It would be easy to assume that Catherine Ryan Hyde’s career peaked with the adaptation of her novel “Pay It Forward” into a major motion picture 15 years ago, and that the resulting success left her set for life.
To do so, however, would be wrong on both counts. Some of Hyde’s subsequent works struggled to find an audience, but now her career has reached heights not seen even during the days after her most well-known work became a fixture in social consciousness.
“Things are among the best they’ve ever been right now,” Hyde said in an interview at her home in Cambria. “Probably the best they’ve ever been.”
“Pay It Forward” was published in 1999 and adapted a year later for the screen, with stars Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment all receiving strong reviews for their performances. In the story, a boy creates a charitable program based on a simple premise: Instead of paying a benefactor back, the person on the receiving end of a good deed pays it forward by doing a favor for three other people.
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The idea was so successful it overshadowed some of Hyde’s subsequent works — she’s written nearly 30 books in all — such that many fans who saw the movie never bothered to read the book; some don’t even know it was based on a novel.
“I wish we weren’t a society where everyone has seen the movie and nobody has read the book,” said Hyde, 60, who has been writing full time since 1991. “I almost went bankrupt once, and there were a lot of times when I was really close to that day job line.”
At home in Cambria
Despite those challenges, Hyde has never thought about living anywhere other than Cambria, where she’s lived for 30 years.
Hyde moved up to Cambria from Southern California in the spring of 1985 with the intention of staying through the summer. “I knew if I came up to Cambria in the summer, I could get work, because it’s Cambria in the summer,” she said.
The author followed the footsteps of her mother, who had moved to Cambria from Southern California four years earlier.
“She had a friend in L.A. who had several houses in L.A. and two houses in Cambria,” Hyde said.
Her mother moved into one of those houses, and when her friend died, “she left this house to my mom,” Hyde said.
The author still lives in that house today, and a small photo of her mother’s friend can be found in every room of the house as an expression of gratitude. (That’s a recurring theme for Hyde, whose website includes a regular feature titled “Daily Gratitude.”)
Hyde shares the home with a 2½-year-old black cat she took home from the Homeless Animal Rescue Team (HART) in Cambria and a small, 9-year-old black dog. She named the cat Jordan, after a character in her book “Becoming Chloe,” and the dog she dubbed Ella in honor of Ella Ginsberg, the narrator of her debut novel, “Funerals for Horses.”
Speaking of horses, Hyde added one to her collection of animals in February: a 1,300-pound quarter horse that she also named for one of her characters — Nathan in her book “When I Found You.” Hyde chose the name, she said, “partly because that book turned everything around in my career and partly because he’s just a reliable character.”
The horse, likewise, is reliable. At 13 years old, he “has a very mellow and easygoing disposition,” Hyde said.
Developing her style
“Cambria isn’t just a home for Hyde; it’s a source of inspiration.”
Shortly after she started writing, Hyde joined the Cambria Writers’ Workshop, which meets every Wednesday morning. She attended meetings for the next five or six years and, although she’s no longer involved, sees feedback as essential for aspiring writers.
“I really think that’s honestly where I learned to write,” Hyde said. “I learned to write by writing, taking it there and reading and getting feedback. That was kind of my writing school. I do strongly recommend the ‘jury of your peers school.’ ”
For several years, Hyde’s mother served as her proofreader; these days, her agent looks over her work, and her editor provides a second read.
Hyde cites Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, Daniel Keyes (“Flowers for Algernon”) and Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) as some of her influences.
“The one thing all those people have in common is they’re writing about characters that are way outside the mainstream,” Hyde said. “These are the kind of people that you would lock your door if they were walking down the street, but (the author) takes you into their world, and they’re people just like you and me.”
New book out June 2
Most of Hyde’s works have been novels, but she’s also produced a book of her photography (“365 Days of Gratitude”)âand a self-help book for writers titled “How to Be a Writer in the E-Age.”
She has a new novel coming out June 2. Titled “Worthy,” its Amazon synopsis describes it as the story of “what happens when two strangers discover they’re connected by a terrible tragedy.”
Devastating setbacks and difficult choices are recurring themes of Hyde’s works. The result, however, isn’t a sense of defeatism, but rather, the opposite: Hyde uses these challenges to bring out the best in her characters.
“When you hold someone’s feet to the fire, that’s when you get a chance to really look at human nature,” Hyde said. “A human being is incredibly resilient. You get to really see the human spirit come up and come out, and I get to make the point that there’s no such thing as a throwaway person.”
One example is 16-year-old Elle, a character in Hyde’s novel “Jumpstart the World.” Elle’s mother has kicked her out because her new boyfriend has no interest in living with a teenager. The girl has to grow up quickly as she connects with other characters, especially a transgender man named Frank for whom she develops romantic feelings.
It’s anything but a typical adolescence, and Hyde acknowledges that she sometimes draws criticism for putting her characters in extraordinary situations.
“Whenever a young character does something independent, they say, ‘That could never happen — that’s not realistic,’ ” she said. “(But) I don’t want to write about the thing that happens all the time. I want to write about the things that don’t happen that often.”
Founded on optimism
In “Pay It Forward,” Hyde again uses conflict to bring out the best in her characters. In fact, she said, the story owes its success in part to its ability to tap into readers’ belief in the positive side of human nature.
“It’s an optimistic take on people,” she said. “I think the book … hooked into something in people. There’s a part of everyone that says, ‘I think we’re better than this.’ I think it was a well-timed note of optimism.”
The idea took hold, not just in the book and film, but also in the real world. Hyde even started the Pay It Forward Foundation, a charitable organization based on the principle, providing lesson plans and book excerpts to classrooms; teachers could also apply for seed grants to bring “Pay It Forward”-style projects to fruition.
At first, the idea was for publisher Simon & Schuster to provide lesson plans and seed grants to help teachers and their students develop ways to “pay it forward” with specific initiatives. More recently, the focus has shifted to a new “G-rated” version of the book for young readers, which is now being produced by the publisher, Simon. The foundation buys copies of this edition in bulk from the publisher — 900 in the past four or five months — and distributes them to schools.
Although the seed grants have been discontinued because of a shortage of funds, Hyde hopes the foundation can begin offering them again in the future.
Success with Amazon
As for her own professional success, Hyde said things have been looking up since she signed with Amazon Publishing a couple of years ago.
In some ways, Amazon acts like a traditional publishing house. But it doesn’t take submissions; instead, it approaches authors and offers to carry them.
Key advantages include Amazon’s tremendous reach and marketing clout.
Hyde got Amazon’s attention in 2012 when she offered one of her books free in electronic form for five days. Readers responded in droves, downloading 81,000 copies.
Amazon signed Hyde shortly afterward, and the results have been impressive.
Less than two years ago, for instance, Hyde bumped J.K. Rowling out of the top spot on the Amazon Author Rank for a day. And two of her books — “Walk Me Home” and “When I Found You” — ranked No. 1 and No. 3 respectively on Amazon’s best-seller list for Kindle e-books.
Amazon Publishing shouldn’t be confused with CreateSpace, Amazon’s print-on-demand option. The latter option is for authors who want to publish their own works without seeking out an agent and/or submitting a manuscript to a publishing house — then waiting weeks or months for a response.
Hyde has published some books that way, too: older books in which the rights have reverted to her from the original publisher, and a few that publishers haven’t picked up.
The point, she said, is that the publishing business is changing rapidly, and any author who wants to succeed will have to change along with it.
Hyde said 95 percent of her books are sold in electronic form these days, but she doesn’t see that as evidence that literature is dying. Rather, it has opened up more possibilities.
“Digital book technology is not only ebooks, it’s also POD — print-on-demand paperbacks,” she said. “People like Amazon or some other company can simply hold a digital copy and print it, (which) essentially assures the future of paper books. With print-on-demand, it’s never going to disappear.”
That’s a good thing for Hyde, who plans to continue writing.
“This is my dream job,” she said. “I get to play all day and get paid for it.”