With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Catherine Ryan Hyde
Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of 27 published and forthcoming books, including Take Me With You, Where We Belong, When I Found You, Walk Me Home, Second Hand Heart, Don’t Let Me Go, and When You Were Older. She has three new novels forthcoming from Lake Union/Amazon Publishing, including The Language Of Hoofbeats in December of ’14 and Worthy in the summer of ’15. 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. Her best-known novel, Pay It Forward, was adapted into a major motion picture, chosen by the American Library Association for its Best Books for Young Adults list, and translated into more than 23 languages for distribution in over 30 countries.
In your career so far, you have written over 25 novels and 50 short stories, and many have been best sellers. When did you first start writing, and what do you think has helped you the most to persevere as an author?
I started writing when I was very young. When I was 14, I had an English and creative writing teacher who told me I could write. In front of the whole class. And he told my other teachers, later, in the staff lounge. So that was when I decided I wanted to be a writer. But I have to look to the year 1991, because that’s when I got serious. I was laid off from a job in January (in a tourist town!) and I wrote that novel I always swore I’d write “if I had the time.” Only this time I joined a workshop/critique group and really buckled down to try to get something published.
Back then what helped me persevere was the mentorship I found at the Cambria Writers Workshop, and later at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. There were several authors there with a lot of experience. They told me I was good enough, that all writers face rejection, and that I shouldn’t give up.
These days it’s hearing directly from readers, especially the ones who tell me a little about themselves, and tell me what my books meant to them. That makes it all worthwhile.
Can you tell us about your latest novel, The Language of Hoofbeats? What inspired you to write it? Have you noticed your writing evolving over time?
I’ve loved horses for as long as I can remember, so I was overdue to write a book with a strong horse character again. My earliest novel, Funerals for Horses, was the first. At the time I had a horse of my own. I’m thinking seriously of having one again, which may be why it came up again in my work.
My former horse, Cody, was thrown in with the deal when a local riding instructor went to buy a lesson horse. The seller said, “Take that one, too. I’ll practically give him to you. I don’t even dare take him out of that pen.” The pen was nailed shut. And of course the horse had quite a bit of energy stored up, to put it mildly. It’s funny how those images stay with you and crop back up in the work.
I do think my writing has evolved. At first I think it was darker, because I was darker. I had two years of recovery from alcohol and drugs when I started writing for real. Now I have almost 26 years. You know that’s bound to make a difference. I think my newer work is more positive and more emotional.
I also notice that the more novels I write, the more they come out—at least substantively—the way I want them. This is not to say I don’t revise; I do. Obsessively. Just that I don’t remember the last time I had to throw away the whole second half of one and start over. Also, I feel that the quality is more consistent from one novel to the next.
What does your writing process look like? Is it similar with each book? How long does it usually take you to complete a novel?
I write very fast. So fast that I tend not to admit how fast, because people think something you produced that quickly must be rushed and can’t be your best effort. But that’s just how I write, and how I always have.
My process is a bit feast-and-famine. I’ll go weeks without writing, and then I’ll often write ten pages a day for ten days running. Then I have to stop to breathe, and let the work develop. And tend to my life, which can be largely ignored when I’m on a roll.
When writing a new novel, what do you consider the most important aspect of your books? Prose? Plot? Characters? Tone? What’s the easiest for you to craft? What challenges you the most?
Definitely character. People are what I really care about when I craft a story. As a reader, I don’t care what happens unless I care about the character it’s happening to. So I always start with a main character whose emotions I understand, and who has a story to tell. I think that’s the easiest part. Finding the character with the story.
The hard part, often, is in deciding how to tell it. From one point of view, or more? First or third person? In chronological order, or starting in the present and then delving into the past and back again? I usually try a few things on until the story opens up and lets me in.
What prompted you to release a young readers’ edition of your bestseller, Pay It Forward? What was the process like to edit the content to a younger audience?
Well, the short version is, when I first wrote the book, I had no idea it would be perfect for kids. So I wrote it for adults, with some adult language and material. And that kept it out of all schools except high schools. I got tons of requests for a version kids could read. And the more I saw kids latching onto the Pay It Forward concept, the more I realized that writing the book for adults only was an error that needed fixing.
Paula Wiseman at Simon & Schuster was the one who took on the project with me. I don’t write for kids that age, so I was not all that familiar with what’s appropriate for an 8-year-old. I edited out everything I thought should go, sent it back to her for more input. I think we did that for about three rounds.
Can you tell us about the book and what inspired you to write Pay it Forward?
I had an experience in which a couple of total strangers saved me from an engine fire, putting it out by hand. In the confusion of the fire department showing up, they took off before I even had a chance to thank them. So I carried this idea around for a while: What if you owe a favor but you can’t pay it back? What do you do with it? I found myself stopping for people who were broken down by the side of the road, even though I never had before. So that felt like my answer. It evolved from there.
You recently released a book of your original photography titled 365 Days of Gratitude: Photos from a Beautiful World. How was working on this project different from others you’ve completed before?
A lot of it was surprisingly left-brained, which is not my specialty. In other words, I had to find and organize 365 of my photos. But it was a joy to work on, especially after I had the photos together. And when I saw the first print copy, the “coffee table book” in my hands, I knew the whole thing was worthwhile.
You have an active blog and social media presence. How often do you hear from your readers? What are the most common questions you are asked?
If Facebook comments and Twitter messages count, I hear from readers dozens of times a day. I get about three-five emails a week, sometimes more, from people who want to talk in more depth.
When Pay It Forward was always the book in question, I’d be asked how I thought of the idea. (I tell the full story in a video on the Pay It Forward page of my website, by the way.) These days I get more thoughts than questions, which I like. Readers tell me why the book meant as much as it did to them, how it intersected with their own lives. That’s as good as it gets.
How do you divide your time between writing, researching, editing, and marketing?
It’s a little jerky sometimes. I have trouble shifting gears. But the “marketing” is seamless, because I just go out to the social networks and my blog and talk to people every day, and listen to them, and share news with them. It’s something like breathing at this point, like any other interactions you’d have in the course of your day.
I write when I can move forward and edit when I can’t yet, so by the time I finish a draft the first three-quarters are very clean. As far as editing, once the work has left my desk, such as going over the work of a developmental editor or copyeditor, when I’m presented with it, I stop the work in progress to edit the previous work. It’s hard, but it’s just part of doing this for a living.
What advice do you have for new writers hoping to get published?
Don’t write in a vacuum. So many new writers want to skip the critique group experience because it’s so painful. But there is no way to avoid that pain. (Two words: reader reviews.) Better to thicken your skin early on. Learn what to take from criticism and what to throw away.
And expect rejection. If you’re going to be a writer, it’s going to be part of your world. You don’t have to like it, but make up your mind that you won’t let it stop you.
Do you have any signings, speaking engagements, or workshops you will be appearing at next year?
Right now I’m on a two-book a year schedule. For those who want to know how such a thing is possible, here’s the answer: You have to say no to just about everything that isn’t your work in progress. But most years I take time off to speak and teach at the Big Sur conference because the Andrea Brown Literary Agency is my agency, and I owe them a lot. We’ve been together a long time and there’s a lot of loyalty there—in both directions.
What can your fans look for in the way of new books on the horizon?
They’re stacked up like planes on a runway. It never ends. At least, I hope it never ends, until I do. The next one after The Language of Hoofbeats is Worthy. It’s a story about two people with ties from the past who unexpectedly come back together over a dog they both feel they own.
And beyond that everything’s a little fresh, a little “not officially finalized.” But there’s another in my agent’s hands and an even newer one I’ve just started. I put a lot on my blog for those interested in the latest news.
Thanks so much for interviewing with us, Catherine!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at the University of Idaho. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.