Write for Joy Says Bestselling Author Center
Katherine Center has a knack for creating women characters that are down to earth, yet heroic, inspiring, but real. She is the bestselling author of seven self-described “bittersweet comic” novels. The latest, Things You Save in a Fire, focuses on Austin firefighter Cassie Hanwell, whose courageous exterior hides the heartbreak of sexual assault and family divorce that happened when she was 16. Years later, as she accepts an award, Cassie comes face to face with the guy who assaulted her and her response sets off a chain reaction that finds Cassie moving to a new town, reluctantly reuniting with her mother and developing a crush on a handsome rookie firefighter. Cassie battles her own demons and fires that threaten to take away someone dear in this compelling novel. Center shares what she has learned along the way and her reasons for writing.
AUTHORLINK: Things You Save in a Fire is your seventh book. How has your writing changed since you began in terms of your process and mastery of craft?
CENTER: This is such a great question. Writing is an ever-evolving thing for me. I am endlessly driven to learn how to get better. I constantly study other people’s novels and poems and essays. I read books about the craft of writing, too—going back to the ones I love over and over, underlining in different colored pens. Really great stories are little miracles. Everything has to be working on every level—and there are so many levels that I’m not even sure I could tell you what they all are.
That process of studying the craft has stayed a constant obsession for me since the sixth grade, but in the years since I’ve been publishing novels, I’ve also developed a philosophy on what I’m doing, why I’m writing, and what I want my stories to do for people. That’s something I never even thought about when I was younger. I just wrote because I liked to. But as I’ve grown up, writing has become something I’ve come to do in the spirit of service for others. That’s probably the biggest shift. I’ve spent my life studying stories, and comedy, and language, and humans in general—and if I use all the skills I’ve developed properly, if I do it right, I can give readers a story that immerses them, and consumes them, and delights them, and changes their thinking a little.
AUTHORLINK: Where did the premise for Things You Save in a Fire come from? I have to share that your husband is a volunteer firefighter and you acknowledge his help in the dedication.
CENTER: There’s a moment in my last book, How to Walk Away, when the main character is rescued from a plane crash by a firefighter who turns out to be a woman. When my brilliant editor, Jen Enderlin, told me she’d love to read a whole story about that female firefighter, my first thought was, “Nope! No way.” Because my husband is a volunteer firefighter, and has worked in EMS since I met him, and I just knew too much. I knew how exhausting, and hot, and dangerous, and heart-wrenching that job is, and I wasn’t sure I could write it. Plus, the last thing on earth I could imagine wanting to do was put on 75 pounds of gear and walk into a burning building. If there’s one thing I need to be able to do when I’m writing, it’s empathize with what the main character wants—and I couldn’t imagine wanting to do that. But then one day my husband said, “What if she just wants to do it because she’s good at it?” And that changed everything for me. I know what it’s like to want to do the thing you’re good at—and to want to do it so badly that you absolutely can’t and won’t quit. That’s writing for me. I’ve spent a lifetime loving writing too much to quit. That was my way in—and from there the story just started writing itself.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me what is what like working with your husband to get the details right. Is he usually a part of your writing process?
CENTER: My husband is often a part of my writing process—he always reads early drafts for me—but never to this extent. When I started writing this story, I felt very intimidated, because firefighting is a whole world, and I knew I wasn’t part of that world. So I turned to him with draft after draft and scene after scene, checking for accuracy. I also interviewed him over and over to harvest stories from his experience to put in the book. He has so many hilarious and heartbreaking stories, it was hard to choose. I also visited a several Houston firehouses and interviewed other firefighters, to be as thorough as I possibly could. But working with my husband on this was a dream. I loved everything about it.
AUTHORLINK: Your protagonist Cassie is brave, strong, and, underneath it all, very loving, but also flawed. She gets in her own way. Why is it important to have a main character who is flawed?
CENTER: I write stories about how life knocks us down—and how we get back up. Over and over I write about characters who have to learn to cope with hardship and grief and disappointment and then find some way to pull something good out of it. On a very basic level, all good stories are about struggle and transformation. That’s why we’re drawn to them: because we’re all struggling. We’re all getting pummeled by life. It’s riveting to see how other people cope—but it’s more than just rubbernecking. It’s educational. I believe that the right stories at the right time can teach us things we need to learn. In Things You Save in a Fire, Cassie has mastered physical courage, but she needs to learn about emotional courage. And when we step into her story and get lost in it with her, we learn about it to. Characters need to be flawed because human beings are flawed—and we don’t want to read about Barbie dolls. We want to read about real, complex, troubled, imperfect people doing their best to pull wisdom out of the struggle. That’s what we connect to.
AUTHORLINK: You don’t hesitate to get your characters in trouble on multiple fronts. What are the pleasures and challenges of doing this as a writer?
CENTER: It’s so hard for me to get my characters in trouble! I never want to make them unhappy! It’s always so tempting to let them have a pleasant meal and a good conversation. But that wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? A story has to have stakes, and challenges, and struggle, and drama—that’s what makes it exciting, and that’s what keeps us turning pages, but that’s also what gives the characters a chance to figure out who they are and what they’re made of. That’s actually a line in the new book: “It’s not the easy moments that make us define who we are. It’s the hard ones.” Struggle and hardship are important in a story—but I’m also very careful to make sure that it’s not all struggle and hardship. It’s my opinion—in stories and in life—that joy is just as important as sorrow. I try to let the stories slow down and savor good times and triumphs and laughter, too. I think of my stories as half tragedy and half comedy. Kind of exactly like life.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the title.
CENTER: I wanted to come up with a title referenced fire, somehow, but in a way that felt accessible. We haven’t all been firefighters, but we have all done fire drills, and we’re all aware on some level at least, that fire is out there and it could find us. What we’d save in a fire is one of those questions that’s both hypothetical and very real. In a lot of ways, I wrote Cassie when I really needed a new kind of hero—a different kind of hero. A female hero. And she is a hero—almost superhuman in a lot of ways. But she’s all of us, too. We all share that courage when we need it. We’ve all been brave in different ways—ways we don’t even necessarily talk about. I think that’s why I liked that title: It’s a question that belongs to all of us.
AUTHORLINK: You write essays in addition to books, and have a knack for the inspirational. What do your essays and your Tedx talk on empathy allow you to say (or say differently) that fiction does not?
CENTER: I think stories and essays, for me, use a lot of the same components—but the ratios are different. Stories are all about the story—making it 3-D and immersive and emotionally resonant—and I weave in little moments of insight about the human condition only in service of making the experience of the story as rich and moving as it can be. Essays are almost the opposite: Trying to articulate insights about the human condition, and using stories to bring those insights to life. I love doing both.
AUTHORLINK: Your book The Lost Husband is being turned into a movie. How involved are you in the process and what has it been like watching that come together?
CENTER: Yes, the production company Six Foot Pictures is adapting The Lost Husband into a movie. Filmmaker Vicky Wight adapted the novel into a screenplay, and she’s also the director. They did all the filming last fall in Texas, and they very kindly invited me to come and be an extra in the movie, and so I got to go to Austin and pretend to be a shopper at a farmers’ market. They cast actors Leslie Bibb and Josh Duhamel as main characters Libby and O’Connor, and so I got to meet them that day on the set—which was epic and thrilling. They were both very nice! Other than that, I have barely been involved in the process at all. I’m just cheering wildly from the sidelines!
AUTHORLINK: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to yourself as a novice writer?
CENTER: Write for joy. Keep your expectations low. Most writers never make money, or get famous, or make their high school boyfriends regret their choices. Be okay with that going in. Write for love. Write for pleasure. Understand that it’s a long game, and the only way to win is to savor what you’re doing. You’ll fail way more than you succeed. Find a way to let that make you better. Learn how to encourage yourself. Learn how to focus on what you’re getting right. Learn how to write for your own inner reader. Nurture your tender heart. Trust your own compass about what matters. Know that trying is vastly more important than succeeding. Believe that writing, in the end, is its own reward.
Katherine Center is the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author of How to Walk Away and Things You Save in a Fire. She’s also written five other bittersweet comic novels about love and family, including The Bright Side of Disaster, The Lost Husband,and Happiness for Beginners. The Lost Husband is currently in production as a feature film starring Josh Duhamel and Leslie Bibb. Katherine’s work has appeared in Redbook, O Magazine, InStyle, People, USA Today, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Real Simple, Southern Living, and many others.