doing? Is it a goal?

When I was a newer author, I certainly had that drummed into me. You have to submit work samples to agents, and you’re constantly told that they might read as little as a paragraph, based on whether the first paragraph compels them to read the second.

That said, I’m pleased that you think I do it successfully. Everyone will have a different opinion about that, as everyone has a different feeling about what is interesting and compelling. Particularly with Don’t Let Me Go, many people told me they had a little trouble clicking with it at first. This is probably because we’re in Billy’s head, and, though Billy is ultimately quite lovable, he’s a troubled soul. When you first meet him, you’re not sure who you’re dealing with. But it worked for you, and that’s great.

Oddly, when I first published When I Found You (its UK edition came out first) my editor at Transworld (Random House Group) asked me to slow down the opening just a little. Well, she didn’t put it quite that way. But I had originally started on the way to the lake in the dark, when Nathan’s dog won’t come to him and a minute later we learn it’s because she found the newborn. I guess my editor felt we should have more of a sense of Nathan, of whose head we are in, before this big event.

So it’s all a bit subjective.

Do you have a theme or recurring thread in your writing? I sense you have real sympathy for characters that have emotional problems or whom the world might judge as morally wrong. Why do you choose these characters to write about?

I don’t mean to have a recurring theme, but, human nature being what it is, it would seem that I do anyway. What comes up again and again is that the separations we create between ourselves in this society are false and generally unnecessary. I think I’m saying in dozens of different ways that if you go a little deeper under the skin of anyone, you’ll find a human being just like you. And then you won’t have to feel guarded or afraid. That’s why I tend to gravitate toward characters who would generally be shunned by large segments of society. The more you know and understand, the less you tend to shun.

Do you plan your entire story before you write the novel? Or does it come to you as you write?

It’s something in between. I don’t outline the story. I’m one of those authors who say my first draft is my outline. But I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going, and what I hope to accomplish. Usually there’s a lot of middle ground that still needs to reveal itself. Because I write character-driven stories, I like to leave the middle sections loose. I get to know my characters better as I go along. Inevitably I will reach the middle and find that someone doesn’t fit in the box I would have created for him or her when the story began. Occasionally I find I was wrong about where the story was going, but this is less and less true the more novels I write.

How long does it take you, on average, to write a complete novel? Are you fast or slow?

I am bizarrely fast. I don’t do it on purpose. I’m not rushing. It’s just the way I write. On average, a full-length novel takes me about five to seven months. Which is very fast.

Your characters seem to reveal themselves through the things they say, rather than via long descriptions of them. I know that “show, don’t tell,” is a writer’s mantra. How do you feel about that?

Years ago I heard a more experienced writer say, “Think in scenes, because if you couldn’t film it, the reader can’t see it.” So I try to make my writing visual. Sometimes in a film you’ll have a couple of lines of voice-over, but you sure wouldn’t want to do that through the whole film. So I try to use introspection like a spice, and use just the right amount. I try not to overdo it.

Who is your favorite character in your books?

Billy Shine in Don’t Let Me Go comes to mind. Also Jordy from Becoming Chloe.

How autobiographical are your plots? Do you base characters on real people?

They are really not autobiographical at all, except to the extent that my characters and I are all humans, so we share a certain range of emotion and experience. But I really make these people up. I’m a student of human nature, and I watch with fascination to see how we behave. And, of course, I wonder why. But any personality trait I use in a character came from many people I know, and the finished character is never any one of them.

How about you as a reader? What are your pet peeves?

My pet peeve as a reader would be anything that withholds emotion or separates me from the emotion of the story. I’m not interested in convoluted plot twists unless I care about the character who is experiencing them. I’m looking to read books that shed a realistic light on what it means to be a human being in a scary, unpredictable world. So if I feel an author is writing from the space between his or her ears, rather than the heart or the gut, I get impatient and don’t finish.

Do you watch television? What kind of shows do you enjoy?

I do from time to time, usually when I am too mentally tired and eyesore to enjoy reading. Sometimes I watch more serious fare like the Six Feet Under or Breaking Bad series (I generally try to avoid a lot of violence, but that one hooked me). Other times I feel like something more funny and lighthearted, so I’ll watch Friends or Frasier. And after all these years I’m still a big fan of I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the old original Looney Tunes cartoons.

And finally, I would love to know which books have been your favorites as a reader. Can you give me a short list of ones you have loved and why?

The “why” tends to be harder than the “what.” In years past I loved Flowers for Algernon, Of Mice and Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Bless the Beasts and Children, To Kill a Mockingbird. More recently I’ve enjoyed books like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Book Thief.

I think the why is in the above answer about what I like to read. These books made me feel something genuine. They introduced me to characters well off the beaten path, and made me feel their experience. I think books, if done well, can make us all feel more human—in a good way.

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