Excerpted from Chasing Windmills by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Copyright © 2008 by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
An interview with Catherine Ryan Hyde
Q: When did you decide to become a writer?
In my sophomore year of high school. I had a great English and creative writing teacher. His name was Lenny Horowitz. He got us reading great stuff, the kind of fiction that reminded me why people read for pleasure, when no one is holding guns to their heads. I had loved to read as a child, but as I got deeper into school it became a chore, homework. And I’ve always hated ‘the classics’, so the books that had been thrust at me up to that point were nothing like my style. After reawakening my love of reading, he told me I had a talent for writing. I had written a little essay for Creative Writing, and he read it out loud to the class, and told them it was clever. Then, later, I learned that he had gone back to the staff lounge and told all my other teachers that I could write. As the student always picked last for basketball, it was a new experience for me. I wasn’t used to being called talented. It made an impression. I didn’t actually become a serious writer for nearly twenty years, though, because it’s so difficult to make a living in the field. It took a huge leap of faith to quit my day job, which I didn’t do until 1991.
Q: Your last novel, Love in the Present Tense, was shortlisted for Richard & Judy’s Book Club. How did you find the experience?
It was all very gratifying and exciting. I was thrilled to be invited to London for the Galaxy British Books Awards. I had never been to the UK before, but had always wanted to go, so it was a real trip of a lifetime for me, especially because I was doing it for such a happy reason. I loved the little film they made to accompany the discussion of my book on the program. I live in a tiny coastal town of about 6,000 people (counting part-time residents) where people all pretty much know one another, so you can imagine the splash it made when I was all over town with the British film crew. Breaking the top ten in the UK was a peak experience for me. For all the success I had with my book Pay It Forward, it never actually got into the top ten on the New York Times Bestseller list. I think it made #15, though it did better on the Publishers Weekly list, etc. Anyway, the point I'm making is that Pay It Forward is supposed to be my big title, because it was a major studio film and all. It's the one that has always dwarfed all the others. And then, because of Richard & Judy's Book Club, Love in the Present Tense actually jumped out ahead.
But I think this is the thing I enjoyed the most: Every book I write comes out with the words ‘By the bestselling author of Pay It Forward’ above my name. Now Pay It Forward is back in print in the UK and on the cover it says ‘By the bestselling author of Love in the Present Tense’ and that it was a Richard & Judy Book Club selection. I got such a kick out of that cover that I sent it to everybody who knows how hard it’s been for me to get attention for my other titles, how lost they tend to get in the big Pay It Forward shadow. And they found it every bit as gratifying as I did. It was just a wonderful experience all the way around.
Q: How long does each novel take to write?
I tend to write very fast when I write. Which isn’t always. My process is a little hard to explain. Maybe it’s best if I start right out admitting that I don’t completely understand it myself.
I’ve come to a place in my own creative process where I know the difference between work days and non-work days. That is, whether I have it in me that day to write something worth keeping. If not, I’d much rather balance my checkbook or get the car serviced. Because when the work catches fire again, I’ll ignore those things completely. And also because I find it’s not good for my morale to write pages and pages that are destined for the recycle bin. As a result, I’ll go weeks without producing any new work. Then I’ll often sit down and write ten pages a day for ten days running. It works out to a little better than a book a year, so people probably assume I’m very organized and disciplined. But I guess I just put that theory to rest, didn’t I?
Q: Do you work out your plots before you begin?
Yes and no. I try to know enough about the plot that it starts off in a nice clean direction. But not so much that I’ll miss good opportunities as the work progresses. I like to think of it the way you’d plan a long, multi-day trip in the car. You know what day you’ll leave and what you’ll bring. You had better know your destination, or the trip is likely to be a disaster. It helps to have a map and some intelligent thoughts about a good route. But you don’t want to micro-manage things to the point where you decide to drive exactly 425 miles and stop at a certain motel. Because then you’ll miss the Carlsbad Caverns simply because they weren’t in your plan. I try to leave myself open to side trips that I didn’t know would be interesting until I got there.
I also try to ‘listen’ to the characters as I go. The more I get to know them through the writing of them, the more their individual personalities dictate the direction of the work. I try to be careful how I discuss my relationship with my characters, so that I never find myself strapped down for a three-day mandatory psych evaluation. There is a very real sense that they begin to talk to the writer. But I don’t literally hear voices. So far.
Q: You write for teenagers as well. Is your writing process any different?
Probably, but I have no idea how. I’m kidding, but only partly.
It seems that almost every time I write a book for adults, I’m told it would work better in the young adult market and vice versa. It’s not literally every time, but I think I’m wrong more often than I’m right. Bear in mind that I’m writing to a very mature segment of youth, usually around fourteen through eighteen, though it varies from book to book. They are extremely sophisticated readers. In fact, their reading level and sensibility are really not much different from the adult reader. The only real difference is that, in young adult literature, you have to present a story and a protagonist that won’t bore a teenager to death. There has to be a sense of identification.
A couple of decades ago, fiction for youth tended to be a bit whitewashed. There was this sense of wanting to shelter youth from some of the harsher realities of the world. But that has broken down in a big way. We’re in the information age now, and kids know a lot more than we think they do. More than we even want to imagine. So it’s too late to shelter them. Now it’s time, in my opinion, to be willing to discuss the world with them. And, perhaps more importantly, to give them role models for walking through real-world situations. That’s why I take on some very difficult topics in my young adult books. Which, by the way, are suitable for grown-ups as well.
Q: Do you put friends and family in your books? How do your characters first come to you?
No! I want to state very firmly that I do not put my family and friends in my books. I try to be clear on that, because otherwise my family and friends start behaving very strangely around me. If indeed they are willing to be around me at all.
My characters really are genuinely from my imagination. The sense is that they just find me and start talking to me. But I won’t go too deeply into that, for fear of that psych evaluation I mentioned earlier.
There is a degree to which I cull aspects of people I know and use them in entirely fictional characters and in an entirely fictional way. An example would be Reuben in Pay It Forward (the book–alas Reuben did not make it into the movie, in spite of being, arguably, the book’s main character). He was a Viet Nam veteran. Now, I’ve known two Viet Nam vets very well. In both cases they were deeply scarred men. But their scars were on the inside, where no one could see. And when they tried to explain it, they were usually told, ‘Hey, buddy, the war was a long time ago. Get over it.’ So I made Reuben St. Clair a Viet Nam vet with his scars on the outside. So no one would dare say that to him. To that extent I might use people I know. But Reuben is still completely fictional.
Q: Where did the idea for Chasing Windmills come from?
I had a friend at the time who was telling me a great deal about her marriage. It wasn’t physically abusive, but it had such a huge element of control. It reminded me how many people are living lives completely shaped and limited by the whims of another controlling person, whether it’s a parent or partner or something else altogether. It seems almost as though the need to control others is a modern social disease.
But again, by the time the thing was written, it was entirely fiction. I did borrow the concept of guarding carefully against happiness, but other than that, none of the characters in Chasing Windmills reflect this friend in any way.
Q: You alternate between two young voices in the book. How do you find and latch on to those different voices?
You know, it almost seems to be the opposite situation. It almost seems as though they find me and latch onto me. As if these stories want to be told, so the tellers find me and catch my ear. But, again, I’m sane enough to know that they are really just parts of my own personality. So far.
Q: What are the advantages of writing with more than one narrator?
First, just being able to know two or more characters extremely well. There is a different experience, I feel, that the reader (and writer) can have with a ‘viewpoint character.’ When you’re inside a person’s head, it’s a whole different world. And I think it’s fascinating to see how the same situation can be viewed so differently by two different minds.
But additionally, in all three of the books we have been discussing (Pay It Forward, Love in the Present Tense, Chasing Windmills) the use of multiple viewpoints takes on a whole new dimension. Because in each of these books, the reader knows something very important, something that even the other characters don’t know. In Pay It Forward, the reader knows that the concept is spreading and taking on a life of its own. But even its creator, Trevor, doesn’t know this for most of the book. In Love in the Present Tense the reader knows what happened to Pearl, even as Leonard and Mitch struggle with their own best guesses and intuitions. And in Chasing Windmills, the reader knows that Maria has two children, and he or she gets to watch Sebastian build an image of a new life without that crucial information.
So in a sense the reader gets to be a fly on the wall throughout the book, watching others struggle–as indeed we do in real life–with only the information they have been given. I enjoy this as a reader, so I’m hoping my readers will enjoy it as well. To my mind it’s a satisfying way to tell a story.
Q: What do you like most about Sebastian? And Maria?
I like Sebastian most for his gentleness. He is not a weak character. He can be extremely brave. But even when he’s furious, as he is with his father during the book, he hopes that no one gets hurt, but that if anyone does, it’s him. Because he simply refuses to turn out like his father He refuses to repay abuse for abuse, and I respect him for that. It’s so much easier to return bad treatment than it is to transcend it. But Sebastian never loses sight of that goal.
I think I like Maria most for her vulnerability. She makes so many bad decisions. And all too often she’s not as brave as we might like. But I think she stays empathetic because she’s vulnerable and afraid. And, through that enormous fear, she really is doing her best.
Q: Your novel Pay it Forward inspired a national movement in the US. What was the inspiration for this story?
About twenty years ago, I was driving alone at night in a rough area of downtown Los Angeles. My car, an old Datsun 1200, was the best I could afford at the time. I drove it constantly for business, relied on it for every cent of cash I earned; as a result, it was not in great condition. When I braked at the end of a freeway off-ramp, the engine suddenly died. All the lights went out–headlights, dash lights–and then the passenger compartment started to fill with smoke.
I jumped out of the car to see two men running toward me, one holding a blanket that he had pulled from their car's trunk. My panicked first thought was ‘I'm dead.’ Pushing past me, one of the men popped the hood of my car. My engine was on fire; flames were burning along the throttle line. This total stranger proceeded to smother the blaze with the blanket. The car could have exploded at any moment, killing all of us. The fire department arrived quickly, called by another thoughtful motorist, but by then, the fire was out. The two men had saved my car, saved me–my livelihood, possibly my life–all the time putting their own lives at risk for a stranger. Once the emergency was over, I looked up to thank them, but they were gone.
Over the following months, I decided that if I couldn't do anything to repay those two men directly, I would have to return the favor elsewhere. I started looking for someone who needed help as much as I did the night my engine burned. I believed that brand of caring could be contagious.
Q: What happened?
When I did have the opportunity to help someone, it didn't seem all that dramatic at first. I had stopped to help a woman who was stranded by the side of road in the dark. Her car wasn't in flames, just unable to hold radiator fluid. The problem wasn't serious; all I had to do was take a utility knife from my car's glove compartment, cut off the split end of the radiator hose, and reclamp it. It was when we took a drive to get water that I found out how important my help was to her.
She never told me what had happened to her in the past; what type of violence or assault she had survived. And I didn't ask. But it became clear as we talked that, in her mind, she had been in a life-threatening situation. That I was the first person to happen by, that I cared enough to stop, that I had no bad intentions toward her, was a life-and-death flip of the coin for her. She kept asking how she could repay me, offering to give me money. I wanted to hold onto the idea that I could send one more person into the world owing a favor to a stranger. ‘Don't pay it back to me,’ I said. ‘Pay it forward to someone else.’ She understood. Then I spent the next twenty years wondering what kind of world it would be if an idea like that caught fire.
Q: Pay it Forward was also made into a star-studded film. Were you pleased with the film?
I thought the book was better. But then, I would, wouldn’t I?
Seriously, though, I wish the movie had an ending that people found more uplifting. I think the end of the book leaves people in a better place. If you’ve only seen the film, and didn’t understand the ending, I hope you’ll give the book a try. You’ll feel better. I’m not just saying that to sell books–you can check it out of the library if you like.
I also wish that my African-American Viet Nam vet protagonist, Reuben St. Clair, had made it into the film. I think in a number of ways the movie lacked the human diversity of the book, and I find that regrettable.
I do think, though, on the positive side, that the Pay It Forward concept came through very well in the film. Since that is the core message, and the movie reached millions of people that the book did not, I feel grateful.
Q: What advice would you offer for writers just starting out?
Learn to deal with rejection and criticism early on, because your work will be rejected and criticized, no matter how successful it eventually becomes.
Don’t write in a vacuum. Join a good critique group, or otherwise seek the feedback of others. Listen to others, but don’t necessarily believe everything they say. This is just as true when you are being praised as it is during criticism. Never change your work just because somebody else tells you to. Instead, try to develop an inner voice that will tell you if you agree with their points or not.
Learn your market and be realistic. Really get in and find out how hard a business it is. How badly do you want to be a writer? Because, if there’s something else you might want to do, you would probably be happier doing that, almost no matter what it is. There’s only one good reason I can think of for being a writer, and that’s if you know you’ll never be happy doing anything else. If that’s your situation, then forget everything you’ve learned about how hard it is. It’s what you’re going to do, and the odds mean nothing to you. Proceed in spite of the odds and never give up.
Q: Your novel Electric God will be coming out in the UK soon. What inspired you to write this? Is it true that a film is in production?
I began thinking about Hayden Reese and Electric God not long after the dreadful Columbine incident here in the U.S., in Colorado. It came on the heels of so many other acts of violence and rage perpetrated by boys and young men. I began wondering what was going wrong with the raising of males in our society. Are we failing them in some way? Are we not allowing them a vent for their anger, their emotion? Why don’t they feel they can seek help when they are in that depth of anguish? I don’t think I caught the direct connection at the time, but not much later I began this character study of an angry man.
There is a film in development. I’m not entirely sure how development differs from production (I’m really not a Hollywood person at all). But a filming date has not been announced. I never set my clock by Hollywood, but the option was recently renewed and I have no reason to feel it’s not moving forward. As to when it will hit the big screen, I’m afraid that’s anybody’s guess. Pay It Forward was snapped up for film before the book even sold for print. And the principle filming began while I was out touring for the book. It just grew wings and flew, which is very unusual. I think people wonder why Electric God is taking so long, but really, I think Pay It Forward is more the exception and Electric God more the rule. I have a very good writer friend, Barnaby Conrad. He wrote Matador, which was a huge, runaway bestseller in 1951. It’s been optioned ever since, and really still has a chance of making it to the screen. So, from that perspective, I think Electric God is moving along quite well.
Q: Can you give us a teaser about what you are writing next for adults?
Maybe just a small one. I might say that I have been haunted by a short story of mine. It was published seven or eight years ago, but I began thinking about it recently. At the time I was sending it around for publication, several editors rejected it saying they liked it but thought it felt like a novel. Nonsense, I thought, it’s a short story. And I found an editor who agreed, and that was the end of that. Or so I thought. Now it’s come back up in my imagination, and the characters have so much more to say. Their stories seem so much bigger and deeper and more complete than the parts I’ve touched on already. So, as of this writing, I have almost fifty pages of the novel version, and I’m very happy with how it’s going so far. But it’s early in the process, so it might be premature to say much more.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Do you think it is a coincidence or a pattern that Maria, who had an abusive father, then found a man who abused her?
2. This leads us to consider the next generation: might Natalie's life turn out differently through having known Sebastian?
3. Do you think Maria could have found her way out of her abusive relationship without the support of her sister? Does breaking free from abusive control rely heavily on the support of others, and from having someone mirror back a different reality?
4. Similarly, how differently do you think Sebastian's life would have turned out without the support of Delilah?
5. Do you understand the decisions Sebastian's mother made when he was young? Do you forgive her for her actions?
6. In what ways do the themes of this novel match those of West Side Story? Did the novel's nod to this famous story effect your reading of it, and if so, how?
7. In your experience, is there a fine line between love and possession? Can the two be easily confused? What different kinds of love are illustrated in the novel?
8. How are Sebastian and Maria alike and how are they different? If they had met under happier circumstances, do you think they would still have fallen in love?
9. How important are your childhood memories to you? Is there a single memory you feel defines who you are?
10. How did you feel about the way the novel ended? Was it as you expected? Would you have preferred a different outcome?