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Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the West Texas novel The Paragraph Ranch.
Katherine Center, the author of five novels about love and family: The Bright Side of Disaster, Everyone Is Beautiful, Get Lucky, The Lost Husband, and Happiness for Beginners, recently signed a three-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. Her books and essays have appeared in Redbook, People, USA Today, Vanity Fair, and Real Simple.
People Magazine calls The Lost Husband “A sweet tale about creating the family you need.” Library Journal calls Get Lucky a “thoroughly enjoyable girlish romp,” and Kirkus Reviews likens Everyone Is Beautiful to the 1950s motherhood classic Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. Center is a graduate of Vassar College and University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program.
Katherine Center is the author of five books about love and family. Her novels have been reviewed in People, USA Today, and Redbook and have been optioned for movies. She talked with LSLL about growing up in Houston, her Texas writing influences, and the rapidly changing nature of publishing and writing.
LSLL: With so many subcategories of fiction on bookstore shelves these days, how would you describe yours?
Katherine Center: Technically, I'm in the category of Women's Fiction, but I really do a hybrid of literary fiction, women's fiction, and romantic comedy. I think of my books as "bittersweet comedies about love and family." My main characters are always women and, more than that, the books are written in a first-person, confessional, intimate voice that's mean to get as close as possible to the way women talk to each other. I always hope that readers will feel like they're reading a long letter from a best friend who is telling the truth of her life the way you only ever do with people you love and trust. So my books are Women's Fiction by default—because I am a woman writing about women—but also very much by choice, because I am all about trying to capture that special female goodness on the page.
At what point in your life did you decide, “I want to write for a living”? Who gave you your first big break?
I've always been a writer. I've kept journals and written poems and essays and stories as long as I can remember. I always knew that I was doomed to spend my whole life writing. Whether or not I could make a living from it was a different question.
My big break came when I met a woman named Vanessa Del Fabbro, a South African novelist living in Houston, at our neighborhood park one day. I'd written a novel, but then I'd gotten busy with babies and child rearing and instead of being brave and finding a publisher for it, I'd put it in a drawer. I'd heard of her, the "neighborhood novelist," but I'd been way too shy to approach her. Luckily, the friend I was with at the park was not shy, and she just marched up, introduced us, and asked if Vanessa would be willing to take look at my book. She was willing—bless her—and next thing I knew, she was passing it along to her agent. Her agent took me on and sold the manuscript at auction to Random House, and that novel-in-a-drawer became my first book, The Bright Side of Disaster.
Have any other Texas authors influenced your writing?
Hands down, Molly Ivins. She went to my high school, in fact, and she came to speak there and receive an award, and I got to meet her. When I was in high school, I devoured everything she wrote, and I still can't get over how very, very funny she was—and how that humor fuel-injected every word on the page. She utterly inspired me to be as funny and brave as possible. I also met Larry McMurtry once, when he came into my uncle's bookstore, where I worked in grad school. He wrote a check for a big stack of books but then changed his mind, added some more books, and ripped up the first check to write another one for the new total. After he left, I fished the pieces of the old check out of the trash can and taped them back together.
What was it like growing up in Houston? Was it fertile ground for a budding writer?
Houston's a great town. My mom's family has been here since the 1860s, and so it is rich for me with history and family and connection. I've set several of my books here, and I try to draw on that sense of rootedness whenever I can. And yes, it's a great town for writers. The University of Houston's Creative Writing Program is ranked second in the nation, and there are so many ways for writers to get inspired and connected. I felt the writerly vibe here even while I was growing up, and it definitely helped me dare to aspire to be a writer.
What’s the one piece of advice that was given to you that you’d like to pass on to aspiring writers?
I'm not sure about advice that was given to me (though my dad's advice to always go back and "take out half the words" has been a guiding light), but here's something I figured out for myself not that long ago: You have to write the story you want to read. That's really the best guide to the writing life I know of. Hold on tight to your internal compass. Don't write a book you think will be important, or impressive, or a bestseller. Just tell the story that you, yourself, long to read—and hope like heck that other people want to read it, too. That's the only way to write something true.
How has the business of writing changed since you entered it? How have e-books, self-publishing, Amazon, book blogs, and the like affected you?
It's probably easier to get started now—but it's also a lot more crowded. There's a ton of uncertainty about where books are going, though I try not to think about it and just keep writing my stories. I think there's a lot more hustle than there used to be for writers, too. Writers need to write, of course—but they also have to get out there and connect with readers. It's a lot more schmoozing than I ever would have suspected. Luckily for me, I'm very chatty, and as much as I love to stay home writing in my pajamas and fuzzy slippers, I also love to get out and speak at book clubs and luncheons and events. I interviewed Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout in front of 700 people last year, and it was both terrifying and the most fun ever.
What do you think of the growth in creative writing MFA programs? How did the Houston MFA program affect your career? Can a writer break through without the grad-school experience?
A writer can absolutely break through without going to graduate school. Going to grad school did not help me break into publishing at all. What grad school's good for is practice. You're writing all the time and surrounded by other people who are writing all the time—which, needless to say, is not how it is in most of the world. It's great to be a person who cares about writing surrounded by other people who also care about writing. That's the best thing about it: the full immersion. That, and it gives you time to practice in a way that gets very scarce once you start working a full time job, or raising kids, or both. That's all I did back then: just taught freshman English, read stories—both published, and those of other folks in the program, and wrote all the time.
What’s it like to have your novels optioned for movies? What’s the latest on The Lost Husband?
It's utterly thrilling. It's the best. I love movies, and I've been jumping up and down about The Lost Husband getting optioned. It will be amazing and mind-bending to see it all come to life on the screen. Vicky Wight, of Instant Pictures, is the loveliest person ever. I know she'll do a great job. She says she's almost finished adapting the book into a screenplay, and pre-production starts this spring.
Your loyal readers will be eager for Happiness for Beginners to appear later this month. Can you tell us a little about the book?
It's a grand coming-of-age, love-and-family, adventure story about a woman whose life falls apart, and then her little brother convinces her to go on a wilderness survival course in Wyoming—even though she is not an outdoorsy person. She goes on this trip, and it's a disaster in a million ways, but it also teaches her all kinds of things she needs to learn. I myself did a similar course when I was in my twenties, and many things that happen on the trip were things that I experienced: surviving a surprise summer blizzard, getting terribly lost in the backwoods, and carrying a guy who broke his hip for three miles back to civilization on a litter made of backpack frames.
I adore this book. You know how I just said "write the book you want to read"? This is that book for me.
In closing, I’ll ask the thing we want to learn from every Texas writer: Describe your quintessential Texas meal!
Brisket from Goode Company BBQ in Houston (motto: "You'd better give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you're in Texas") with a Shiner Bock to drink.
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"Such a charming, heartfelt novel about a woman who needs to escape from her life in order to rebuild it. I read it all in one delicious gulp." (Sarah Pekkanen, author of The Opposite of Me)
"Adding Happiness for Beginners to my all-time favorites list. Fun, moving, and honest, it's a gem of a novel about finding out just what you're made of." (Melissa Senate, author of The Love Goddess' Cooking School)
"Katherine Center has a unique talent for finding humor in the most unlikely scenarios. . . In the wholly refreshing Happiness for Beginners, she explores life's messy?moments with comic precision and proves that it is possible to make a fresh start--and find true love--in the midst of emotional disaster. Trust me; you'll feel this satisfying novel deep in your bones." (Jillian Medoff, bestselling author of I Couldn't Love You More)
This wise, delicious, page-turning novel won't let you go. Katherine Center writes about falling down, growing up, and finding love like nobody else. You can always see yourself and the people you love in her characters and their stories. (Brené Brown, #1 New York Times author of Daring Greatly)
"Happiness for Beginners is my favorite Katherine Center novel yet. I folded down pages to go back to--and that's a sign of a great book: when I see something so true or profound that I know I need mark it.?? It's wonderful. Could not put it down." (Jenny Lawson, New York Times bestselling author of Let's Pretend This Never Happened)
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