20 years after her book started a movement, Cambria author sees a ‘crisis of empathy’

Nearly 20 years after her book “Pay It Forward” became a best-seller, inspired a movie and sparked a movement, Cambria author Catherine Ryan Hyde still believes in the power of kindness.

“I’m writing about ... people who are really going out of their way for each other in a relationship,” Hyde, 64, explained.

“I don’t really like to write about romance,” she added. “In a romance, that’s way too easy. Of course you’re going to go out of your way for someone you’re in love with. So what?

“Then you get in a situation like, ‘OK, there’s nothing I really want from this person. ... Would I help them if they needed it? To me, that’s where you get into a lot more genuine human nature stuff.”

Hyde has been wrestling with that “human nature stuff” for much of her career.

So far, the New York Times best-selling author has published 36 books — including her latest novel, “Have You Seen Luis Velez?” — and she doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.

Starting a writing career

Hyde credits her high school English teacher, Lenny Horowitz, with setting her on the path to professional fiction writing.

“He’s the one who reached down and said, ‘Wow, you’re a good writer,’ which was the first message I can recalling hearing that was positive about what I could do,” she said.

She cited the experience as her “real-life example of how one adult who believes in you ... can just change the whole game.”

“I knew at that moment I wanted to be a writer,” Hyde said, but it wasn’t until she moved to the Central Coast from Los Angeles that she decided to formally pursue that goal.

In 1985, Hyde headed north to spend the summer with her mother — and never left.

“I was up here for about two weeks and I woke one morning and I thought, ‘Go back where’? she recalled. “I couldn’t imagine why I would go back.”

The author’s ties to the area strengthened when her mom, a caretaker at Cambria’s Santa Rosa Chapel, inherited a house from a close friend — a cozy log cabin built in Cambria circa 1929.

Hyde still calls the little rust-red cottage, which she shares with dog Ella and cat Jordan, home. (Her horse, Versace van Sint-Maarten — or “Soul,” as she calls him — boards at a ranch in Los Osos.) The second story of the garage, renovated in 1993, serves as her writing studio.

According to Hyde, having a permanent roof over her head helped give her the security to pursue writing full-time. Another factor also played a part; in February, she celebrated 30 years of being “clean and sober.”

“In January 1991, I said, ‘OK, I’m going to be a writer, and I don’t care if I starve,’ ” Hyde recalled.

That year, she joined the Cambria Writers’ Workshop, where she met authors including Sherry Shahan, Elizabeth Spurr and the late Jean Brody. (The group still meets Wednesday mornings at the Jocelyn Recreation Center in Cambria.)

“They were really mentoring and really helpful,” Hyde said, calling the group “my writing program.”

And there’s another way San Luis Obispo County has influenced her work: Several of her books feature nods to California’s Central Coast in either real or semi-fictional form.

In 2017’s “Allie and Bea,” the title characters meet in San Luis Obispo, breakfast in Morro Bay and spend a night in Cambria. “Pay It Forward” is set in Atascadero, while 2006’s “Becoming Chloe” references Big Sur and 2008’s “The Day I Killed James” has scenes at Hearst Castle in Simeon.

‘Pay It Forward’: A book, movie and movement

The publication of “Pay It Forward” came relatively early in Hyde’s professional career, following her debut novel, 1997’s “Funerals for Horses,” and a 1998 short story collection, “Earthquake Weather.”

But the book, published in late 1999, would prove to be her highest-profile project.

In “Pay It Forward,” a social studies teacher challenges his students to “change the world” — and 12-year-old Trevor takes the assignment to heart. Trevor’s project finds him performing kind acts for strangers and encouraging them pass on the favors to others.

Hyde noted that she didn’t coin the phrase “pay it forward.” But there’s no question that she popularized it.

At the time she wrote “Pay It Forward,” the author said, the trend of people doing “random acts of kindness” “had had a little burst of popularity and was starting to wane again.” “That got me thinking ...‘Why we don’t do more (for others) when it’s pretty easy and pretty much a happy experience for both parties?’ ”

“I personally think it’s because we’re afraid of each other,” and the social implications of stepping outside our comfort zones, she said. “We’re afraid of what other people will think of us. ... We could get beyond that (fear) if somebody would just take the first step.”

“That’s what I was doing with that book, (saying) ‘Look, this is going to sound dumb, but we could be nicer to each other,’ ” Hyde said.

Hyde said she wasn’t prepared for the reaction “Pay It Forward” received — from strong sales to rapturous reviews to a spot on the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults list. “I was in a place of ‘Wouldn’t it be a miracle if it actually got published?’ ” she recalled with a chuckle.

She was equally shocked when Warner Brothers decided to adapt “Pay It Forward” for the big screen. Directed by Mimi Leder (“On the Basis of Sex”), the movie stars Kevin Spacey as Trevor’s teacher and Helen Hunt as Trevor’s mom. Haley Joel Osment, fresh off the success of “The Sixth Sense,” plays the seventh-grader.

The film opened in theaters in October 2000, just a month after Hyde created the Pay It Forward Foundation. The nonprofit organization, which encourages kind acts to people, animals and the planet, is still going strong.

“That’s the one thing I never would have expected — that (‘Pay It Forward’) would plant some kind of root that would keep it from being forgotten,” said Hyde, who served as foundation president until 2009. “I’m still surprised about that.”

Books about unlikely connections

Although “Pay It Forward” raised Hyde’s profile, the success of the book and movie overshadowed her other work for a while.

“There was a lot of publicity surrounding ‘Pay It Forward’ and me that had absolutely nothing to do with my book,” which has been translated into more than 20 languages in 30-plus countries, she recalled. “It involved hundreds of thousands of people who had never read my book and never planned to.”

“Everybody thought I was so famous and I was almost going bankrupt,” Hyde said.

Her career took a turn for the better when she signed with an Amazon Publishing imprint “and started making money as an author, but steadily this time,” she said.

Since 2013, Hyde’s titles with Lake Union Publishing have reached more than 3 million readers. She’s one of Amazon’s top-selling authors.

She publishes two books a year, a speedy pace that comes naturally. “I’ve always been a fast writer. Now I’ve become a prolific writer,” Hyde said, although she’s considering slowing down to just one book a year when she “retires” at 65.

Like “Pay It Forward,” many of Hyde’s books often deal with unlikely links between strangers — connections that cross boundaries of age, gender and race.

In “Allie and Bea,” for instance, friendship blossoms between a “rigidly honest” teenage girl whose parents have been jailed for tax fraud, and a widow who runs scams to stay financially afloat.

“Just After Midnight,” published in 2018, finds a woman who’s left her abusive husband bonding with a girl on the run and her beloved show horse.

Published in May, “Have You Seen Luis Velez?” features another unexpected trio — this one involving a stray cat. In addition to taming the feral tabby, Raymond, a tall, awkward black teen, befriends his blind, elderly neighbor, Holocaust survivor Millie, and helps her search for her missing caretaker.

Hyde’s upcoming novel, “Stay,” also involves a teenage boy. In the summer of 1969, 14-year-old Lucas struggles to help his best friend, Connor, and Zoe, a woman with two dogs, an isolated cabin and a tragic past. “Stay” hits bookshelves on Dec. 3.

That theme of finding one’s community is “obviously something that appeals to me,” Hyde said.

“I had two parents and all that, but I felt like I could really have easily fallen through the cracks. I was a little bit on the ‘at risk’ side,” she said.

“That’s possibly where I get this interest in, ‘What if a kid was falling through the cracks and somebody caught them?’” the author continued. “Even if ... it wasn’t their job to catch them. Even if they had no immediate personal gain in catching them. Would somebody just step up and (save) them?”

‘A crisis of empathy’

As Hyde sees it, there’s a real need for the kinds of connections she highlights in her novels.

“I don’t like where we are right now as a society. ... And I don’t say that as a one-sided political statement,” Hyde said. “I think everyone would agree we’re at each other’s throats.”

“What we’re going through now is a crisis of empathy,” she said. “We look at other people’s suffering and we think, ‘They’re not us,’ and let it leave us unmoved.”

Asked what could help, Hyde cautioned that she doesn’t have all the answers.

“I think anything that fosters empathy is hugely important,” the author said, and that includes books that open readers’ eyes to how others live. “Sometimes we’re learning about people who we wouldn’t spend time with in real life.”

“I’m not the person who thinks up the solutions to all (of life’s problems),” she acknowledged. “I just write books about kindness and relationships and a sense of community. ... It’s a very small contribution, but it’s something.”

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