Happiness for Beginners by Center An exclusive Authorlink interview with Katherine Center,

By Ellen Birkett Morris

May 2015

Happiness for Beginners
by Katherine Center

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May 2015

In her novel HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS, Katherine Center explores one woman’s quest to toughen up on a wilderness trip that ends with unexpected rewards. Center describes her own journey as a writer as full of similarly unexpected rewards.

“I really see becoming a writer as a slow, cumulative process.”

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer – degrees, jobs, workshops, writing groups, classes, and mentors that helped you along the way.

CENTER: I really see becoming a writer as a slow, cumulative process. I remember lots of little things: Wanting, as a child, to count syllables and find the fastest, sleekest way to say things. Loving to shock grownups by using huge words in conversation. Highlighting every word I ever looked up in the dictionary hoping one day to have marks on every page. Reading constantly. Writing constantly. Writing for the school newspaper. Curating books of wise quotes about writing and life. I’m not sure it’s the big things that teach you to write—I think it’s an accumulation over a lifetime. Almost an accident.

I have a B.A. in English from Vassar College, and an M.A. in Fiction from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, but that’s not where I learned to write. I think becoming a writer is just all about practicing and trying and reading and paying attention. School can give you time to practice—a valid excuse to practice, anyway—but I think learning to write is something you do by yourself.

AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you? character? plot? image? first line?

CENTER: I always hear a voice talking in my head—but usually that’s after months of letting possibilities simmer in the back of my consciousness. Stories always starts with a voice—a woman’s voice—talking. And then I just write it down.

AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of Happiness for Beginners develop?

CENTER: I knew I wanted to write about a woman who went on a hiking trip in hopes of changing her life. And I knew I wanted the trip to be full of people who were getting in her way. In the end, even though she’s trying to go off into the wilderness on her own, it becomes very much a family story—and even though she’s trying to escape her life, she somehow winds up going straight to the center of it…

“There’s a lot of me in Helen, and this is one of those things! One thing she needs to learn to do in this book is to savor the good things around her—”

AUTHORLINK: In many ways this book is about seeing and appreciating what is right in front of you. Can you talk a bit about that?

CENTER: There’s a lot of me in Helen, and this is one of those things! One thing she needs to learn to do in this book is to savor the good things around her—even if she can’t fix or eliminate the bad. That’s a lesson I’ve been working on my whole life. At the beginning, Helen really has trouble seeing the good stuff—with her brother, for example, she only sees what she dislikes. The story puts a person in her path—Jake—who has this wonderful ability to look for the good stuff, and he winds up teaching her a whole new way to look at the world.

“I’m always struck by how little credit women give themselves—”

AUTHORLINK: The way Helen sees herself is at odds with the way those closest to her see her. How does this complicate the novel?

CENTER: I think that’s a very female quality in Helen—the way she’s so hard on herself. I’m always struck by how little credit women give themselves—how they look, what they’ve accomplished, how able they are to get it all done… In this story, Helen is surrounded by people who see the good in her and push her to believe in herself (whether they mean to or not). She has to learn to appreciate the good stuff—in the world, and in others, but maybe most of all in herself.

AUTHORLINK: This is a journey story. Can you talk a bit about how Helen’s outer journey facilitates her inner journey?

CENTER: My friend Brené Brown has a piece of art in her house that says, “We Can Do Hard Things.” It sticks in my head because I believe that so much: We can, and we should, and we have to. I see it raising my kids all the time—our struggles always make us stronger in some way. We fall apart, but then we put ourselves back together—and that’s where magical, inspiring, heroic things happen. Helen goes on this trip because she wants to toughen herself up—but, in fact, the opposite happens. She doesn’t get what she wanted, but she gets something much richer.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the title.

CENTER: There’s a scene early on where Helen is regretting coming on the trip as she watches their young, scraggly, self-important group leader give his opening talk. As he talks about how tough it’s going to be, she feels herself shrinking in the face of the challenge. At one point, he says:

“This is not Hiking for Beginners, people,” he said, looking around at the group. “Man up and deal with it.”

It wasn’t? It wasn’t hiking for beginners? Yes, it was! “Actually, it is hiking for beginners,” I blurted out. “It’s listed as a beginners course. In the catalog.”

One of the big themes of the book is happiness—what it is, how to get more of it—and right around the time I wrote that moment in the story, I had a little Reese’s chocolate-bar-in-the-peanut-butter moment, and the two things came together.

“This book came together very easily. It was like it had been waiting for me to write it.”

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Happiness for Beginners and how did you overcome them?

CENTER: This book came together very easily. It was like it had been waiting for me to write it. It just laid itself down on the page. It’s not always as struggle-free as this one was, but writing is always a pleasure for me—even when I have to work to make it work. I enjoy the process of getting it down and refining it. My challenges come more after the story is published—when I’m trying to get it out in the world. Promoting books is harder for me than writing them. I just wish I could give every woman in America a copy of this book and bubble bath to read it in—but that’s not quite how it works…

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.

CENTER: My main research was actually going on a very similar hiking trip back when I was in college. I, myself, at a crossroads, decided to take a survival course much like this one. I hiked for a month through the remote wilderness of Wyoming. And I was terrible at it in a lot of ways—but it was also one of the great adventures of my life. The characters are all made-up, of course, but much of what happens in the story is based on real events. We really had a mid-summer blizzard. We really had a guy who fell and broke his hip. I took copious notes while I was out there, and when I had the idea to write this book, I found my old notebook and re-read it. I hadn’t opened it in 20 years—and pressed wildflowers fluttered out.

AUTHORLINK: You’ve written four other novels. How has the process of writing changed for you as you have gained more experience?

CENTER: I’m much better now at writing the story that I, myself, long to read. When I was younger, I was trying to write stories that were “good”—as if there was a simple hierarchy from “bad” books on up. Now I know there are all kinds of good. How well a story works depends very much on what it is trying to do—and also what the reader wants it to do. For me, getting better at writing has meant getting clearer about what kind of stories I love to read, and then figuring out how to bring those to life.

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this novel. Who was your editor and what was it like working with him/her? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?

CENTER: I had two editors on this book—one left the world of publishing to go to med school just as we were finishing up edits on this book. A new editor took me on, and she’s great—very savvy and funny. My advice to writers with editors is to try to listen and be open. It’s so easy to feel protective of your story and offended when anyone suggests a change—but suggestions can be a real gift! The trick is keep clear on what you want the story to be—and to always do what’s best to help it get there.

“The older I get, the more I think writing a good story that people can get lost in is about getting the words (and by association, the writer’s ego) out of the way so the story can blossom.”

AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate – habits of the mind or attitude or work habits?

CENTER: Don’t show off. The older I get, the more I think writing a good story that people can get lost in is about getting the words (and by association, the writer’s ego) out of the way so the story can blossom on its own. All of us who grew up to be writers want to impress and amaze people, but the story has to come first.

AUTHORLINK: Who is your agent? How did you connect with your agent? Any tips for selecting the right agent?

CENTER: My agent is Helen Breitwieser at Cornerstone Literary. I found her by sheer good luck when I had a new baby and unpublished novel in a drawer and I met one of her clients who passed some of my chapters along to her. She offered to represent me, and we’ve been together ever since. As for selecting the right agent, it’s probably the same as with all the people in your life—you want somebody who you click with and who believes in you. I’ve always felt lucky just to have an agent at all—and it’s such a bonus that she happens to be fantastic.

AUTHORLINK: Advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?

CENTER: Don’t write to get famous—or rich—or to prove anything to anybody. You’ll probably never get any of those things, and even if you do, they won’t be what you thought. The only valid reason to be a writer is if you love to write so much you can’t stop yourself—if the process of writing makes you blissfully happy. The writing itself has to be your source of comfort and joy.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on next.

CENTER: HAPPINESS is the first in a 3-book contract with St. Martin’s Griffin. We’re editing the second book now—a story about a woman who has to help a childhood friend and winds up taking a boat trip down the Texas coast. It’s a story about friendship, and loss, and growing up—and also an adventure down the coast. I’m very in love with it right now!

About the Author

Katherine Center is the author of four novels about love and family. Her books and essays have appeared in Redbook, People, USA Today, Vanity Fair and Real Simple and in several anthologies. Katherine is a graduate of Vassar College and the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.