Katherine Center is an author many of you already know and love, and I’m excited to share an inside look into her latest novel, What You Wish For. The novel is set on Galveston Island and centers around Samantha Casey aka Sam, a school librarian. After the school suffers a devastating loss, someone from Sam’s past is hired as the school’s new principle. (Long time readers will be excited to see Duncan Carpenter, a character Katherine created in her novel Happiness for Beginners, make his reappearance!)
In this interview, Katherine shares about when she first came up with the storyline for her latest novel, how she chooses the location for her books and her favorite scene which was inspired by true events. I also couldn’t resist asking about what it was like visiting the set of The Lost Husband, where her characters were brought to life by Josh Duhamel and Leslie Bibb.
When did you first come up with the initial storyline for What You Wish For?
It was almost a process of plate tectonics where several big ideas that had been floating around in my head for a while kind of came together. I’ve always wanted to set a novel on Galveston Island, and and I’ve always wanted to write a story set at a school, and and I’ve always wanted to have a main character who’s a librarian. Somehow, by magic, I found myself thinking about all of those ideas in the same week that I read a really great non-fiction book called Joyful, by Ingrid Fetell Lee, that’s all about how joy happens in our lives . . . and then all those things just latched onto each other and started to make a story.
Your latest novel is set in the historic island of Galveston, Texas. How do you decide on a location for each novel?
I usually try to think of a place that I, myself, would kind of like to visit in my imagination. It’s often places I know in real life, though I have made up a few towns. I set a lot of novels in Texas (Austin, Houston, the Hill Country), but I’ve also set stories in the mountains of Wyoming and on the coast of Massachusetts. The settings are kind of like the containers that hold the stories, so it helps if they are engaging or appealing or memorable in some way. Galveston is the town where I go to write all my books these days and it’s a really evocative, rich, complicated place. It’s got beautiful Victorian architecture right next to tattoo parlors and a long history of hurricanes and devastation followed by rebuilding and resilience. It’s like a little-coastal-city-that-could, and I love that energy.
At what part during your early stages of planning out the novel, did you decide that Duncan Carpenter from your previous novel (Happiness for Beginners) would make his reappearance as one of the novels main characters?
It occurred to me pretty early on! I started the story with the main character, Sam, and the idea that she would be forced to work with a guy who’s idea of what mattered at her school would be diametrically opposed to hers. And not long after I started turning that idea around in my head, I suddenly wondered if Duncan could be that guy. I’ve wanted to give Duncan his own book ever since he first totally stole the show for me in Happiness for Beginners. I tried thinking of him as Sam’s terrible boss—just tried it, like “Could this work? Does this work?” And I knew pretty fast: Yes. It worked. Because I loved Duncan so much from before. And it instantly raised that question for me: “How could sweet, goofy Duncan turn into this guy?” And anytime the elements of a story start raising questions for you that you feel really curious about, that’s a good sign.
One of the most important things for me as a book lover is feeling a connection with the characters that I’m reading about. Out of all the characters in the book, which one would you want to meet in real life?
I’d want to hang out with Sam! I just like her. She’s totally somebody I’d be pals with in real life. I’d also be happy to hang out with Alice and Babette. Or all of them at once! Tex-Mex and margaritas on the seawall!
What was your favorite scene to write in What You Wish For?
There are a few, but I’ll pick the scene where Duncan’s just had surgery and he’s all loopy on painkillers. A version of that scene really happened with my husband. He’d had an outpatient surgery, and as I drove him home, he was so dopey he kept staring at his empty hand, thinking that he was holding his phone and trying to give me directions to our house. He was like, “I’m sorry, my phone’s not working.” I was like, “Don’t worry, we’re good.” As we arrived home, he did the cutest thing ever. He was like, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s get married.” We’ve been married twenty years. I was like, “Sold! I’m in.” Even as it was happening, I was thinking, “This is going in a book.”
What You Wish For is your 8th published novel. Out of all of the novels you’ve written, is there one in particular that you enjoyed writing the most, or one that is a personal favorite?
Oh, I love them all in different ways. Things You Save in a Fire was a particularly fun book to write because my husband is an EMT and volunteer firefighter, so I got to interview him over and over and really take a deep dive into all his old firefighting stories. It was fun to see something so important to him in a new way—from a much more careful and detailed perspective. Plus, it was just a treat to have a project together.
Your novel The Lost Husband will be released in theaters (April 10th) as a feature film starring Josh Duhamel and Lesile Bibb. How did you feel when you heard the news that your novel would be turned into a feature film and what was your favorite part of visiting the set?
It was beyond thrilling. I love movies, so the idea of my book becoming a movie was totally dreamy. The best part of visiting the set was probably meeting Josh Duhamel, who is super nice and also like the tallest person on the planet. He politely came over to say hi—and I was so tongue-tied I went completely mute. I panicked. It was crazy . . . he’s just such a movie star. It’s totally surreal to stand there talking to him—or trying to. It was also surreal to see both him and Leslie Bibb as my characters—seeing people from my head come to life in that way. I was on set when they filmed a totally epic kiss between them, and the whole time, I was like, “I invented that kiss. That kiss exists in the world because of me.” Crazy!
You’ve won many awards for your writing (Houston Public Library Foundation’s 2019 Literary Excellence Award, the Rose State President’s Distinguished Author Award, the Girls, the Writers In The Schools Founders’ Award) to name a few. What was the first award you won at the beginning of your career as a writer?
I won the Vassar College Fiction Prize my senior year of college—which was huge at the time because Vassar is not exactly a STEM school. Almost everybody I knew was writing a novel. So that was very encouraging. There were many years still ahead of me where encouragement would be in short supply, so I’m very grateful I won that award when I did. It sustained me through some lean years!
In addition to writing you are also a speaker on writing, reading, and how the stories we tell impact our lives. What do you look forward to the most at speaking events where you share your passion for all things literary with others?
I LOVE getting to speak. I’m kind of an introvert-extrovert hybrid. So I’m perfectly happy to stay home in my PJs, but I also love being on stage. My favorite part of speaking is making a room full of people laugh. There’s nothing like that feeling of getting a laugh from an audience. I also just love talking about books and stories in general, and I love getting hugs afterwards. It’s like we all start out strangers, and by the end of the talk, we’re all best friends. I miss all that now, during the pandemic! My book tour in July has gone all virtual. Virtual events actually have a lot of upsides—but nothing beats the camaraderie and joy of getting a whole room of booklovers together. It’s very nourishing.
Are you currently working on you next novel, and if so can you share any plot hints?
Yes!!! I wasn’t planning to do any writing during the pandemic, and then a story just started erupting in my head. Right now, I’m working on the shape of it and doing research, but the characters are also talking a lot. It’s a little early for me to give too many specifics, but from the way this thing has taken over my head, it’s going to be a barn-burner!
Katherine Center is the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away, Things You Save in a Fire, and the recently released, What You Wish For. Six Foot Pictures recently adapting her fourth novel, The Lost Husband, into a feature film starring Josh Duhamel and Leslie Bibb which was released in theaters on April 10th. Katherine has been compared to both Nora Ephron and Jane Austen, and the Dallas Morning News calls her stories, “satisfying in the most soul-nourishing way.”