Catherine Ryan Hyde was one of my heroes growing up; I learned about her book, Pay It Forward, when I was 17 and a new writer trying to work out if I wanted to pursue my writing or if I might do something else. Seeing what Catherine accomplished with her book, and then having the joy of meeting her in person and discovering it was possible to achieve the level of influence she did without it changing who she was—I realized I could become the writer I wanted to be, without having to give up the aspects of myself that I was sure would get compromised if I ever became a public figure (at the time I thought you either were a nobody or a celebrity in the artistic fields).
Catherine was exceptionally down to earth, and she encouraged me to pursue my writing. That someone “like her” could believe in me that much meant a lot to me, and when she wrote on her Pay It Forward dedication “Please say you will [Pay It Forward]” I made a silent promise that I would, for the rest of my life—and ironically it’s that mindset that’s led me full circle, to where I have the opportunity to interview Catherine about her exquisite book, The Long, Steep Path: Everyday Inspiration from the Author of Pay It Forward where she shares herself in spirit the same way she has touched my life – and this way she can be a mentor and a friend to millions more people than she has graced personally. (My book review is on Blogcritics at http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-the-long-steep-path).
If you’d like to know more about Catherine, she’s truly accessible – check out her website at http://www.catherineryanhyde.com, her Amazon author page at http://www.amazon.com/Catherine-Ryan-Hyde/e/B001ITTR60#/ref=la_B001ITTR60_pg_3?rh=n%3A283155%2Cp_82%3AB001ITTR60&page=3&ie=UTF8&qid=1363147923 and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/#!/crhyde?fref=ts.
Interview by Joanna Celeste
Q: What prompted you to write your memoir?
A: I don’t think of it as a memoir… exactly. It’s memoir-ish. It has some elements of memoir, in that everything in it is true, and happened to me. But I tend to think of a memoir as a more complete story of a person’s life. So then, for readers to want to read that memoir, they would have to be interested in knowing about that person’s life. I’m not assuming that people wanted to know my life story. Instead I’ve chosen life experiences that changed my thinking about the world in a small way, and laid them out in a way that just might, possibly, change your thinking about the world in a small way as well.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that’s it’s not really so much about me. It’s more about things I’ve observed that might be useful to you (the reader).
Now, to answer your question: It was one-third reaching out to the people who so far only seem interested in Pay It Forward and not so much the rest of my body of work. It was one-third carried forward from some opinion pieces I’d done for AOL News—on such subjects as happiness and gratitude—that I enjoyed doing and that people seemed to like. The final one-third was a realization I had as I was walking down Indian Cove Road in Joshua Tree, headed for a trailhead. I thought, too bad I don’t write about my hiking and travels. If I did, this trip would be tax deductible. But I didn’t write The Long, Steep Path so I could deduct my trips. I wrote it because that started me wondering why I’d never written about my hiking and travel. When I thought about it, it seemed like an oversight. That really is the honest answer. I wanted to write a creative nonfiction book about hiking and the outdoors, but was eventually able to see that it should have a broader scope.
Q: I loved all your metaphors about hiking. You touched lightly on your past—that you changed your name, just had to get out, that you had deep emotional issues—I’m curious what happened but I also respect that you want to keep some things private. How did you approach writing your memoir, culling the points you wanted to share and what you didn’t feel necessary?
A: I’m not a secretive person at all. I jokingly tell people I’d be the worst blackmail target ever. I’d be like, “Fine, I’ll write about it myself. Save you the trouble.” But that’s my history. When you start writing about your family of origin, that’s shared history. Other people’s privacy and feelings are at stake. I think you probably noticed in my Author’s Note at the end of the book that I only wrote about one living person, and only with her express permission. I was careful with the anonymity of AA members, using no last names, not repeating anything said in a meeting unless they said it outside one as well. The one person whose story was pretty personal, I didn’t use a name at all. I tried to be really careful of other people’s “stuff.”
Q: That was done very well. I also loved the way you organized your chapters. What was your process of writing like; did you write the essays over time and compile them or did you have an outline of what you wanted to share?
A: There was a bit of trial and error to that. I really chose the subjects more by the seat of my pants. I wrote all the stories I felt were worth writing. Then I laid them out and got a sense of what they all added up to, and how their messages could be most cohesive.
Q: Nice! As a self-proclaimed hybrid author, why did you choose to self-publish this work?
A: Because I wanted to pair the essays with my own photos. And I knew that if I used a traditional publisher, they wouldn’t want to print color photos, because it’s expensive. It raises the production costs, and forces the publisher to charge more for the book, maybe more than most readers want to pay. So we never shopped it around to publishers. Instead we (my agent and I) decided to go independent ebook only. That way I could not only include a big handful of color photos, I could link to the full photo albums for those who were especially interested in one or more of the locations. You can’t do that in a print book.
The photographs were a wonderful touch. You’ve got me wanting to hike now, so I can visit those places in person.
Q: It was fun learning that you were once a tour guide for Hearst Castle and a pastry chef. For the 8 years you worked a multitude of part-time jobs, how did those experiences influence your writing?
A: Well, they give me a lot of good experience to fall back on. I always prefer to have characters live in a city I’ve lived in, or work at a job I’ve done myself. Because the quality of material you pick up is altogether different than what you learn through research only.
Q: What did you love the most about your experience as a pastry chef?
A: For a time I worked at an actual big bakery, in the pastry department. The hours were terrible, 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. I had to drive about 70 miles round trip. And I gained weight because I couldn’t stop sampling the product. Not much to love there.
Later I worked at a little restaurant in Cambria, doing homemade breads and desserts. The chef was my best friend Janet, and we worked very well together. Even when things got busy, we stayed stress-free. At the end of the night we ate like royalty. That I liked.
That makes all the difference, working with people you get along with.
Q: I loved your metaphors about animals, like how you developed “gentling” your horse rather than breaking it, and the dog’s attitude towards his daily walk. What would you say is an essential thing we can learn from animals?
A: Presence. The ability to be completely in the moment. Animals are very good at that, and humans are unusually bad at it. And it’s a real goal of mine, to be present. I think it’s the essence of my spirituality, the idea that “the powers that be” in the universe are found in the present moment. So when people act like animals are very simple and inferior compared to us, it seems backwards to me. I’m not saying we’re inferior, but I am saying I feel they are ahead of us in some respects. I guess it all depends on what you value.
Q: Thank you. One of my favorite parts of The Long, Steep Path was your story about how one sentence changed your life. Your book was full of these one sentences for me. Since publishing your book, have you had any other “one sentence” experiences?
A: It may sound strange, but I have that experience on Twitter all the time. It encourages people to boil down their thoughts. And if you follow the right people, you pick up all these statements that are just so beautifully phrased that they cause you to look at some aspect of life in a new way. I think we do that for each other all the time, just in less dramatic ways than the one I described in the book.
Yes! Twitter is awesome for that. The philosophy at the heart of The Long, Steep Path– finding the life you want in the life you have – is beautiful. When was the moment you discovered this?
A: I don’t think there was any one special moment when I discovered it. I think the realization came slowly over a period of time. But I think there was a moment, as I was putting together all my thoughts for the book, when I suddenly got a grasp of how to say it. I found the words in that few lines from the prologue of Pay It Forward: “Knowing it started from unremarkable circumstances should be a comfort to us all. Because it shows you don’t need much to change the entire world for the better. You can start with the most ordinary ingredients. You can start with the world you’ve got.” That paragraph seemed to resonate with a lot of people. I guess because, when you think about it, where else could you possibly start? It hit me quite suddenly that this is true of our individual lives as well. And why shouldn’t it be? Put all our individual lives together and you get the world in question.
Q: This spirit seems to be conveyed in the style of your writing—capturing lives that are mosaics; perhaps not perfect, but whole in their own way. What drives you to write your fiction?
A: Human nature. I find it endlessly fascinating. I’m curious about why we take good care of each other, when we do. And why we don’t when we don’t. I’m particularly interested in unlikely bonds, the kind that fall outside blood relations and romance. Both of those are easy to understand, but I love the odd bond that’s quirkier, that says more about the good, loving side of human nature.
Q: That’s my favorite aspect to your stories. As a mentor or a sponsor, how do you approach those whom you take under your wing? What is the basic advice you give them?
A: I think the most useful thing I can do for another writer is to help them develop a new relationship with criticism and rejection. There’s nothing I can say to stop it from stinging. Not even to myself. But it’s possible to look it in the face and not let it stop you. You can learn to see that people are really telling you more about themselves when they judge you.
That’s as a mentor.
As a sponsor, I think my goal is to help people accept life for exactly what it is. When you let a person into your life, you have to take them as a whole. You can’t change them. You can’t take the parts you like and leave the rest. I think if we could have that kind of unconditional love for the world, and our lives, we’d be much happier.
Q: You have a lot of experience you can share from (I still can’t believe that Pay It Forward was shot down by your agent). As someone who went from being relatively unknown to being the center of an international movement, what are some of the pros and cons of celebrity?
A: I don’t really think of myself as a celebrity, though I think I was thrust into that world for a time during the initial “Pay It Forward Phenomenon.”
Actual celebrity, I’d say mostly cons. There’s something false about it. I always make an effort not to tell people what I do until we’ve gotten to know each other a bit. Because it changes the balance of interactions. And it shouldn’t. No one is above or below anyone else, unless they place themselves there by their own actions.
What I do like is the genuine interaction with readers—when a reader finds me (I make myself easy to find) and shares the thoughts and feelings they had when reading one of my books. That’s very genuine. And of course it happens more as more people read you. So that’s one positive note. That and being able to pay my bills.
Q: Yeah, life is awesome when you can do what you love, interact with the people you write for, and pay your bills. Your book ends, quite aptly, with “The Path Continues”. What’s next on your path?
A: Well, that’s a good question. In many ways I’m waiting to be surprised. But it would be a safe bet to say there will be books involved.
Q: Yay! You’ve got your new book out now, Always Chloe and Other Stories, which I’m excited to read. Anything you’d like to share about that?
A: One of the nicest parts of independent ebooks is my ability to give them away on a limited basis as a way of helping the book find its audience. Always Chloe and Other Stories contains the novella-length sequel to my novel Becoming Chloe. It’s a stand-alone work, though, for those who haven’t read the original. On the 22nd through 24th of March, the Kindle ebook will be free on Amazon. And all anyone has to do is subscribe to my blog, or follow me on Twitter or Facebook, to hear about future deals. I tend to give a lot of books away, even physical books. In the long run, it always brings me more readers.
Wonderful, thank you so much!