Books

Best-selling Houston author behind Netflix hit talks her newest book

If you were one of the millions who binged tons of comforting movies and TV shows pandemic amid the peak of the COVID-19, you probably stumbled upon the chart-topping romance film, The Lost Husbandthat premiered on Netflix in August of 2020. Amidst the familiar Texas landscape featured in the movie, you might not have noticed Katherine Centerauthor of the book that inspired the movie, buying cheese at a farmer’s market.

The film, which stars Leslie Bibb and Josh Duhamel, became one of Netflix’s top 25 movies for the entire year —and Center got to film a cameo scene on set and meet the dreamy cast in person. Keep your eyes peeled for Center and her work again, as her next book adaptation, Happiness For Beginnersalso directed by Houstonian Vicky Wight, will premiere on Netflix sometime in the near future.

Alongside her Hollywood success, Center’s latest novel — her ninth — hits bookstore shelves this week, and she says it’s a bit different from her previous work. She describes The Bodyguardwhich is set in and around Houston, as bright and cheery — and exactly the world she needed to escape into during the pandemic when she wrote it.

She joins CultureMap to share details of her winding road to bestselling author, how she drew inspiration for her latest novel, and details on where Texans can find her out on tour this month.

The Center File
Katherine Center
Age: 50
Family: Husband, teenage kids, dog
Neighborhood: West University
Favorite place to take out-of-towners: Good Company Taqueria
Writing place: Galveston at her mom’s beach house — “I need total human isolation.”

CultureMap: You’ve been an author for a while now — was this always what you wanted to do?

Catherine Center: I knew that I wanted to be a writer from when I was 12. I got started when I was in sixth grade at St. John’s School. I was very miserable and awkward — as many sixth graders are — and I had two best friends who were also miserable and awkward.

That year, I somehow decided to start writing fanfiction about Duran Duran — this was how we coped with middle school. We each wrote a separate novel, we cast ourselves as the main characters in our novels, and, after suffering through the school week, we would get together on weekends and have sleepovers, put on our PJs, pile into somebody’s bed, and open up our little spiral notebooks to read our novels to each other in installments. I still have mine.

It’s horrible. I mean, if there were like a prize for worst novel ever written, I would definitely have that prize. But as bad as it was, that was the moment when I kind of was doomed to want to be a writer because I got to taste that sort of very sweet nectar of that specific magic that fiction has where it can create hope for you when things are feeling very hopeless. And it can convince you of things that you’re not sure you believe, and it can teach you wise lessons about yourself and humanity.

I’d grown up reading my whole life. My mom has a master’s in library science; my parents are both huge book people, and my uncle actually owned a bookstore in Houston called the Detering Book Gallery when I was growing up. It’s kind of a Houston institution actually. So, we’re a bookish family.

CM: What did you have to do to make that dream into a reality?

KC: I’ve had many periods of deep discouragement — but a lot of early career encouragement. I was encouraged at St. John’s. I went off to Vassar College, and I won the Vassar College fiction prize — it felt like a big deal.

And then I came home one year after college and went straight to grad school at the University of Houston’s creative writing program, which is ranked second in the nation. After I got my master’s, I spent about eight years after that getting rejected and just wildly failing at trying to be a writer. It was really a dark time, and at a certain point, I sort of started thinking I should quit. I routinely would “quit forever” and then like two weeks later I would get another idea for a story and I would just start up again.

Everyone felt really sorry for me — it was like this tragic affliction that I had and could not seem to shut down. I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was 12, and I didn’t publish anything until I was 32.

CM: Fast forward 16 years, your ninth book —The Bodyguard — comes out this week. Tell us a bit about this book and what readers can expect.

KC: It is actually a little bit different from my other books. It’s brighter and cheerier. And that’s partly because it’s the book I was writing kind of in the weirdest creepiest parts of the pandemic — back before there were vaccines when we were all just like, “what is happening.” I was in my house with my husband, my teenagers, and my dog, all of us feeling very stir crazy and apprehensive about the human race and its future.

I had a book to write, and I just decided that I was going to make my own sunshine with that book. I mean that — it’s the book that got me through the pandemic. I would say in general are kind of half tragedy, half comedy — there’s always there’s always a big romantic comedy element to it, but the other half of the book is generally like the main character having to go through something hard.

My first book that ever hit the New York Times Bestseller List was called How To Walk Away, and it was about a woman who was in a plane crash on the day she got engaged. I always always try to look for that balance between darkness and light.

CM: You had this idea for a happier book following a female bodyguard whose assignment is to protect a dreamy actor originally from Houston. Was there a celebrity who inspired Jack Stapleton?

KC: He’s a made-up person, but I’ll take anybody — I’ll take a Hemsworth or whatever you got.

I had met Josh Duhamel on the set of the movie they made of my book, The Last Husband, and that experience had a real gravitational force for me. It’s just not the kind of thing you forget. I have a cameo in the farmer’s market scene, and I got to spend a whole day on the set, and Josh was there and he came over and talked to me like a normal human would do. Like, “oh, you wrote the book so nice to meet you. I’m Josh.” And I just freaked out when I met him.

He was so handsome and so movie-starish. And he was, like, eight feet tall. I’ve seen him in so many movies over the years, and I just forgot how to talk. I just went completely silent. All I could do was just stand there and gape at him like a wide mouth bass. I mean, I could not make any words. It was the weirdest thing. Then in the end I just couldn’t resist writing about that kind of thing.

CM: So you turned that experience into a scene for The Bodyguard. Speaking of embedding your own experience into the book, why did you decide to set the novel in your hometown of Houston?

KC: Parts of The Bodyguard are like very high fantasy. Obviously the movie star component is a pretty high fantasy. The woman bodyguard — I mean, it’s a real job, but it’s not the most common job in the world. Those elements are stretching it a little bit. And whenever you’re doing that, you want to counter it with as much authenticity as you can.

When I write stories for them to feel utterly three dimensional and real — like they’re just really happening around you. And the way to do that is to use every authentic, true detail.

If I were a different writer, the ranch component and the setting might also be high fantasy, but for me it is real. The Stapleton’s ranch in the book is my grandparent’s ranch on the Brazos River. I grew up there. It’s where I spent some of the happiest days of my childhood. I went down there all the time as a kid and had lots of birthday parties down there. It was a great source of comfort for me at a very weird time in human history when I really needed comfort.

Generally, I don’t try to set them in Houston, but that’s obviously a pretty easy default setting.

CM: You mentioned your cameo in The Lost Husband, which is also set in Texas and directed by Houstonian Vicky Wight. What was it like getting to see your book turned into one of Netflix’s top movies of 2020?

KC: The movie was filmed in Texas, and it was all set to come out in April of 2020 — a theatrical release all around the country. Of course, April of 2020 was right when they shut down all the movie theaters for the pandemic. So that was kind of heartbreaking. There was gonna be a premier, we were gonna go to LA, and it was going to be by far the most glamorous thing that had ever happened to me. And all that just got shut down.

And so I just remember feeling sort of bummed out about it for myself, but also for all the people who had worked so hard on the movie. It did get released, but it was online and it was all very quiet at first. But, I think because of the pandemic, everybody was kind of trapped in their houses, and since it’s a very comforting movie, it just kind of became this word-of-mouth thing that people started telling their friends to go watch it.

It wasn’t even on Netflix at the start, then they put it on in August of 2020 and when it hit, it just went right up to the top and that was an amazing thing to witness.

CM: Next up, you and Wight are working on bringing your novel, Happiness for Beginners, to Netflix with another star-studded cast. Did the success of the last movie bring this next project about?

KC: I don’t know exactly how everything works in the movie business, but for sure, The Lost Husband did really well, and Vicky turned around like a year later and was like, “did you ever wanna work together again?” I was like, “yes, I would.” So, instead of making an independent movie and going that route this time, Vicky was able to go to Netflix and be like, “Hey, let’s make a movie.” And they were like, “yeah, we know you.”

Happiness For Beginners, which is a book I wrote in 2015, is already filmed. It stars Ellie Kemper and Luke Grimes from Yellowstone, as well as Nico Santos and Blythe Danner, who I was really excited about because I just love her. She’s amazing.

And so I actually got to do a little cameo in that movie as well. I get to be a wedding guest at the wedding of my own main character.

CM: You had another book, What You Wish For, which is set in Galveston, come out in 2020, so unfortunately you didn’t get to go on a tour to promote it. Now, you get to hit the road again to promote The Bodyguard. Are you excited about in-person events coming back and where can Texans find you?

KC: This is my first book tour since 2019. I’m kind of a hybrid between an introvert and an extrovert — I’m perfectly happy to stay home in my fuzzy slippers and my robe and just goof around in the house. But I’m also utterly delighted to get to go out and see people talk about books and get hugs — the whole thing. I’m so excited about this book tour — I feel like a dog, like getting ready to go on a walk.

The first week of the book tour is Texas. It’s not all the big cities in Texas, but it’s a lot of them — two Houston launches and then San Antonio, Austin, Georgetown, Texas, and Fort Worth, which is already sold out. Tuesday, July 19, I’m doing a launch event with Blue Willow Bookshop at the Outreach Center of West Houston, and then the next day — Wednesday, July 20 — I’ll be at Brazos Bookstore. The second week of the tour is all around the country. I have information on my full tour, which includes some virtual appearances, on my website.

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