Katherine Center on Humor, Houston, and How to Walk Away
Houston native Katherine Center has been a staff favorite since, oh, pretty much the first moment we met her. We've adored each of her novels. But her latest, How to Walk Away, might be her best yet. Plus, it's an official selection on the May Indie Next List. Pre-order the book through our website to receive a signed copy, plus some exclusive swag. Then, set aside some time on the evening of May 17. That's when Katherine's stopping by to celebrate the new release.
While you wait (thirteen days and counting, as of this publication!), check out our Q&A below—we asked about striking a balance between happy and sad, growing up in Houston, and more. And we scored a few reading recommendations, too.
This novel begins with a devastating event. Through the long, hard road that follows for your protagonist, Margaret, you find humor and joy. That's something you do really well in many of your books. What leads you to create these happy/sad/funny stories and how do you find the balance?
I really believe that comedy only exists because of tragedy. Life has so many hardships, and so much worry, and inevitable grief. Comedy is the thing we do to make it all more bearable. It’s the upside to all the heartache. I don’t want to shy away from hardship in my books, but I also don’t want to overlook joy. Laughing is joyful. So I value the lessons we learn from sorrow, but I also value the beauty in finding things to laugh about, even in the midst of it. It can be hard to balance the two, in a way, because we tend to think of comedy and tragedy as being totally separate categories. But for me, I can’t imagine not combining them. Humor has always been a coping mechanism for me—and my husband is the same way. We crack a lot of jokes at our house, and we laugh a lot. Laughing just always makes things better.
What was your inspiration for exploring the world of rehabilitation after injury?
I like stories about how people pick themselves back up after life has knocked them down. That’s really my favorite thing about humanity—the way we just keep picking ourselves back up. I, myself, am not always great at getting back up. I’m easily discouraged, for sure. I love to read stories about how people struggle and push through and bounce back. So it wasn’t the rehabilitation, per se, that drew my interest, but more the injury itself—the moment when the main character’s life is changed so dramatically and then everything that follows from that: how she copes, and learns to find joy again, and redefines what matters.
Your characters's voices ring so true, from Margaret to the loathsome Chip, to Ian, Kitty, and the rest. Do you draw qualities from those around you or do you look elsewhere?
Dialogue has always been my favorite thing to write. I just hear the characters talking in my head and then write it down like i’m taking dictation. Other parts of the writing process are not always as easy, but dialogue just happens like magic in my head. But of course for dialogue to happen, you have to know, or at least have a sense, of who these characters are, and what they want—both overall and in the moment. For that, I do use other people—or even other fictional characters—as a starting place. In How to Walk Away, I used Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre as a starting place for one of the characters—that brooding, wounded quality of his. But then, of course, that character evolved into his own person as I added more and more specifics. Writing fiction is a lot like making a collage, as you grab bits and pieces from all different places and then combine them into something new. Usually, even if I take a qualities from others as a starting place for characters, as I spend more and more time with them, they evolve into their own, specific, very real selves.
You set many of your books in and around Houston. Can you share some of your favorite places in the area?
I’m a fifth-generation Houstonian—my mom’s family came over from Germany in the 1860s—so Houston is definitely an important place for me! Except for college (and one crazy year in Colorado) I’ve lived here my whole life. I’m tempted to set every story here, because the landscape of this town is so layered with memories for me, but I try to vary it a little! I have so many favorite places. I love the Heights, where we used to live, and where I set my first book. I love the area near Rice University, where we live now, and all its magical oak trees. I love Rice Village, with people walking around and eating at sidewalk cafes. I love how green and lush our city is. I love all the great food from all over the world. I love how friendly we are as a city. I feel very lucky to live here.
What are you reading?
Multiple things at once! I’m reading an academic book about Victorian love letters called Searching the Heart. I’m about to start Stephanie Wittels Wachs's memoir, Everything is Horrible and Wonderful. I’ve got Jill Santopolo’s The Light We Lost on my bedside table, and Elinor Lipman’s The Family Man. I’m also ready to dig into One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Emily Giffin’s newest, All We Ever Wanted. Plus, audiobooks! I’ve just finished Trevor Noah’s powerful memoir, Born A Crime, about growing up mixed-race under Apartheid, and I’ve downloaded Tina Fey’s Bossypants, even though I’ve read (and loved) it before, just to hear it in her voice. I tend to do non-fiction in audiobooks and fiction in “real” books, so I can see the words on the page.