Behind the Book: How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

Editor’s Note from Kristen Beverly, HPB Buyer:

How to Walk Away is one of the most inspiring, hopeful and honest books I’ve ever read. And I read a LOT. I’m going to be completely honest here – when I first heard about this book, I didn’t want to read it. The premise seemed very depressing. There’s enough sad things going on in the real world. But I kept hearing that this book was the opposite of tragic, so I finally decided to try it out. This story is so refreshing – which, given the content, is quite an achievement! After finishing this book, I just had to know about Katherine’s writing process and how she came to write the scene of the plane crash. And she was kind enough to share!

Want to learn even more about How to Walk Away from the author herself? Katherine will be joining us at our Flagship location in Dallas on Tuesday, May 22nd at 7 p.m.  to celebrate the release of her book with a signing. Be sure to join us for this exciting event!

Almost as soon as I knew that I was going to write a story about a plane crash, I knew that I would have to go up in a plane. Not a big, normal, commercial plane. A little plane. The kind where the only place to sit is in the cockpit. That was the kind of plane that was going to crash in my story, and I’d never been in one. If I was going write about it in an authentic way, I was going to have to fix that. Even though I have always been a little afraid of flying.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that there’s a plane crash in How to Walk Away. It happens in chapter one. The story is not really about the crash itself—though it’s important. The story is much more about what happens after the crash—how that moment rips the characters’ lives into unexpected pieces, and how they put those pieces back together. That’s the kind of story I love the best—ones with characters who just refuse to give up.

Myself, I give up very easily. In most situations, I start with hopeless and work my way backwards. I have to talk myself into optimism. I have to look for reasons to be encouraged. Flying, for example, always seems pretty doomed to me. My sense of the odds is doggedly incorrect. I always think I have about a 75% chance of crashing on any flight. And for one of those tiny little all-cockpit planes? More like 95%. But if I wanted to write the story—and I really, really did—I had to brave it.

I put a note up on Facebook, asking if anybody out there could take me flying, and I grabbed the first offer that came along—from an acquaintance whose father, Alan, had his own plane at a hangar south of Houston. I’d never met him before. The morning we were set to go up, I vividly remember watching my children ride off to school with their dad, waving after them like I’d never see them again, guaranteed. Quick spoiler: I did see them again. I defied all my made-up odds and survived. But that morning, as I drove out to the airfield, my hands were cold with fear.  Alan cheerfully gave me a tour of the plane and some basics about how Cessnas work. Like, for example, they store their fuel in the wings. And they have no a/c because they don’t need it—the air up higher is plenty cool. We climbed in, buckled, put on our headsets. He spoke in pilot-ese into the radio—words that sounded very official and like total nonsense at the exact same time. We trundled down the bumpy runway, and then we lifted off—just as easy as it was impossible.

Then there I was: Right up front, with a 180-degree view of the sky all around us. It was gorgeous, and terrifying, and impossible, and inspiring—and I was exactly as glad that I’d done it as I was that I’d never have to do it again. Once was enough to last and last. We flew down to Galveston Island. We flew over the very beach house where I later wound up writing much of this story—my mom’s sunny little cottage that she lets me borrow. Alan even let me hold the steering wheel for a while. It wasn’t until we were back down on solid ground, and I was woozy with relief, that I said to him, “Now I need you to show me how to crash that plane.” So he did. He took me to hangar and showed me with a model plane exactly how he thought it would happen. We talked about cross-winds and velocity and all the ways inexperienced pilots can get themselves in trouble. I asked him to show me again and again as I tried to really see it. He was very patient.

One funny thing about being a writer is how convincingly you can render imaginary things in your head. This will sound strange, but I remember the day I went flying for real exactly as clearly as I remember the day my fictional character Maggie went flying for pretend. It’s like I have two different, equally real, memories of that day. One is mine, and one is hers. Mine ended pleasantly, as I drove back home to see my kids and husband, all my fears dissipating as my brain churned and my fingers itched to start writing. Mine ended in a safe, cozy house with a deep breath, a warm meal, and lots of little-kid hugs. Hers ended with fire and rain—all alone.

I know what happened to Maggie wasn’t real, of course. I’m not crazy—just a fiction writer. But I spent so much time with her in that little plane as I lived that moment over and over—crafting, and editing, and revising, and shaping it. I saw it all in 3-D, and then I preserved it on paper. What happened to Maggie didn’t happen to me. But I remember it anyway—exactly as if it had.

I remember it as something if not real, at least true. Something that never happened, but that I lived through all the same. Something that did for me what all good stories do: They take you someplace you’ve never been and show you impossible things that are gorgeous, and terrifying, and inspiring—and they even rip you apart a little bit before they put you back together.

Katherine Center is the author of several novels, including Happiness for Beginners and The Bright Side of Disaster. Her books and essays have appeared in Redbook, People, USA Today, Vanity Fair and Real Simple. You can find her on Twitter @katherinecenter, and on Instagram as @katherinecenter. Her new breathtaking novel, How to Walk Away, is available in Half Price Books stores and online at while supplies last.