by Leni Leanne Phillips
Twenty years ago, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel Pay it Forward became an international best seller.  The following year, the film adaptation debuted at number four at the box office its opening weekend. The book also spawned a social movement promoting kindness, optimism, and faith in humankind. Hyde has since published thirty-six books, including a young readers’ edition of Pay it Forward, two dozen novels, and a book of travel photography based on gratitude. Her most recent novel, Have You Seen Luis Velez?, was published in May of this year. A new novel, Stay, will be released on December 3, 2019.
Hyde has a busy writing schedule—she publishes two books a year for Lake Union Publishing, Amazon’s traditional imprint. Still, she manages to find time to connect with nature (she’s hiked and backpacked some of the most famous trails in the world, including Machu Picchu) and even to connect with the universe (Hyde recently took up astrophotography). She also maintains a strong relationship with her readers on social media and on her website, catherineryanhyde.com.
Hyde established the Pay it Forward Foundation in 2000 and remains an outspoken advocate for civil and human rights. One of the more engaging aspects of Hyde’s stories is the way she addresses social issues. While her writing reflects an awareness of all that is wrong in the world, she comes at it from a glass-half-full perspective. Rather than being overwhelmed or discouraged, she focuses on how much one person can do.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Hyde over e-mail about optimism, astrophotography, and swimming in the world-famous Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle.
The Coachella Review: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Pay it Forward. How do you continue to hold onto that book’s sense of optimism in today’s political climate?
Catherine Ryan Hyde: When I was a kid, my mom and I were optimists. And my dad couldn’t wait to sit us down and tell us all the things that could go wrong—the things he figured we weren’t thinking of on our own. I know (now) that it was just his fear, but I think it caused me to grow up demanding the right to expect the best.
Now, as far as society today, it worries me. It worries me as much as it worries anyone. I’m not blind to the downsides of things. I just insist on believing that we mostly get to the other side of tough times, often with more coping skills and knowledge. So I’m deeply affected by what’s happening, but I still see light at the end of this tunnel.
TCR: Your characters are often people we might think of as powerless, like children or the elderly, or people who have been marginalized, or even animals. In a world where individuals often feel overwhelmed and helpless to effect any real change, you don’t seem to feel this way. Can you talk about that?
CRH: I think domestic animals are, for the most part, the utterly helpless group. Kids I think can do a lot—they have more agency than we give them credit for having. I do like to write about marginalized people. People who fall through the cracks and need someone to catch them. I don’t think of them as powerless, exactly. More that, in that moment and situation, they can’t do what they need to do without some help. So then the question is: Who is willing to help? And if it’s nobody’s responsibility to help, that makes for an even better story … because someone is going to step up, even though it’s not his or her job to do it.
TCR: You’ve mentioned that Have You Seen Luis Velez? is very special to you. Why?
CRH: That’s always hard to put into words. Usually it means I have a strong heart connection to the characters, the way I did with Jordy and Chloe in Becoming Chloe.
I also think Luis Velez was my chance to write the book that I felt our society needed to read at this time in our history. I don’t mean to sound overly grand about it, and I’m not saying my book is something everybody needs to read. You take your best shot at saying what you think people need to hear. That’s all any one person can do.
TCR: You started out publishing short stories in literary journals, and that played a big part in your being discovered as a writer. Do you still write short stories?
CRH: I actually don’t write short stories anymore, though I still enjoy the form. It wasn’t a purposeful decision. At a certain point I would just start to write a new story and around page eighty I had to give up and let it be a novel.
I do think they serve a terrific purpose for a newer writer. Writing a short story is a master class in characterization because you don’t have seven chapters to show the character growing into the person we see today. You have to jump into a moment, hit the ground running, and make the character feel real. It’s also a great way to learn self-editing.
I’m not suggesting that short stories are only a learning tool and should be abandoned later. More that even a writer who has no interest in them in the long run would likely benefit.
One exception to my writing short fiction these days: Once a year a handful of other authors and I place non-monetary bets on a sporting event (has been the Kentucky Derby, but I love horses too much to seem to be supporting racing, so that will change next time). The winner gets to give a story title to the person who finished behind them, and so on, down the line, and that author has to write a story using the title. I’ve written five stories for “The Bet,” including as recently as this past June. They can all be read on the blog on my website.
TCR: You maintain strong connections to the outdoors, to the world, and, through astrophotography, even to the universe. I’m curious about how those experiences impact your storytelling?
CRH: I think the best way to explain it is to say it’s my own brand of spirituality. Nature and deep space are where I find awe, which is a very important experience for me. At times these passions will arrive more directly in my work, such as the wilderness journey in Leaving Blythe River. More often they are simply part of the way I think and what matters to me, which becomes part of the books in a more indirect and less defined way. Still, if it’s part of me—what I love and the way I think—it’s not going to be entirely separate from the work my imagination creates.
TCR: By the way, what is astrophotography?
CRH: I’ve been a travel and wildlife (amateur) photographer for many years. I always used a strong zoom “superzoom” camera because it was so good for distant birds, etc. Then one day I read that my Nikon P900 zoom was so powerful that it could capture the rings of Saturn. Of course I had to see that with my own eyes. Then I just fell in love with the hobby of astrophotography, probably for the same reason I used to love to hike to places like Machu Picchu or the Hotel Everest View—the “wow factor.” I like to do things that fill me with awe. It’s almost a borderline spiritual experience, to be dumbstruck by that level of awe. And what could be more awe-inspiring than capturing a colorful nebula or (thirty-five million light years) distant galaxy from your yard? It just blows your whole concept of “world” wide open.
TCR: You are a self-taught writer. You didn’t pursue a formal writing education. Along the way, are there any experiences that were particularly helpful to you in gaining confidence and developing as a writer?
CRH: I didn’t pursue much formal education, period. I despised school and never went to college. I did spend a lot of time in libraries. Of course, formal education is not the only kind of education there is.
I joined a writers’ group here in my small town when I started working on my first novel. The Cambria Writers’ Workshop. A handful of its members were more professional and published, and I found some helpful mentorship there. A couple of years later I began to attend the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and found even more helpful mentorship.
There’s really nothing like a critique group, in my experience. Painful though they often are. You take your work directly to readers, and they feed back to you what is and is not working.
I also think I gained a lot of confidence by weathering rejection. At first I couldn’t get an agent for my novels, so I marketed my own short fiction. My average story was rejected about seventeen times before going on to find a home. One story was rejected over fifty times and then snapped up by two magazines at once. Another was rejected twenty-some times, then won honorable mention in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, then was rejected another twenty or so times before being published.
People misunderstand rejection. They think it means the work is bad. Once you let go of that idea, you can stop asking yourself, “Is this story good or bad?” and started asking, “What is the right readership for a story like this?” That will do wonders for an author’s confidence.
TCR: I hear you once worked at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. Can you tell us about some of the other jobs you had before you became a full-time writer?
CRH: I worked as an auto mechanic. Also a baker and pastry chef. I used to own my own dog training business. And yes, Hearst Castle Tour Guide.
TCR: When you worked at Hearst Castle, you had the opportunity to swim in the world-famous Neptune Pool. Employees and volunteers no longer have that opportunity, only big donors do. Any thoughts about that?
CRH: I did swim in the outdoor Neptune Pool. That was back when guides were allowed one pool party a year. Somewhere I have a picture of myself jumping in.
I think it’s a shame that big donors get to use the pool and guides don’t. I can’t even imagine how the state justifies such a rule. You can’t break the pool by swimming in it. More fun opportunities for your employees tend to lead to happy employees, but somehow only a very few companies see this as a plus. I’d love to have someone explain to me the advantages of barring guides from the pool, but … you know. It’s government work. It’s not heavily based on logic.
TCR: Early on in your career, you embraced technology and the digital age. In what ways do you think reading and publishing are being changed by technology?
CRH: I think technology for the writer has been huge. With the advent of word processors and computers, we suddenly had manuscript creation machines in our own homes. In the old days cut and paste meant … literally: cut with a scissors and paste. Then we found ourselves in a world where you could delete one sentence and watch the whole manuscript repaginate itself. Unless you have a problem embracing change, I can’t see any downside to this.
As to the reader experience, people make far too big a deal about technological changes to reading. When I was young the flap was about “books on tape.” They were going to assassinate the noble book and usher in the demise of literary culture. Decades later, audio happily coexists alongside print books to give people more reading alternatives. Now you see the same hand-wringing over ebooks, and I find it all rather silly. Just choose a format and be happy. It’s not a war. Who cares how people read? I use all three formats. The point is to read.
TCR: As busy as you are, you maintain a close connection and relationship with your readers. Can you speak to that?
CRH: Being an author is very solitary work. I’m well suited to solitary work, but, like anything, isolation can be overdone. I put a lot of myself into the books and use them as a form of communication. But unlike most other forms of communication, it’s like yelling into a great void. Nothing comes back. The book goes out into the world and … what? The author can’t really know.
So when readers reach out and talk to me, it’s meaningful. I like it when they tell me what struck them about a book and why. I particularly love it when they tell me a little of their own life experience so I can see how it interacts with the story. It’s a sign that they trust me based on my work, and it’s genuine communication. That is, it goes both ways.
Also, I place a great value on my readers, because I haven’t forgotten that without them I’d be out of a job.
TCR: Your next novel, Stay, is coming out in December. What can you tell us about it?
CRH: It’s set in the Vietnam era. It has a teenage boy protagonist, but it’s not Young Adult. It contains two very large dogs. It’s about the opposite of suicide. In a sense it’s a novel about suicide that has no suicide in it. That’s how it got its title. It’s about sticking around. And how having even one person who thinks you add value to the world can be a good temporary substitute for being ready to believe it yourself.
Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at lenileanne.com.