San Luis Obispo

Paying It Forward with Catherine Ryan Hyde

Cerro Alto Trail by Catherine Ryan Hyde.jpg

Travel along the coastal route of the El Camino Real and explore the rich, diverse cultural and artistic identity of San Luis Obispo County. This installment in the series celebrates the mavericks, pioneers, and experimental thinkers of the county.

Author Catherine Ryan Hyde has a very special connection to the Central Coast. Her bestselling novel Pay It Forward which was adapted into a movie of the same name, is one of several novels with themes of do-goodery and chance acquaintances. All of these narratives were written from Hyde's small coastal enclave alongside views of the Pacific Ocean and SLO County wildlife. Spend a day in the life with Catherine Ryan Hyde as she helps document this episode with her personal photographs of the coastal paradise she calls home.


"If you put me back in an urban setting (please don't) my spirit would begin to wither and calcify again."

Picture this: A quiet, coastal community with stunning ocean views and an abundance of marine life, bird life, and a writer or two. The community-- Cambria, California is home to Elephant Seals, Egrets, and author Catherine Ryan Hyde. Hyde has lived on the Central Coast for almost three decades. "I'm pleased to say I've lived in Cambria since April of 1985," described Hyde by e-mail, "My mother had moved up to Cambria almost four years earlier. I was just turning 30, and in an awkward situation in LA, just ending a long(ish)-term relationship. I needed a new place to live, and my own car. So I came up to Cambria to spend the summer with my mom. I knew there were jobs in Cambria in the summer. The plan was to work all summer, buy a used car, save up first and last months' rent, then go back to L.A. I think I was in Cambria about two weeks when I woke up and thought, 'Go back where? Why would I want to do that?' Decades passed, my mom passed away in March at the age of 90, and I'm still here."

Split into two villages (East and West) Cambria with its unfettered coastline and eclectic galleries is where Hyde's career as a novelist was launched. All of her books were written from this seaside enclave including the novel that marked her reputation as a writer, "Pay It Forward" published by Simon & Schuster in 1999, and made into a feature film in 2000 starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osmet. The idea for the Pay It Forward story is well circulated, Hyde came up with the idea when two strangers came to her aid in downtown Los Angeles when her car broke down, slipping away without asking anything in return, leaving her to wonder what you do with a favor you can't pay back.. Themes of do-goodery and chance acquaintances are often found in her books. Hyde described the source of her caring nature: optimism being the key. "I think everybody has always had that caring trait. The only real difference is how much we cover it over, or how much we live openly from that part of ourselves. My mother was an optimist, like me. My father was much more pessimistic and pragmatic. So when I was growing up, my mom and I would come up with a great plan, like driving to Canada (we lived in Buffalo) to see something wonderful. We'd tell my father, and he'd say, 'What if the car breaks down? What if you come back to the car and it's freezing cold and it won't start? What if you get a flat tire?' You know how kids are. They tend to rebel. So I think I rebelled against pessimism. I decided the best and the worst of life exist simultaneously, and it's up to us to decide where we're going to place our focus."


Hummingbird outside of author Catherine Ryan Hyde's kitchen window. | Photo:   Catherine Ryan Hyde.

Hyde's trajectory to becoming a writer was unconventional and her rebellious nature again played a large part in finding her path to writing. "I grew up in Buffalo, New York. Lived there until I was 17. I graduated high school at 17 by 'accelerating' (taking four years of high school classes in three years.) Then I moved to New York City on my own. I never went to college. Never had the slightest bit of interest in any more formal education. So, yes, I think it's fair to say that my academic career was somewhere between nontraditional and nonexistent."

Asked how the Idyllic views of the coastline nurtures her writing, "Oh, so many ways." shared Hyde, quick to credit many of the County's best kept secrets. "When I feel stopped from moving forward in the work, I put a leash on my dog and we go walking on the boardwalk at Moonstone Beach, or on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. My feet are busy, but my mind is idling. It's a great way to get the imagination work done. I would say nature is my number one inspiration. This is true in areas of creativity, but also in life in general. If you put me back in an urban setting (please don't) my spirit would begin to wither and calcify again." An intrepid explorer of the Central Coast, Hyde shared her favorite off-the-beaten-path treks "I think I'd have to say either the Cerro Alto trail, which begins in a campground a few miles east of Morro Bay on Highway 41, or Valencia Peak at Montana de Oro. I love both these trails because they end on top of a summit, looking down on the Central Coast I know so well."

"It's all very feast-and-famine. When it's flowing I write it down, when it's not I maintain my life."

Imagining a writer's life can often feed the stereotype of fictioneers in front of an old-fashioned typewriter, with a dog at their feet, looking out onto Walden Pond. Hyde's typical day lends itself to that stereotype, as evidenced by her daily gratitude tweets:

"No fog. Bright blue sky. Temp on my front porch 60 (Apologies to those in a heat wave--come by for homemade peach ice cream) #DailyGratitude."

In reality, the stereotype truly fits Hyde, who has produced 18 novels in just under 15 years. Her writing routine is regimented in a beautiful setting, with her dog Ella at her feet. "I have two typical days," said Hyde, "In one, I sit in front of the computer for more or less the whole day. I bang out anywhere from ten to twenty rough draft pages. I have to remind myself to take a break to brush my teeth, make something to eat. I knock off around dinner time, then after dinner go back and begin to revise and polish what I wrote earlier in the day. This goes on until my eyes and brain just can't take it any more." Hyde continued, "In my other typical day, I still spend a good bit of time at the computer, but I don't add a word to my work in progress. I spend some time on my website, or on social networks. I might do some revision. Mostly I spend the day doing things like reconciling my checkbook and taking my car in for an oil change. Because these are the things I won't do when the work is flowing. It's all very feast-and-famine. When it's flowing I write it down, when it's not I maintain my life. It's very common for me to write ten + pages a day for ten days running, then not pick it up again for weeks. Over the course of a few months, I get a lot done with that system."


Sunrise walk at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. | Photo: Catherine Ryan Hyde

"I love bringing my characters to, and through, my home territory."

The county's landscape has been the backdrop for many of Hyde's novels, yet locals tend not to make an appearance. Hyde elaborated, "Let me start with my disclaimer about characters: All of my characters are fictional. They come to me straight from the ether. I might pick up some tiny characteristic from a real person, but in the end the character will not resemble that person in any way. Now, storylines. My books are just full of the Central Coast. Pay It Forward was set in Atascadero. In The Day I Killed James, Theresa runs away to live in Cambria and work as a Hearst Castle tour guide (which is a job I used to have). In Becoming Chloe, Jordy and Chloe hitchhike over Route 46 on their way to Big Sur, then catch a ride up Highway 1 with a man who stops at Leffingwell Landing (Cambria) so they can explore the tide pools while he eats his lunch." Hyde added, "I love bringing my characters to, and through, my home territory."

Not much has changed for Cambria, once an isolated farming community it is now a hidden retreat with tourism as its biggest driving force reinforced by the gorgeous coastal shores serving as a gateway to Big Sur and of course the draw to Hearst Castle a few miles north. Hyde recalled her early days working in Cambria and provided a vignette of some of the town's rural character: "Cambria in the early 80s was like the Wild West compared to the Cambria of today. I used to drive up and visit my mom, who was caretaking the old Santa Rosa Chapel as it was being restored. Without a caretaker, a few local youths would come up to the cemetery to get drunk and throw bottles through the windows. At that time the market, Cookie Crock, was a little storefront across Main Street from the base of the chapel driveway. I'd come down in the evening for food and supplies. As I headed back up, a member of the sheriff's department would often pull me over (though I was on foot) to see what I was doing. I guess when you see someone headed up into a cemetery at dusk it doesn't give the appearance of going home. This was in the day of old Ralph's Gun Shop. Back when there was an old Ralph. His mind was questionable, so it was not comforting that he should be so well-armed. I soon got a job at the corner bakery, which required showing up at 4:00 a.m. Old Ralph's upstairs window was always open, and I could always see the glow of his TV. I'd try to sneak by as quietly as possible, but he had good ears. I'd be ten steps past, just thinking I was home free, when I'd hear, 'Bang!' Literally. The word bang. I'd jump, and turn around to see old Ralph hanging out the window pointing his index finger at me like a gun. And laughing, and laughing. A less than encouraging experience."


Supermoon in Cambria. | Photo: Catherine Ryan Hyde.

"I try to represent the world more or less as I see it around me."

San Luis Obispo County is well-regarded for its greenbelt and environmental initiatives. Hyde's connection to the environment is what draws her closest to her local community. "A lot of my local involvement comes in the form of environmentalism," shared Hyde. "Cambria is facing some big issues in that regard, because of plans for a supplemental water supply. Some of the possibilities are environmentally sound, many are environmentally disastrous. So I am involved with a local group of concerned citizens who watchdog the situation as best we can, and try to help create a better understanding of sustainable solutions."

Cambria is a tight knit supportive community. Hyde has found this support instrumental in her own personal recovery. "I've also been clean and sober since February 1989, so I am part of the recovery community in these parts." She has made connection politically as well. "I'm also a member of a small "Occupy Cambria" contingent," added Hyde. "We march from the Vet's Hall to the corner of Main Street and Wall Street (and back) on the second Saturday of every month. We carry signs that convey our concerns about economic injustices. It's not much, but we show our support for the national movement, and we try to keep awareness of economic justice alive."



Hyde has written some very poignant, personal, and inspiring opinion pieces on LGBT
issues and politics. "I don't pull many punches about my belief in LGBT equality when I write nonfiction, such as on my blog or in guest posts for other bloggers," said Hyde over e-mail. Her novels have often included gay and transgendered supporting characters, and more recently her main storylines revolve around the LGBTQ community. When asked whether this was a conscious transition from minor characters to main characters, Hyde responded, "As far as a transition from minor to major characters, I'd say I'm not particularly calculating about whether a character is gay or straight. I let the character dictate that. Looking at my body of work in a way no one else can (which is to say, knowing what I'm working on now, and what's in the pipeline) I wouldn't say I'm swaying any more toward LGBTQ characters than I have in the past."

Hyde continued, "My goal is to represent the world in an approximately balanced way. The world contains a majority of straight people, but the LGBT community definitely exists, so I try to do something like that with the overall body of my work. I try to do the same thing with ethnicities, too. I try to represent the world more or less as I see it around me."

SLO County has traditionally been very conservative and often leans towards the GOP in elections, but in the 2008 election 51% of the residents voted for Obama yet 51% voted in favor of Prop 8. Hyde has been very outspoken in her opinions against Prop 8. Balancing the demographics of Cambria's politically leanings, Hyde has found some common ground within the community. "Cambria feels like a reasonably supportive community. Cambria has a quality I like: it's a tiny village, but it's made up almost entirely of big city transplants. So I think you have a good tolerance for diversity compared to other tiny rural towns. Or maybe it's just that I surround myself with supportive people," noted Hyde. "SLO County is so diverse. It's hard to generalize about it. Paso Robles and Atascadero seem quite conservative compared to Cambria, but San Luis Obispo has the college town influence. All in all, I don't feel like I'm in enemy territory where I live, but every community can improve in the extent to which it embraces diversity."

The Central Coast's conservative leanings have rattled Hyde on a personal level. Take, for example, Hyde's outspokenness in the local press. "When Prop 8 passed, I wrote an open letter to essentially everyone in my address book. I wanted people to know that, in my view, my friends are people who don't go to the polling place and affirm that I should have fewer rights than they do. I think many people who voted yes on 8 tried not to see it as doing genuine, calculated harm to their neighbors. But that's exactly what they did. The editor of the Cambrian asked my permission to run the piece, and I got some pretty heavy pushback in the letters to the editor. Some of it edged close to the line of hate speech. For months afterwards, tons of people approached me around town and quietly pulled me aside to tell me they agreed with me. But only about two people were brave enough to say so in print. So, as I say, there's always room for improvement."


Coastal Elephant Seal. | Photo: Catherine Ryan Hyde.

"It's definitely a new world, and I'm grateful for it. The old one was beginning to
come apart at the seams."

Hyde is well connected online-- from her social media outlets to her new media publishing formats. She is a self-promoter using technology to market her books through what she calls "blog tours" and patiently answers reader questions and responds to comments on Facebook, Google+, Youtube, and Twitter. Hyde rebuff's being cast as a geek, "I wouldn't say I'm a geek at heart, because I'm a bit too old for that." Hyde continued to clarify, "I was in my forties when the world switched to an online existence. But I think I'm less intimidated by it than some. I like to get my feet wet and learn about new technologies. I now have a DIY website (I created it almost all by myself and maintain it all by myself). I love social media, because of the way it allows me to connect directly with my readers. In the old days, we did that by getting on planes and touring. I hate planes, I hate airports, I hate hotels, and I hate book tours. So learning a new social media platform is a very small price to pay for connecting with readers from home, in my comfy chair, in my pajamas."

With a gamut of online social media under her belt, Hyde devised a unique way to promote her novels and connect to her readers via eReaders and blog tours. The eBook realm opened up a new market for Hyde. "The biggest difference for me has been my ability to get noticed by the Kindle people. We did these brief promotions in which the ebook would be free for 2-5 days. All three of my indie ebooks went to #1 in Kindle Free, which is huge publicity for them. When they reverted to $2.99 or $3.99, they sold thousands of copies in a very short time as a result of that visibility," said Hyde.

The blog tours have made Hyde's life easier and keeps her closer to home and freer to travel more for pleasure. Her latest blog tour is for Don't Let Me Go. "I'm not really sure how the blog tour first started, but I became aware of it through the many book bloggers I know and love on Twitter," recalled Hyde. "I've done two blog tours so far, one for Jumpstart the World and one for Second Hand Heart. In September I'll be doing a blog tour for Don't Let Me Go. I can tell you right now, they reach more people than you'd meet in a bookstore. Many of these bloggers have hundreds or even thousands of followers, and the reviews, interviews and guest posts stay up more or less indefinitely. And they can link to a buying page for the book, for anyone inspired to try it. Once again, it's all done from my comfy chair, in my jammies."


Acorn Woodpecker. | Photo: Catherine Ryan Hyde.

As the transition from traditional publishing began to let her down, Hyde described her reaction and subsequent foray into independent publishing. "As the industry started to shake and contract, they circled the wagons and a lot of writers got left out in the cold. I had a series of novels that were doing quite well in the UK, hitting the extended bestseller lists every time out, and we couldn't even get a US publisher to take them on. So my agent, her agency and I began making them available independently here in the US. And they have been an enormous success. I'm making a decent living again as an author because of the digital revolution. In early October I'm going to be bringing out my four out-of-print backlist titles (Funerals for Horses, Earthquake Weather and Other Stories, Electric God and Walter's Purple Heart) as ebooks. And they will never go out of print again. Because ebooks never do. Then I'll release another frontlist title, When You Were Older, around Thanksgiving. It's been published already in the UK, but US readers wouldn't have access to these titles without indie publishing."

Hyde added, "By the way, the independently published titles are not ebook only. They are also available from Amazon as print-on-demand paperbacks. Which also never go out of print. It's definitely a new world, and I'm grateful for it. The old one was beginning to come apart at the seams."

Teenagers make up a large contingent of Hyde's readers. Although some of her newer books are classified as Young Adult, their reach is goes beyond the intended target audience. A San Luis Obispo High School teen, forwarded a question to Hyde, asking how she was able to write with such a young voice that teens could identify so well with? Hyde responded, "Tell her it's my arrested development. I'm only half kidding. I still remember what it feels like to be an emotionally vulnerable kid and teen. Maybe that's part of what's different about the brain of a writer. We imagine people we've never been, and we remember people we haven't been for a very long time."

Author Catherine Ryan Hyde in Morro Bay. | Photo: Catherine Ryan Hyde.

Visit Catherine Ryan Hyde's website.


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Top Image: Cerro Alto Trail. | Photo: Catherine Ryan Hyde.

About the Author

Curator Catherine Trujillo has worked with designers, artists, architects, and photographers to create long-standing contributions to the cultural life of the Central Coast. Originally from East Los Angeles, and heavily influenced...
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