Catherine Ryan Hyde and the Importance of Making Connections With Others

May 18, 2006
Written by

Love in the Present

Tense by Catherine

Ryan Hyde

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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Catherine Ryan Hyde

On her latest books, Love in the Present Tense and Becoming Chloe

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

May 2006

Catherine Ryan Hyde and I grew up less than a mile apart in Buffalo, New York, but we didn't meet until years later, at a writer's conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A few years after that, we established our Mutual Admiration Society. All writers should be so lucky as to have a fan like Ryan Hyde.

Ryan Hyde's best-known book, Pay It Forward, sealed her reputation, but she had a well-established literary ouevre before the book (and the film) hit the jackpot, including the short story collection Earthquake Weather and the novels Walter's Purple Heart, Funerals for Horses, and Electric God. This spring, Ryan Hyde has two new books out: the young adult novel Becoming Chloe (Knopf), about a pair of homeless teens who hit the road to find out if there's beauty in the world; and Love in the Present Tense (Flying Dolphin/Doubleday), about a wise beyond his years young man whose unshakable faith in love changes everyone he encounters.

Ryan Hyde's themes include the importance (and sometimes, the difficulty) of making connections with others, the nature of love, and the healing power of forgiveness, and her novels and short stories are character-driven, dialogue-propelled narratives that carry the reader effortlessly forward to their often surprising conclusions.

We conducted this interview via a leisurely email exchange in early May 2006.

"I'm just trying

 

to paint the world

as I see it:

A rainbow

of diversity."

—Hyde

AUTHORLINK: A number of compelling seeds are at the heart of both Love in the Present Tense and Becoming Chloe: love itself, of course, but in addition both random and directed violence, the fact of multi-ethnicity, and how people cope with handicaps, both physical and mental. Can you talk about the genesis of these seeds, and how they came together to form/inform the novels?

HYDE: The answer to the question of multi-ethnicity is fairly simple. I get tired of reading books about all white people. When you look around, do you see all white people? Me neither.

Not to get off track, but when I wrote the book Pay It Forward I had a couple of black characters, three gay characters (including one transgender young man), two large women and the hint that Trevor was part Hispanic. In the movie, everyone was white, straight and thin. Except the gang member, Sidney, and the kid who stabbed Trevor. They got to be minority. What's up with that?

I'm just trying to paint the world as I see it: A rainbow of diversity. When I was in grade school (and granted this was a long time ago, because I'm 51) I was taught that America was "the great melting pot," a country made up of immigrants. It was our national identity. It was a source of great pride. How times change, eh?

 

"I didn't give a lot

 

of deep thought

to why Leonard

had so many health problems. He just told me

he did."

—Hyde

 

As far as violence goes, I wanted to make a point about "bad" people. That being (save the extremes of premeditated killers) there really aren't many, if any. If we know enough about why Pearl shot Leonard Sr., for example, we understand. We know that she did a bad thing but is not a bad person. Then we have to see if we can make the same concessions for the cops who shot her. I'm challenging people to see if they can have empathy for people who cause pain and trouble while still trying to be the best people they can. A lesson in letting go of some "black and white" thinking.

I didn't give a lot of deep thought to why Leonard had so many health problems. He just told me he did. But I like the wisdom he's able to show by "seeing" so much more clearly than Mitch, even while he is temporarily blind.

Jordy and Chloe are a little different, because their handicaps are on the inside. Also, because Chloe's is so much easier to see. She's so scarred that she appears to be almost mentally retarded, but it's really just her way of looking at (or not looking at) the world. It's obvious that without Jordy she would not survive. But it isn't until closer to the end that we see the more subtle truth: That she saves him just as surely. Jordy was headed in a terrible direction when he met her, and he needs her simplicity to redirect his fate.

". . . it sounds like

 

I'm saying I hear

voices. I do,

to some degree."

—Hyde

 

AUTHORLINK: I often say if I didn't write, I'd give Sybil a run for her money and it seems, like me, that you "take dictation" from your characters. Could you talk a bit about your creative process? Do you plant your seeds knowing they will eventually sprout, or do you more actively encourage your characters to speak?

HYDE: I do take dictation from my characters. In fact, I often use that exact phrase, and hadn't heard anybody else use it that way. I often tell audiences (when I speak and answer questions about my work) that if I really told them all about my process of characterization I'm afraid I'd find myself strapped down for a three-day mandatory psych evaluation. Because it sounds like I'm saying I hear voices. I do, to some degree. But I know they're just a combination of a fiction writer's imagination and my own emotional self.

Probably the most dramatic example was Jordy, my Becoming Chloe narrator. He came to me and had a story to tell, and I didn't know much about what it would be. In the early chapters, I was just following him, trusting him to reveal where he was going. Later in the book I found myself taking some wrong turns, which I guess proves it really is me, not some ethereal character. The book ended in some wrong places. I got a lot of feedback. I set it down for a long time. Later I picked it up, read the early chapters. Thought, "How could I have put this away? It's the best thing I've ever done." Then I found the moment where I lost that feeling. I threw away everything from that page on. And this time I stayed true to Jordy, stayed more in keeping with the early chapters, when I was really listening to him. Not to any outer voices of what fiction should be.

". . . I'm trying

 

to slow down

and get a sense

of whether

the next portion

of the work

is truly

developed."

—Hyde

 

AUTHORLINK: Of course, as a writer, I immediately went back to Chloe to try to discover where that moment was. The thing is, as all good reviser/rewriters do, you've hidden the evidence. Can you tell us a bit about the role revision plays in your writing process?

HYDE: Revision plays a huge role. But I think the role is shifting. I used to get very obsessive in writing my first drafts. Take all kinds of wrong turns, because I wasn't giving the work time to develop as I went along. Then, after a year or more away from it, I could see what to throw away and what to keep. These days I don't have that luxury of time (in other words, I actually have pub dates now). So I'm trying to slow down and get a sense of whether the next portion of the work is truly developed before plunging in. I'm lucky enough to have two genuine "shirt sleeves editors" at this point (Michelle Frey at Knopf for YA, Phyllis Grann at Doubleday for adult) who help me with the perspective that used to require time and distance.

It doesn't feel as though I plant seeds or encourage characters. It seems more like they encourage me. I rarely find myself digging up the hard ground for ideas anymore. I'll just be "not writing" for awhile, and then something (or, more accurately, someone) will be there.

AUTHORLINK: You are quite willing to forgive your characters their transgressions, especially in the case of murder (or, in Jordy's case, possible murder). We discussed this briefly earlier, but I'd like to come back to it from a slightly different angle: Do you think Americans are too quick to judge, too rigid once they decide a thing, too unforgiving, or otherwise (for lack of a better term-although as a non-Christian, I hesitate to use this one) un-Christian? Or, to put it another way, do you see your books as a reality check against the fantasy of some of today's belief systems? I'm talking socially conscious fiction here-how to raise awareness without hammering the reader over the head.

HYDE: Let's say possible manslaughter in both Pearl and Jordy's case. See, I defend my characters like they're real people. Bad sign.

I'm not trying to suggest that violence or killing is ever okay. I think we all know it's not. But I do think I have something to say about forgiveness, self- and otherwise. First thing I have to say: the two are more interrelated than we might think. If we can forgive ourselves we can forgive others, and vice versa. You'll see that point more clearly in the penultimate Chloe chapter, but I won't put any spoilers in this.

Now, people will misunderstand that previous statement. I've no doubt. They'll think forgiving someone for violence means they don't have to go to jail. I'm not saying that at all. I'm just saying you can personally, internally let it go. Stop carrying it around in your head and heart, where it hurts only you, not the person you are refusing to forgive. Annie Lamott describes this state as "drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die." The Buddha describes it as "picking up a hot coal to hurl at your enemy." I think you get the idea.

"I'm hoping

 

someone will take

an interest in why

we are trending

into so much

violence

as a society."

—Hyde

 

Yes, I think Americans are too judgmental. Definitely. I think there's a lot of black and white thinking. If you do a bad thing, you're a bad person. And bad people get locked up. Then you just throw away the key. They're bad. Forget them. People justify this radical thinking by suggesting we have a right to protect our children and families. Except the people we're locking up forever are our children and our families. Again, I don't suggest that violent criminals not be locked up. I'm hoping someone will take an interest in why we are trending into so much violence as a society. Maybe we can save some before they get that bad.

It's not so much a soapbox social issue with me. It's more a piece of human nature that fascinates me. You see it all the time on the evening news. The family of the slain girl (always advocating the death penalty) say the perpetrator is a monster. He's not human. (If he were human, how could you advocate his state-sponsored murder?) Then the mother of the perpetrator gets on the stand and cries and tells what a sweet boy he was. How he has a good heart. Two such different images. Which one is true? They both are, of course. But modern Americans don't seem to enjoy textured realities. Led by our president, we like to be sure. Right or wrong, we know what we think.

Whatever you think of textured realities, you must admit they make terrific fodder for fiction.

And yes (as another non-Christian), I wish I saw more of the concept of "judge not lest ye be judged." Maybe lots of people do a good job on this and they're just not the ones making all the noise in the press. I hope so.

And I certainly hope I'm stating these thoughts in my fiction without hammering the reader over the head.

"Sometimes

 

seeing what

other people

are doing to get

involved can

get your own

ideas flowing."

—Hyde

AUTHORLINK: The Pay It Forward Foundation is a special project of yours. Could you talk about this, suggest how readers might get involved?

HYDE: A good first step would be to go out to our web site (www.payitforwardfoundation.org) and take a look at what we do. It would help if more educators and more schools knew about us, so the more people spread the word, the better. And of course, we always need donations to help fund our "mini-grant" program.

Individuals with no connection to schools or kids might want to take a look at www.payitforwardmovement.org. It's really just a collection of stories to help chronicle—as best we can—the grass-roots movement. Sometimes seeing what other people are doing to get involved can get your own ideas flowing. And it's a good place to visit after watching too much CNN.

AUTHORLINK: Catherine, thanks so much. You're a writer who practices what she preaches.

About

 

Lisa Lenard-Cook

Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.

 

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