Fiction, that timeless genre weaving its spell through centuries, continues to dominate our collective imagination. In 2021, fiction made up 53.4% of US tradebook revenue, and in 2022, it remained strong at around 52.9% of US printbook sales. In the age of data and analytics, how does this tradition of exploring uncharted realms maintain dominance in the modern era?
Its roots trace back to ancient myths and legends, with early narratives touching on themes of survival, power, family, heroism, and romantic love. While modern novels have since evolved, the core themes remain remarkably consistent. To understand why fiction thrives, we must look to the writers who continue to craft captivating stories that resonate with our timeless human experiences.
Enter Katherine Center, a Texan author celebrated for her unique fusion of women’s fiction and love stories, which she affectionately dubs “Rom-Coms with depth.” Her novels seamlessly weave romantic comedy plots with layers of poetry and profound reflections on life.
Center’s literary journey commenced in 2006 with her debut book, The Bright Side of Disaster, catapulting her into the literary spotlight. Her sixth novel, How to Walk Away, achieved New York Times bestseller status and received accolades from prestigious book clubs. The momentum continued with Things You Save in a Fire in 2019 and The Bodyguard in 2022, both claiming their well-deserved spots on bestseller lists.
But let us momentarily set aside the glamour of her illustrious writing career and explore a more modest chapter she is eager to share with aspiring writers. In the sixth grade, long before her name adorned bestseller lists and book covers, Center, alongside her two closest friends, passionately crafted self-insert Fanfiction. Their muses? None other than the 1980s boy band sensation Duran Duran. Yes, you read that correctly. From these unassuming beginnings, an ardent “obsession” was born, one that Center humorously believes might have “doomed” her to become a writer.
“I was very awkward. Very dorky, very miserable,” Center recalls. “I had terrible fashion sense. I had a horrible haircut with a mullet. I had braces top and bottom and crisscross rubber bands. I mean, every bad thing that a girl that age can have, I had them all. That was a rough year for many reasons. But what kind of rescued me and saved me was that I had two best friends who were also awkward and miserable. And we decided to write novels about meeting the band members. And that’s how we got through sixth grade—a little notebook. You know, it’s terrible. I still have it. Sometimes I’ll get stalled quick and go up in the attic and be like, I’m just gonna read, you know, a little bit like, oh, and then it’s my reaction to how bad it is. It’s physiological. It’s like cutting onions or something like that. But even though it was really bad, it was also genius because we rescued ourselves with those stories. It was my first taste of the power and magic of fiction.”
So, starting your exciting novel journey often begins by putting yourself in the story. But what’s the next step? Center’s advice, become a collector.
“I’ve memorized song lyrics. I read poems constantly. I had a little journal where I copied poems. I was obsessed with words and language and their rhythm and the syllables,” Center explains. “Even in third grade, I mean way back, I remember my teacher telling us that if you used a new word three times in conversation, it was yours. It belonged to you. And I so love that idea of acquiring words. That became a whole thing for me, this sort of weird possessiveness about words and wanting to fill up this kind of library in my head of words I hadn’t known before.”
Center’s approach transcends mere word collection; it involves embracing the untapped narratives within the world. Amid everyday interactions, moments hold the potential to be spun into literary gold. The key is to identify those instances that resonate personally. For Center, this process entails skillfully selecting the most magnetic details, situations, and ideas that resonate with her experiences. Her fascination with resilience, in particular, informs her storytelling approach.
“I’m constantly writing about resilience,” she says. “Stories are a powerful and efficient way of teaching ourselves things we need to learn. Consciously or unconsciously, I go over and over with characters and have them struggle with things that I am struggling with in some way or another. In my book Things You Save in a Fire, the main character has to figure out how forgiveness works. She has been legitimately wronged by some important people, compelling her to confront her anger and assumptions and rethink everything. When I was writing that book, there was a moment where she needed to have insights about how forgiveness works. It’s a good thing; you’re supposed to forgive people. But how do you do that if you need to? So, I wound up doing a deep research dive into the psychology of forgiveness and atonement and how we move past the wrongs that we’ve done and that have been done to us. Writing that story about her changed my relationship with forgiveness, and I’ve heard from many readers that it also changed theirs. It’s like a cheat code. That’s what fiction can do for you.”
We learn from others, and Center suggests that the core of a captivating story resides in its characters. She compares storytelling to crafting a collage, assembling moments around these characters who face intense situations and grapple with profound lessons.
“I start with a character I know on some level, like a main character who has some lesson she needs to learn or some assumption she’s accepted in her life that she needs to rethink,” Center explains. “For example, if she doesn’t want to wear a bathing suit, everything in this story will force her into a swimming pool or an ocean. And that’s where the tension comes from, forcing these characters to do the things they don’t want to or are afraid to do.”
Exploring the historical roots of fiction’s enduring appeal, we find a significant role played by romance. Eleanor of Aquitaine, a queen who left her mark on English literature, introduced the culture of troubadours and their tales of love. This influence arguably laid the foundation for contemporary English Fiction, which has grown into a billion-dollar industry today. While Center’s novels may not fit neatly into the ‘pure’ romance category, she embraces the genre’s deep connection with readers.
“Half women’s fiction, half love story, is how I think of myself. Left to my own devices, that’s what I will read,” Center said. “In a love story, you get a happy ending, and that feeling of hope nourishes me in my life. But I get categorized as romance, and that’s fine; I love romance. I have a lot of respect for that genre. The thing that grates on me is the notion that love stories are cotton candy and don’t matter. What on earth could be more important than the people you choose to build your life with? Creating a life with somebody is one of the biggest decisions you’ll ever make. If we took it more seriously, we would be better at love as a culture.”
For aspiring writers venturing into the boundless realm of imagination, where moments and memories converge, and the pursuit of knowledge and self-expression reign, Center’s guidance should not be overlooked:
“The only compass you can follow as a writer is to figure out what you love in stories,” Center said. “What kind of story would you want to read on a free Saturday with a fuzzy blanket and hot tea? Everyone’s preferences are different, but all you can do is figure out yours and follow it to the best of your ability, hoping others want to go on that journey with you.”
In her most recent offering, “Hello Stranger,” Center explores themes of hope, romance, and self-discovery, aligning with the genre’s enduring quest to delve into the nuances of individuality and society’s ever-evolving dynamics. For those eager to dive into Center’s captivating tales, two of her novels, “Happiness for Beginners” and “The Lost Husband,” have made their cinematic debut and are now available for streaming on popular platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.