It’s been nearly two decades since the publication of Pay It Forward—the book that put local author Catherine Ryan Hyde on the map. But even with the success of the movie version (starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment in 2000), and the Pay It Forward movement that thrives today, Hyde has questioned whether or not she could make it as a writer full-time.

“There have been enormous ups and downs,” Hyde admitted. “It’s not been easy, especially after Pay It Forward. There was a time [recently] I was wondering if I’d run my course as an author.”

But Hyde was not willing to give up, and advice from her mother kept her going. Sometimes people set goals, she explained, and when they don’t work out, they say “See? It didn’t work. Better try Plan B.” The trouble with a fallback position, Hyde’s mother continued, is that people end up falling back.

Currently at work on the second of a four-book deal, the Cambria resident writes at least two books a year, and has written more than 30 books to date. The latest, Heaven Adjacent, will be released in June. “In the last couple of years, things have really taken off,” she said.

While her books are set in locations around the country, many are set right here in SLO County or have characters who pass through it. Pay It Forward, for example, was set in Atascadero; Always Chloe in Morro Bay. Hyde uses her own life experiences to flesh out the story, but not necessarily to inspire it.

“It’s just pure imagination,” Hyde said. “I just say please and thank you and don’t ask too many questions.”

A real life experience did inspire Pay It Forward, however. In a video on her website, Hyde tells the story of how her car broke down in L.A.’s Echo Park, where she lived during the late ‘70s. Her car broke down in a bad neighborhood late at night. Smoke from under the hood began filling the car, forcing Hyde to climb out of it. When she looked up, she saw two men—two total strangers—running toward her. They were coming fast and one of them held a blanket.

“Many thoughts danced in my head,” she said. “Not a single one of which had anything to do with rescue. …  I really thought those were going to be the last few moments of my life. It never occurred to me they’d be running to my aid, but that’s exactly what they were doing.”

The man with the blanket opened the hood and used his own upper body and the blanket to put out the fire. If the tables had been turned, Hyde said she would probably have called the fire department, rather than run to the rescue of a stranger.

“This was the biggest favor I’d ever gotten in my entire life,” she said. Since they left before she had a chance to thank them, “I found myself on the lookout for someone in trouble.” And the seeds of Pay It Forward were planted.

Intrigued by human nature, Hyde is a keen observer, using much of what she learns in her books. Lately, she’s become involved with horses, and readers will find them in the storylines, often playing large roles.

Kindness is also a recurring theme. “Why aren’t we more kind?” she wonders. “Honesty is a good thing,” she added, “but it makes lousy stories.”

Calling herself a fast writer, Hyde said she hasn’t had a publisher who could keep up with her, until now. Her current contract demands a book every six months. Once she hands in a completed manuscript, it’s another four to five months before it’s ready for publication. While she works on her next one, the previous book goes through the editing and proofreading process. The most difficult part of writing, she says, is having the next idea.

Unlike many of her fellow authors, Hyde doesn’t have a writing routine; she can go for days when she doesn’t write at all. But the next piece is developing, and when it’s clear, she writes—often in the early morning.

“I do most of the work in my head while lying in bed, waiting to go to sleep,” she said. “It’s [miraculously] still in my head when I wake up in the morning.”

Heaven Adjacent, her latest, is about a high-powered Manhattan attorney who makes an impulsive decision to quit her job and move upstate after the death of her best friend. The story follows her journey to discover family. Now that it’s on presale, the next idea is on the way.

So what about those nagging doubts today?

“It seems like life keeps giving you opportunities to give up, but if you keep going, it’ll all be worth it. … and if you don’t have a Plan B, you’ll probably get there.”

For more on Catherine Ryan Hyde, or to get a full list of her books, go to www.catherineryanhyde.com. For more on the Pay It Forward Foundation, go to www.payitforwardfoundation.org.

Heather Young

Heather Young is a freelance writer specializing in travel, wine, food and feel-good stories about people doing good in their communities and world. Find her on Instagram @travelswithheatheryoung