Katherine Center's New Novel Explores the Courage to Love

Posted by Marie on August 1, 2019
Katherine Center's books often balance heavy subject matter with wholeheartedness. "It's easy to depress people with stories," she says. "It's much harder to write stories that are genuinely hopeful. But that's what I'm trying to do for readers—savor the good things, even among the hard ones."

In her latest novel, Things You Save in a Fire, Center introduces us to tough-as-nails firefighter Cassie Hanwell. It was actually Center's editor, Jen Enderlin, who helped spark the idea. "Cassie is a very minor character in my previous book, How to Walk Away," she says. "After Jen read the book, she said, 'I want to know more about her.' "

Center was a little skeptical about whether she could relate to her main character, but she eventually relented on the advice of her husband (who has been a volunteer firefighter for 20 years). "He said, 'What if she just really loved her job? What if you focus not so much on the firefighting but on the 'loving what you do?' And that was my way in," she says. "Because I know what that's like. That's writing for me."

Goodreads spoke to Center via email to learn more about Cassie's passion for her high-stakes calling, how she uses it to keep herself from opening up to others, and how a certain "rookie" manages to capture her heart against all odds.

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Goodreads: Tell us how you brought Cassie Hanwell to life.

Katherine Center: I used a lot of pieces of my husband's personality to create Cassie's character. She has this quality where she gets calm while everybody else is panicking, and that's 100 percent my husband.

He's been a paramedic since before I knew him, and I've never stopped marveling at how calm he is in a crisis. A person's bone could be sticking out through the skin and he'd be like, "Let's get ya fixed up." Totally cool. Totally relaxed.

I mixed in some of me, too—her wry sense of humor, her inability to walk in high heels—and then she kind of became her own person from there.

GR: How did you go about your research?

KC: I visited several Houston firehouses and took notes as fast as I could while the guys joked and told me everything they could about what it's really like in a firehouse. The thing that surprised me the most was that the people they often rescue aren't exactly awash with gratitude.

I think broadly, as a culture, we think of firefighters as heroes. But I'm not sure that translates into their day-to-day experiences. I also read memoirs, watched documentaries, and of course interviewed my husband—a lot. He took me to the Southside Fire Station where he volunteers and gave me a tour. He even let me lift some of the equipment (which was astonishingly heavy).

I asked him to tell me all his stories again. I'd circle back and ask him all kinds of questions about the moment. He was very obliging! And it was fun to really dig in with him like that. We don't often have reasons to put ourselves in our loved ones' shoes at that level. There was a real intimacy to it.

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GR: Cassie seems like she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. Why did she choose a career as a firefighter?

KC: I think it kind of chose her. She was on her way to med school, thinking she'd be an ER doc. Then she got a campus job working as an EMT and discovered that not only did she love it, but that she had that calm-in-the-storm quality that made her so competent in any crisis she had to navigate.

Firefighting was a good fit for her. It's also possible that the intensity of that job is a good distraction. She doesn't like to be alone with her thoughts. She has some things she's avoiding. Working a job with life-or-death stakes every day helps keep her focused and moving forward.

GR: Cassie's mentor gives her some interesting advice regarding her eventual transfer to Boston. What prompted this?

KC: Before Cassie leaves her station in Texas to move to a small city outside Boston, she's a superstar. She's a golden child who has, in a lot of ways, had it easy. She's lucky enough to be in a place and time where her effort and skills were recognized and nurtured. But her captain—a lady who is African American and one of the first women firefighters ever to join Austin Fire Department—knew exactly how lucky Cassie had been.

She knew from talking to the captain at Cassie's new station that they'd never had "a lady" working there before and that they did not want one. So she knew Cassie was about to face a hostile work environment like she'd never experienced. She lays out exactly how hard it's going to be and hopes that Cassie will rise to the challenge.

GR: Her new squad isn't what she expected. Even "the rookie" surprises her (and yes, dear readers, you'll have to pick up the book to find out his actual name). Can you talk about how they challenge her and what she learns from them?

KC: The firefighters at her new station can't see her clearly. They see her as a woman first and a firefighter second, no matter how hard she tries to change that. Or, at least, that's how it starts.

But she doesn't exactly see them clearly, either. They are both blinded by who they think they're dealing with. As Cassie fights for her place, she has to define not just what she wants and why she wants it, but also who she is and what she cares about.

And yes, the rookie, especially, is like no firefighter she's ever met. He bakes cookies, adopts puppies, and faints at the sight of blood. She has to learn to see everyone better—even herself.

GR: Cassie has a very hard time opening up to others. How did you handle writing her emotional scenes?

KC: I knew from the beginning that part of what Cassie needed to do in her life was learn to let in tenderness, so I was excited to watch that happen. She is, of course, a machine at her job—very physically courageous—and I knew that she needed to become more emotionally courageous.

I looked forward to the transformation, to putting challenges and people in her path that would help her see the world differently and start to value new things.

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GR: Cassie's mother is one of the major catalysts of that transformation. What did you ultimately want to capture in their relationship?

KC: I really wanted to write about forgiveness. I really wanted to take some time to explore how it works and to see it in action. I'm not always great at forgiveness myself, and I often feel like I write books with characters who are struggling with learning things about life that I also need to learn.

Cassie's mother really did abandon her, and Cassie has been punishing her mom (and herself) for ten years by maintaining a cold distance, even despite her mother's attempts to reconnect. When Cassie is finally forced to spend time with her mother again, out of duty, it's a hardship for her. But it's also an opportunity. It pushes her toward softening. It helps her change how she sees the world.

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GR: The rookie seems to be Cassie's foil in many ways. Was that intentional?

KC: When I first imagined him, I thought about making him a "perfect" firefighter in every way, so that she'd have to go toe-to-toe with an unbeatable "enemy" as she fought for her job. But the more I got to know him, the sweeter and goofier he turned out to be.

A not-very-good rookie is a lot more interesting than a perfect rookie. So just story-wise, making him not great at firefighting was the more interesting choice. But it also hit me that Cassie didn't need another tough guy in her life.

She needed somebody who could help her relax and not feel like fighting. Someone who took joy and pleasure in being fun and friendly and easy. In some ways, the rookie is the parts of herself that she needs to access. He shows her how to be in the world in a different way.

GR: The rookie also seems to be one of the few people who can coax Cassie out of her shell. What is it about him that makes Cassie want to venture out of her comfort zone?

KC: He sees her for who she is, and he just admires the hell out of her. He's the only one who laughs at her jokes. He's the only one who takes her side over and over. He knows she's better than he is at firefighting—and he likes that about her. He's very much on her team.

She doesn't have to fight as hard for herself when she's around him because she can feel that he's with her already. I know people like this—my husband is one of those people—and there's something about knowing someone's on your side that frees you to just relax and be all the different parts of yourself.

GR: What did you love most about their relationship? Any favorite moments that you'd like to share?

KC: I knew pretty early on that I wanted the two of them to have to hide from their captain in a coat closet. There are certain scenes in any book I'm writing that come to me early on, scenes I look forward to, and can't wait to write. I usually look forward to writing love scenes (so fun!), and I always dread writing heartbreaking scenes.

I loved writing all the scenes where Cassie and the rookie are thrown together against their will. I just love the way they talk to each other, how his presence totally destabilizes her, but in a good way.

The first time they're ever thrown together, the guys haze them by duct-taping them to a basketball pole outside for the night and tossing them a blanket. Here's a little excerpt of what they're like with each other:

"I pushed it toward the Rookie until he was able to grab a corner of it with his fingers.

'Don’t you want it?' he asked.

'You take it,' I said.

'But you're the girl.'

'But you're the person in nothing but underwear.'

'I'm serious,' he said.

'I'm serious,' I said. 'You're way more naked than I am.'

In the silence that followed, I wondered if I could have phrased it better."

KC: I think my favorite scene is when they're hiding from the captain in that coat closet and they finally get to do something about all that tension that's been building between them—it was such a treat to finally let that happen.

GR: Many of your characters face heart-wrenching adversity: traumas, divorces, deaths. What draws you to writing those kinds of journeys? How do you give them depth?

KC: For me, it's always about finding that right balance between the darkness and the light. When I was writing How to Walk Away, I had a conversation about this with my editor where I said, "I just don’t want the darkness to subsume the light." And she said, "If you do it right, the darkness will define the light." That's been a guiding question ever since for me. Am I doing it right? Am I using the darkness to define the light?

I give depth to the character's struggles by giving those struggles a genuine place in the story—and letting the characters really wrestle with what those struggles mean. I think a lot about how I want to make readers feel.

I try to do for readers what I would like done for me: make them laugh, give them great banter to enjoy, and give them something to look forward to in the story—a delicious sense of anticipation.

But for the story to matter, there have to be hard things, too. We all struggle in life. We're meant to. It's comforting to me to know that even though we can't make life easier, we can learn how to draw meaning and wisdom and compassion out of the hardship. We can let our struggles lead us to our strengths.

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GR: Which books would you recommend to our romance readers?

KC: I love romance novels, and I particularly love historicals. Just Like Heaven by Julia Quinn is one of my all-time faves. Just utterly perfect pacing and tension and yumminess. I also love Julia's On the Way to the Wedding. So much delicious unrequited love agony.

Love in the Afternoon by Lisa Kleypas held me spellbound the first time I read it. It's a wonderful mistaken-identity/Cyrano story of people who fall in love through letters but then don't fully realize who is who. Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase is a delightful, witty, perfect romp. And I can't not mention Tessa Dare, who was my gateway romance writer and who does an amazing job of pulling you in from the first sentence and making her heroines so relatable and appealing.

GR: Which books are currently waiting for you on your nightstand?

KC: I am feasting on Nora Roberts books this summer! Currently working my way through The Cousins O'Dwyer trilogy. I'm also about to dive into Kristan Higgins' new book, Life and Other Inconveniences.

I've just finished a very engrossing time travel love story called The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway, and I've also got Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Date and Mary Kay Andrews' Spring Fever on my bedside table.

I'm a huge fan of audiobooks, too, and spent the past month listening to one Malcolm Gladwell book after another (David and Goliath was my favorite, but I enjoyed them all), and I've just finally downloaded Becoming by Michelle Obama. Also, we're taking a family road trip and are about to listen to the final Harry Potter book—even though we've all read them before.

Katherine Center's new novel, Things You Save in a Fire, is available in the U.S. on August 13. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Bambi (new)

Bambi Rathman I love your books, Katherine! This interview is fantastic. Thanks for doing it!

message 2: by Pat (new)

Pat Dupuy I read an ARC of Things You Save in a Fire and loved it! Also read How to Walk Away. Ditto. I will have to catch up on your backlist. I see you will be sharing an event here in Houston with Kristan Higgins? Darn it, we'll be gone that week. I would have loved to listen to both of you.

message 3: by Gordoncenter (new)

Gordoncenter Your husband sounds like a fascinating fellow. I am sure that he considers himself the luckiest guy in the world to be married to you.

message 4: by Pamela (new)

Pamela Devereux How to Walk Away was amazing and Things You Save in A Fire was just as good! I was blessed with an ARC and at the end you just sigh. I love that your husband helped you so much with this book!

message 5: by Pam (new)

Pam Loved this book have talked it up to friends. I would love to be an Advanced Reader for your next book. Just finished the book The Escape fantastic book.

message 6: by Susan (new)

Susan Collins I really enjoyed this book! Your interview was interesting since it gave insight into your writing. I am looking forward to reading How to Walk Away!

message 7: by Christy (new)

Christy shelton I loved the book how to walk away I can not wait tell the other one

Susan's Reviews Fabulous interview. Katherine Center is an incredibly intelligent woman: I love how she admits she has a hard time forgiving, just like Cassie. This is why her characters always seem so real to me, and why her stories just sink into me and take me away from myself. I'm glad she loves to write: because I love reading what that great mind produces. Always a true pleasure for the mind and the soul!
Thanks for sending me a link to this excellent interview of one of my most favourite authors.

message 9: by Sally (new)

Sally Thoroughly enjoyed this interview - and absolutely loved How to Walk Away and Things You Save in a Fire. Beautiful stories.

message 10: by Vivian (new)

Vivian Payton This was such a great and interesting interview. I loved How To Walk Away and Things You Save In A Fire, and you are one talented writer! I can't wait for your next book! Thank you!

message 11: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Lara Awesome interview! I loved hearing her insight and writing process for creating Cassie and the rookie. Looking forward to your new books!

message 12: by Connie (new)

Connie Thank you so much for doing this interview. I read this book first (arc) and just loved it so much. I could relate to Cassie on so many levels. I recently got How To Walk Away and can’t wait to read it. I also received a email with your short story! I’m excited to to get to come to get your autograph in one or if I’m lucky both books this month in Atlanta! You’re a beautiful writer that has touched me. I don’t read many romance books, and have to say yours are the best yet.

message 13: by Awa Dia (new)

Awa Dia Verry. Goodreads

message 14: by MicheleReader (new)

MicheleReader Great interview. Loved this book! Excited for Tuesday when it comes out so I can enjoy seeing it get lots of well-deserved recognition. Looking forward to the next one you treat us all to.

message 15: by Delnorah (new)

Delnorah I fall in love with this story. Looking for to more stories from Center. Keep them coming

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