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Interview: March 27, 2015

Katherine Center is the author of four novels about love and family, and her writing has appeared in multiple publications and anthologies. Her latest book, HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS, follows newly divorced Helen Carpenter as she embarks on a wilderness survival course and discovers that sometimes you have to leave things behind in order to find yourself. In this interview with The Book Report Network’s Alexis Burling, Center shares her own experience taking a wilderness survival course in her 20s and what it taught her about the way people grow. And it’s not only Center’s endings that are happy: She talks about why she’s more interested in resilience than defeat, and the lovely way she uses others’ wisdom to inspire her kids every day.

The Book Report Network: In HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS, your protagonist, Helen, heads off to the woods to find herself. The plan, she says, is to “have a brave adventure with a bunch of strangers that would totally change not just my life, but my entire personality… to set out alone in the world, conquer it, and return home a fiercer and more badass version of myself.” That’s very optimistic, isn’t it? What was your inspiration for this storyline?

Katherine Center: I took a similar wilderness survival course, myself, in my 20s. I had never been a very sporty person, until I took up running in college and had this whole new sense of myself as someone who was strong and capable of doing hard physical things. I signed up for the trip, in part, because I wanted to do something truly impressive. I wanted to push myself to my limits. On some deep level, I knew even then that I was hoping to change my personality and become someone different. So that part of Helen comes from me --- and yes, looking back, it was completely nutty to think that I could change my entire personality on a hiking trip. But it did change me, even if not in the ways I hoped for or imagined. And it turned out to be one of the grand adventures of my life.

TBRN: Cheryl Strayed’s book WILD covers similar territory in that it stars a woman who takes to the woods to regain her sanity. But Strayed embarks on a solo journey. What prompted your decision to put Helen to the test by surrounding her with a group of others who share similar goals?

KC: I’ve never been as drawn to the idea of the lone cowboy as I have been to stories about human connections. I’m interested in the ways we mess with each other and surprise each other and disappoint each other and change each other. That’s at the heart of any story for me: the ways we all get tangled up --- and what we do about it.

TBRN: To her dismay (at first), Helen is surrounded by a group of twentysomethings on her Back Country Survival Company (BCSC) trip. They all seem uniformly one way, while Helen, 32, feels like an “other.” Out of all the configurations for a trip, what inspired you to choose age as the defining barrier? Is it because our culture really is obsessed with youth? And how did this difference inform Helen’s evolution as a character?

KC: There was a woman on the trip I took who was 10 years older than the rest of us. Like Helen, she’d just gotten divorced. She arrived to find all these college kids, and she never fit in with the group --- though she never seemed like she wanted to, either. It isolated her --- but I think it freed her, too.

I didn’t fit in perfectly with the group, myself, and so I felt a connection to her. I thought about her a lot then, and I knew she understood much more about life than the rest of us --- though I couldn’t fathom at the time what it might be. I just heard a quote about that idea recently: that every old person knows what it’s like to be young, but no young person knows what it’s like to be old. Not that 32 is old! I turned 40 not long before starting to write this book, and I’ve been thinking a lot about wisdom, and what you have to give up to get it. 

I like the way Helen’s view of those kids changes as she gets to know them. Their shared situation forces her to look beyond her easy categories. Doing it for the kids on the trip helps her learn how to do it for her brother, too, who’s about their age --- and it helps her see him with wiser eyes.

TBRN: Each of your characters carries a burden on his or her shoulders. Jake, Duncan, Helen and even the beautiful Windy --- they're all marked by worries and scars. Come to think of it, HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS isn’t really a “happy” book, per se. Did you concoct these tragedies to add depth to your characters?

KC: There’s a lot of sadness in the book, as there is in life. We’re all struggling with things --- usually many at once --- aren’t we? We’re worried about our kids, parents, friends, spouses and selves. We all have sorrows and regrets and things that worry us and scare us. The folks in this book are no different. But the sorrows don’t cancel out the joys. That’s always true of my stories. I want them to be funny and wry and wise, and I want them to give the reader something to look forward to --- both in the course of reading and afterwards. But for any story to have meaning, it has to be rooted in something real. We’re all struggling to make the most of our time on this earth --- and it’s never easy to know how to do that.

TBRN: Some writers say sex scenes (or those that come blushingly close) are difficult to write. Others say they’re by far the most fun and the simplest to pull off. There are quite a few intimate moments between Helen and Jake throughout the book. What’s your vote: breathlessly easy to write, or tricky beyond words?

KC: Easy to write, and very fun --- though no more simple than any other kind of scene. Even though we only ever see Helen and Jake kiss in this story --- it’s some very, um, detailed kissing. It didn’t feel strange to write the scenes because I was happy for them. Kissing is fun. It’s thrilling. Part of what Helen needs to learn to do in this book is savor the good things in her life. Kissing someone you like for the first time is definitely something to savor. 

TBRN: Along the same lines, if you could pick one quality that a sex scene (or romantic scene) must have, what would it be? What’s one tactic all writers should avoid?

KC: One good quality for a love scene? Longing. Love is all about longing. Writing a good love scene (or storyline) of any kind is about harnessing the power of that longing. It’s very visceral. When you’re in it, it can be all-consuming. If your reader can get invested in that same feeling for the characters, it’s powerful stuff and makes for a great, page-turning read. At least, that’s true for me as a reader.

As for what not to do: Don’t skip the good stuff! I read a book last year that made me wait 300 pages for the main characters to get together, and then, when they finally kissed, the writer gave it half a sentence and then cut to three years later. Writers do this a lot. Are they afraid of being sappy? Do they think there’s nothing new about kissing? All I know is, as a reader, I found it very frustrating --- and I don’t want my stories to frustrate people. Any novel is there to make you feel things --- and while I try not to shy away from the hard stuff, I won’t skimp on the good stuff, either. 

TBRN: Here’s an experiment: How might the book be different if you chose to write it from Jake’s perspective?

KC: I am hugely fond of Jake. I love his good heart and his warmth. Certainly, he has a lot that he’s trying to face very bravely. But ultimately, I’m not sure I could write the story from Jake’s perspective. I’m drawn to particular female voices --- stories narrated by women about their own lives. I write them with confidence because, while I don’t necessarily know what it’s like to be other women, I know every nook and cranny of what it’s like to be me. When I’m writing in first person, it’s like I’m telling the character’s story for her. And as much as I love men, I guarantee you I don’t know what it feels like to be a man. I can guess. I can imagine. But I don’t know. With a narrator who’s also a protagonist, I need to understand her from the inside out. That authenticity is an utterly essential part of my stories.

TBRN: In the middle of the BCSC saga, Helen ruminates on the notion that “deserving a happy life doesn’t mean you’ll get one.” Later, Windy advises Helen that it takes patience to be happy and that the more she focuses on positive events, the happier she’ll be. One could argue that although these ideas seemingly contradict each other, they also go hand-in-hand. Where do you fall on the spectrum? Do either of these theories creep into your approach to writing? Your outlook on success?

KC: I believe pretty strongly that the more you look for the good things in life, the more you see them. That doesn’t mean that horrific things don’t happen or that life can’t be tragically unfair. But the older I get, the more I admire people who can bounce back, who can make the most of what they have. My fun husband, who’s a lot like Jake (and who I dedicated this book to), is one of those people who can always find good things in any situation. He always makes things better. When we met 20 years ago, I was much more of a pessimist than I am now --- always focusing on what was wrong and worrying about how to fix it. All these years with my husband have taught me how to focus more on what’s right and be grateful for it. I’ve tried things both ways, and I promise you his way is better.

TBRN: Writing about teens or twentysomethings can be thorny when looking back as an adult. It’s hard not to let your feelings about your own adolescence interfere and authenticity is essential. How did you step into that mindset when writing HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS? Did you interview millennials or reread old journals from when you were that age?

KC: When I took my own trip through the wilderness at age 21, I kept a journal. Before I wrote HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS, I re-read the whole thing --- from classes on emergency backwoods medicine to identifying bear tracks. When I opened up the notebook for the first time in 20 years, pressed flowers from the trip fluttered out of the pages. It brought it all back for me: the scenery, the wildlife, the food, the lessons I was trying to learn, the feeling of being that age and wanting so badly to figure out my life. There’s a lot of my college self in the kids on that trip --- and in Helen.

TBRN: “Not getting what you want forces you to realize what you already have.” I like that. Is that a Katherine Center original?

KC: Yep. I tell myself that all the time. Life is full of not getting what you want, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You can try again, or try for something else. You can tell yourself you’re stronger and wiser for the disappointment. If you frame it the right way in your head, you can take something from it --- lessons about who you are and what you care about and what really matters.

TBRN: Though she only appears in a few scenes, GiGi is a hoot of a character. Leopard print glasses. Chopsticks in her hair. An X-rated book club at 86. Does she come from your imagination, or is she based on someone you know?

KC: Oh, I just love GiGi so much. She’s not based on anyone I know in particular --- though I am from Texas, where strong, feisty, colorful women of every age abound.

TBRN: Each participant on the BCSC course is allowed one book to bring for three weeks of camping. As an author, what book would you choose to bring if you were along for the ride?

KC: That’s hard. Like Helen, I didn’t bring a book on the trip I took. I wanted to be fully immersed in the experience at all hours, and I feared a book would be a distraction. Like Helen, I regretted the choice. I wound up writing in my journal when other people were reading, though, which is partly why my notebook was so rich and detailed. If I had it to do over again, I might bring Bill Bryson’s A WALK IN THE WOODS --- for comfort, and companionship, and comedy. Three of my favorite things.

TBRN: In graduate school, you wrote a collection of short stories called PEEPSHOW, which was a finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. You’ve also published four other novels. Do you ever see yourself trying out short stories again, or are you hooked on writing longer fiction?

KC: I was terrified to write my first novel because I was used to crafting stories that were 20 pages or less, and 300 seemed impossibly long. I actually typed that first novel in Courier font because it took up so much room on the page. But I’d barely started before I knew for sure that I was meant to write novels. Novels build their own lovely momentum as you go along. For me, there’s always a moment when the characters come to life and take over --- and then, at that point, I’m just listening to them and writing it all down. I never had that kind of magic with a short story. It was all very much conscious thinking: What should happen here? How should I write it? With novels, once I get rolling, they write themselves.

TBRN: In an interview for a previous novel, THE LOST HUSBAND, you said you were “interested in the ways people bounced back.” That’s one of the defining themes in HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS as well --- with Helen, with Jake, even with Duncan to a lesser degree. Would you ever consider writing a novel about a character who fails to bounce back…a book without a happy ending?

KC: I don’t know what the future holds, but I can promise you this: I will never run the main character over with a bus in the last chapter.

It’s true. I am far more interested in the ways we pull ourselves together than in the ways we fall apart. I think a lot of writers are afraid of happy endings --- afraid they won’t be taken seriously, or they’ll seem false. As a culture, we’re deeply mistrustful of happy endings in stories, as if we’re foolish to long for them or enjoy them, as if there’s nothing meaningful to take from the joys of life. But I disagree. Good things do happen --- all the time. I don’t want to live a life that ignores them or write stories that ignore them. My characters very rarely get everything they want. Helen certainly doesn’t. She gets some of both. But I’m happy to let her linger on the good stuff --- and the reader, too.

In the end, you can only write the book that you yourself would like to read. That’s the only compass you can follow as a writer. And as a reader, I just don’t want to feel bleak and heartbroken at the end of a book. There’s too much of that in real life. I want to feel hopeful. I want to feel inspired. I want to be reminded of all there is to be grateful for. And so that’s the kind of story I will always write --- but I’ll do it in an honest way that’s rooted in real truths about real people and how we live.

TBRN: I read somewhere that you have (or had) dozens of inspirational quotes posted all over your bathroom for your husband and kids to read. Why the bathroom? And what ingredients must a quote have to make the cut?

KC: Yes. It’s mostly for the kids! I kept a book as I was growing up with little bits of poetry and wise quotes about life. Whenever I came across something that resonated with me or taught me something important, I wrote it in the book. I had tons: Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds and Shakespeare and Edward Hirsch and Joseph Heller. I loved flipping through and resting my eyes on those little places where language and wisdom intersected.

I’m not sure how exactly I came up with the idea to tape up quotes in the bathroom. I just kept coming across wise quotes that I wanted my kids to read and digest, and I liked the idea of a wall of inspiration. The bathroom was a good place to start because it’s the smallest room in the house, so I couldn’t get too crazy. 

How does a quote make the cut? It has to be wise --- and well-said. It has to help me think about the world in a new way. I don’t like quotes that are too cutesy, and I don’t like ones that are too bleak. My kids are reading them every day, memorizing them by accident, and so they have to be quotes I’d like them to know by heart.

TBRN: What’s next for you?

KC: HAPPINESS is the first in a three-book deal with St. Martin’s, and I’ve already turned in the next book. It’s about a woman who has to help an old friend and winds up taking an unexpected boat trip down the Texas coast.