Katherine Center, HELLO STRANGER

Katherine Center, HELLO STRANGER

Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author Katherine Center to discuss Hello Stranger, a hopelessly romantic and irresistibly fun story about a talented portrait artist who gets a neurological condition called face blindness just as she is getting a big career break (and falling in love with two men at once!). Katherine talks about her path to writing, her fascinating research on prosopagnosia, and the themes she loved exploring in this novel: resilience, loss, and love. She also explains why all her books are half struggle and half love story (laugh-and-cry books!) and recaps her previous titles (two of which have movie adaptations!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katherine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Hello Stranger.

Katherine Center: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Are these literally the flowers from the bottom of the book on the wall behind you? Is it just a coincidence?

Katherine: Flowers have become quite a theme in my life since my books started to have flowers on them in about 2018. Now we always put flowers of the book somewhere, sometimes possibly even just the spine. The background that you’re seeing actually started when — yes, there it is — when the pandemic happened. I had a book that was supposed to come out in the summer of 2020, like a lot of people. Everything got cancelled. We switched everything to Zoom. I just thought, I’m going to make something festive. I made this. It’s those little trifold boards that your kids make science experiment display projects on. It’s from the drugstore. I painted it on the dining room table just to make it fun. I thought it would just be for the book tour, but then I liked it so much that I kept it. I just do it now for all book things.

Zibby: I think you should turn that into a wallpaper because I would totally smack that on here. I need to get some wallpaper in here.

Katherine: The best thing about it, actually, is that it hides whatever crazy mess is happening on the other side of that little screen. There’s kid stuff everywhere. It’s totally fine. Although, my kids are older now, so they’re better at keeping their stuff in their rooms.

Zibby: How old are your kids?

Katherine: I have a seventeen-year-old son and a twenty-year-old daughter who’s in college. Crazy. They used to be a lot smaller.

Zibby: I would think. I would hope. You never know. Hello Stranger, tell listeners what it’s about. Then how did you come up with this idea?

Katherine: It’s a story about a portrait artist who gets a neurological condition called face blindness just as she is getting the big career break of her life. She has to paint the best portrait she’s ever painted, ever. Then just as that happens, as you can imagine, chaos ensues for her, emotional chaos and physical chaos. Everything is bonkers and upside down. In the wake of that, she winds up having to figure out what matters, what art is, what life is, how to really see people. Somewhere in all of that, she actually winds up falling in love with two different men at the exact same time and having to figure out this love triangle. There’s a lot going on. It’s not a slow story. There’s a lot going on. How did I get the idea? Years and years ago, I was listening to This American Life. They had a Valentine’s Day podcast where they were doing all these different little love stories. One of them was about a woman who dated a guy who had face blindness, but she didn’t know that he had face blindness when it started. Part of what attracted her to him was that she loved the way that he looked at her. He looked at her like he’d kind of never seen her before. He was always really looking at her face. Something about that stuck in my head. That particular love story did not end well, but this love story does end well. It stuck in my head. I found myself circling back to it over the years. There’s a really swoony love story in there somewhere. Then last year, I just decided I was going to write it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Then you just cranked it out?

Katherine: Well, yeah. I did a ton of research. For me, that’s always where the stories come from. You have a vague idea of what you think it’s going to be. Then you do all your research. That’s when the story comes into focus. What would really happen if this happened? I really, really took a very deep dive into prosopagnosia, which is the medical term, and interviewed people and read books and listened to podcasts and just did everything I could possibly come up with to really get inside what it would be like to have this happen. That’s where the story came from.

Zibby: One thing that I really loved about the book is your voice. Your voice is so good, so funny. The narrator, you feel like you are this person. The way she even thinks about her stepmom and her stepsister, who shows up on FaceTime while she’s in the hospital, you have a fabulous writing voice. I love it. I really love your voice. That’s something nobody can ever replicate. It’s just always going to be great. I also loved confronting after the loss of your mom. She lost her mom. That is something many people, sadly, have shared an experience. What happens with the relationships with those who remain? How do you come to terms with that? Also, her need to get her dad’s attention and prove something, which I also think so many of us are trying to do, myself perhaps included there, tell me a little bit about that dynamic.

Katherine: I really, really love stories about people who get knocked down by life and have to figure out a way to get back up. I’m not very good at that personally. I’m one dirty look in the grocery store away from just curling up in the fetal position and lying on the floor for three days. I’m very tender-hearted. I don’t bounce back quickly, but I want to be a person who’s good at bouncing back. I’m so interested in resilience. I constantly find myself writing stories about people who have to face something genuinely hard, genuinely overwhelming. Then in the course of going through whatever that thing is, they come out better on the other side, wiser, more compassionate, funnier, whatever it is. They learn some important thing. For Sadie in this book, her life went off the rails when her mom died unexpectedly. I always try to write stories about the most important moment in somebody’s life, the most important series of events. In this moment, this terrible thing happens to her, but it winds up being an opportunity to sort of circle back and correct a lot of lessons that she took from that moment when her life went off the rails back when she was a kid and reevaluate them and rethink them. I’m a huge fan of love stories. There’s always a love story in anything that I write. It’s partly because I think they’re incredibly nourishing and incredibly healing. I love the way that love can inspire you to be emotionally courageous and to deal with your stuff. This hard thing happens to her. She has to muddle through it, but she also finds this swoony love situation that also kind of inspires her to be braver about figuring out her life and who she is and what she cares about and what really matters. That’s where it all started from. I wanted her to have to reevaluate a lot of the assumptions she had made about how life works and who she has to be. This story’s a chance to do that. She doesn’t fumble it. She does great.

Zibby: I’m the same way, by the way. That’s why I love memoir so much. I like memoirs about somebody getting through something. It could be an addiction. It could be falling off a mountain. It could be something tiny. Like you, I gloom onto stories like that. The way you said it, I was like, oh, maybe it is because I’m so sensitive and I’m not good at that. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to these stories. Thank you. This has clarified my reading habits.

Katherine: Something you said a minute ago that I thought was really important, which is that — the way that I write the stories is in the first person. It’s always like your best friend is talking to you at three in the morning over a glass of wine or two and just being really honest about her life. Inside of that, I try to construct the story so that you don’t just feel like you’re going through whatever the thing is that she’s going through in the story with her. I want you to sort of step inside her skin and go through it as her. As she’s struggling, you’re doing the same thing. You’re going through it too. You’re feeling her feelings. You’re longing for her longings. When she falls in love, you do too. I think that stories have this incredibly powerful ability to teach us things that we need to learn. If you can go through a kind of virtual hard thing with somebody else — it’s not a real thing that you’ve gone through, but you’re stepping into their experience and going through it. Experience is where wisdom comes from. You’re not going to get wisdom the way you multiply multiplication tables. It’s not something you get from a textbook. Wisdom is something you have to pull out of real-life experience. Stories are kind of the next best thing to real-life experience.

Getting lost in a story that feels very three-dimensional and very real and that is emotionally resonate to you, the benefit from doing that means that on the other side, you get to pull all these bits of wisdom out the way you would from your own real-life experience. I’m always trying to make stories that are inspiring but also that allow us to have a little wisdom. I do a hard thing on one side. They have to go through something hard. My first book to ever hit The New York Times list was about a woman who was in a plane crash on the day she gets engaged. She gets a spinal cord injury. She spends most of the story in the hospital doing rehab. Every time I tell anybody about it, they’re like, that sounds really depressing. I’m like, no, but it’s funny because the other side of the story is always banter, comedy, hopefulness, love story. I always have half struggle and half love story. The love story part, for me, is the healing and the hope. The hard thing is the struggle. That’s where the wisdom comes from. You’ve got to figure out who you are and what really matters. The love story is the fun part. The love story creates this sense of anticipation that there is something good up ahead to move towards. I always try to have a balance between both of those two things.

Zibby: I’m embarrassed to say this is my first book of yours. Now I have to go back and read the rest. I don’t even know how this has happened, frankly. Where have I been? Under a rock. The way you write, I love reading books like this. This is my sweet spot. Where have you been all my life? Take us through because now I selfishly want to know about every other book you’ve written. I know there have been many. Was The Bright Side of Disaster what you were just talking about? Was that the first one?

Katherine: That was my first-ever book. It was a million years ago. It came out in 2007. I’ve been around a long time. I’ve been a very slow burn, my career has been. I was not one of those people who was an overnight success. I very, very slowly found the people who like the thing that I do, who want stories to be kind of laugh and cry, heartbreaking and heartrending and also very funny and swoony and cheerful. This is my tenth book, actually. My first one to hit The New York Times list was called How to Walk Away.

Zibby: They’re important even if they didn’t hit the list. I’m going to go through my list from the book. The Bright Side of Disaster, one sentence. What are all these books about? When did you write them?

Katherine: It’s about a woman who’s pregnant. Her partner leaves her. Her man leaves her the night before she goes into labor. She has to redefine love and what it all means and do it all on her own. I had just had a baby, so it’s highly autobiographical. I just liberally borrowed from my own life. Then I wrote a book called Everyone is Beautiful.

Zibby: Wait, did you get left when you had your baby?

Katherine: No, no, no. I didn’t. Thank god, no. I have a very helpful husband who is still around. Though, I did get lots of notes from people when that book first came out that were, sweetheart, I’ll babysit for you if you need. Then I wrote a book called Everyone is Beautiful, which is about a bedraggled mom, three boys under the age of three, who moves away from home and is alone. It’s very comical. It’s a lot about mom life. I was, as you can imagine, in the thick of mom life at that moment with little tiny kids. Then I wrote a book called Get Lucky about a woman who offers to be a surrogate for her sister. That winds up being unexpectedly complicated, but lots of opportunities for growth. Then I wrote a book called — oh, god.

Zibby: The Lost Husband.

Katherine: The Lost Husband, which became a movie in 2020, actually. It stars Josh Duhamel.

Zibby: I always thought it was pronounced Du-ha-mel. It’s not, is it? Okay, now I know. That’s the first time I’ve heard it said it out loud.

Katherine: I did some research early on because this is a name I’ve said a lot since 2020.

Zibby: I trust you.

Katherine: I think I’m right. I could be wrong. We’ll check with him.

Zibby: I’m totally trusting you. I just realized I’ve been wrong this whole time. Not that I say it so often. How often do I say it in my mind? Anyway, The Lost Husband, Josh Duhamel.

Katherine: I got to go to the set for that movie. I got to be an extra. I got to purchase goat cheese at a farmers’ market for my own main character, which was totally trippy and fun. I got to meet Josh Duhamel, which was bonkers because he is so handsome that I forgot how to speak. I lost all my words. Every time I tell the story, I’m like, “I’d never seen a man that handsome before.” My husband across the room is like, “Uh, hello, except for me.” He sparkled. The handsomeness just rose off of him like steam. He’s asking me these easy questions. He was not asking me to do calculus. It was just like, “Are you from Texas?” I know the answer to that question. Yes, I am. I couldn’t make any words. The whole quadrant of my brain, it just shut right down. That was nutty. That movie actually wound up hitting number one on Netflix during the pandemic because everybody was trapped in their house. Here was this comforting little movie from Texas about people who have to get back up after life had knocked them down. People just started watching it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. The movie is also called The Lost Husband?

Katherine: It is also called The Lost Husband.

Zibby: Where have I been? Katherine, I’ve been under a rock.

Katherine: Let me also say that movie has one of the greatest kisses in movie history. There should be an Oscar for best kiss, and this movie should win it every year for eternity because it is really fantastic.

Zibby: I’m going to watch it tonight.

Katherine: Do it. Do it. Do it. You’ll have so much fun.

Zibby: Okay, Happiness for Beginners.

Katherine: Going through the list. Then Happiness for Beginners is also about to become a movie on July 27th on Netflix. Because The Lost Husband did so well, the same director/writer, Vicky Wight, came back and did it again. This movie stars Ellie Kemper, from The Office and and all kinds of great stuff, and Luke Grimes, who’s on Yellowstone. He’s very swoony. Blythe Danner is in it. I was very excited to meet her. I got to be an extra in that movie too even though they were filming during COVID. I got to spend the whole day pretending to drink champagne at a wedding with Blythe Danner, which was pretty great, pretty bucket-list level stuff. That movie, I love. I’m so proud of it. I’m doing a buddy read of it right now. I’m rereading it right now for the first time in anticipation of the movie and doing a buddy read on Instagram.

Zibby: What’s a buddy read? What does that mean?

Katherine: A buddy read is when you all read a book together. You use the same hashtag. You post about it. It’s on Instagram, so it’s all virtual. You’re kind of doing it at the same time as buddies. It’s my first one ever. I’m rereading this book that came out in 2015. I’m annotating it because I’m going to give away this annotated thing at the end. I’m reading along. I’m like, this is good. I love this book. I’m trying to go through the list.

Zibby: Then you have How to Walk Away.

Katherine: How to Walk Away, which is about a woman who’s in a plane crash on the day she gets engaged. She winds up getting injured and has to go through all that. There’s a swoony love story in all of them. That’s just a given. I’m not mentioning the love stories, but they’re in there. Then the next book was a book called Things You Save in a Fire, which is about a woman firefighter. She is the woman firefighter who pulled the main character of How to Walk Away out of the plane crash, so they’re .

Zibby: I love that.

Katherine: My husband is a volunteer firefighter. I really did a ton of research for that book because I knew it was a whole culture. I wanted to get the culture right. I’ve heard from a lot of folks in that world that it’s accurate, so that’s good. That was a big “phew” for me. What’s next?

Zibby: Next you have What You Wish For.

Katherine: What You Wish For, which came out during the pandemic. That is the book that spawned this lovely background. It’s about a teacher who gets a terrible principal at her school who’s ruining everything, and then she falls in love with him. I am from a family of teachers. My husband’s a teacher. My sister’s a teacher. I felt like I was going to represent that world pretty well. She’s actually a school librarian, but it takes place at a school. Last summer was The Bodyguard. The Bodyguard was my pandemic book. I wrote it in the midst of all of the craziness of the pandemic when I was pretty sure we were all going to die. I don’t know what you were thinking during the pandemic, but I was like, we’re doomed. There’s no way this is going to end well. Then at the same time, I had this book to write. I was faced with the end of human civilization. I think I will write the sweetest, swoony-ist, most charming, most romantic love story in the history of time.

Here’s the logline for that book. It is, a woman bodyguard has to protect a famous actor by pretending to be his girlfriend on a Texas ranch. That’s the story. It’s very fun and high concept, but it’s also actually really grounded in a lot of very authentic things because I am from Texas. We have a ranch. It’s my grandparents’ working cattle ranch. They’ve both passed away, but my mom still runs it. We spend every Thanksgiving down there. I grew up going down there. When I was trapped in the house during the pandemic and feeling freaked out and in desperate need of comfort, I just mentally went down to the ranch and wandered around and went to the Brazos River and had all kinds of fun with these very sweet, cute characters. That was my last book. Now it’s Hello Strangers. I’ve just turned in my next book for next summer, 2024, which is actually a connected story to The Bodyguard. The Bodyguard’s actor, Jack Stapleton, who’s a famous actor, he got famous in a movie called The Destroyers. The book I just wrote is about the screenwriter of The Destroyers. It’s a little connected story.

Zibby: I love all of this so much.

Katherine: That was a mouthful. That was a lot of books to go through.

Zibby: I literally don’t think I’ve ever done that before, asked someone to just describe every book. Thank you. Well done.

Katherine: I hope it was not boring because it was .

Zibby: No, I’m totally fascinated. When you describe yourself — I know there’s compulsion in the publishing industry to sort of pigeonhole everybody, rom-com, women’s fiction, blah, blah, blah. Where do you call yourself? I feel like this is not rom-com territory. Where do you see yourself?

Katherine: It’s a good question. I think maybe part of the reason it’s been such a slow burn is because I don’t fit into an easy category. All my training early on was very literary. I have a master’s in creative writing. I went to Vassar and did creative writing there. It’s been this journey in a much more romance-y direction over time, which has been very joyful and very satisfying. I would say that I write a hybrid of women’s fiction and romance. I really, really love romance. It is my favorite thing to read. Given a free Saturday and a bubble bath, I will read a romance novel.

Zibby: A traditional romance or a modern rom-com or a Fabio romance?

Katherine: I’m so glad you’re asking. Actually, my favorite kind of romance novels are historical, sort of Fabio romances. I think it’s partly because they’re different from what I do. I can relax a little bit. I can turn off that editor in my brain. When I read contemporary rom-coms, it’s close enough to what I do that I’m constantly like, was that the best choice? I don’t want to have to do that if I’m really trying to relax. Historical romances are just a different category, but they still give you that swoony rising sense of anticipating and longing that is so much fun and so addictive. They are Fabio romances. I have really struggled with that emotionally. Actually, I will tell you — some people love the covers. They lean in. They go for the camp. They’re like, it’s fine. I have never been able to warm to the covers. I put duct tape over them because it’s just so humiliating. I have children. They’re like, what’s going on with you? I’m like, I don’t know. I love them, though.

Zibby: Duct tape? Literal duct tape, the gray —

Katherine: — Yeah.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Katherine: Well, brightly colored.

Zibby: Brightly colored duct tape.

Katherine: They make all kinds of fun duct tape in the world. That’s my favorite thing to read. Actually, at the end of Hello Stranger in the way back, there’s a little essay. It’s kind of a defense of romance novels because I think there is something uniquely nourishing about romance novels. I think they’re judged by the wrong standards. We roll our eyes at them. We call them predictable. First, we call them unrealistic, and then we turn on another zombie apocalypse movie. Then secondly, we call them predictable. The point is, with a romance novel, nobody’s trying to surprise you. You know where it’s going. The story question is not, will they get together? They will. They will get together. It’s a romance novel. The story question is, how will they get there? What romance novels do, because of that guaranteed happy ending, is they give you this joyful sense of anticipation, this positively valanced sense of anticipation. You’re moving towards something better. That’s a guarantee of the genre. Nobody’s going to get hit by a bus on the last page. It’s going to be okay. They can go through all kinds of struggles and all kinds of hardships. It’s never totally going to destroy us because we know they’re going to figure it out. In the back of your mind, you know.

It allows you to access this feeling of bliss that you can’t get in a different kind of novel because in a different kind of novel, you don’t know. It’s uncertain. There’s an uncertainty there. With romance novels, there’s a safety that you get. You’re like, oh, okay. I’m okay. It’s all going to be okay. I very badly need a sense of safety. I’m a total worrier. It’s very easy for me to go to, we’re all going to die. That’s always my starting place, is death. Then I work my way back. I love that feeling of safety. I love that feeling of positively valanced, moving-towards-something-better bliss. It’s so fun for me. For me, that’s what I love to do. I’m going back to your original question because I veered off for a little while. I always, always have half the book be not just a romance — I’m not just throwing it in there so I can say I did it. I love romance actively. I admire it. I study it. I always try to figure out how it works. I am trying very hard in my books to make you swoon and to make you long for these two people to get together in this really visceral, super satisfying, delicious way. If I can, I’m going to make you long for it, and then I’m going to give it to you at the end, always, always. I’m never going to give somebody surprise cancer and kill them at the end. That’s never going to happen. It’s a Katherine Center guarantee.

I also love to see people struggle and have to figure out what that struggle means in their life. The other half is always getting through something hard, coming to the wisdom that you only get when you’ve earned it by going through that stuff. It’s half and half. It’s women’s fiction, personal growth on the one side and then super swoony, delicious and very PG-13 romance on the other side. It has to be PG-13 because my husband is a middle school teacher, and all of his kids read my books. They get their parents to give them to them for Christmas. They want to see what Mr. Center’s wife is up to. It feels like a lot of pressure. Last year when The Bodyguard came out, there were a lot of romance readers who found me for the first time. A lot of them were expecting that there would be spice in the story. There were many who were disappointed that they did not get quite as much. We will always get very 3D, hopefully very visceral and delicious kisses, but we’re not going to all go to bed together. Because of the middle-schoolers, that’s kind of a limitation in my life, but it means these are books you can give to your grandma.

Zibby: You have to write an essay called “Mr. Center’s Wife.” That’s awesome. You have to write a story or an essay. That just sounded so great. We have to collectively come up with a new name for this category of book. Some of my favorite books are this way. It’s hard to explain. It should be easy to explain because there’s a huge audience. Just a little variation on the name or something.

Katherine: What I’ve been calling them — I don’t know that this is the answer to this because it may not be catchy enough. For years now, I’ve been calling them bittersweet comedies or bittersweet romantic comedies because they’re both very joyful and very bittersweet.

Zibby: Bittersweet comedies.

Katherine: There was a phrase that came out a few years ago where they were calling it up lit, which is .

Zibby: No, I don’t like up lit.

Katherine: Anything with lit in it, I never really jump in too hard on that. We’ll come up with something. If you don’t mind being in charge of that, just let me know.

Zibby: Could we just call them happy/sad or something?

Katherine: My editor definitely calls them laugh-and-cry books, which I think captures it because I am definitely aiming to make you laugh out loud in the middle of the night and also would love to make you cry a little bit, but we’re going to be okay in the end.

Zibby: Maybe there should just be a section. I’m going to add a shelf in my store, then, for laugh and cry. I have books that make you laugh, and I have books that make you cry, but I don’t have books that make you laugh and cry, which is a subset. Why don’t we test it out at the store? You can come do an event. I have a store in Santa Monia in California.

Katherine: I know. It’s adorable. I follow you guys on Instagram.

Zibby: You have to come. You don’t still in Texas, or you do? Where do you live?

Katherine: I do. I do live in Texas. I’m from here.

Zibby: You do still live in Texas. We’re having a retreat in Austin next year. Do you live near Austin? Close enough?

Katherine: I live close enough. I’m in Houston. It’s three hours away.

Zibby: You should come.

Katherine: I would love to come.

Zibby: We’re recruiting authors. I’m excited. I have to send you two books after this, knowing what you love. One is The Last Love Note, which we’re publishing, by Emma Grey, laugh-and-cry book. You’re going to love it. Just for fun. Then I’m going to send my college friend Danielle’s book because it is a historical romance called The Last Season, swoon worthy, a stable boy named Crispin. You’re going to love it.

Katherine: Sold.

Zibby: I’ll send it to you with colored duct tape if I remember. If I don’t, this is what I want to do. You will like them both. There you go.

Katherine: Thank you. I will like them both. I already like them. I’m in.

Zibby: Amazing. I am going to go deep dive into your backlist when I have a minute because I am really excited. I’m sorry that I haven’t discovered you sooner. I’m just so delighted to be in touch with you.

Katherine: Thank you. I’m so glad that you found me now. I’m very grateful that you let me come on. I had so much fun talking to you. What a treat.

Zibby: You too. Thank you for taking me through your entire career in half an hour. Hope you enjoy your next bath.

Katherine: Thank you. I definitely will. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

HELLO STRANGER by Katherine Center

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