Look at just the right angle across the dry, grassy hills of the Pacific coast, and you can see the Hearst Castle from Catherine Ryan Hyde's studio. It is a constant reminder of how far she's come in the last 10 years. Once she worked there as a guide, growing tired of the questions the visitors posed her day after day. Now she's authored Pay It Forward, a book many of them will have read, the basis of a film even more of them will have seen.
Hyde's studio is humble, the extension of a two-bedroom suburban log cabin she shares with her mother. She paid off the mortgage with the first real money she ever made, part of Warner's advance for Pay It Forward. Inside, her collection of books and memorabilia hint at the leap she's recently made. On the bookshelf is her collection of more than 25 literary magazines that have published her short stories, 35 stories so far, one of which was nominated for the O. Henry, eight for the Pushcart and two for Best American Short Stories. On the walls are framed notices from Variety of Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt signing to do Pay It Forward and on her desk a snapshot of Hyde with President Clinton at a small White House dinner before a viewing of the film.
"Of course I was excited to meet him," she says. She's a big-boned woman, who looks comfortable in jeans and Ugg boots, the latest fashion on the West coast. "I was very kidlike, I couldn't sleep. But I felt I deserved it. It's not as though this just happened. I've worked hard to achieve this."
Like many authors who at last reap success, Hyde toiled for years before seeing any concrete return from her writing. She's "thrilled" with the sudden change in financial status, she says, and the accompanying fame, but she's not counting on either lasting forever--despite the fact that her editors are Michael Korda and S&S senior editor Chuck Adams; that her next novel, Electric God, is garnering solid reviews; and that both Electric God and her book after that, Walter's Purple Heart, have been optioned for film. What's of much more concern to her now is her reputation as a literary writer.
"Pay It Forward was a concept book," says Hyde. "So people make a connection: 'She wrote a Hollywood concept, sold it to Hollywood and then S&S jumped on it, and that's who she is.'" But as Hyde stresses, "I've had work in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review--high-tone literary magazines--and I think people need to know that."
"To be honest, I spent the years between 14 and 34 in a little too much of a drug- and alcohol-induced fog...there was a subtle erosion of initiative."
The writer, whose first novel, Funerals for Horses (1997), and collection of short stories, Earthquake Weather (1998), were published by the ephemeral Russian Hill Press of San Francisco, still sees little difference between Pay It Forward and those first works, which garnered critical acclaim but just a small readership. "I did what I always do," she explains, "people it with down and out, almost seedy characters. Until Pay It Forward was published, people would say, 'You're an extremely good writer, but it's not the kind of stuff that sells: kind of dark, kind of literary. If you could write something a little more uplifting... ' But I'd never try to impose anything on the literary process like that."
"Uplifting," however, is a word often spotted in reviews of Pay It Forward, and Hyde says she's now being labeled as "Sister Mary Sunshine." Her current work, Electric God, which is steeped in biblical allegory, is likewise being billed as inspirational and "feel good." Still, she is pleased that it is the next title to be published, because she thinks it might set the record straight--it is clearly not a concept book and, unlike Pay It Forward and Walter's Purple Heart, was bought by S&S before it was optioned as a movie. The story of a man's descent into lonely fury and then his slow climb back to human connection, it explores a theme she says underlies all her work: the common ground people share.
"The world I live in is not all white people, not all straight people, and it's not all people who have their acts together either," she explains. "Any point I'm trying to make in my writing is that if you go deep enough inside any human being, through all the layers that are different from you, you're going to find the place that's not different. If we could get better at seeing that in each other, we could get over our racism, our classism, our sexism, the here's us and that's them, and I don't know about them."
Hyde's ability to describe the hardscrabble side of life comes from personal experience. Born Catherine Feinberg, she grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y., the youngest of three sisters. Her father played the guitar and bass, performing in clubs while working many jobs "to support his music habit." Her mother was a writer, with two books on child-rearing to her name. Writing runs in the family: her sister, Leslie, a transsexual, is published too. Hyde discovered her own writing ability in high school--"a tough city school, racially mixed and dangerous"--where a humorous essay she wrote caught the attention of her beloved English teacher.
"Here all of a sudden was someone I really admired saying, 'Hey! You're good at this.' It made a deep impression on my psyche." Until then, Hyde was used to being overlooked. At home, she tried to stay out of the way of her older sisters, and at school she felt ignored because she was not special enough either athletically or socially. "I was not the best looking in the class by a long shot," she says bluntly. "Gym class was a humiliation."
Not only did her English teacher make her feel she was really good at something, he also exposed her to a whole new world of books. It was in his class that she read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Twelve Angry Men, Flowers for Algernon and Of Mice and Men, "books about down-and-out people, the kind of people you might not spend time with personally, but you could explore in fiction," and which she feels still inform her writing more than anything she's read since.
Realizing she could write and becoming a writer were two very different things, however, and it would take her 20 years before she would make the necessary commitment to the craft. "To be honest, I spent the years between 14 and 34 in a little too much of a drug and alcohol-induced fog," she admits. "Not to the point where I got a DUI or was arrested, or had an intervention, but I just wasn't getting anything done--there was a subtle erosion of initiative."
At 17, she left Buffalo for New York City, escaping family, school and even her identity by dropping Feinberg for a new name, Ryan, which belonged to a good friend. She never attended college. By 18, she was in L.A., where her middle sister had moved, and together they started a dog-training business, which she stuck with for 12 years.
The dog business provided Hyde with lots of material for her writing. "It really was a way to find out about people's habits and resistance to change," she says. But at the time it was just a job, one that made her overreach financially, and she eventually abandoned it. She started two novels while she was working, "but then I stopped, because I was very much in denial about my whole life, very numb, and the emotional level was so shallow that I started to bore myself."
In April 1985, a few weeks short of her 30th birthday, Hyde moved to Cambria, a tourist town midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, where her mother had settled four years previously. She intended to stay only for a few months. But two weeks after her arrival, she decided she wasn't going to go back to L.A. after all. "And my mom and I have shared a house ever since," she says lightly, at ease with a living arrangement that has seen her through hard times and which clearly suits both women well.
In Cambria, Hyde worked a series of part-time jobs: at a yogurt shop, an answering service and a restaurant as a pastry chef. In the winter of '91, the restaurant closed down and Hyde found herself out of a job in the off-season. Resigned to at least two months of unemployment, she woke up one morning realizing that now she had no excuse not to write. So she sat down at the self-correcting IBM Selectric in the house, and wrote Walter's Purple Heart.
She did not do it in a vacuum. Right away she joined the Cambria Writers Workshop, a well-published group that includes Jean Brody (Cleo), who owns the local bookstore, the Cambria Book Co., and children's writer Elizabeth Spurr.
Hyde wrote fast. "I've always been ambidextrous," she says, "writing short stories and novels, and I pretty much have been writing a novel and a handful of short stories every year since '91." Getting published, however, proved more difficult. She fruitlessly contacted 25 agents about Walter's Purple Heart and gathered 122 rejections from magazines for her short stories. Two years later, still unpublished, she attended the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, where she came within one vote of winning the conference prize for fiction. She also picked up a few marketing tips, and within a few months she received her first story acceptance, five days later her second and nine days after that, her third. "Every one of those short stories has now found a home," she says, "and I never changed any as a result of rejection."
By 1995, Hyde had written several dozen short stories, Walter's Purple Heart, Funerals for Horses and was starting Pay It Forward, though her novels were still unpublished. It was that year that Ann Sheldon and partner Michael Vidor of the Hardy Agency in Sausalito saw one of Hyde's stories in a magazine called Bottom Fish and contacted her regarding representation. It was a match made in heaven. In short order, they sold Funerals for Horses to Russian Hill Press. "I wrote Electric God to keep myself from going crazy from the time we sold Funerals to the time it came out," she says, "seven months of very intense work."
Although Russian Hill Press closed after two short publishing seasons, it was a fellow Russian Hill author, whose own book had been signed by Jonathan Treisman of Flatiron Films, who introduced Hyde to Hollywood. Vidor sold Treisman Pay It Forward, although it had still not been sold for publication, and according to Hyde, he bought it only reluctantly. Then, in July '98, Treisman sold it to Warner, and Hollywood began to buzz. Dutton, St. Martin's, S&S and Little, Brown were among the 10 publishers who began calling, even though Vidor and Sheldon had been trying to sell the book for a year with no success. Five days later, Korda and Adams made a preemptive offer, promising to edit the book themselves with a light hand.
Pay It Forward was rushed into print so the hardback would come out in February 2000, and the paperback (from Pocket) would appear simultaneously with the release of the movie. Simon & Schuster also bought Electric God and verbally committed to Subway Dancer and Other Stories, another collection of Hyde's work, and is planning to publish Walter's Purple Heart. Still on Hyde's shelf: a women's novel called Turtle Park that she finished in '98, and a partially completed novel called Love in the Present Tense, which she set aside "when all hell broke loose with Pay It Forward."
Hyde does not write consistently. "I've been known to write 10 pages a day for 10 days running before I take a breath," she says. And then there are times she g s for months without writing. "I am not a disciplined writer," she adds. "I'm one of those people who laughingly call themselves inspirational writers, which basically means someone who has no control over their own creative process."
Still, Hyde is committed to turning out perfect prose, and will tirelessly return to material she's already rewritten several times--as she just did again this summer with Walter's Purple Heart--until it's right. She says she feels saner when she writes, a contributing factor, no doubt, in her decision to go through a second identity change when she really convinced herself she could be a writer. That was when she tacked on her mother's maiden name, Hyde, to her own.
It's because she takes herself so seriously as a craftsman that Hyde is discomfited by being pigeonholed so early as a concept writer and Hollywood idea monger. "Yet I know this too will pass," she allows, and laughs. "I really only have been seriously writing, finishing things and publishing things since January '91. I'm coming up on my 10th anniversary. Now, that's not the saddest story anyone ever heard."